Sunday, September 29, 2013

The State Within

Some of the best things we've seen on DVDs we've borrowed from the Library have been TV series we never caught up on when they were first broadcast.  If they were broadcast here at all.

Over the last couple of days we've watched the six hour-long episodes of The State Within, in which Jason Isaacs plays the British Ambassador in Washington, a man of considerable integrity and honesty, and an unwillingness to play the warmongering game that the current Secretary for Defense is playing.

The series had innumerable twists and turns - some of which, in hindsight, seemed to be there for no reason more than to cast suspicion on a character - but it was well written, very well directed and presented, and had a solid cast of Brits and Yanks. And a big budget, too; early in the piece a passenger plane is blown up over a motorway, and this is only one of a number of large set-pieces.

The series was written and directed by Daniel Percival, and co-authored by Lizzie Mickery, a writer with a great deal of television experience behind her.  Percival began his career as a documentary maker, and his eye for the right detail shows throughout this series.  Michael Offer also shared the directing credits. There'd need to be a co-director: taking on the mammoth task of directing more than six hours of film would require the stamina and brain of a workaholic.  However the work was shared out (they claim three episodes each on imdb.com) there's no sense of this not being all of a piece.

Isaacs more regularly plays suave villains, some more evil than others (The Patriot, Harry Potter), but here he brings his talents to a role that requires him to be hero, substitute father, solid friend, lover and whatever else he has time for. He's on screen for a great deal of the time, and makes a considerable impact, and gives a solid centre to the series.  His offsider is played by Ben Daniels, who is required to keep us guessing throughout (even after it's been revealed which side he's playing on).  Daniels manages this difficult task well, especially as in a couple of instances there seems to be a bit of a puzzle in the scriptwriters' minds as to how far into the double-dealing game he's gone.  There are a host of other characters, many of whom stand out, but it's great to see Sharon Gless, Cagney from the 80s Cagney and Lacey series in a role that allows her some wider leeway for her talent.

The series, which was made in 2006, hasn't dated at all; warmongering with smaller nations, which plays a strong part in the plot, is as rampant as ever, as is the hyping-up of terrorism as an excuse. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The doggie-door saga continues

About ten days ago we installed a doggie door in our back door.  We wondered if the dog would ever work out how to get himself out of it, and back in again, in spite of considerable encouragement, treats, undignified pushes from behind and so on.

Well, all that wonderful hard work we did on helping him to discover that he now has an open door policy has paid off, and he trips in and out of it (I don't mean literally) without blinking an eyelid (again, don't be a literalist).  Occasionally he feels he should wait for permission, but we try and avoid giving him that.  He has to be his own man on this matter, and decide that when he wants to go out, he just gets on and goes.

He's had some routines in the past for going out. For instance, if we were in the lounge and he'd been in bed for a while in the other room and decided he needed a late night pee, he'd come in and stare balefully at me until I realised what he wanted.  Then he'd scoot to the back door and dance around in circles until he was let out. He doesn't have this option anymore, although he did try the baleful look thing last night. I ignored it for a while but finally realised that old habits die hard and he needed me to at the very least go to the kitchen and pretend to give him permission while doing something unrelated.

We used to find he was forever wanting in and out while we were making dinner in the kitchen. I don't quite know what the reason for this was, but it was annoying continually having to open the door for him.  Anyway, this issue has gone; if he wants out, he goes out.  And sometimes sits at the backdoor thinking about old times when he had us on a string and we would jump to action as soon as he indicated a need.

I feel as though a little something has been lost in the relationship, but I'm sure there are compensations.  The back door isn't getting scratched for one thing.  The cat hasn't decided that it's a multi-animal door, so she doesn't use it (it's probably beneath her dignity anyway, though how a creature that dumps a large mouse or small rat on the doorstep should consider itself to have dignity I don't know).  Consequently there's no squabbling between the cat and the dog as to whose access it is. And there's no longer the crazy rabies-infested-mad-dog-behaviour when it discovers, on our opening the door, that the cat is sitting just outside it.

The Cuckoo's Calling

There may be some spoilers here, so don't read this if you want to be surprised about anything that happens in the book. 

Finished reading J K Rowling's The Cuckoo's Calling a couple of days ago, and was impressed with the complexity of the plotting and strong characterizations.  Rowling, who wrote it under the name of Robert Galbraith, and was 'outed' when someone in the know leaked the news to the press, had intended attempting to publish without all the hoopla that's leftover from the Harry Potter days. It wasn't to be. Of course it makes a difference to your reading of the book, knowing that Rowling is the author, but it doesn't detract from the book's merits, which are many.

Of course it's much tougher and grittier than the Potter books ever could be, even though they became increasingly violent as time went on. In fact, Cuckoo's Calling is actually less violent than the last book in the Potter series - there are 'only' two deaths - and neither of these really takes place onstage, as it were.  The biggest difference is that this is an adult world, with no children, and some of the adults are into behaviour that wouldn't have appeared in a children's book. And the language coming out of the characters' mouths was mercifully missing from the Potter series.  No Ron Weasley 'bloody hells' here.

The things that Rowling does well here might be expected from her previous books: the complexity of the plot is certainly satisfying, and we're kept guessing as more and more red herrings crop up and more and more people get in the way of a straightforward solution.  The characters are well able to hold their own alongside those in the Potter books, and have more depth and detail.  Even characters that appear to be cut out for villainous roles don't always turn out to be what we expect, and minor characters - as they did in the Potter series -have as much life and substance as those who take leading roles. 

