Worth Dying for: The power and politics of flags by Tim Marshall: Book Review


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The title is a statement, not a question.  So is the author suggesting that, yes, flags are worth dying for?

In this terrific book Tim Marshall explores, over about 300 pages, why it is that flags have become such strong semiotic devices across the 21st century globe.

As Amazon says in its splurge; In nine chapters (covering the USA, UK, Europe, Middle East, Asia, Africa, Latin America, international flags and flags of terror), Tim Marshall draws on more than twenty-five years of global reporting experience to reveal the histories, the power and the politics of the symbols that unite us – and divide us.

I absolutely loved this.

Marshall has a nice line in sarcasm although he keeps that to a minimum.  Largely the book is a fascinating historical insight into the power of flags, usually three colours or less.

Why green is so important in Islamic countries.  Why blue can represent sky, sea and many other things.  Why red is typically the colour of blood.  Or, of communism.

Why maybe a half of global flags have a religious significance, almost all of those crosses are, yup, crucifixes.

Why regions congregate around themes.  Ever wondered why all the Scandi flags are left biased crosses, just with different colour ways?  Find out here.

It’s not just political flags either, we read about the chequered flag, the Olympic flag, the red cross and more.

A great read and a great opportunity to increase your score on University Challenge.

 

Glastonbury 50. The official story of the Glastonbury Festival: My review.


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The Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts celebrates its 5oth anniversary this June and I will be there, for my fourth festival.

In fact although Glastonbury is 50 it’s only the 36th staging as there was a big hole in the 70’s and several ‘fallow years’.

For me it is the greatest music festival in the world, although it is far more than a musical festival, hence its formal name – The Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts.

Did you know that at 200,000 attendees (135,000 tickets, 65,000 staff and volunteers) Glastonbury is more populous than Bath.  The site is bigger than my home town of South Queensferry.

These coffee-table type affairs don’t usually interest me all that much, but anyone who has been to, and fallen in love with, the festival will, like me, be drawn into every minuscule detail of the event.  I lost two long afternoons over the Christmas break devouring every single word and every single picture that tell the story in just the right amount of detail.

Performers share their, universally enthusiastic, memories (of course – it’s pure fan boy).

The Eavis’ father and daughter impressarios share their highs and (many) lows and we can be as geeky as we like, as readers, in dissecting the line ups and remembered highlights.

For me, my two all time highlights are described, both as it happens by Emily Eavis.

2012’s Radiohead secret gig on the Park Stage in the pouring rain and 2013’s masterful moment during Stagger Lee by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, pictured below.  I was about 50 yards away from this.

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Here it is in its entirety.  She rises from the crowd at 7’45”.

I love this comment on Youtube.  Hope it’s true…

To let you all know, I was the one that put the girl on my shoulders. My mate had Nicks foot on his shoulder and the girl in white popped up behind me, she was flustered and asked if i would put her on my shoulders, i accepted. When she came down she said ‘you’ve just made my entire life better’ then gave me a kiss on the cheek and disappeared, not my girlfriend, just a random girl that wanted a moment with nick. 🙂

 

 

Little Women: Movie Review.


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I haven’t read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, neither have I seen any of the previous film incarnations of her famed novel, so I came to this with no expectations other than that the cast is stellar and the director, Greta Gerwig, is highly noteworthy. (Lady Bird was superb in my opinion – next up is Barbie, written by Noah Baumbach and starring Margot Robbie – that should be interesting.)

What interested me structurally about the movie is that it is essentially both an autobiography and a fiction – the novel itself is represented as little stories but the narrative describes how the book came about.  For some critics this has been problematic as it requires (or allows if you prefer) a considerable amount of time-switching, that is not always captioned for the hard of intelligence.

The movie is an emotional rollercoaster with peaks of hilarity and depths of real pity as the four March sisters, that make up the main protagonists, live a struggling middle class life surrounded in close proximity by deep poverty and significant wealth.  It is this relationship with money, and the pursuit thereof, that is the central philosophical backbone of the movie and allows for many excellent vignettes and clear messaging that money is not the root of all happiness.

