Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Couple of keywords

Just a quick follow up on my previous post: in regard to which keywords have caused people to find their way to my blog the following two are top equal:

drill down3715.35%the graveyard book
drill down3715.35%chrissy popadic

The Graveyard Book is by Neil Gaiman, and the post only appeared early this month. Chrissy Popadic comes from Boise, and is a fairly popular sports person. However, look her up on Google, and I don't come within a cooey of being the first person on the search results.


Blog stats

Every so often it's worth checking out one of the systems that keeps track of the stats relating to this blog. Here are the top pages with the number of times they've been accessed over the last short period of time....notice the dates the posts were published; the third top one goes back to 2007...Boise also happens to be the place my future daughter-in-law comes from. Wonder if there's a connection?
I'm glad to see that Grimhilda! has made it well up the list, though I'm not sure why she should be behind 'skinny ties' or Frederick Buechner on marriage.
The meaning of Winnie the Pooh is just behind Grimhilda! - curiously enough, the beginning of the Pooh post is a spoof on literary criticism, rather than something serious.
The other item that intrigues me here is the one on the Zirka circus: this has been a popular post since the time it first appeared. Don't ask me why!


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Within Landscape

My wife and I have just been to an exhibition at the Otago Art Society's Gallery in the Railway Station. It was put on by a group called NOTUS, (which doesn't stand for North Otago against the United States, as the person opening the exhibition suggested it might - it seems to have been named after the mythological word for the South Wind). The exhibition's theme was Within Landscape, and required the participants to produce hanging works that were two or three metres long and about a metre wide. How they interpreted the theme was up to them.

The members of NOTUS are all women who work mostly in textiles. This exhibition is a prime example of the high level of talent amongst these women.

We were invited by a friend who's one of the members of the group. She had two works in it, one consisting of a vibrant material that changed hue every time you (or it) moved; on this she'd embroidered some words by John O'Donohue, a Catholic spiritual writer. The other work consisted of four joined panels depicting in a somewhat abstract way the journey of a river near where she grew up.

There were some other interesting approaches to the theme: one consisted of hundreds of used teabags (without the tea) sewn on lengths of cotton and hanging in a great cascade from near the ceiling down to the floor. The work is so fragile it's unlikely to survive being removed from where it's presently situated. (My wife made a joke to some of the women standing around looking at the work: she wondered why these used teabags hadn't been sent to overseas missionaries. The joke didn't go - you have to have been amongst the sort of people who thought that sending used teabags to missionaries was a humorous - and ironic - idea.)

Another work used plastic bags and some other detritus - the plastic bags were hung in macrame, and then gradually spilled onto the floor.

Two works by a woman whose first name was Di Lightfoot consisted in each case of four panels clipped together. One work had begun as sketches of various members of the group and other friends done in a continuous line - these were then sewn over on a machine, and textured background added in. Very time-consuming. The other was all vibrant colour on one side and the kind of 'shadow' colour on the other. (That was a feature of all these works: you could walk around both sides and get a totally different impression.) These were very appealing: they were all domestic scenes, though in only one case was there an actual human presence: two feet slung up on a desk protuded into the picture. (This was the best of the four on this panel, in my opinion.) Again everything was sewn, and in addition a wide variety of fabrics were included in the panels.

I won't go into detail about the other hangings, although there were some fine works there. As at any exhibition, only certain items stay with you clearly, or aspects of them: such as the frog leaping after the dragonfly on one hanging (duplicated entirely on the other side in the same colours), or the bright white Greek monastery (?) at the very top of a panel, or the three lovely hangings by Lenore Whyte (I remember her name because she used to be a customer of mine) with dozens of words taken from the letters of 'landscape' printed in some way onto them.

The panoramic view of the Dunedin Railway is by Antilived.

Further learning

I was just reading this morning about one Polybius (in a book entitled Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) how he, along with many ancient writers, regarding the written word as less instructive than an eyewitness account, or reading a manual less helpful than a teacher speaking about his subject.

Certainly that's still often the best way of learning: face to face with a teacher (a teacher, mind you, rather than a lecturer). Just to be disagree with my own argument, however, both the varsity courses I've done in the last couple of years have been primarily online, and both of them were perfectly satisfactory in that form. For me.

However, to contradict myself again, I note that there are online degree programs in music available. I'm struggling a little to understand how that could work satisfactorily, music being such a hands-on art, to me. I think Polybius and I would be on the same wavelength with this one. Of course, the theory of music on its own is teachable away from an instrument (up to a point), but music is much more than theory. I guess you can focus on the history, or on form and so on, and these could be done reasonably satisfactorily online - probably more than satisfactorily. Nevertheless, I think music is something that needs to be taught face to face.

I have been wrong before...

There are online Courses on everything under the sun, these days - art, art history, film, photography, fine arts (another subject that sounds less doable online) - the list goes on. If you click on this link - -you can find out more about what's available, whetting your appetite for more learning, slavering over the possibilities.

Having been brought up in a family environment where learning per se wasn't highly regarded I used to be of the school (pardon the pun) that thought learning for the sake of learning was a pointless exercise. Now, after having been around the world for a little time, I'm much more of the opinion that learning for the sheer enjoyment of it is something we humans thrive on. Too many of us fail to get our teeth into something new as we get on in life, just because it means work, or taking up time from other things, or...whatever your excuse is. Some of us even think: what's the point of learning more? I'll be dead soon enough.

