Friday, February 16, 2018

'The Alternatives' by Aditya Chakrabortty

16 February 2018

‘The Alternatives’ is a new series of articles and podcasts from The Guardian which looks at communities who are working out their own answers. Two weeks ago Guardian journalist Aditya Chakrabortty interviewed Preston councillor Matthew Brown about how the city has successfully adopted ‘guerrilla localism’ (see: and: And this week he spoke to Hazel Tilley, a long-time resident of the Liverpool neighbourhood of Granby, about the remarkable regeneration of the area sparked by a few individual citizens taking it upon themselves to clean up the street where they live. This led to the securing of substantial public and private investment, the development of a community land trust to take houses into collective community ownership and the involvement of architects Assemble – who went on to win the Turner Prize for their work on Granby Four Streets. (See: and It’s a fascinating story – all the more powerful for hearing it (on the podcast) through the voice of one of the local people who made it happen. And there are clearly many parallels with Voluntary Arts’ ‘Our Cultural Commons’ series of articles (see:

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Friday, February 09, 2018

'Novilunio' by Redi Hasa and Maria Mazzotta

9 February 2018

‘Novilunio’ is an intriguingly uncategorisable album by Albanian cellist Redi Hasa and southern Italian vocalist Maria Mazzotta. The ten songs suggest folk, jazz, classical, French chanson, pop and some Latin American rhythms. It’s a delightful mix – gentle, tuneful music with a melancholic air made distinctive by the ever-present ‘cello. You can get a flavour of the album at:

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Friday, February 02, 2018

'Before the Fall' by Noah Hawley

2 February 2018

I’m a big fan of ‘Fargo’ – the TV series inspired by the 1996 Coen Brothers film (reviewed here in October 2017). So I was interested to see glowing reviews for ‘Before the Fall’, the latest novel by Noah Hawley who created and writes the TV series. ‘Before the Fall’ (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book narrated by Jeff Harding) is an intriguing thriller. In August 2015 nine people board a private jet for the short flight from Martha’s Vineyard to New York. What happens next makes all of them potential suspects in a horrific crime. Hawley unspins his carefully constructed plot piece by piece, mixing the aftermath of a shocking event with the backstories of each of the protagonists in turn. Like the investigators in the story, the reader is quick to leap to a series of possible explanations before the truth gradually emerges. The characters are all very well drawn (and Jeff Harding’s narration brings each of them to life in the audio version). The fall from grace of the mega-rich and the resulting media frenzy reminded me of Tom Wolfe’s novels ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’ and ‘A Man in Full’. ‘Before the Fall’ is a gripping page turner.


Friday, January 26, 2018

The Blockheads

26 January 2018

Last Friday we were back at the MK11 venue in Kiln Farm, Milton Keynes, to see The Blockheads. Regular readers who are keeping count will know this is the sixth time we have seen the band since our first encounter in July 2007, the last time also being at MK11 (reviewed here in December 2016). But this time the usual set-list of Ian Dury-era favourites was interspersed with songs from The Blockheads’ new album, ‘Beyond the Call of Dury’. At first listen the new songs sounded instantly and unmistakably Blockheads with catchy tunes, funky beats and those clever, dry, witty lyrics – but with occasional contemporary references to mobile phones etc. The Blockheads were on fine form – blending cheekiness, silliness and fun with incredibly slick musicianship. They always put on a great show and it’s always a pleasure to see them still going strong.

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Monday, January 15, 2018

'A Passage to India' by E.M. Forster, adapted by Simon Dormandy

15 January 2018

On Saturday we were at the Royal Theatre in Northampton to see a new adaptation, by Simon Dormandy, of E.M. Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’ in a joint production by the Royal & Derngate and simple8, directed by Sebastian Armesto and Simon Dormandy. I have fond memories of a very good stage version of ‘A Passage to India’ by Shared Experience at Milton Keynes Theatre in 2002 and this new version was similarly impressive. With a minimal set, the focus was very much on the actors and this was a strong ensemble piece, with a large cast collectively becoming a carriage, a train, an elephant and the Marabar Caves. Original music by Kuljit Bhamra was performed live on the stage, with the combination of ‘cello and tabla emphasising the Anglo/Indian confrontations in the story. The cast were all very strong with particularly impressive performances by Asif Khan as Dr Aziz, Liz Crowther as Mrs Moore and Richard Goulding (who we last saw as Prince Harry in Mike Bartlett’s 'King Charles III', reviewed here in January 2015) as Fielding.