On the side of the rich sit three excellent portrayals; Timothy Chalomet (outstanding as the main love interest Laurie), his wonderful and generous of spirit grandfather (played beautifully and touchingly by Chris Cooper) and the ‘evil'(ish) rich Aunt March (Meryl Streep).  Laura Dern continues her annus mirabilis as the girls’ mother (it complements her performance in Marriage Story.)

More than once the beautiful tableaux’ that Gerwig sets up reminded me of Dorothea Langue’s Migrant Mother.  In that it resonates love and tenderness in the face of adversity.

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This is a tremendous piece of film making in every way.  It’s funny, moving, beautiful to look at, poignant and thought provoking.

Saoirse Ronan is excellent, as always, but Florence Pugh’s ability to appear both 14 and 26 is even more remarkable.  Emma Watson is solid and poor little Beth is played touchingly by Eliza Scanlen.

Overall it’s a great ensemble production with the real star of the show, Great Gerwig.

Bravo!

 

 

 

Solar by Ian McEwan: Book Review.


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This slipped under my radar, having read every one of his first 13 novels, novellas and short story collections.  I used to consider McEwan my favourite writer but that title has been lost after two out of three damp squibs.  This being one of them.

Solar was followed by the awful Sweet Tooth and it’s kind of a companion piece of sorts.  Although Solar is nominally about climate change, it’s really about a misogynistic old man’s sexual desires and, in that respect, riffs off the follow up which explores sexuality from the female side. Although Sweet Tooth is written in the first person (a terrible mistake as McEwan is a long way detached from a 20 something female’s perspective) this is written in the third person narrative, although I use the word narrative with reservations.  It doesn’t make it any better.

It’s just plain boring from start to finish, is the problem.  Long ponderous descriptive set pieces, deep dive examinations of a character’s character from the despicable anti=hero’s perspective – the deathly dull Nobel Prize winning philanderer Michael Beard.

McEwan creates a character that is so unremittingly unlikeable that it’s difficult to find any purchase in the proceedings.  I simply didn’t care about him one whit.

Writing about unsympathetic or unpleasant characters is by no means a forlorn task.  Jeckyl and Hyde, Frankenstein, Patrick Suskind’s Perfume; all feature monsters that are utterly compelling.

This just features a monster.

The cover blurb states that it is the winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction.  I am incredulous at that as it is simply not funny.  Grotesque perhaps, but funny – no.

If McEwan hadn’t followed up sweet tooth with The Children Act I’d say his career was over, but The Children Act is a formidable piece of writing and storytelling that sits along his best.

This and Sweet Tooth, by contrast, feel self-indulgent, knocked off with particularly thin premises for their existence.  Thank God it’s over.

Avoid.

An Edinburgh Christmas Carol at The Royal Lyceum Edinburgh.


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Ahhhh, The Lyceum Christmas Show is upon us once again and Tony Cownie and his regular core of performers have taken the right decision of NOT descending into pantomime, because the Lyceum doesn’t do panto.  You’ll get that at The Kings.

Instead what he has cleverly done is merged the stories of Greyfriar’s Bobby with Dickens’ perennial favourite, thus giving it a life of its own and a new reason to visit a story that we can all probably recite in our sleep.

And it works a treat.

Bobby is a central character and Cownie gets round the problem of teaching dogs to act by making him (and Tiny Tim) puppets adding a further dimension to an already novel take on the novel.  It’s charming and the puppeteers invest real sympathy into Tiny Tim’s character and zest, bounce and good comedy into Bobby’s.

And because the cast includes Nicola Roy, Steve McNicoll and Grant O’Rourke (pulling off an impressive 13 roles between them and a flurry of costumes) it’s hilarious, with Nicola Roy getting the lion’s share of tasty one-liners. They often feel familiar but are mostly, in fact, new.

He knows his way around a gag does Tony Cownie.  “Aye [Scrooge], he’s so mean if he found a crutch in the street he’d go home and break his leg.”  (Which reminds me of an old favourite of mine: A man sees that dog food is half price in the supermarket, turns to his wife and says “We must buy a dog.”)

Crawford Logan takes the lead as the humbugerous Ebenezer Scrooge and carries the part off with aplomb, transforming beautifully from miser to philanthropist at the drop of a hat.