Yup, you will, and possibly sooner than you imagine. But I think the ability to learn is a God-given gift, and something we should all grasp while we can...

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Cart and Cwidder

Carrying on with my Diana Wynne Jones reading phase, I finished the first (as in first published) of the Dalemark Quartet series last night. Like most of Jones' series, these books weren't written consecutively, but over a period of years. In this case, some twenty years. The one I've just read comes second in chronological order, but was the first written. Taking into account the fact that C S Lewis also wrote some Narnia series 'out of chronological order' I don't think this matters much, and for me it's better to read the books as they were produced, since this is how the author initially conceived them.

That aside, this is a different kind of story to the more magical ones that I've read previously (the 3 in the Howl's Castle series, and Black Maria.) There is magic in it - the climax is brought about by it, in fact - but in general this is mostly more of adventure yarn than a magical story. Like the other Jones books, it delves into human nature and personality more than many children's stories - into the 'why' of how people behave, and whether that's always for the best.

Here the main character is named Moril: he's a boy of about ten or eleven, the third and youngest child of a couple of travelling performers. The father is the showman, full of bluff and stories and the old songs; the mother is quieter, but not at all a wallflower, and extraordinarily decisive when the chance is there to be seized. The older brother is a composer of 'new' songs, but more retiring in his demeanour - or so it seems. And the sister - the middle child - takes after her father: capable of facing an audience and having them eat out of her hand but not so good when it comes to saving her skin, or that of her younger brother.

The family is travelling in their cart (something like a covered wagon) with all their worldly goods, which include some very valuable musical instruments - the cwidder of the title is one such. Incidentally, cwidder seems to be a made-up word (as several of the words in the book are), though it has a kind of Welsh ring about it, especially in regard to the spelling. Jones tells us, in the glossary, that it's similar to a lute, but with some features of the acoustic guitar. (Her glossary appears to be authoritative, but is as much fiction as the rest of the book.)

Though it isn't obvious to the two younger children, there is more going on at each performance by the family as they come to each town - and after - than meets the eye. The consequences of all this provide a nasty shock for the reader about a third of the way through the book. Not long after, the three children - along with a fourth who's been picked up by the father earlier on - are on their own. Their struggles to get to the North (the 'safe' part of the country) from the dangerous South, and to provide for themselves, form the remainder of the book.

Moril matures considerably during the course of the book: he's a dreamer, but instead of that being a disadvantage, his father knows that it's a gift. Moril still has to discover how it's a gift, and playing the large cwidder is part of that discovery. Part of Jones' skill as a writer is to show that while Moril uses his gift for the benefit of those he's with, and to save the people of the North from an invasion, he doesn't use his gift truthfully. On page 167 Moril realises the following: If you stood up and told the truth in the wrong way, it was not true any longer, though it might be as powerful as ever. It's to Moril's credit that he not only learns from his exhilerating but wrongly handled experience, but understands that he is still immature, and needs someone to keep teaching him.

This book takes a little longer to grab hold of you, compared to the others I've read. It seems too down-to-earth at first, and not fantastical enough - and there's less of Jones' wit and humour. It'll be interesting to see what the rest of the Quartet is like (though they'll have to wait, as I'm now reading another book that was recommended to me by the same people who enthused about Jones - The Theif, by Megan Whalen Turner.)

Single parents are brilliant...Often!

Today I received a tweet from someone called Alison (she goes under the name of @plus2point4 on Twitter). It was retweeted to me by someone I follow.

Anyway, she's promoting a website called Single Parents are Brilliant. It's in reaction to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, basically laying the blame for the recent riots in the UK on people who've been brought up by single parents.

Now I guess what he's saying is that boys (in particular) who come from fatherless households (or households where the male isn't their father, and isn't married to their mother) are likely to be the young men in society who get into trouble. To an extent, I don't disagree with this view. I believe that society is in a dangerous place in terms of bringing up heaps of young men without a father in sight. The same thing is happening in New Zealand, and is a cause for alarm here too.

However, what's happened is that Cameron seems to have lumped all young people who've been brought up by single parents under the same grouping, and this is what's got people like Alison hot under the collar. When I first saw the tweet, which basically consisted of: Today we are launching the new campaign to show the world how BRILLIANT Single Parents are, I was at first inclined to lean towards Cameron's point of view.

But then, of course, I had to stop and think: I was brought up by a single mum! (It was a long time ago, admittedly, so I've a kind of right not to have thought about it straight away!). My father and mother split up when I was three - my understanding is that my mother thought he would follow her after she left him, but he didn't. My mother was fortunate to have had the support of her own parents, who welcomed her back into the family home - even though she herself felt she'd made something of a failure of her marriage. It wasn't the done thing to walk out of a marriage in those days (I'm talking about the late forties.)

Suffice to say, here I am, 60 plus years later, and as sane as most men. I think the help of other family members made a big difference, but that doesn't change the fact that I grew up essentially fatherless. (We never had any communication after he and my mother broke up.) The lack of a father hit me emotionally when I was in my mid-twenties; until then I'd sailed along without it seeming to be much of a problem. I guess I dealt with it by writing about it - and eventually marrying someone who was also brought up by a solo mother! We declared that we would hang on in there so that our children wouldn't have to go through the same emotional ups and downs we had experienced. And we have.

I was also fortunate, when I was living in London in my twenties, to be asked to do a bit of 'fathering' for a boy who was himself being brought up by a single mum. Luckily this boy and I got on like a house on fire, and we're still in touch today. He's now a happily married man, doing a high-powered job.