The book is long - well over 400 pages in a large format copy - but never slow. Occasionally you might feel you don't need to be reminded yet again of the main character's artificial leg (though it does play a fairly important role in the proceedings) or of his off-stage love life, and there are one or two conversations that might have been pared down. Still what is expressed is well expressed: the characters have distinct voices. Only once or twice do they appear to have come from a cut-out character book. 

London appears in all its grime and glory, and Rowling is strong on defining the differences between one locale and another.  We never feel this is a tourist version of London: it's a place where millions of people of varying backgrounds have their homes, from utter wealth to considerable poverty, and she takes us into the range.  The main character spends a good deal of time taking buses and tubes - in spite of his artificial leg.  Partly this is because he can't afford taxis (he does very occasionally), but knowing how slow a job it can be getting around London, I felt strongly for him. 

It sounds like there'll be more books using the same main character.  The inventiveness in this one promises that the next (and the next) will be worth reading.

Incidentally, the cover shown above is not the one on the version I'm reading. While the one above has a classy modern feel, the one on my copy seems a little dated, and almost has nothing to do with the story.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Fisherman's Friend

When I see the company, Musician's Friend - they're currently advertising the Akai mpk 49 at Musician's Friend, for instance - I'm invariably reminded of the Fisherman's Friend, a brand of strong menthol lozenges produced by the Lofthouse company in Fleetwood, Lancashire, England. These have been going strong since 1865, so it's not surprising that they're floating around in the collective culture. I don't know where I first heard of them - perhaps some singers I've known over the years have taken them - but they're certainly familiar.

It turns out there's a singing group called the Fisherman's Friends - I'd never heard of them before, but like everyone else these days, you can find their videos on You Tube. This is a typical example of their bouncy shanty style, though in this video, as they wander around some UK coastline, they all look frozen to the bone. 



Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"The US"

I have a tendency to talk about 'the US' as though it was one united country in which everyone agreed with the policies that Washington and the Presidency promote.  Of course this isn't the case, and there are millions are very sensible Americans who don't go along with all the political and patriotic nonsense that's foisted upon them.  I have to be even nicer about Americans these days because I have a wonderful American daughter-in-law, and she has a lovely family, and lots of great friends. 

So when I talk about 'the US' please remember that I'm meaning, usually, those in power, and those who are seeming warmongers. Obama slides in and out of this group; for the most part he manages to be on the edge, but there are others who seem to wholeheartedly race towards any opportunity to go to war.  Regrettably they have the clout to bring their country to such situations very readily. 

These are the kind of hypocritical people I'm talking about when I say 'the US.'  And these are the people who can, without blushing, say to Syria, we're going to bomb you unless you destroy all those nasty chemical weapons.'  But as Gwynne Dyer points out in an article today, the US, (those whom I've been defining up above) cannot, if it wishes to keep its integrity, call Syria a harbourer of chemical weapons, as though no one else had any.  As Dyer notes, 'the US' (yup, that same crew again) 'agreed to destroy the 31,000 tonnes of sarin, VX, mustard gas and other lethal gases that it owned within 10 years. That's 30 times as much as Syria has, but 10 years should have been enough. It wasn't. In 2007, Washington [another way of saying, 'the US'] asked for five more years to get rid of all its poison gas, the maximum extension allowed under the Chemical Weapons Convention. [This is the same Convention that Syria has just been forced to sign.] It didn't meet that deadline either, so last year [yup, just last year, so 'the US' has a very short memory] it announced a new deadline: 2021.  Given its own record, the US will find it hard to use Syrian delays as an excuse for resurrecting its bombing threats.'

Could the hypocrisy be any plainer?  I'm learning Psalm 119 at the moment (and have been for several months, and will be at least until Christmas!) and one of the recent verses was: I hate those who are double-minded.  Does that ring any bells?  Is it surprising that 'the US' does itself no favours when it acts in such double-minded, double-standard fashion - as it has done continually over Guantanamo Bay (a situation where Obama has slid into the 'the US' camp as well) and the spying on private citizens?

There's a difficulty in being the World's Policeman, the Greatest Nation, a Modern Empire.  Unless you bring integrity into the picture, and throw double-mindedness out the window, you're going to defile yourself continually, and all your best efforts to do great and grand things will come to naught.  Increasingly 'the US' has failed to keep its integrity.  And as more and more of its 19th and 20th century history is exposed, we're seeing that this lack of integrity goes back a considerable way.  Historians  bring these failures to light, journalists too, and artists even more so. Let's pray for a swing towards a greater integrity in 'the US.'  Without it, this nation will eventually become yet another victim of its own success, just like Greece, Rome, Russia, and many others.



Monday, September 23, 2013

Intrusion

 I watched a mini-series over the last few days called The Jury.  It dates from 2011, and stars Julie Walters and Stephen Mackintosh, along with many other well-known British faces. Though it's a bit over the top in terms of the back stories of the jurors, who have appear to have freedom to come and go even after they've been put in the retiring room, it's well-performed and put together.  Though I must say that the fact that the defendant has been within cooey of three murders is never satisfactorily explained.

In one of the courtroom scenes, however, there's a reconstruction of the defendant's movements on the night of the third murder.  At every point he's seen by a CCTV camera - except when they have their short time lapses (during one of which he manages to catch a passing bus).  It's the rather extraordinary state of affairs in the UK these days.  Some authorities reckon you can be caught on CCTV up to 200 times a day in London alone.  Certainly TV shows like to make it look as though the police can see everything people out on the streets have done 24/7, and in some cases, inside as well.

