Category Archives: Environment

More of America

darktownAs promised in the last post, here is Darktown by Thomas Mullen. Set in 1948, it is a fictionalised account of early police work in Atlanta, Georgia. However, on this precinct all the policemen are black; eight men, under a white mentor, operate out of a hot basement apartment in an area of Atlanta largely populated by African Americans. These eight men have all the appearances of the white city police: guns, batons, badges and uniforms – but they have no squad cars and they are not allowed to arrest white citizens, furthermore they can do nothing if white cops decide to bring their operation into the black neighbourhood.

This happens, frequently and often violently, especially if a policeman called Dunlow happens to be around. Known for violent and often wrongful arrests of African American citizens, he is the nemesis of Officers Boggs and Smith.

So on a dark night when Boggs and Smith stop a car, one with a white driver and a young African American passenger in a yellow dress, there is not a great deal they can do; but a few hours later they seen the same car being stopped by Dunlow and Rakestraw, by this time it is clear that the young girl is in trouble as they have seen her being hit and when she jumps from the car and runs away, they assume that Dunlow and Rakestraw are dealing with it…

This is, at one and the same time, a police procedural thriller, a search for the perpetrator of several  untimely deaths and the extreme difficulties faced by the black officers who are not permitted to investigate crimes, even ones committed on their patch; they are not permitted to walk about in their uniforms unless actually on duty or appearing in court, so they are required to carry their uniforms in garment bags and to change on the site – generally in a cupboard and finally, they are not permitted under any circumstances to enter the police HQ.

This is also about race relations, the gulf between the two sides of Atlanta. The invisible dividing line between the areas where the white folk live and the areas for other people, and woe betide any uppity African American who builds a property on the wrong site, real estate being what it is, an area needs to maintain its status as a white neighbourhood, otherwise property values will nose-dive…

The writing is brilliant, the story breath-taking and the message is plain.  It is hard to believe that we have moved such a short way beyond this divided and hideous world and to many people it looks as though some of it may come back any time soon. This is the book to read, being forewarned is some way towards preventing it all coming back to haunt us.

Searching through the TBR pile I came upon another, very different American novel. Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen is so different that it is hard to relate the two books as being placed on the same continent. This is the tale of a woman, a doctor, looking back over her life and upbringing on a farm near to Philadelphia. In fact it is not clear where exactly the eponymous place, Miller’s Valley is exactly, but it must be East somewhere.Millers Valley.jpg

Mary Margaret Miller is the only daughter of Bob Miller and his wife, a nurse, who farm in the lower reaches of the valley.  They have two sons Ed and Tommy, Ed is quiet, stolid and hard working and eventually goes off to become an engineer, Tommy is fabulously good looking, and wild with it.

The thrust of the story, though, centres around plans to dam the valley. The state engineers come round offering deals to people who will give up their homes and relocate, this process is slow and many people think it will never happen. Often after severe rains there is catastrophic flooding, but still the residents are reluctant to move. The Miller family have been there at least since 1822, a matter of about one hundred and twenty five years and possibly more.

The characters, their families, their successes and failures are bewitchingly drawn for us, the readers. We really care and appreciate their dilemmas. The mistakes they make are terribly human and familiar and the Miller family are not unique in their triumphs and their tragedies.

This is also a novel about change, change resisted and then embraced. Mary Margaret moves away to study, marries and has a family and circumstances bring her back to Miller’s Valley to work as a GP. Looking back over her life, she muses on the things that change, the hidden secrets even among families and those things that remain unchanged – among them love.

Anna Quindlen has written several novels, but is virtually unknown in this country, hopefully that will change.

edricFinally, another book about the flooding of a valley, this time an English valley and written mostly from the perspective of the engineer. He comes to look at the feasibility, but finds his decisions are made much harder once he gets to know the residents. This is The Gathering the Water by Robert Edric, and author I have frequently recommended.

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60th London Film Festival – 9

Rather a weird day. Two very different films both of which needed percolating before I felt I could write about them.