So, yes, I have to agree that single parents can be brilliant. Sure there will be some disasters - it's the nature of life on this planet. But there's no simple box into which all single parents can be slotted - many make a really good job of parenting. Some do struggle. And a host of other factors come into play, just as they do in any walk of life.

So, Mr Cameron, it seems you might need to find some other 'reason' for why the riots happened in your country....

Friday, August 26, 2011

Surveys and lending

I started to do an online survey today relating to getting loans online, and gave up: the questions became increasingly ridiculous, and I couldn't be bothered. I started doing online surveys when I was out of work in 2006, having been assured time and again that these surveys would bring heaps of money. I am so naive it's not funny. But when you're feeling rather desperate after giving up a reasonably paid job, anything seems possible.

I have had some benefits from them - one in particular is getting a couple of cinema tickets every so often as a result of doing the surveys. But that's about it; the other amounts that turn up are pretty minimal. You'd have to be doing surveys all day long, and I'm already crazy enough without contemplating such a way of spending my time.

Anyway back to getting loans online: a lot of these kinds of loan are of payday loan type, where you can get money lent to you using something like your car as collateral. Not a terribly good idea, especially if something happens to your car. Borrowing money is something we've all had to do at times, and there are plenty of opportunities for the unwary to get themselves into hot water these days. If you're going to borrow money, go to a place that can be trusted, has a good reputation and won't fleece you silly.

There are more than enough of these around; the loan mightn't happen instantly, but neither will it cost you an arm and a leg, items that most of us can do with, rather than without.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Eliot App

Now here's a bit of a surprise....of all the enhanced ebook apps for iPad you might think people would download in quantity, The Waste Land by T S Eliot isn't perhaps one of them. Yet the app made its money back for the publishers (Faber Digital) in just six weeks. That must have been something of a surprise.

So, apart from Eliot's elliptical poem, what else do you get on this app?

* a film of actress Fiona Shaw reading the entire poem (this was specially filmed for the app).

* audio recordings of the poem by T. S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, Alec Guinness and Viggo Mortensen.

* interactive notes explaining many of the poem's references.

* more than 35 experts on video talking about their perspective on the poem.

The video below is from The Guardian, and has people explaining how this piece came to be available for the iPad.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Men Briefly Explained

Would you guess from the following blurb on Amazon what kind of a book this was?

Men Briefly Explained explores all aspects of contemporary manhood, the humourous [sic] and not so humourous [sic-ker], where men are in relation to women and to society in general. Thought provoking, impertinent, irreverent, witty, startling, this collection will have you mesmerised from start to finish.

Well, if you didn't guess, or didn't already know, it's a book of poetry, by Tim Jones, the New Zealand poet, but at first I thought it was something else, like perhaps a sociological (but humourous - sic-kest] overview of men and their way of life. Perhaps Amazon is a little wary of promoting.....poetry.

Anyway, I bought it via Kindle this afternoon, and had a first draft read (as you might call it). Lots of great stuff in there (can I say that about a book of poems?), thought-provoking, emotional, with reminders of the way things were - and the usual tongue-in-cheek pairing of real people in the wrong places (Baxter and Curnow, the two highly-regarded NZ poets, turning up as lead singers of 60s rock band).

Name-dropping slot. Tim and I have had occasional correspondence on the Net, and (sometimes) read each other's blogs. We've even met face to face (it still happens in the real world), when I went to a Sunny Side Up rehearsal about a month or more ago and found he was there with a relative or friend (can't remember which).

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Concerts & Grimhilda

Must be the season for concerts. This Saturday I'm playing for a couple of singers at Claire Barton's Farewell Concert in the Town Hall. Probably the last time I played on that stage would have been when Claire was in Opera Alive, the young singers' group that I accompanied for about seven years.

The last time I sang there, on the other hand, was about a fortnight ago, when Sunny Side Up performed some numbers at the RSA choir concert. And a few days after that we had the Heavenly Choirs concert in Knox Church.

The weekend after this one, I'm playing for a bunch of singers at St Peter's Church in Hillside Rd; this time it's a fundraiser for a little girl called Daryl Ann. And then beyond that there are several more concerts, major and minor, over the period leading up to Christmas. Anyone would think I was retired and had nothing else to do.

But talking of other things to do, this afternoon, I got together with the person who collaborated on the script of Grimhilda! to nut out things like finding funding and thinking about auditions and rehearsal rooms and contacting a variety of people about this, that and the next, and looking at a budget and...well, suffice to say that after three hours we were both exhausted with it all.

It would help if people would ring you back straight away when you miss them on the first call, instead of having to ring them again...and again...or email them and still not get an answer to something that is probably quite straightforward. But becomes a thing you have to remember to do again when you miss them the first time around.

Incidentally, in the concert I'm playing at on the 27th, I'm presenting a selection of music from Grimhilda! - her first public airing. Should be interesting...(so be there!)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Wah-Wah Diaries

Seem to be reading a book a day at the won't last. I need to get on with some other more important things!

Anyway, yesterday while filling in a bit of time at the library, I came across The Wah-Wah Diaries by Richard E Grant. Wah-Wah was a movie written and directed by Grant back in 2004, and the book is a record of the day-to-day trials and tribulations he experienced, less on the shooting of the movie itself than on the pre- and post-production, when his French producer either failed to communicate vital information, or get things done on time, or kept putting various spanners in the works for no good reason - except that she was the producer.