How did the UK get to this point of being so over-scrutinised, especially when they had the warnings from George Orwell so many years ago, in 1984?  An article on this subject by Henry Porter appeared recently in the Guardian, in which he questions the seeming blanket over the subject of Edward Snowden in the UK. Yet the privacy of citizens who have done nothing wrong is exposed day by day. This is a real concern.  Privacy appears to be increasingly being destroyed in what was a free country. 

I think New Zealand may be slowly going the same way, certainly under this current government.  And there are businesses that supply an increasing number of devices for checking people's identity and where they are. Crown Security Products is one such example, with its CCTV systems, its ID Scanners, fingerprint punch cards and more.  We've come to accept a lot of intrusion into our lives - not helped by the over-fearful Homeland Security ideas from the States.  But perhaps it's time to start asking why we're so happy to accept these?  All of them are intrusive (everyone who enters the courts in The Jury has to take off their shoes and put their phones and keys and coins and such under a scanner, just like at an airport).  But in fact the places where people are most fearful aren't actually in the UK, or the USA.  People living in Iraq must live in a constant state of fear, with umpteen deaths each day from suicide bombers and the like.  Why is it that countries in which this isn't happening are so fearful?

Wild Strawberries

It's very many years since I last saw Ingmar Bergman's 1957 movie, Wild Strawberries, so when I came across a DVD copy in the Library, I grabbed it.  I'd gone off Bergman after a while, because his later films were so bleak, but Wild Strawberries is unusual in having something of a positive ending, and in seeing growth rather than decay in a character.

The performance by is wonderful; apparently he found it quite exhausting (he was 78 when he made the movie) and struggled to remember lines.  For all that he brings a marvellous depth to his character.  He's surrounded by a wonderful cast, with many Bergman regulars in it.  Bibi Anderson plays two characters in it, both named Sara, their lives separated by some fifty years.  The one from the past is a self-centred, pouting child, who can't make up her mind which cousin to marry (she marries the wastrel, in the end).  The other is a contemporary girl, full of shocking sayings (for their time), and equally unable to make up her mind which boy she loves (she's trailed after by an atheist and a young man who's going into the church ministry). However, she's a woman who knows her own mind a good deal more, and is far more spontaneous, than the other girl.

The story is probably well-known: Sjöström plays a man, Dr Isak Borg, who is about to be decorated after a successful life in medicine.  But circumstances, including the unfaithfulness of his long deceased wife, have caused him to become remote from people, and careless about their emotions.  After a frightening dream, in which death plays a prominent part, he decides to drive to the ceremony (in another town, some 12-14 hours away) instead of flying there.  His daughter-in-law, who has been staying with him, decides on the spur of the moment, to join him in the drive.  

The doctor makes a detour to visit the old family holiday home, and finds himself seeing scenes from his past - a past where everything is always in sunshine, and the large family and their cousins are thoroughly enjoying their time. After this, he picks up the three youngsters, and then, after narrowly avoiding a car crash, adds the bickering and hurtful couple whose car has been damaged to the passengers.  These two are eventually thrown out of the car again when they can't stop picking away at each other.  

He stops off in the village where his aged mother lives (the actress was actually 13 years younger than
Sjöström); she continually snipes about her family and their children, and is cold and remote, like her son.  There are some scenes between Borg and his daughter-in-law, and we discover that Borg's own son is also a cold man, who doesn't want children, and who is at odds with his father. 

In spite of all this creeping coldness (a sign of the kind of films Bergman would make later) the film ends in a sunshine mood - the daughter-in-law and her husband seem to be picking their cautiously back together again; the three youngsters continue their joi de vivre, Borg himself discovers something about his nature and how he can change it, and at the end, sees himself back at the holiday home, where light and joy abound, in spite of all the contrasting personalities. 

There are several dreams or hallucinatory scenes in the movie, some much darker than others.  Each one gradually forces the doctor to uncover the things that have held him back from being more connected with other people.  We never find out what everything in these scenes mean - some have a kind of Dali-esque quality about them - but we sense their importance to the doctor.  

The film is beautifully shot (though not always concerned about continuity from shot to shot) and the performances are wonderful.  I finished up seeing it one and a half times, and enjoyed it just as much on the second time round as the first.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Christmas ornaments

I don't even want to talk about Christmas yet, but some shops are already advertising Christmas items.  The opening date for Christmas gets earlier each year. 

I happened across some Christmas items from Christopher Radko ornaments, today.  Of course Santa is there in all his confusing glory - I always ask myself how does Santa manage to look like so many different people each year?  But some of the other ornaments on display have got me a bit flummoxed as to their relevance to Christmas.  There's the Thick Pink Nick Breast Cancer Awareness Santa ornament, for instance, or the Important Piece Autism Awareness Santa.  These are collectables, I guess, so you can put them on your shelf (they only cost around US$50 a throw) and remind all your friends about breast cancer and autism as they go ooh and aah at each item.

There's Papa Plumage (he's a pretty-looking fellow, but his relevance to Christmas escapes me) and Claus for a Cure - HIV AIDs Awareness.  Plainly we can't just have Christmas, we have to be reminded of something else at the same time.  Admittedly there is a Nativity scene in the range, called Holy Reflections.  Jesus, Mary and Joseph all feature in it.  But since this appears to be the only one of its kind in the design catalogue, it tells us a good deal about what people think Christmas is actually about.

Though with items like the Jolly Jockey, the Gift Giving Emperor Penguin, Mr Mcbroom, Vest of All it may not be surprising people can't remember.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Solar and wind

A news feature from Juan Cole, on the increasing use of solar energy usage around the planet, is very encouraging.  I'm not sure that I agree entirely with his opening statements about the predicted rise in sea levels, which have been dismissed recently with a report from the IPCC which turns some of its figures on their heads, nor that the population of the world will increase at quite the rate he states, but the information about the number of solar plants being built around the world are great.