12-10-2-the-ornithologistFirst The Ornithologist, a Portuguese film by João Pedro Rodrigues. The bird life, and the gorge down which the ornithologist kayaks is magnificent, a lyrical look at nature and its stupendous offerings in scenery and in fact. Using binoculars while drifting towards some fairly violent rapids has predictable consequences, and the kayak and its oarsman are swept away.

Thereafter the film becomes more and more hallucinatory. This is a journey through bizarre rituals: his Chinese rescuers have drugged and then bound him like a parcel, he escapes and his strange adventure begins with a pietà-like pose on a blue sleeping bag, for all the world like a religious painting (see above), its significance only becomes apparent later in the film; he finds half of his kayak has been used for a fetishized romp of some kind, and later sees the revellers, masked and with grotesque, but colourful, costumes capering around the woods and apparently killing a wild boar.

He wakes to the sound of goat bells and finds a deaf-mute goatherd…to say more on the plot or the next sequences would be too much of a spoiler.

His encounters and his interior journey become more and more symbolic and krypto-Christian. Nothing is quite what it seems, and even if it is what it seems, like the strangely damaged terracotta “Stations of the Cross” which he finds in a tangled woodland, the meaning as part of his journey is obscure.

Paul Hamy plays the ornithologist and his bemused expression vividly underscores the adventure he is having, he seems totally at sea – as I suspect were many of the audience.

12-10-3-hermia-helenHermia and Helena was equally obscure but in a completely different way. Mainly about two girls Carmen and Camila (Augustina Muñoz and Maria Villar) and their assortment of friends.  They are both studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one for acting and one for translation and as the film progresses their lives begin to resemble, more and more, the exigencies of the two female roles in the play.

Meetings get missed, or the two people are confused about arrangements and are in a different place, strange postcards arrive for a girl who has left, then the writer Danielle turns up but finds the wrong girl. Boyfriends seems expendable or exchangeable…

All readily recognisable from actions in the play, which my companion did not know well and the relevance went straight over his head. So as far as he was concerned this was a film about nothing very much – an epic fail in other words.

What got to me though was the music. A more inappropriate musical score could hardly have been chosen! Mostly, and recognisably, Scott Joplin and then suddenly Beethoven!? A further playful disjunction was the occasional written instruction that this was two or three months previously, what was never made clear was whether that meant that the film was forever running backwards, or whether it was flipping back and forth between the past and the present. Since all the characters seem to wear pretty much the same clothes the whole time (a wardrobe malfunction or a continuity failure?) it was pretty impossible to judge. If the audience is at a loss does this matter? Yes, in my view it does.

There were clever scene changes, the girl walks into one underground system in New York and walks out into Buenos Aires, or into one provincial park and out of another. This is a clever and witty film, the scenes are interesting for themselves and the mirror imaging of the play is super-modern and subtle. The dialogue alternated between English and Spanish which was a healthy clue as to where we were, but without this distinction interior scenes would have been impossible to decipher.

It is definitely film to think about, but quite whether it worked on the impact level that the Director (Matias Pinero) intended remains doubtful.



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60th London Film Festival – 8

Marathon of a day today and the buses were all over the place; sat at one bus stop and no less that six buses, Route 29, came past in less than eight minutes, all but one terminating in Trafalgar Square, which was the next stop!

11-10-1-boundariesKicked off in the morning with a political/environmental satire, Boundaries, about a fictional island off the coast of Labrador. Three women, in quite different roles happen to meet during a session in which the island’s mining rights, its relationship with its larger neighbour Canada and its contract with an iron extraction company have ground to a halt. So one woman, played by  Emily VanCamp, is there as a mediator struggling with having to be away for long intense periods, leaving her young son with her ex-husband; Macha Grenon plays Danielle Richard, the Prime Minister of Besco, this independent island, she also struggles with work/life balance which she explains in the film as the tension between wanting to do good things for the country and for the future, her children’s future while finding that the job separates her from them and finally there is the idealistic young politician, part of the Canadian team, Félixe Nasser-Villeray played by Nathalie Doummar whose problems arise from the conflict between the reports and works that she has done, and supplied to the team only to have them ignored or misrepresented.