The book starts in 1999, when the idea for the movie was first mooted and the script drafted. From then on it's a constant swing between highs and lows as producers come and go, the script is revised and revised, actors are gained and lost, and the aforesaid producer gets it into her head that everything should be done with French technicians. This book should warn anyone off co-production between England and France forever, though to be fair, there are some very good French technicians involved, the editors in particular.

The actual shoot is a breeze by comparison with everything else that goes on, with near-perfect weather in Swaziland (where it is all filmed, often in places that Grant grew up in and knows like the back of his hand). The amazing thing is that while Grant has some extreme moments of stress and insomnia from all the hitches (and, of course, the French producer), the film gets made, and he survives without going insane. His determination and fortitude prove to be far beyond what he himself thinks he's capable of, especially since this is the first time he's ever directed a movie, and it's an extremely autobiographical one at that.

It's perhaps not the ideal book to read before embarking on getting a musical up and on stage, although the financial aspects of my show won't be nearly as daunting as those Grant faced, nor will we be working with people who don't speak our language - in any sense of the phrase. Nevertheless it shows the value of having a good solid team around you, for support in times of stress and when things all seem to be going down the tube....!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Graveyard Book

I picked up Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book while in the children's library the other day (all the best fiction is in the children's section, I sometimes think). Interestingly, the recommendation on the front cover is by Diana Wynne Jones, whose children's books I've been reading a good deal of recently. (Finished the fourth the other day, which means I've read all the Howl's Moving Castle series.)

Gaiman's book starts out rather nastily, with the murders of three members of a family, but then takes a twist and has the surviving toddler heading off into the local graveyard, where he's adopted by a couple of ghosts, and gets as his guardian someone who's neither alive nor a ghost...

For the first few chapters the book seems episodic, as though Gaiman was offering us a set of short stories on a theme. Gradually, however, all these episodes coalesce into a superb climax. This isn't a story for fainthearted children (though there seem to be few of those around these days): it's grim in more than one place, and some of the things that happen aren't pleasant. (Don't read it to children who are prone to nightmares.) Gaiman has never been a writer to avoid the unpleasant; it's even apparent in his adult books. (Stardust, perhaps the least grim of his adult stories, still has some exceptionally nasty characters).

Gaiman is a wonderfully imaginative writer, stylish in his use of language (he expects children to keep up, and only in one place explains something for the uninitiated) and is able to create worlds that extend the mind. This is a thoroughly enjoyable read, with splashes of humour to leaven the nasty bits.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Name of the Rose

I've only just caught up with the movie, The Name of the Rose. It's now around twenty-five years old. It's so old, in fact, Christian Slater is a teenager in it; he was 16 or 17 at the time it was made. On the other hand, Sean Connery looks no older or younger than he does in dozens of other movies. He must have something in his contract specifying that he will always look the same (after he'd finished with 007, that is.)

It must also be notable as the movie with the ugliest cast (apart from Connery and Slater, of course). It opens with an emphasis on the particular ugly features of one actor (Elya Baskin) and then presents us with a range of the most ugly faces, as though a requirement for being a monk in the times of the Inquisition was to be not in any shape or form handsome. The hunchback must intentionally be one of the ugliest people to appear in a movie...

The film opens with the peculiar title: A palimpsest of Umberto Eco's 'The Name of the Rose". Of course we all know what a palimpsest is when we see it. Except me. I didn't the last time I came across this word, which was in church a few weeks ago when the preacher used it in relation to something to do with the Scriptures. I had to look it up on my wife's smartphone at that point, and had forgotten what it meant by the time I left the building. In a somewhat curious coincidence, the copy of the movie that I've just watched on DVD belongs to aforesaid preacher.

For those few of you out there who really, really don't know what this words means, here's Wikipedia on the subject: A palimpsest is a manuscript page from a scroll or book from which the text has been scraped off and which can be used again. The word "palimpsest" comes through Latin from Greek παλιν + ψαω = (palin "again" + psao "I scrape"), and meant "scraped (clean and used) again."

How that applies to the movie vis a vis the book I've yet to learn, but may in the course of my ongoing research on the matter. The trivia on imdb doesn't give us any hint, though there are some rather suspect pieces of information there - more so than usual, I think.

The movie seems to thrive on an image of these dark ages that is incessantly ugly and brutal. I guess that wasn't an impossibility for the times, but it does rather go over the top (especially when you consider that much of the movie is about the making of books, highly ornamented ones at that). The homosexual monk is straight out of Fellini, (himself no mean searcher-out of peculiar-looking people); left-handed or not, it seems unlikely he would have survived in the way he does in such an environment. The peasants of course are all ugly (though not so much as the monks, perhaps!) and brutish - except the one female character in the story, who's really too good-looking to have come out of this environment. Her sex scene with Slater (or Slater's body double?) leaves nothing to the imagination, and is typical of the way in which European movies seem to think excess is better than subtlety. (The pig disembowelling scene is equally overdone.)

Umberto Eco's book, on which the film is based, is about far more than a murder mystery - it's semiotic (related to the study of signs, language as sign, and so on) in approach, making it a difficult subject to film - though there are still some elements of the semiotic in the movie. This may be how the palimpsest aspect comes in; the film reworks the material in its own way. But don't ask me...I'm just one of the (slightly less ugly) peasants.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Dreams of Rivers and Seas

I've just finished Tim Parks' Dreams of Rivers and Seas, which requires readers to keep their wits about them, and try and pick up and sort through the innumerable clues, themes, metaphors and other links that permeate the book. It's a mystery of sorts, but that's not its prime focus.