It seems like an odd idea, but we have several places in the world where huge deserts sit doing nothing.  Shouldn't solar plants be possible in these areas?  Or would the heat actually be too much for them?  It seems odd that we build solar plants, or install solar panels, in parts of the world where the sun doesn't shine consistently, yet seem to ignore those parts where it never stops shining.  Somebody will no doubt tell me I'm not a scientist so I don't know anything, but I'd be interested to hear more on this.

You'll notice in Cole's story that wind energy is mentioned three times.  At present there's something of a backlash against wind farms, unfortunately.  Some people think they're unaesthetic, for one thing, though having seen a number of wind turbines quietly circulating in the breeze, they strike me as having a particular beauty - kind of like windmills do. (I imagine windmills were once thought to be a blot on the beautiful landscape too.) And other people claim all sorts of illnesses as a result of living near them.  This opinion piece by Simon Chapman appeared in the ODT the other day, and seems capably to debunk these concerns. 

At present we have people protesting the digging of wells in search of oil around the country - the Government just yesterday opened up several sea and land areas for this, much to the irritation of the protesters.  I think we have other options besides oil (and much of the plastic that uses oil), and I'd like to see more people getting behind solar and wind and sea power and anything else that uses natural resources that won't deplete, so it distresses me when some people seemed opposed to anything, and everything.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Michael Head & Robert Farrar Capon

Wikipedia is rapidly catching up on all sorts of information, including biographies of people.  Some of these biographies didn't exist up until relatively recently. Two such are those of the composer Michael Head (1900-1976), and the Episcopalian priest and chef, Robert Farrar Capon - Capon, born in 1925, died earlier this month. 

Michael Head was almost entirely a composer of songs, and I've been accompanying people singing Michael Head songs since I first began this role.  A large number of his songs have survived in the repertoires of singing teachers and their pupils, and as examination works, and so on.  Here's a 'not comprehensive' list of his songs. To my surprise there are far more than I've ever performed, and I'm interested to note that one I heard at the Senior Vocal Competitions the other day, and had never heard before, is actually one of his. When I heard it I said to the person I was sitting beside - that can't be a Michael Head song surely?  I thought this mostly because it was quite different in style and tone to many of those I know.  But there it is: Back to Hilo.

Head was unusual in that he used to present his songs not by accompanying another singer, but as both singer and accompanist simultaneously.  He must be one of the few composers ever to have done this (amongst art song composers, I mean).

I was first introduced to the books of Robert Farrar Capon when I began work at the Otago Church Bookstore. I'd never heard of him before, and was struck by his witty and delightful style, his seeming willingness to go beyond the pale in terms of what might be called orthodox theology (he never went beyond truth, though), and his attempts to surprise us into rethinking parables and stories and Gospel texts we'd heard too many times and had become over-familiar with. I've read most of his books more than once - that is, of the ones I've read once (there are a number I've never got hold of) - and they always bear re-reading. 

Sometimes he overdid the wit, and the surreal approach. Sometimes you have to take what he says with a grain of salt, because he can get a little carried away. Sometimes he was almost so clever that you lost the point of what he was saying, but undeniably he has an important place in teaching people about God's grace to humanity, God's love for humanity, and the importance of the cross. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Doggie-door

We've spent a good deal of the last two days installing a new back door.  When I say 'new' I mean 'different.'  We got it secondhand, which of course brings some interesting installation issues with it.

The reason for needing a new door is that we wanted to put a dog-door in, and the old door, being basically a sheet of frosted glass within a frame, was likely to turn to splinters if we cut into it. Yes, I know it can be done, but we were wary of the possible collapse of it.

We got the door fitted in place yesterday, but all the other sortings out, such as replacing the handle and latch and fittings around it etc, took a good deal of today.

And then there was training the dog to go in and out the dog-door.  He didn't seem to appreciate that it had been set in place for him.  It may not have helped that the cat, on discovering it, went through it with only a marginal amount of assistance.  The dog refused to have anything to do with it.

We encouraged and cajoled and used little treats, but none of this would get him to actually go through it by himself.  We gave him little pushes through, and though he baulked each time at this flapping thing that he had to deal with on the way, he'd make it to the other side.  But not on his own.

He sits there starting at it, and you can see that he's thinking: life has been okay so far; why does there have to be this unsettling new thing come into it?  He claims that you can't teach an old dog new tricks.  We remind him that he's only three.  That's 21 in dog years, he says.  We're not impressed, and offer him another little treat.

He's now been in and out the dog door umpteen times during the course of the day, but not one of those occasions has been of his own volition.  He has a theory that the cat, having gone through it first, has polluted it somehow, and furthermore, it's demeaning to follow in the pawprints of a cat. 

Update: to our surprise, yesterday, he went out of his own accord.  But coming back in?  Nope.  He's going to leave that for next year....




Monday, September 16, 2013

A slightly longer - and steeper - walk than intended

The rain has been threatening on and off all day, and has now arrived, and brought a very cold front with it. 

When we were out walking this morning, around nine, there were some heavy black clouds, but they didn't come to anything, thankfully, so we managed an hour and twenty minutes stint.  It had started off as just a moderate walk, with us intending to stay on the flat in South Dunedin. I suggested doing what we used to do with our kids (in the car, usually) of taking a left turn then a right then a left, and so on, and seeing where it took us. We parked in the road parallel to Burns St (where Carisbrook is being demolished), turned towards St Peter's Church and then hived off into the wilds of South Dunedin, eventually coming out onto Forbury Rd. Allandale Rd beckoned, and my wife, now enthusiastic to get as much exercise as she could, turned up there. The next left took us towards a No Exit, but there was another little street that brought us into Norfolk St, and there, ahead of us, were the 279 steps leading up what's known as Jacob's Ladder. 