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Friday, January 12, 2018

‘Angstrom: The Man Who Wasn't Dead’ by Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley

12 January 2018

This week I stumbled across the first episode of an excellent new radio comedy series. ‘Angstrom: The Man Who Wasn't Dead’ (on BBC Radio 4 at 6.30 pm on Wednesdays) is a very silly parody of Scandi-crime TV series, written by Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley. Matthew Holness plays Knut Ångström – a brooding, alcoholic, maverick Swedish detective from the tough streets of Oslo. The absence of a body, or any evidence that anyone has been killed, doesn’t stop Angstrom treating every incident he encounters as a potential murder. It’s a loving pastiche of ‘The Killing’ (reviewed here in December 2011), ‘The Bridge’ (reviewed here in January 2014), ‘Wallander’ etc. Wonderfully childish and very funny – I’m really looking forward to Episode 2. You can listen to ‘Angstrom’ at:

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Friday, January 05, 2018

'Reservoir 13' by Jon McGregor

5 January 2018

One of my favourite episodes of ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ is ‘The Missing Page’ (written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson in 1960). Tony Hancock is reading a salacious murder mystery (‘Lady, Don't Fall Backwards’ by Darcy Sarto) but when he gets to the end the last page has been torn out, depriving him of the identity of the killer. Desperate to know whodunnit, Hancock sets out on a quest to find the missing page. The idea of a crime novel without a solution feels inherently frustrating but Jon McGregor’s wonderful new novel ‘Reservoir 13’ very effectively subverts the genre. ‘Reservoir 13’ (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Matt Bates) starts with the disappearance of a 13 year-old girl, Rebecca Shaw, who has been staying with her parents in a holiday cottage in a small Derbyshire village over the New Year. “When last seen she’d been wearing a white hooded top with a navy-blue body warmer, black jeans and canvas shoes. She was five feet tall, with straight, dark-blond, shoulder-length hair.” This description of the missing girl is one of several phrases that are repeated so often through the novel they become poetic mantras. As the villagers join forces to search the moors and the police investigation begins to probe into all aspects of village life, Jon McGregor plays with our expectations, suggesting all the familiar tropes of a crime novel. But soon it becomes clear that the disappearance of “Rebecca or Becky or Bex” is really just a hook for a beautifully drawn portrait of life in a small rural community. The seasons pass, and then the years, and we get to know many of the villagers, following the interlocking network of their personal stories in an elegant and completely believable soap opera. McGregor writes in short, simple sentences which have a poetic quality that reminded me of that other literary picture of a village and its inhabitants, Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milk Wood’. McGregor’s omniscient third-person narrative makes no judgements, merely reporting events as they happen in a flat, matter-of-fact tone which seems to make them strangely more poignant. Events are also presented with the assumption that we already know the protagonists: there is no backstory and time moves relentlessly forward throughout the novel. I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to reveal that we never find out what happened to Becky Shaw (though there are plenty of hints about a range of possible explanations). But this doesn’t make ‘Reservoir 13’ a frustrating read: it is an unusual and compelling novel and I didn’t want to finish it. It was very exciting, therefore, to discover the companion podcast series ‘The Reservoir Tapes’, being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and available to download as free podcasts. In the 15 episodes of ‘The Reservoir Tapes’ Jon McGregor has written individual perspectives (‘Charlotte’s Story’, ‘Vicky’s Story’, ‘Deepak’s Story’ etc) which cast light on events before and after Becky Shaw’s disappearance. The podcasts introduce some new characters that don’t appear in the novel and many of them relate to a period before the start of the novel. But they completely integrate with what we know from the novel, forming an elaborate jigsaw puzzle in which everything starts to become clear – apart from the one thing we really want to know: what happened to Becky Shaw? See: or search for ‘The Reservoir Tapes’ in your podcast app.

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