It's not been my favourite read of all time, although Parks is an interesting writer; this is probably only the third of his books I've read. (Interestingly enough, he cribs a scene out of his non-fiction book Teach Us to Sit Still, and revamps it for one of the few amusing scenes in this book. It occurs when the American writer visits the Indian husband/wife medical couple.)

It concerns a dysfunctional family: the father, Albert James, is a scientist who's wandered off into some almost completely abstract research that seems to go nowhere (his books are annotated with elliptical sentences that no one can understand, and his lectures aren't much better); the mother, Helen, is a woman doctor seemingly dedicated to helping the poor, but she's also manipulative, remote and regards her deceased husband (he's just died at the beginning of the book) as something of a saint. She is so interwoven with her husband that no one else seems to matter to her. These two live in Delhi, one of the many impoverished places they've settled in over the years.

Their son John, (also a scientist) is in his early twenties, and a bit of a puzzle: naive, immature and desperate to connect with his parents, yet somehow unable to. He has seldom lived with his parents because of their lifestyle, and we discover late in the book that his real father may actually be someone else altogether.

There are two other major characters: the son's girlfriend - also immature, a wannabe-actress, and caught up in her view of herself as something of a rebel - and a forty-something American who wants to write a biography of the father. These five (even though the father is dead his 'ghost' constantly infects and affects the story) intertwine and disconnect and crash into each other in a myriad number of ways, along with a host of other characters. This being Delhi, there are people everywhere.

While the story is about words, and language, and meaning, it's also about family, and what people can do to each other, and how they can destroy each other. It's about selfishness - the father, in spite of being regarded as something of a saint by several of the characters, is perhaps the most selfish of all; the mother exudes it, in spite of her work with the poor. It's also about the fathers (and to a lesser extent, mothers), and the rebellion against them that many people go through, and in some cases, never overcome. The young man begins the story desperate to 'know' his father; by the time the book is finished he has reached a point of hating him (the ending is somewhat ambiguous, so I may be reading this wrongly). Parks brought this theme into Teach Us to Sit Still as well; his anger at his father was possibly one of the reasons why he was continually having what was initially diagnosed as prostate problems - in this newer book, the father has supposedly died of prostate cancer. In fact, the more I think about it, the more links there are between the two books; but that's not uncommon in a writer.

Parks is an excellent writer, and Delhi is portrayed in all its glory and awfulness; the characters are strongly written, and often extremely annoying (!), and in spite of its rather grim atmosphere, it draws you along at a cracking pace.

Friday, August 12, 2011


When we were in the UK in 2007 we bought ourselves a Garmin GPS which we named Malvina. I wrote about 'her' at length on that trip; she was invaluable, and only very rarely did she do the equivalent of landing us up in a village where it was impossible to get the car through the narrow street (as some continental lorry drivers experienced around that time) or bring us to a river bank so we could get a ferry across - except that was no ferry, as some other poor GPS user experienced.

These days, if we're going somewhere unfamiliar, we use the Tom Tom app that's on my wife's smartphone; it's pretty good, although suffice to say there are times when we know the city a good deal better than it does. And we certainly know it better than Google maps, which on one occasion wanted guests coming to our house to go around the block in a direction that took them away from the house before setting off towards it...

I've never played geocaching, although I heard about it quite some time ago. It something like a treasure hunt, in which you use the coordinates given via GPS to find the 'treasure' -or, as it's normally called in this game, the 'geocache'. Not being a person greatly enamoured of going off in the wild with nothing but a GPS system, this isn't a game I'm likely to play.

Now, apparently, you can add to the fun when you buy Garmin chirp, which is some sort of homing device, as far as I can make out...but also a lot more. The 'chirp stores hints, multicache coordinates, counts visitors and confirms the cache is nearby' presumably for those searching for it. It sounds a bit like making things too easy, but no doubt for those who take up chirping, it adds to the fun.

Expect, then, next time you're out in the wilds, to hear unfamiliar bird chirps.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Noel Coward

I'm reading The Privilege of His Company by William Marchant at the moment - it was lent to me by a friend. It's a book about Noel Coward and gives quite a different picture of him than I'd ever come across before: he's seen as a gracious and generous man, one who is happy to mentor a young writer and help him to success. Of course the wit and urbanity is there (although Coward frequently lectures Marchant against urbanity in the book), and the theatrical stories...and, most importantly, the understanding of stagecraft which to me is the most interesting part of the book.

I think what is perhaps now forgotten to a great extent is the admiration other actors had for Coward, and this permeates the book. They loved him because of his generous nature and personality; there were few airs about Coward, and no arrogance.

It brings to mind a scene in one of his films - one of several made late in his life, none of which were particularly remarkable in regard to the parts he played. This film was The Italian Job which, on a recent viewing proved to be a pretty unremarkable piece of filmmaking, and worth less than its following (and sequel) warrants. Coward is one of several well-known British actors in it (Irene Handl makes a brief - and rather course - appearance, for instance) and his first main scene is in prison, where he's treated with great respect by all the inmates...and the staff (who basically allow him to do what he likes). This was his last film, made only 3 or 4 years before his death, and Coward doesn't look particularly well. He was seventy at the time.