Each of these three strong women, passionate about their work but also about their lives are set against a male dominated, aggressive and bullying culture, needless to say the mediation fails and the island it set free to sort out its own goals and achievements.

This satirical look at the wheeling and dealing that is part and parcel of politics and big business today, focuses on the women but also shows the men as devious and arrogant – so it looks as though the environment is going to get trashed in the wake of big bucks with sweeteners of all sorts, not to mention a touch of blackmail – but Mrs Richards is made of sterner stuff…

The second film was precisely the opposite, from the Treasures of the Cinema listings we got a wonderfully re-mastered piece from 1957. Patrick McGoohan as a villain with a cast of young hopefuls that later hit the big screen – Sean Connery and David McCullum among others.

11-10-2-hell-driversThe premise of Hell Drivers was simple and male-dominated. A company of truckers moving gravel from one site to a building site elsewhere, are motivated by cash rewards for the most runs they can do in a day; vile shenanigans follow as the competition between the gang boss – Red (Patrick McGoohan) and Tom the new boy, played by Stanley Baker – hots up into a seriously dangerous game.

Considering the age of the film and the techniques and cameras available at the time, the breakneck runs between the depot and the site along narrow English lanes is little short of amazing. Every trick of camera work is in play here, to great effect as the view switches from inside the cab, to the view through the windscreen, the view in the wing mirror and the road ahead. A speed chase and race with heavy lorries; then it switches to the  view of the accelerator/brakes and clutch pedals and back to the speedometer. Hugely simplistic, the good guys and the bad guys and nothing much in grey or nuance, but what a film!

Finally tonight a documentary portrait of the Mozart of Chess – Magnus.  A young prodigy from Norway who from a very young age shows a natural aptitude for chess. The film follows the boy’s progress from national winner to world chess status over a period of three years, aged 19 to nearly 23 when he became the World Chess Champion in 2013, beating the current holder, Viswanathan Anand, in his home town Chennai.

11-10-3-magnusThis is the second documentary I have seen this Festival in which the whole film would have been considerably different had the outcome not been outstandingly successful (the first being The Eagle Huntress). Placed in the JOURNEY section, it is indeed a journey from triumph to triumph.

The need to know anything about chess is completely swept away by the quite sensitive and delicate filming of matches, though as it happens Magnus Carlsen plays chess at a quite prohibitive speed.

Competition chess is rather different from a friendly match down at the pub. There are timing rules, mind games and presumably money, though interestingly the sums that Magnus has won were never mentioned.

This is a great film, a beautiful and sometimes disturbing story of professional games playing. UK distribution is 25 November, just as Magnus undertakes his third defence of his title.

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60th London Film Festival – 5

Two riveting and very different films. The first, The Levelling, is a dramatization of a rural situation that is sadly not unknown in the farming community.

8-10-1-the-levelling On the death of her brother in what her father, played admirably by David Troughton, insists on describing as an accidental death, Clover leaves college and returns home to the flood damaged family farm on the Somerset Levels.

Reeling from one disaster to another, farms are at the mercy of disease which affects the cattle; floods which affect the buildings and stock and low food prices which often mean that things like insurance get left behind and so a manageable disaster can quickly turn into complete collapse.

The foot and mouth disease that hit Cumbria badly was followed by two separate incidents of severe flooding; Somerset Levels being in the West Country is prone to tuberculosis, carried by badgers, it affects the cattle and the Levels were affected by catastrophic flooding in 2014.

This feature length film by Hope Dickson Leach follows the trajectory of this one young farmer’s death, linking it to other details that are slowly revealed. The measured pace of the unravelling of the narrative: the rigours of farm work when animals must be milked, driven in and out of water logged fields relentlessly, no matter what family heartbreak makes it almost impossible to get up in the morning, are all shown in this emotional film.