So we climbed them, twenty or thirty at a time, having a breather every so often and looking at the views, which became increasingly spectacular the higher we got. Halfway up or so, there was a gate - presumably a back gate to a property that had its frontage on a real street.  Someone had attached a painting to the gate, and somehow this painting has withstood the weather.  [See top picture.]  The artist is someone M. McNeill and it looks as though the picture was painted in 1970.  If that's the case, it's got a very resilient sealant on it.

At the top of Jacob's Ladder, in Allandale Rd (again) we stood and checked out the view (again), chatted to a couple of dog owners that passed by (while our dog chatted to the dogs) and discovered, a little further down the hill, a lovely house with a wonderful garden - a huge garden in a kind of scooped-out bowl in the hillside.  Magnolias, rhododendrons, blossom trees, and a host of other delights; a little bridge over a little stream, and cacti growing in the glasshouse.  Walking certainly allows you to discover things you've never known about in over sixty years in a city.

We also found that there's an enormous old brick house at the end of Coney Hill Rd.  I presume the road was originally just the driveway leading up to the house, which commands wonderful views over St Clair and the ocean.  I don't know anything about this house, but no doubt it has some history.  

Back to the car, by a similar route, with sore thighs and feet.  But very satisfying. 

The photo of Jacob's Ladder comes from an online album - it was taken by someone who only identifies himself as Gary.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Gardening with Soul

Gardening with Soul is an unusual movie: a feature-length documentary running to 100 minutes, in which there is basically only one personality (at first I thought the Home of Compassion in Wellington had been deserted), next to no 'action' and a good deal of contemplative time. 

Sister Loyola, the near-ninety-year-old who is the focus of this movie, tends the extensive gardens at the HOC, come rain come shine, with or without walking sticks, crutches, and other walking aids, and chats away as though she's chatting to someone else visible on screen.  Except there isn't anyone - at least not for the first several minutes.  It comes as a surprise when the voice of the director is heard, mid-shot, telling her that she and her crew don't need chairs to sit on, as Sister struggles to pull one out of a corner. We never see the filmmaker, Jess Feast, though we hear her on and off during the movie, when sometimes she's asking a pertinent question, and sometimes she's being caught out by Sister Loyola's candidness.

The film is divided roughly into four quarters representing the four seasons, but these are only loose fittings for a film that's much more about what it is to live contentedly, with God, and in community.  And in your garden. Sometimes Sister Loyola stops for long enough to tell us a story about her past - these are often very moving, as in the moment when she talks about her former boyfriend who was a casualty of the Second World War.  She says she no longer has any photos of him; when Feast asks why, we get a kind of 'mind your own business' look - it's done in the nicest possible way, but it's a moment that's yet another insight into the good Sister's character.  As is her telling of the way her beloved father reacted when she said she was going to be a nun.  We barely find out why he was so set against this; more importantly we discover that it took quite some time for him to come to terms with his favourite daughter's action, but that eventually he came round. 

Most of the stories in the movie are like this: little more than hints - Sister Loyola doesn't gossip about her past, doesn't feel it's necessary for the world to know why someone behaved as they did, or how she moved from one stage of life to another.  Occasionally she tells a humorous anecdote - as in her sneaking into nursing by the back door, almost - but for the most part we're left to guess a good deal more than we learn.

At other times she'll stop and talk about what it is to love people, and the way she and the other sisters loved the children they cared for over the years, and the unmarried mothers who were struggling with society's dismissal of them.  One of the children, now well and truly grown-up, comes to visit.  She's a big confident woman - so we think at first.  But once she sits down to reminisce with Sister Loyola, she's a child again, full of joy at being close to this woman who's obviously given her a great more than she would otherwise have received.

Her gardening assistant, a man in his forties, perhaps, and a man of very few words, takes her every order with equanimity, and there seems to be a loose relationship between the two.  Unexpectedly, at the end, as he's going home for the day, he turns and gives her a great big hug, and this appears to be perfectly normal.  Her other gardening assistant, a younger woman, is only ever seen at a distance.  We never get to know how she fits into the scheme of things, except that she works a couple of days a week to give Sister Loyola a hand with the work.  Various other people come and go in the film, seldom named, just part of the general world the Sister inhabits.

And then there are the moments when the Sister is just seen sitting and reflecting.  Or reading.  Or viewing one section of the enormous garden.  Quietness is a key aspect of this movie. So quiet at times, I almost nodded off at one point, and a woman next to wife actually went to sleep. This isn't to say it's boring, but it does have a restful feel about it.

Towards the end Feast asks her something about the spiritual life; Sister Loyola answers by saying that Feast is always asking her to analyse it, but for some things there are no words.  A moment later Feast herself, off camera as always, gives the answer to the question she's just asked.  'There you go,' says Sister Loyola, 'you know the answer. You just have to say it.'  Or words to that effect.

There were some laugh-out-loud moments in this movie; Loyola has a wry sense of humour.  There is plenty of warmth. The subject is a most intriguing lady, someone who knows things because she's now old.  'There are some things you just don't know unless you've been old,' she says rather enigmatically.  This seemingly fragile old lady is still full of beans, though she's given up driving because she was getting a bit forgetful, and didn't want to cause an accident.  Forgetfulness is concerning her towards the end. She may think there's a cause for concern; for her audience her mind seems as sharp as a tack.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Eight out of ten ain't bad

Apparently the 'majority' of people pretend to have read classic books in order to appear more intelligent.  This is based on a survey of 2,000 people, it seems.  I can't say I've ever met people who claimed to do this...most admit quite happily that they couldn't finish such and such a 'classic' book, and give good reasons for not doing so. 