This first (longish) scene has Coward doing nothing more than walking slowly down the stairs of the prison clapped in time by the inmates. He waves his hand in a regal gesture. It has nothing to do with the movie, but perhaps a good deal to do with the veneration he was naturally given by other actors and directors.

Diana Wynne Jones

A few weeks back a friend told me he was reading Howl's Moving Castle to his children, and claimed the book was superior to the Harry Potter series. Well, I'm always willing to take up someone on such a challenge, so I got it out of the library....and had finished it by the next day.

It has only a marginal link to the Japanese animated movie of the same title - same idea initially, but the movie goes off in a different direction.

The book is great, full of unexplained mysteries that keep you guessing until the end, flights of fancy that keep your imagination on its toes, and a bundle of interesting characters who are very much their own selves . It has great language, no sloppy writing (not that Rowling is much given to sloppy writing either, in general), and an expectation that the young readers will keep up with the use of different words and novel ideas.

Incidentally, Howl is a punning synonym on more than one level, as are several of the names in the Moving Castle.

I was so taken with the book that I thought I'd give some of Diana Wynne Jones' other titles a go: I started with Black Maria, and intend to track down more of the books over the next few weeks. Black Maria is an altogether darker book, in which 'management' of other people is the theme - management in the sense of controlling their lives. Consequently all the men in the village have been turned into 'zombies' (they're not dead, just dead boring); the children are 'clones' (only in the sense that they seem to think and behave in the same way) and the women are so naice on the surface, but it's that kind of niceness that makes you want to scream, and it's exceptionally manipulative. And of course there's a good deal of magic going on in the background which we only gradually become party to. The magician, when he finally turns up a long way through the book, is very similar to Howl in the Moving Castle, though he also has some of his own foibles.

It's again a great page-turning read, but I'm not sure that it's outworking is quite as effective as the one in the first book I read. Nevertheless it shares the same imaginative qualities that made the first so successful, and some of the topsy-turviness.

Update: December 2019
Since I wrote this post I've worked my way through quite a few of the Wynne Jones titles - another seven in 2011 alone, and various ones in the years since. Like many prolific authors, Wynne Jones has her off days (The Pinhoe Egg) and her super hilarious days (Arthur's Goon). The Chrestomanci series varies from wonderfully imaginative to peculiar to - dare I say - tedious in places. And just when you think you've read every kind of Wynne Jones book, you discover something altogether different. Furthermore, books that appeal to one reader may be a turn-off for another, and vice versa.  Whatever the case, reading her books is great for the imagination, great for delving into worlds where the problems aren't the same old adult problems that many authors write about, and great for discovering something new around pretty much every corner. 

Sunday, August 07, 2011


It often strikes me as an oxymoron that teenagers who claim to be rebelling against everything the older generation stands for will still wear the same gear as each other, effectively turning themselves into uniformed beings. They'll claim that the adults are conformist and lacking in individuality or creativitiy and yet...chunks of the boys will be wearing their trousers hanging down around their butts - almost falling off their butts in fact.

Or the girls will wear jeans that reveal almost everything - especially those awful thong things..

Other non-conformists will wear nothing but black (except perhaps hair that's dyed a peculiar colour). Another group wear hoodies and pants so sloppy that you can't tell whether they actually have legs or not.

Uniforms are part and parcel of everyday life: from the loose-fitting clothes now worn by nurses in hospital (cleaned presumably at discount scrubs) to the smarter uniforms worn by policemen or firemen (and the styled moustaches to go with them). Even businessmen and women wear uniforms - how many suits do you see that aren't black or dark blue these days?

It's quite normal, and you'd think it would be one of the things the youngsters would react against. Nope, they just go straight into whatever is the 'uniform' of the day (those listed above are all heading away from being 'in') and conform themselves into a different group.


Heavenly Choirs

Sang with Sunny Side Up again today, at the 'Heavenly Choirs concert' in Knox Church. The concert was a fundraiser for the Hospital Chaplaincy service, and went smoothly and successfully. Hopefully they made a few thousand dollars out of it.

I didn't feel quite so secure in my singing today, even though I knew the pieces. Just one of those days when you're more edgy than other times. Anyway, after we'd had afternoon tea at Knox, a good number of us trooped up to the house of a couple who are in SSU, and had an early tea of soup and buns and anything else people brought with them.

And a singsong. A good old-fashioned singsong.

Also in the concert were the Dunedin Harmony Chorus - we didn't get to hear them, unfortunately, being stuck backstage at that point. They were followed by the Southern Consort of Voices; these people were practicing when we arrived, and were singing some very difficult stuff and singing it well.

In the second half there were three secondary school choirs: Barock (as opposed to baroque), a strong group of boys and girls who sang very well, a girls' choir (their name escapes me because I've lost the programme) of about 25 young ladies who did a great Mumma Mia and a rather more serious piece that showed them off well but wasn't quite so peppy...!

The boys' choir at the end seemed just a little under par - perhaps it was because some of their singers were at the Cleveland Awards this afternoon. The whole group, choirs and audience finished up singing The Hallelujah Chorus. Great stuff.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

New Poet Laureate

Ian Wedde is the next New Zealand Poet Laureate.