Farming is a tough business, Clover has long left the farm and taken two degrees and is nearly through her veterinary training. She returns days after her brother’s death for the funeral and for some frank discussions with her father, and some searching conversations with her brother’s best friend. Ellie Kendrick puts in a nuanced performance as Clover, even more telling in the many silent moments as tension mounts while a slow truth emerges.

The music in the film, which by the way was made by an almost totally female crew, was by Hutch Demoulpieds, it has an unearthly, haunting quality which fully complements the fractured lives of the Cotta family.

Produced as part of the iFeatures scheme, funded by the BBC, the BFI and Creative England it will launch the career of a talent better known for shorter documentaries.

Dancer, the second film I saw today is in another order of film making all together.

8-10-2-dancer The young prodigy, Sergei Polunin, at one time the youngest principal at the Royal Ballet, is occasionally compared to Rudolf Nureyev; but apart from the fact they were both Russian, though Nureyev was born on a train and Polunin was born in the Ukraine, and both dancers, the similarities quickly fall away at this point.

Sergei’s parents gave up a great deal to make it possible for him to train as a dancer (with his skills he would either have become a gymnast or a dancer) and his father left Ukraine for work in Portugal and his grandmother went to work in Greece; this sacrifice enabled Sergei to move with his mother to Kiev, and from there to the Royal Ballet School in Richmond Park, aged only 13.

Polunin was born to be a star. His technique and drive meant that he was processed quickly through the schools he attended, passing in one year through three stages at the Royal Ballet School and ending up aged 19 as a principal dancer on the London stage.

The pressure eventually caught up with him and he left the Royal Ballet in the lurch, to the shock and dismay of the Establishment (and his fans) and drifted back to Russia, where unaccountably he found himself virtually unknown. To achieve status therefore he went in for a Russian Ballet Competition – Strictly Come Dancing for ballet hopefuls – which he won; and achieved in a single TV show the star rating that it took five years at the Royal Ballet to attain.

However, soon the work, the restrictions and the glitter wore off, and although still at the height of his ability, once again Polunin quit. This time, he said, it was forever. He got in touch with his dearest friend, Jade Hale-Christofi, also a dancer at the Royal Ballet and asked him to choreograph a final personal ballet statement.

The result can be seen on vimeo if you search for Polunin,  “Take Me to the Church” by  Hozier.

Mercifully, it turned out to be part of the recovery and Polunin has found a new direction and is dancing again. He came to the Q&A after the film with the film’s director Steven Cantor and also Jade and a few others. We were promised a surprise and when Sergei walked in he was greeted by a standing ovation in a full cinema. Believe me, that does not happen very often.

This film also has UK distribution and will be in cinemas on March 14th

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60th London Film Festival – 1

You will not have expected to find me in the centre of town screaming at the luvvies, at least I hope not; here you will find the unusual, the bizarre, the delightful – all undistributed films from foreign countries. Some appear in the festivals and disappear without trace, others appear after two or three years and just occasionally they come to a screen near you.

These are the films I have chosen, by my own quixotic and strange methods.

5-10-1-red-turtleToday it was a new film by the Ghibli Studios in a unique partnership with a London based director, Michael Dudok de Wit. An animé of exquisite quality. Michael Dudok de Wit is better known for his short films, for which he has won many awards, this is his first feature film, it comes into the JOURNEY Section – “whether it is the journey or the destination these are films to transport you”. The Red Turtle most certainly did that.

The film opens with a huge sea storm, and we see struggling in the gigantic waves, a small figure. What is so captivating about the Ghibli Studio productions is the visionary quality of the drawing and colouring, in this film by Isao Takahata, all the way through this film one is repeatedly astonished at the painted effects, the subtle changes in the waves, the sea, the sky and the island.

The story does not end with the storm, obviously. Our man is next seen collapsed on a sandy beach, eyed up by a sand crab who, climbing up his trouser leg, awakens him; later he is disturbed by the sudden hatching of some little green turtles who climb out of the sand and struggle down to the sea. This island is without doubt wondrously uninhabited, birds shriek and twitter, and insects crawl around but there is no sign of human habitation.

