Virus reading. An excellent novel about the aftermath of a global pandemic in animals. Tender is the Flesh: by Agustina Bazterrica. My review.


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Clearly this will not appeal to everyone.

As we ride out the early stages of a global viral pandemic it struck me as a good time to read a novel about a global viral pandemic.

This one infected animals so that their meat became poisonus.  Consequently a global order was put out to kill ALL animals.

Then there was ‘The Transition.’

In a carnivorous world what meat will carnivores then eat when there is no ‘meat’?

Well, obviously they eat human meat, but not wanting to sound like cannibals the authorities do not allow the citizens to call human meat, ‘human meat’ – that’s punishable by death,  and the sale of the resulting cadaver as ‘meat’.

So they are called ‘Heads’, have their vocal chords surgically removed just after birth so that they can’t talk/scream, and are raised to a variety of quality standards.

The hero of our novel is a slaughterhouse manager who is responsible for the buying of Heads and their processing, by way of slaughter.

But his life is complicated.

His beloved Dad is dying, his sister is horrible and leaves him to manage the care of their father, his wife has left him and his young son has died.

He’s lonely, he hates his job, his life and his family.

Then, one day, as a thank you for doing good business with a Head-seller he is given his own young, living, prime-grade female to take home and butcher.

This is an Argentinian novel and is quite heavily stylised, with little or no emotion – that’s left to the reader to take their own views on the proceedings, much of which describes this new, very odd and strangely acceptant society, in dispassionate terms.

It’s short, sharp and to the point and much of it is an allegory for how we consider the meat we consume today.  In that respect it’s a great book for vegetarians/vegans to enjoy triumphantly.

The way Bazterrica describes the slaughtering and butchering process is exactly how our animal meat is processed today.  Her trick is to anthropomorphize the process and, in so doing, begs the question as to whether this is morally acceptable.  “You wouldn’t do it to humans…’ is the central tenet here, if not actually stated.

It’s clever.  It’s interestingly, if a little coldly, written and it’s page turning.

It’s a really good political polemic and I found it engrossing.  Much is made of societal mores – class, privelege, behaviour, tradition, sexual politics.  It’s actually a pretty complex and multi-layered read.

I recommend it.  (But only for those of a stout literary constitution.)

True History of the Kelly Gang: Movie Review


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Some 20 or so years ago I lay by a pool in the Algarve, Portugal, and read Peter Carey’s source book of the same name for this movie.  It had just won the Booker Prize and, if I’m honest, it didn’t blow me away. In fact, judging from the last page corner fold (p266 0f 408) I didn’t even finish it.

I wasn’t exactly blown away by the trailers for the movie either so I approached with extreme caution, not least because IMDB’s reviews were, at best, lukewarm and, at worst, damning.

I’m not even sure why I shelled out – not just for me but for my wife and daughter too.

Anyway, suffice to say, it was a good choice because this is a great movie in the tradition of modern ‘Westerns’ that include the 2007 masterpiece, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.  

The trivia link?  Nick Cave. His son Earl Cave features in this Australian outback ‘western’ and Cave contributed the soundtrack to ‘Jesse James.’

The main damning criticism of the movie is, in fact, one of its strengths.  It’s languid.  Many say slow. No s-l-o-o-o-o-o-w.

For me, its pace allows it to breathe.  It allows the deep psychological distress, that has shaped Ned Kelly’s life and informed his young adult behaviour, to gestate.

The story concerns Australia’s most notorious outlaw’s life and times.  He and his gang assume personas as devotees of a secret society known as the Sons of Sieve, who disguise themselves through cross-dressing in reverence to legendary bushranger Steve Hart.

Their attire of dresses, charcoal face makeup and metal bucket masks, fashioned out of old ploughs, is entirely discombobulating as they are ruthless killers. It makes for an exciting visual impact.

Justin Kurzel (a director new to me) and his sidekick lighting cameraman Adam Arkapaw have conjured up a work of art.  And that’s why so many cinema-goers have loathed this film, expecting instead a blood and gore shoot out.  These come, but they are limited.

One such scene, towards the end of the movie, when a team of armed police advance on the Kelly Gang at the infamous Glenrowan siege, is electrifying and dazzlingly conceived.  Set to discordant music (Jed Kurzel, the director’s brother) the long line of the law are shot, at night, in rain, dressed in long rubber capes that, through a combination of stroboscopic lighting and some sort of weird white light, make them appear as a line of luminous KKK-like ghosts foretelling Kelly’s ultimate demise (at the age of 25).  It’s a searingly spectacular scene that literally took my breath away and is worth the admission fee for this alone.

George Mackay, who carries the year’s best movie (1917) almost singlehandedly, performs another excellent, but much more collaborative role here with a bunch of outstanding supporting players, notably his mother (Ellen Kelly) and his would be nemesis Nicholas Hoult (will he ever play a likeable character) as Constable Fitzpatrick. Russell Crowe astounds in my favourite performance of his career, albeit not much more than a cameo, as his early and wholly evil mentor.

This does have blood and guts, but its 18 (R) rating feels unjustified.  It’s a beautiful evocative celebration of early Irish immigrant exclusion, prejudice and societal revenge.  It’s a portrait of some sort of descent into mental chaos (although more subtly rendered than Joaquin Pheonix’s tour de force in Joker). But mainly, it’s just a damn fine movie.

 

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan: Book Review


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I’m a lifelong McEwan fan, but he has been infuriating me in the last decade with his inconsistency.

I have previously reviewed and lamented Sweet Tooth and Solar – both stinkers, but sandwiched between them was The Children Act, a book of great beauty and provocation.

I’m glad to say that Machines Like Me finds McEwan right back at the top of his game and it’s clear to me that what is making him write his best work these days is moral ambiguity and his adeptness at turning that ambiguity into superb storytelling.  It’s at the heart of  what makes this book, and The Children Act, so great.