Here's the list of the top ten books people claimed to have read, but hadn't, in fact.

1 1984 by George Orwell (26%)
2 War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (19%)
3 Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (18%)
4 The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (15%)
5 A Passage to India by EM Forster (12%)
6 Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien (11%)
7 To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee (10%)
8 Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (8%)
9 Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (8%)
10 Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (5%)
 I not only claim to have read but actually have read:1984, Great Expectations (twice), A Passage to India, Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird, Crime and Punishment, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. I've never got near Catcher in the Rye, for some reason, and I've tried twice to read War and Peace, and given up both times.

Finnegan's Wake and Ulysses, both by Joyce, didn't appear on the list, which is interesting, even though they're both touted as 'classics.' I've never bothered with the first, and couldn't get far into the second.  The movie didn't help to encourage me. And where's Moby Dick?  I've twice started this too - the second time I didn't even get as far through as the first.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Gripping and gritty movies

Taking a punt on movie choices can mean that often you wind up seeing something that's a bit of a dud. I usually prefer to have some idea about a movie before I watch it, even if it only costs me a couple of dollars from the Public Library.  However, last week I picked up three movies (we haven't watched the third) and the first two turned out to be crackers. 

One was Nothing but the Truth, which apparently didn't get much of a theatrical distribution for reasons that are beyond my understanding, in spite of having a top-notch cast: Kate Beckingsale, Alan Alda, Matt Dillon, Noah Wylie, Angela Bassett and Vera Farmiga, an actress who plays her roles with such intensity that the television screen threatens to go on fire. The film is based on a true-life case about a political reporter who refused to reveal the source of her story, and wound up in gaol for months.  However, the scriptwriter and director, Rod Lurie, has rewritten the thing from the ground up, changing all the details and the background, so that the film is presented as a proper drama, not as a piece trying to fit around a real-life episode.  It's all the stronger for this, and allows Lurie to write excellent roles for his cast, none of whom let him down.

Beckingsale's character is given the chance to write a piece for her major newspaper that will expose a female CIA agent, but refuses to name her source. This refusal gets her into deep trouble with the Government, and she is thrown into jail by a heavy-handed judge (the actor, in real life, was an attorney in the original case). This causes havoc to the CIA agent and her family, to the reporter's own family and doesn't, in the end, let her off the hook.  It's a tough film made tougher by the insistence on principles that the reporter clings to, and which she finally brings her lawyer around to. You may guess the surprise ending - my wife did, but I didn't; it neatly rounds the film off. 

The other film was originally played over four nights on British television. It's called Father & Son, and stars Dougray Scott, Sophie Okonedo, Ian Hart and Stephen Rea. It's a gripping piece that doesn't turn out the way you might expect; it's violent and dark, but it's about integrity and the idea that eventually the choices you make in life have to be for the sake of others or else you die from the inside out.

The story concerns a career criminal, Michael O'Connor, who wants to put all his bad behaviour behind him.  Unfortunately things aren't as easy as that, and he's forced to decide whether he will amend things he's done wrong properly, or only partially.  His teenage son, Sean, (Reece Noi), the child of a mixed marriage, is accused of a gang retaliation murder, though we know from the beginning that he's innocent. O'Connor hasn't seen his son in a while after his wife was murdered about five years back and there's considerable bitterness in the boy.  But behind the bitterness, we eventually learn, there's a great deal more going on than we first suspect, and part of the story is about the reconciliation required between O'Connor and his son, a reconciliation that needs to take place before things can be healed. There are father and son connections throughout the story, none of them very satisfactory at the start, and a host of brilliantly drawn and played characters.  Part of the story is also the truth about the murder that took place some years before, and how it fits into all the other elements.

Scott plays a tough man who seems at first to have matured; but we learn that his seeming vulnerability towards his new wife and unborn child is only skin-deep.  It takes far more to bring his true self to the surface. He's surrounded by duplicitous characters - the links between different people turns out to be nastier than we expect - and it takes a good deal of sorting out.  The writer was Frank Deasy - he died about the same time the series aired.  He had written the last episode in the Prime Suspect series, and the same grittiness is apparent here.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Yamaha

I can remember the days when Yamaha was a motor vehicle company, churning out thousands of Japanese cars per annum, in that sudden amazing splurge of industry that occurred in Japan in the fifties/sixties. 

The first Yamaha piano I came across was in Queenstown.  I was touring with the NZ Opera Company in one of their piano tours (a very much cut-down version of La Boheme, for half a dozen principals and no chorus) and came across this baby grand at the venue we were using.  It looked marvellous; it wasn't anything like it looked, and for some years afterwards I thought that Yamaha pianos were likely to be rubbish, as this one seemed to be.

However, there came a time when Yamaha got things right, and their pianos came within cooee of being as good as the famous old European names, like Steinway, even though the way the pianos were made was entirely different.

Afterwards, Yamaha turned to electronic keyboards and all sorts of other electronic musical devices, (such as the Yamaha emx5014c case for their stereo mixers). Now they're a brand name trusted in all sorts of circles, as you can see from these videos. 