Our little man makes several attempts to escape, but each time he fails…ultimately, another creature arrives on the island and here the story turns.

It would be foolish to say more because it would become a spoiler. I recommend this film which is a study in several multi-layered ways, the environment not the least of the messages that it contains; there are, during the film, several events that demonstrate the power of nature, and the extraordinary breath-taking draughtsmanship of the Ghibli Studio is at full stretch throughout this film in sequences both under water and on land. The musical score too, by Laurent Perez del Mar, fulfils all expectations and brilliantly conveys everything that one needs to know in this otherwise dialogue free film.

5-10-2-manhattanMy second film today was Woody Allen‘s Manhattan. This film belongs in the LOVE category and is one of several “Treasures of the Cinema” that I am seeing this year. Made in 1979, it is still gorgeously funny, quirky and witty. The audience tonight comprised lots of people my age who probably saw it when it was new, and equally very many young people who were, I guess, seeing it for the first time. The spectacular cast list, with Woody Allen (of course), Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway and a very young Meryl Streep never fails to impress.

I think everyone knows that this is a hymn of love to New York, the opening sequences with Woody Allen’s voiceover trying to describe what he loves about the city for a new book, is memorable and delightful; landmarks flash by and the streets are crowded with people, then the city darkens and the buildings light up and there is a fabulous firework display – all to Rhapsody in Blue. There is lots of music as the story rolls on, it is a rewarding film to see again, and again – each time there are more things to notice and remember, it seems more romantic and just as funny.

Rewarding too because of the current Georgia O’Keefe exhibition at Tate Modern, with its emphasis on the Alfred Stieglitz connection.

All together, a great first night.



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England’s Green and Pleasant Land

I have long wanted to write about John Lewis-Stempel. You can meet him rhapsodising about the English countryside, as shown by its fields and pastures or striding across the battlefields of the First World War.  Either way, he is, to my mind at least, a prose-poet.

lewis-stempel-1Meadowlands, which is where I first encountered his writing, is sub-titled The Private Life of an English Field. In a notebook which spans the twelve months of the year, he carries us into a field, an ancient meadow and watches what happens; who stumbles past – badger, hedgehog, fox, partridge and who flies above him, feathered or invertebrate, day and night. It is all rather marvellous and strange, especially if you have never actually done it yourself.

The intense scrutiny is rewarding, we learn through this detailed account a great deal about this one patch of soil, earth, humus and our connection to it as humans (the similarity is not accidental).  For Lewis-Stempel does not stop at using words for things, he explains where they come from and their relationship to us and to all linguistic development.

lewis-stempel-2His more recent book, The Running Hare, A Secret Life of Farmland is a threnody to a fast vanishing landscape. He has noted, haven’t we all, that in the neon-green fields of modern day farming, the treeless, hedgeless prairies of brilliantly coloured, nitrogen-fed, insecticide-drenched wheat, there is no life. No birds, no insects, no mammals, nothing but produce can be seen.

To see whether it is possible to revive the landscape before it is too late, he secures a short tenancy on a small holding, three fields and a copse. He is only permitted to plough one field and that for only one year.

We follow that plough. Using the oldest possible methods of ploughing, sewing and reaping with a non-GM wheat seed and some wildflower seeds he records the arrival of birds, bees and insects, mammals and all things natural. mary-1

This might sound like watching paint dry, but truly it is not. The language alone is enough to make your mouth tingle, it all grows in your mind. This whole book is filled with poetry, his prose-poem which is the body of the work and poems from other naturalists:  John Clare, William Langland, Edward Thomas and some of the naturalist-parsons of the eighteenth century – Gilbert White and others.