The moral conundrum here is truth.

Humanity allows us to decide the difference between ‘white lies’ and despicable self- serving perjury.  But can Artificial Intelligence be expected to compete?

This novel works on many levels.  It’s essentially a sci0fi book about Artificial Intelligence yet it’s set in the past.

A fake past.

1982 to be precise.

A 1982, in which Thatcher has just lost the Falklands War, Alan Turing is alive and kicking, Britain is contemplating a form of Brexit, the poll tax disputes are raging and many of today’s political challenges are being reframed as 1982’s.  Most notably the rise of an elderly Labour leader (Tony Benn) has swept to power on the back of an adoring youth.

It’s playful and brilliant.

McEwan plays with the value of things like money.  Everything seem so cheap: cheaper than the reality of 1982 prices. (The effect of a global recalibration of worth?  It’s unexplained.)

Into a 32 year old dropout’s life (Charlie) arrive, almost simultaneously, a stunningly beautiful but enigmatic 21 year old neighbour (Miranda) and a ‘robot’ of almost perfect physical attributes (Adam – one of 25 AI humanoids – 13 male, 12 female).

Charlie’s bought Adam thanks to an inheritance from his mother and the book explores the relationship between the three main protagonists, but throws in a secondary moral dilemma in the form of a four year old abused boy, Mark, who inveigles himself into their lives.

In Miranda’s past an event of monumental emotional significance has consumed her and the repercussions of this form a significant strand of the moral backbone of the story.

So we have fun (made up history) sci-fi (lite but fascinating in the form of a humanoid robot, whom it turns out is capable of great knowledge – Google, before Google existed- but also a form of moral judgement) relationships (tangled) and simply brilliant storytelling.

The science is interesting, the philosophy just light enough to engage dullards like me and the story so compelling as to turn pages lightning fast.

The whole premise throws up so many genuinely interesting questions that it’s like manna to McEwan who feasts on the riches that his great invention feeds him.

I adored this book.  One of McEwan’s best ever and leaves only Nutshell, out of his 17 novels, for me to read.  It’s a noughties write, so who knows.

 

 

The Testament of Gideon Mack, by James Robertson: Book Review.


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Gideon Mack is a Scottish Minister, a man of the cloth.  Indeed the son of a man of the cloth.  But he doesn’t believe in God.

His Dad of the cloth was an absolute bastard and that probably contributed to his lie of a life.

Awkwardly, he also fancies his best mate’s wife and, more importantly, and centrally to the story, falls into a river near the fictional Scottish village of Monimaskit – where a raging river flows under it.

In trying to save a dog, who wanders too close to the edge of the canyon that carries the torrent into the unknown, Mack slips and falls to his death.  Or so the villagers think.

In fact, he survives the fall and meets, in an underground cavern, that the raging river takes us to, The Devil, with whom he strikes up an agreeable relationship before returning to his kinsfolk three days later, bruised and bloodied, but very much alive.

What follows is Mack’s difficult reconciliation of his shot-to-pieces faith, the retelling of his unlikely story that nobody believes and the death of an old friend.

James Robertson’s tale is a stirring Scottish romp through the double-standards of the Scots’ particularly Calvinist take on Christianity, duty, sanity and illicit love.

It’s a terrific yarn with much to recommend although I think it found its level on the Booker Prize Long List; any further would have been to have exalted it a little above its station.

Nevertheless, a most agreeable read.  Reasonably strongly recommended.

 

Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of) at The Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh and on tour: Review


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Nope, I’ve never read P&P.

I’ve never seen any of the movies or the TV adaptations – the nearest I ever got to it was Bridget Jones.

I wouldn’t know my Heathcliffe from my Jimmy Cliff.

And I’ve never read any Jane Austen in my puff – in fact I don’t even know who the bloke is.

But I read the Wikipedia synopsis (a good tip before seeing any period drama IMHO) on the way to the theatre.

I needn’t have bothered, because the storytelling in this truly wonderful production is first rate. I could have gone in colder than a monkey in a Walls factory and still emerged off pat with the storyline.

The cast of many characters (and referenced participants) is significant, and yet you’ll not miss a beat in this rip-roaring triumph of comedy theatre.

The six actors, all female, play 21 different characters plus, let’s call it five, assorted house maids, a total of 26 roles, making an average of 4.33 characters per actor.

That’s a new character for every 5 minutes 45 seconds of run time.  And yet at no point do we lose track of who is who and what is what in this runaway train of a tale.

It’s bawdy, it’s musical, it’s completely hilarious.

The crowd cheered, booed, clapped and rose as one in adulation as the curtain fell at just before 10.30 pm tonight.

The reason for this?  Tori Burgess, Felixe Forde, Christina Gordon and in particular Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Isobel McArthur (the writer) and Meghan Tyler (also a writer – of Fringe First winning Crocodile Fever).

The directing, by Paul Brotherston is miraculous.

We’re treated to Londoners, Scots, Yorkshiremen and women and full-on Northern Oirish characters in a melange of Babelic proportions.

And yet, it all holds together, melds and synergistically builds into a thing so beautifully nuanced, so gut-wrenchingly funny that you wonder how it ever came about.  And still the story remains true and comes through.

Lovers of P&P will have no issue with this translation.

The all-female cast not only allows us a bit of fun with cross-dressing and assumed voices, but also a bit of cheeky girl meets girl, girl is smitten by girl innuendo.

The laugh out loud moments in this are countless.  Five in the first minute alone thanks to Hannah Jarrett-Scott’s complete ownership of her four main characters and her role as narrator in chief.

It’s brilliant.  Just brilliant.  See it.

 

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. 🙂