Friday, September 06, 2013

Atonement

We watched the movie, Atonement, two or three years ago, but I'd never read the book.  I thought the movie was very well done, and its surprise ending came as quite a shock. Don't read this next bit if you haven't seen the movie or read the book: it'll spoil it. But it turns out that the book we've been reading is, to all intents and purposes, the creation of one of the characters within the story; at the end she not only reveals this but also tells us how she changed the events to make them more palatable to the reader, and also to atone for her behaviour as a 13-year-old, when she all but destroyed the lives of her sister and her sister's lover.

While we were in Auckland, I discovered the book of Atonement on our friend's shelf, and began to read it, bringing it home with me to finish.  Knowing how the story played out and how it ended perhaps spoiled it to a degree for me, but the book was still well worth reading. Ian McEwan writes so wonderfully throughout that you turn page after page even after the main story has ended - about two-thirds of the way through - and the three kind of follow-up episodes take place. Structurally, you might say that the first two-thirds of the book is strongly plotted and the other three sections are quite discursive, although the last section ties up some loose ends. The long sequence when Robbie is heading towards Dunkirk with two other soldiers is gripping only because of the detail; there's little forward movement, in a sense. Briony's story of being a probationer-nurse is equally enthralling, but again, until the very end, doesn't move things forward much, except to give us a hint that what we're reading may be not quite what we think it is.  Briony gets the last word, in the last section, where she reveals what the book has been about. By this time a number of the characters have died (either of old age, or accident) and the party for Briony's birthday includes the long-lost play that she wrote as a child, and which was to have been performed on the fateful day that takes up so much of the first part of the book.

The first part of the book is impressionistic, full of wonderful portrayed detail, superbly delineated characterisations, and much more. Yet in spite of its impressionistic feel, this is where the nitty-gritty of the novel takes place.  There is much more grit and graphic detail in section two and three, but in the end they don't seem to add much to the story, although they create a dark and fearsome world where people are dying horrible deaths as a result of the War.  It's interesting that though the Dunkirk sequence was given quite a bit of room in the movie, Briony's time as a trainee nurse was reduced considerably, and the last sequence, in which - as an old woman - she reveals what truly went on, is given only a few minutes of screen time, but more than enough to bring the movie to a satisfactory conclusion.  Dramatically, the movie makes a very good fist of the book.  Its only indulgence is the long tracking shot of the beach near Dunkirk, an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, but not actually relevant to the story.

I've never read any of McEwan before, and since this book is touted as his masterpiece, I'm not sure what I'd read else that wouldn't come across as a lesser book.  No doubt there are excellent things in his other books...time will tell.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Musicians, poets, scientists and atheists

I wrote about Evernote in my last post.  And I'm going to mention it here again: it's a great place to go looking for something to connect up with an idea or phrase that you're using in a post, a phrase such as the following: affordable Behringer mixers at Musician's Friend.

To many readers that will read a bit like a statement in a foreign language, or a dense poem. By the way, talking of poems, I'm reading an anthology called Poems of Devotion at the moment.  It's edited by the poet, Luke Hankins, who's served as Associate Editor of Asheville Poetry Review since 2006.  It's a collection of wonderful poems by modern poets, some more accessible than others, but all worth reading.  The focus in the book is on devotion to God, but there are some poems that have snuck under the radar a little too. 

But that's a side path. Back to the original phrase.  I did a search on a couple of the words in it: Behringer produced no results, mixers only a couple of not very interesting ones. Musicians - without the apostrophe - produced plenty, and the first was one from a book I read recently called God's Undertaker, by the scientist, John Lennox.  It's a book in which he tries to bring some sanity to the science/atheist vs Christian/creationist debate.  The following quote has only a small amount to do with musicians, but it's worth reading all the same.

"...the fact that there are scientists who appear to be at war with God is not quite the same thing as science itself being at war with God. For example, some musicians are militant atheists. But does that mean music itself is at war with God? Hardly. The point here may be expressed as follows: Statements by scientists are not necessarily statements of science. Nor, we might add, are such statements necessarily true; although the prestige of science is such that they are often taken to be so. For example, the assertions by [Peter] Atkins and Dawkins, with which we began, fall into that category. They are not statements of science but rather expressions of personal belief, indeed, of faith – fundamentally no different from (though noticeably less tolerant than) much expression of the kind of faith Dawkins expressly wishes to eradicate. Of course, the fact that Dawkins’ and Atkins’ cited pronouncements are statements of faith does not of itself mean that those statements are false; but it does mean that they must not be treated as if they were authoritative science. What needs to be investigated is the category into which they fit, and, most important of all, whether or not they are true."

This kind of straightforward thinking does wonder for the brain, especially if it's been assailed by Dawkins-type thinking. 


Evernote

Having some fun with Evernote in the last couple of days.  Nothing serious, and this isn't a complaint about Evernote, which for the most part I really love. (I don't like the way you can't change the font or the font size as easily as on Word, but that's a small issue. Although I did discover recently that highlighting the whole note and using Ctl + increases the font size, which is good.)

Anyway, the first of the 'issues' was that when I went to use ClippingsConverter, the website that takes the highlighted notes off your Kindle and exports them to wherever you want to export them to (Word or Excel are options) I couldn't export to Evernote.  It kept telling me ClippingsConverter wasn't authorized to do so, and I'd need to authorize it.  Well, I'd already authorized it some time back, and didn't actually need to do so again.  But I couldn't get past this point.  I unauthorized and re-authorized, but to no avail. Evernote wasn't able to help, saying it was an issue with CC - admittedly the latter has recently updated their website, so maybe there's a change that's causing the problem.  I went back to my friend, Jim, at CC, and he's doing his best to sort it out.  But so far we haven't got anywhere. (Jim, incidentally, is a great guy, and very willing to sort out problems as soon as he can.)