The naturalist-parson is a dying breed, along with much of the wild life that they so faithfully recorded. How can a parson with nine parishes, and an injunction to run them as if they were a business, share the intimacy with the flowers and trees of his acreage, when nine parishes might run from Bruton through Shepton Malet, Eversleigh and all points beyond. Gilbert White was only concerned with Selborne in Hampshire and his Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne is a classic of its kind.

The Running Hare is also an angrier book, dedicated to the vanishing wildlife of England – the brown hare, the corncrake, the poppy, and the partridge (grey and red-legged); all of them and a whole list more of butterflies, plants and other wild life that is fast becoming endangered.

housmanIn the same vein, but from a different angle Housman Country, Into the Heart of England looks at the life of the poet who wrote A Shropshire Lad, through the pictures painted in the poem, one of the most famous poems in the English language and through the other medium that it has inspired, largely music but also paintings.

Peter Parker has not set out just to tell the life of AE Housman, though clearly the life tells itself if you follow the poems carefully and read them with attention. This book is more about the landscape that inspired the poet, which like John Lewis-Stempel in the West Country. Housman did not live in Shropshire, that county was the vision that he had from the hills where he grew up; he lived in Hampstead, London. Lewis-Stempel’s county is Herefordshire.

A Shropshire Lad was an influential poem, many poets read it and were inspired by it. It paints a picture of England that is worth more than a hundred paintings, and it was no accident that early editions of the poem were deliberately cheap and of a size that would fit into the pocket. Those pockets, many of them, belonged to soldiers of the First World War, poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen. But not just them, many and many of the ordinary soldiers had copies, and many of them knew the whole series off by heart.mary-2 These exquisitely beautiful wood-engravings are by Agnes Miller Parker who was an engraver-illustrator, her works are used in this book to illustrate the vanished world of AE Housman.

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Poles Apart

I have no idea whether the words “if you like this then you will like…” make you shudder or make you take notice. I also have no idea when I pair up books, as per my last post, whether you think “I will try both of those” or whether you think “too much information”.

In spite of all these doubts, I am going to revisit a book that I read during the Man Booker long-list process and will recommend another book that has a distinct relationship with the first.

North You may recall that I was not particularly kind to this book when considering it as a possible candidate for the Man Booker prize, [Man Booker Longlist 2016-3]. I recommended it as a good read but thought it would not reach the coveted prize, so far, so right – as it is not on the shortlist.

Actually, as Hilary Mantel writes on the cover, it is a fast-paced historical thriller. It covers a period when one industry is dying, along with its principal prey and another is being found it its place. All taking place against a backdrop of the cold waters around the Arctic Circle, where the loss of a ship spells mortal danger.

The other book, which I read more recently, is of another order all together. This book, part human love story and part environmental love song, takes us to Antarctica where a young woman, Deborah (always called Deb) guides tourists around the penguin colonies and the icy cold waters around that continent.

Although she acts as a tour guide, she is also a research assistant to the Antarctic Penguin Project (fictional) and helps with the counting, recording and tagging of penguins, especially Adélies, whose lives, habitats and habits are steadily being eroded as more and more tourists visit this area.  Once in single figures, then in the hundreds, it is now in the thousands: Antarctica is accessible and on the “bucket list” of wasteful things to do before you die – and some people die trying [not unlike Everest].

midgeMy Last Continent by Midge Raymond, her first novel, is an elegy to a part of our planet that should be pristine and yet isn’t; should be protected and yet the protections are failing; is a clear indicator of climate change and yet the facts are dismissed as anecdotal.

All this, by way of a very real and terrible experience of love, bravery and frailty, combine to make a wonderful book. The narrative is not obscured by the plea for attention to the environment, or for the information about penguins, whose comic appearance belies a lifestyle of patience, fortitude and loyalty (which is, I know, to anthropomorphise horribly) in the pursuit of survival; it sweeps us up into a backwards and forwards life adventure of this young naturalist who has a passion for penguins.

Both books encounter and share a dangerous symmetry – boats, cold water and possible disaster. Page-turning and un-put-downable, they tear you apart one minute and relieve you the next. They are not great literature – but both are a rattling good read.



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