It barrels along, not allowing any particular sequence to outstay its welcome. The Ghost of Christmas Past sequence is particularly eye-catching and good for the storytelling, Eva Traynor is strong in the role in a spectacular green costume.

It’s all done and dusted by 9pm so time for a few seasonal libations.  Merry Christmas.

 

 

 

 

Doctor Sleep: Movie Review.


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This is a direct follow up to the Shining.

Indeed, the opening scenes star a young Danny Torrance and his mum Wendy (with Alex Essoe playing Shelley Duvall playing Wendy Torrance).  At a later point in the movie a Jack Nicholson impersonator also joins the proceedings (only it’s an uncredited, in IMDB, actor playing Nicholson playing the barman Lloyd).  These could, of course, have been terrible missteps but director Mike Flanagan adeptly carries it off, just.

In fact the entire movie is a dangerous exercise in, just, getting away with it.

It neatly explains some of the mysteries of the much cherished The Shining movie, but steps away from the mostly unspoken horror of Kubrick’s classic to become a sort of Harry Potter fantasy.

So, strangely the first 20 minutes and the last thirty (both truest to the original) are the most satisfying.

In the middle lies a pretty stodgy lump of twaddle really (Flanagan both directs and edits, which contributes to the stodge) and centres on a curious interplay between Ewan MacGregor, as the whisky soaked but recovering alcoholic that Danny has turned into, another shiner, played well enough by 13 year old Kyleigh Curran (her character name Abra is a pretty clunky pun) and a radiant Rebecca Ferguson, as the arch villain and leader of gang of bad ‘shiners’,

McGregor is tolerable, not something I’d often say, playing the part understatedly.

It is what it is.

This is not even a patch on its predecessor but there are just about enough pluses to keep you involved for its challenging 210 minute run time.

A curiosity, I’d say, that committed Shining fans, like me, should on balance, go see.

Just.

 

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.


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I am a lifelong Atwood fan, but she blows hot and cold (in this case, I’d say, warm).

I love her sci-fi and future-gazing stuff most, but I also was mesmerised by The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace.

Some of her more hippy stuff leaves me a bit cool.

This, the 35 years later follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale (THT), bagged her her second Booker Prize (shared) but, amazingly THT wasn’t the other, it was the aforementioned Blind Assassin.

She wrote this, the follow up to THT in response to endless requests from fans to explain how THT played out and decided to make it both a prequel (from Aunt Lydia’s point of view) and a sequel (from Baby Nicole’s point of view – Ofred’s daughter that she smuggled out of Gilead at the end of THT).

Another key character shares the storytelling duties but I shall leave that to you to find out who it is, if you care to indulge.

It’s very different to THT (and less satisfying as a result) because what made THT such a treat was the shock and the graphic detail in which Atwood brought her excellent brand of feminism to a dystopian tale that was truly horrifying.

The Testaments is a completely different vehicle.  She’s done the shock: this time she’s simply telling a story, a thriller really, to explain what lay behind THT.

Gilead is a key character in the plot.  It’s the state that has created these vile, corrupt, religious extremist men and it turns out that far from being the worst enforcer imaginable in Gilead Aunt Lydia is, in fact, a rather more complex, and sympathetic, character.

Essentially Lydia has realised that the concept of Gilead has gone too far.  It has run away with itself and it’s time for some reparation, how this is carried out is both complex and, at times, confusing (particularly in the first half of the novel).

It gradually unfolds as a rip-roaring story, well told, but for me it lacks the terrifying set pieces that makes THT so brilliant.  It slowly becomes a page-turner but that, for me, isn’t what makes prize-winning writing.

Atwood has a real ability to personify her characters, and the novel benefits greatly from most of its readers (surely) having watched Ann Dowd’s awesome portrayal of Aunt Lydia on MGM TV’s outstanding THT.

Atwood’s ability to switch character from niaive wife-to-be, to angsty teenage rebel, to elderly overseer is notable, but some of the naivety of the characters’ talk, written in a first person vernacular, renders elements of the book quite simplistic and, so, less engaging than it might have been if written in the third person.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a good book, but is it Booker winning standard?

Not in my book.