I used to work with Ian way back in the 70s, when we were both posties (postmen, to the uninitiated). I don't know that we ever had much to do with each other - it was the musicians among the posties who tended to clan together rather than the poets....although I had gotten to know another poet, Brent Southgate, when I was a postie before I went to England - back in the 60s. He's the brother of the well-known conductor, Bill Southgate, who I knew a little earlier on here in Dunedin music circles, and who coincidentally arrived back in NZ on the same day that my wife and I did, when I returned from England. Both of us stood listening to a race commentary on the radio, having forgotten the unique quality of that NZ sound.

There, that'll do for the name-dropping today.

I've read Wedde's poetry in the past and it hasn't greatly appealed, but either he's moved on from the kind of poetry that didn't appeal to me, or I've moved on....his Harry Martens is typically Wedde in its use of language yet more readable than what I remember from the past. Perhaps solid doses of denser Les Murray poems over the years have made me more aware of what Wedde's doing, and maybe it's time to come to him afresh.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Elderly Sibelius

Most of my music writing is done on Sibelius, as I've no doubt mentioned before. While I still compose initially at the piano (normally -there are occasions when I write straight onto the computer), increasingly what's written down there on the manuscript is sketchy and gets transferred to the computer fairly quickly (before I forget what the scribblings mean). In fact, the extra manuscript books I bought to use for writing the musical (Grimhilda!) haven't been used. (Saving them for the next musical!)

Sibelius is a fantastic programme for composers and other musicians - I'm just finishing up transcribing a bundle of some 15 songs for a composer in Alexandra. And I think there are more to come. Her music has all been written by hand in pen or pencil up till now.

All this is a lead up to the photograph below, which I assume shows the very first version of Sibelius (we're now on version 7). I got this off someone who's signs him/herself as jwkay.

The manual that came with my version (that was number 4, and I use number 6 now) is thick and probably the best computer programme manual I've ever used. Excellent!

Two quiet movies

Last night I watched a film we'd recorded a few days earlier: Snow Cake. I actually watched it nearly twice through, as my wife had been doing something else and didn't come in until it was getting close to the end - at which point I said she needed to see it from the beginning, so I watched it again.

I can't tell you about the movie without giving some spoilers, so don't read this if you want to catch up with it.

This Canadian movie concerns a man (played by Alan Rickman) who's recently out of prison (for killing another man). He rather unwillingly picks up a lively young female hitchhiker; a few minutes of screen time later, she is killed outright when a truck crashes into the car. Rickman decides to take the rather oddball gift the daughter had bought for her mother to the mother (played by Sigourney Weaver) and discovers that the mother has some form of autism - a 'very vocal' form, as the mother's neighbour points out. And so things play out, as we gradually learn why Rickman was in prison and more.

It's a story with more than one grieving person in it, but it isn't a miserable story. There's a great deal of humour all round, and Weaver's character, while not played for laughs as such, produces a number of the funnier lines in the film. It's also about the healing needed after losing someone, and how this can take more than a matter of moments.

Rickman does his usual fairly laidback characterization even while baring his soul to different people, but when needed, can produce the goods: watch him in the aftermath of the crash.

Weaver has been criticised by some reviewers for being all performance without a real connection to the character she's playing. But this is a character at a disconnect with herself: she has no social graces: if she's fed up with you she'll tell you to stop talking until she says it's okay to start again, or, if you've come to her house for a wake, she'll ask loudly why you're still there when she wants you to go, or will dump the freshly made sandwiches in the rubbish bin to encourage you to leave. She also enjoys eating snow, jumping on a trampoline, and playing with children's baubles. She's as sharp as a tack...except she isn't quite.

Carrie Ann Moss (of the Matrix series, and the strange film, Memento) plays the neighbour, a woman who doesn't mind having 'gentlemen callers' and who is part of the healing process Rickman needs to go through.

It's a relatively quiet little film, and relies on excellent actors to put its gentle story across.

We watched Taking the Wae Wae Express the other day too. NZ reviewers have generally raved about this movie, the forerunner to the recently exhibited, Hook, Line and Sinker, but we found it lacking in energy and rather shapeless. Both movies have been made using the Mike Leigh approach of improvisation-gradually-forming-itself-into-a-script. The more recent movie worked, using this process - but also had the benefit of some very good NZ actors. Wae Wae uses a mostly inexperienced cast, and for me the lack of a script with crafted lines left them floundering. The young actors were good, but there was a kind of limitedness to their roles: a stronger script in general would have helped them to achieve something more effective. Even Rangimoana Taylor (who has the lead role in Hook, Line and Sinker) suffers from an undeveloped role. There is a curious Malaysian taxidriver in the story, a man given to uttering 'wisdom' to young people, and also a female Scandinavian tourist who turns up out of nowhere and makes herself at home with the other characters - without much evidence as to why she should do so, I thought. Incidentally, this story also evolves out of a car crash....

We were sorry not to like the movie much: it was made by Andrea Bosshard, who used to be one of my piano pupils (her family were neighbours) many years ago..! However, on the basis of Hook, Line and Sinker, I'm sure she's got better stuff still to come.

google + from facebook

Upgrading, or shifting sites, are both things that we tend to react against online. Unless there's a really good reason to upgrade a programme, I won't do it automatically; I've been hit too often by Firefox Mozilla upgrading and causing problems with add-ons and such, to take just one example.

The latest version of Sibelius - version 7 - is now out and I'm hearing less than enthusiastic reports. Seemingly there are a host of new sound samples, but it's also gone over to the 'ribbon' style of menu, and this has been decried by a number of Sibelius users. I'm not sure that that would bother me so much (since I'm used to Windows 7 anyway), but apart from this the improvements seem to be mostly cosmetic. Having not very long ago shifted to version 6 (being forced to, in fact), I'm not desperate to upgrade just for a few tinky-tonk changes.