And then today, I wanted to export files from Zotero into Evernote.  I'd never done this before, but it turned out to be a piece of cake, except that the files consisted of individual book titles, and every single one of them was turned into a separate note in Evernote, increasing my notes from some 3,000 to well over 4,000.  Not so hot.  I deleted them all again, but it would be good to be able to export into a single note, which is what I wanted to do. Can't have everything.

I see that Evernote is upgrading to version 5 soon, and promising new things. Hopefully there won't be things missing that are currently of value.  It doesn't seem as if that's the case, but sometimes developers like changing things for the sake of changing them....don't they, Microsoft?

By the way, I'm using Evernote on my smartphone too, these days.  It works really well on there - better than on the iPad, in fact. 

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Flute

I would think that someone who was a beginner was probably also 'new', but I found this tautological phrase in an advertisement today: new beginner flute at WWBW. WWBW stands for The Woodwind and Brasswind. Yup, that's it: I presume the word 'shop' is assumed at the end, as, The Woodwind and Brasswind shop.  I can't say I've ever heard of the word, Brasswind, before either, though I guess it's a fair enough description of the instruments used in a brass band.

I've just rethought the 'new' - perhaps it refers to the flute, rather than the beginner.  Could be!

Burbling on about snow

Well, the weather people predicted there'd be snow yesterday.  There wasn't.  A bit of foul weather, but hardly worse than some other winter days we've had.  Snow is so often predicted for this part of the world that you get blasé about it.  I was glad there wasn't any snow, as I was meeting my son for lunch yesterday as well as playing for four young people who did singing exams.

When we were in Auckland last week, we had to reassure our host, who's only been to the South Island briefly, that it doesn't snow here every other day, as the forecasters tend to indicate. I'm not sure if he believed me.

Back in June this year, the weather people got it right, though here in Dunedin, as is so often the case, it was mostly the upper hills that got the heavy snow.  At the time, the ODT reported that a 'special weather advisory had been slapped on the whole country'.  I like the idea of a weather advisory being slapped on the whole country, though I have no actual idea of what it means.

We were also told that 'emergency refuge centres are being set up, motorists warned off the roads, and shoppers urged to stock up, but to refrain from panic buying.'  Of course, people didn't refrain, and supermarkets actually ran out of some items. But it was a bit of a mixed message: stock up, but don't panic buy. Of course, the supermarkets only have to announce they're going to be closed for one day (like at Christmas, or Easter) and people go crazy.  How did they survive before supermarkets opened on Sundays?  Did they all starve because they couldn't shop?

There was a time when it people just got on with life when it snowed; kids went to school, people went to work. These days it's become a major crisis, in spite of the fact that Dunedin is mostly negotiable in the snow - though you might have to walk rather than drive.  I can remember, as a child, walking to school in the snow, a trip of about three kilometres.  I was quite small, and was frozen by the time I got there, and somewhat later than most of the other boys. I was allowed to warm up in front of a small radiant heater - it might have had two bars rather than one - for a few minutes before getting on with the school work.  We might have had another similar heater down the back of the room. But in general we just froze.

Obviously they made kids a lot tougher in those days!

Sunday, September 01, 2013

A surfeit of news

I just came across a line in a quote I'd kept which reads: institutions of fear that promise safety by the destruction of others.

This is a wonderful line that epitomizes what's happening in much of the Western world at the moment: we are being led increasingly to believe that we're in great danger from some (unknown) source and therefore the 'institutions of fear' need to look out for us, and in so doing, will destroy others. Hasn't this been exactly what's happened since 9/11?  But it goes back much further than that: the McCarthy era was one particular and horrendous example of it; Hitler persuaded an entire country - or so it seemed - that one racial group needed to be destroyed in order that Germany would be safe. And there are innumerable examples of it throughout history. The worst facet of the contemporary version is that the media picks up on this fear and safety issue very quickly, and very quickly makes an enormous big deal out of the words of men (and some women) who ought to have been ignored for their foolishness. 

Some people would claim that it's our own fault that the media is the way it is. The interesting thing is, however, that if you go without a newspaper, or without television or radio, even for a few days, you quickly realise how unimportant a great deal of the so-called news is.  The news world is a fantasy, for the most part. For thousands of years human beings have got on without the wealth of news that we're subject to, and survived. Only really important things got through (or sometimes didn't), and these things were important to the particular people involved rather than their neighbours in the next city or country. News today involves us even when we have no need to be involved, and makes us feel guilty when we have no need to be guilty.  So in many ways, the media is an institution of fear, like those in the first paragraph.

There are no safety equipment suppliers to overcome the problems of this kind of perpetual interruption of news from the outside as we receive it in this century. Some people, a very few, will not only ignore the news but will hide themselves away from society, as though this somehow helped. It helps them, perhaps; it doesn't get rid of the main issue, which is a superabundance of so-called news. How in the world can it be that we need 24 hour news channels?  Who can absorb so much news?  Who would want to? 

Certainly there are advantages in having access to news as you need it, but it's the 'as you need it' factor that's important.  And we don't actually need it as much as we think. We've just survived a week in Auckland with very little news: I gave the newspaper a cursory glance some days and spent more time on the CodeCracker or the Cryptic Crossword, or the Sudoku than I did on the news. We didn't watch the TV news the entire time, nor did we hear the news on the radio.  Presumably it went on its blathering way, day in and out, and yet we survived with no problem whatsoever. 

I don't want to go to the extreme of never hearing any news at all. I think that's foolish. But neither do I feel we need anything like the amount of news we get, and we certainly don't need it played up to the hilt as it's so often done. News needs to be kept in its place, or it becomes a fearsome monster that eats your life away.