And a couple of people have enthused about Google +. But I can't see the point. Changing from Facebook (for all its faults) is a major undertaking. Firstly, will the people you're in touch with on Facebook shift with you? (Not very likely.) What will happen to all your collected stuff? Who will care that you've gone to the supposedly 'better' Google +? Not many people, I think.

And you lose access to all those click here buttons that now dot the Net for Facebook and Twitter and so on. Certainly these aren't the greatest loss, and the loss can be overcome, but if Google + is so good, why isn't it available as well as all these other options?

I think Google might have got out of the starting gate far too late on this one; the other horse have won the race a long time ago and the next race is already beginning. (I once swam in a school race in which I was still plugging along when the next race started...)

There are nine 'good' reasons to shift to Google +, according to an article by Mark Sullivan in PC World:
Integration with other Google services (that's sort of a plus for me, but not enough of one)
Better Friend Management (Google's circles and inner circles and so on just don't grab all sounds like too much effort).
Better Mobile App (I don't have a smartphone so this doesn't make me want to move).
Easier to find stuff and share. (A piffle reason, I think.)
You can get your data back. (Well, this might be a plus, but I'm not convinced entirely.)
Better Photo Tagging. (This relates to Facebook's recent upgrading - there's that word again - of the tagging scene and its implications. Hmmm, one reason out of six so far isn't enough.)
Strong group chat features. (I never group chat, so that one's out.)
Safer Content Sharing. (Assigning a privacy level to each piece of content I share sounds like a load of work to me.)
Google is a better steward of your personal data. (This is no different from reason five, I think.)

Sorry, Mark, you just haven't convinced me. And neither has the one person I know who's shifted to Google +. He sent me an email today via Google +, but of course I couldn't reply to it, or comment on it....not being in the Google + system. See what I mean?

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Personal Info

I haven't used Internet Explorer for some time, and I probably won't be taking up their offer of an upgrade to IE8, in spite of its claim in this video that IE8 blocks 3 million online threats a day.

In this video (one of several) IE opened two different storefronts, one as a bank, one as a genealogical site, and enticed a number of New Yorkers into giving all sorts of personal information. The idea was that if you trusted someone face-to-face enough to give them personal info, then it's likely you're not being particularly careful online.

Check out what people handed over without any concern....


Last night, at the RSA Choir concert (that's the Returned Services Association Choir) I made my debut as a singer with the acapella group, Sunny Side Up. I wrote about them back in May after going to a concert in which they were one of several singing groups. At the time I said to my wife, if I was going to join any singing group, it would be them. At a meal with several people a couple of weeks later, three of whom were members of SSU, the subject of me thinking about joining them came up, and a week later I'd started going to their Sunday afternoon rehearsals. And then a couple of weeks later my wife started to come too.

I've always enjoyed singing, and though New Zealand society on the surface seems to imply that it's not a thing for males to do, plenty of them around the country do it. In fact the two soloists at the concert last night were young men, and the 50-plus RSA choir is (still) all male. (There's another all-male choir here in Dunedin too: the Royal Male Choir, and plenty of secondary schools have male choirs.)

I grew up in a Catholic family, so we always sang at church - admittedly it was the same half dozen songs, year in and year out, taken off a cardboard sheet that had been printed before I was born, I suspect; it was still in use when I left my home town in the 60s. And as a young pianist I used to sing my way through complete musical comedy scores. No one ever commented that it didn't sound that hot, but I suspect it didn't always.

And then I was continually involved with singers from my teenage years, as an accompanist - that's continued to this day. After my wife and I came back from overseas we joined a Pentecostal Church, where the singing could go on for half an hour or more before the preacher got up to speak. So singing's 'in the blood' as it were.

The only time I've ever sung solo in a concert, that I can remember, was maybe 15 years ago when a group I was involved in presented a night of George Gershwin songs. The director had found one called 'Blah blah blah blah blah' (yup!) and as a bit of a joke, I sang it and accompanied myself. I think it put that particular director off my singing for good: he's never encouraged me to sing since...

Anyway, as a member of the thirty-plus-strong SSU, my singing blends, (read: doesn't stand out). I wondered once or twice last night if a note I was singing wasn't quite what the rest of the basses were singing, but the notes still seemed to harmonise!

SSU music is often lively, and in the slower songs, full of striking harmonies. My wife and I have heard the group on a number of occasions over the years, and have always been attracted to their particular sound. Last night we sang a couple of African-based songs (easy for the basses: we provide an ongoing rhythmic line underneath), a fabulous arrangement of Total Praise, the powerful Up Above My Head and a joyful spiritual. And we sing again on Sunday, at Knox Church, along with several other choirs. Different songs, mostly, so it's quite a full-on week for the group.

The RSA itself was in good form, though we missed the first part of the first half of the show, being backstage getting ready. I particularly liked Shenadoah and Cwm Rhondda (which was sung in its English version: Guide me, O thou great Jehovah). Some of the faster songs suffer a bit from so many voices trying to get their tongues around lots of words in a way that's tidy, but there seemed to be plenty of energy in the choir, which is great - the oldest singer is ninety (!)

The two soloists were Ben Madden and Alex Wilson, and, from what I heard of them, these are splendid pair of voices, with promising careers ahead of them.