Friday, March 16, 2007

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee

16 March 2007

'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Harper Lee always seems to rank highly in polls of essential books to read but I had never quite got around to it. I hadn't even seen the film and only had a rather vague idea of what it was about. Having now read it I'm glad I came to it with few preconceptions so I won't say much about the plot to allow you to do the same if you're not familiar with it. It is a great book - thoughtful, moving and very cleverly plotted. As it is narrated by a nine-year-old girl the naïve switches of attention in the plot seem quite natural but wrong-foot you several times to create very satisfying resolutions. I was certainly expecting a courtroom scene well before page 179 but leaving it so late means you feel you really know the protagonists and can read so much more into their actions in court. It reminded me a lot of one of my favourite American novels of recent years, 'The Little Friend' by Donna Tartt - or rather I realised how much of a homage to 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Tartt's book is. The contrast between the condemnation of anti-semitism in Europe and the casual racism towards the local black community also reminded me of Philip Roth's 'The Plot Against America'. And the sympathetic depiction of a whole small-town community made me think of 'Cannery Row' by John Steinbeck. 'To Kill a Mockingbird' won the Pulitzer prize in 1961 and still feels like a true classic.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Andy Kershaw on 'Desert Island Discs'

13 March 2007

I am a relative newcomer to Andy Kershaw's loyal band of listeners but, like many people, I have quickly become somewhat obsessive! I don't think I have a missed a single edition of his weekly Radio 3 show since I started listening in November 2002 - and many weeks I've listened to it at least twice (it's those tracks that stick after two or three hearings that are the really interesting ones!). Favourites that I first discovered through the Kershaw programme include Monica Vasconcelos, Rokia Traore, Kamel Nitrate, Jim Moray, Jim Halstain, Athena Andreadis, Horace X, K'Naan and many others. To use the word 'eclectic' would be an understatement - when Andy was banished from Radio 1, Roger Wright famously tempted him to join Radio 3 by saying the thing he liked about Andy's show was that he never knew what to expect next - almost exactly the reason the Radio 1 Controller had given for sacking him! A few weeks ago Andy told his listeners that he had been invited to be a guest on 'Desert Island Discs' and was agonising about how he would choose just 8 records - at that stage he said he had narrowed it down to about 1000. Somehow he managed it and his appearance on 'Desert Island Discs' was broadcast on Radio 4 this week. He came over as honest, passionate, shy, emotional, incredibly enthusiastic and with an encyclopedic knowledge of world politics and music. His idiosyncratic brand of journalism is always fascinating and compelling - particularly when he is reporting from one of the more troubed parts of the world. I was very chuffed having correctly guessed 4 of his 8 choices - you can see the full list at But I was also intrigued to realise that I'm not particularly keen on many of his personal musical favourites. In fact we have very little in common - I don't share any of his passions for motorcycles, fishing or boxing. Yet I could not contemplate missing the Andy Kershaw show because what we do share is an insatiable appetite for music that is new and different. One listener suggested he might alleviate the pain of selecting just 8 records by devoting this week's edition of his regular Radio 3 show (now on Monday nights at 11.15 pm - see to all those tracks that didn't quite make it. You can hear the results at:


Monday, March 12, 2007

Milton Keynes Sinfonia concert

12 March 2007

I played in a very enjoyable concert with Milton Keynes Sinfonia last weekend at the Church of Christ the Cornerstone in Milton Keynes. Regular conductor, David Knight, directed pieces by Rossini and Dvorak, before picking up his 'cello to perform as one of the soloists in the Brahms 'Double Concerto' with violinist Jan Kaznowski. David's place on the podium was taken, for the second half of the concert, by Ian Smith. The Double Concerto is a lovely piece - one that I know well but had never performed before. And there is always a special magic in a performance where the orchestra has a real affection for the soloist. But I particularly enjoyed the experience of being conducted by two different people in the same concert. Every conductor brings different qualities and insights and, however good the regular conductor is, I think it is good for an orchestra to be occasionally challenged by someone less familiar. The players seem to sit up a bit straighter and pay more attention than usual. Perhaps more groups should bring in a 'guest conductor' from time to time.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Sarah Kendal

9 March 2007

Comedy’s a funny thing – haha! No, but seriously, forget the Comedy Store or the Edinburgh Fringe, the real test of a stand-up comedian’s skill is playing a small-town arts centre on a weekday evening. Many years ago we saw a young female comedian at the arts centre in Grantham. She had been getting good reviews and had just got her first TV show but she was no match for Grantham! She started by pointing at a man in the front row and saying how fantastic it was to see someone wearing a tie at one of her gigs and she thought he looked like her Dad. Only then did she look around the room to see it was full of men wearing ties who could have been her father! Further demonstrating how little she knew her audience she started to tell a joke set in a nightclub and asked us to name the best nightclub in Grantham. After several minutes of discussion the audience concluded it didn’t know of any nightclubs in Grantham and, somewhat reluctantly, the comedian agreed, as a compromise, to set her joke in a nightclub in nearby Nottingham. On another occasion, while on holiday in Suffolk, we were surprised to see the enormous old seaside theatre in Lowestoft advertising an evening with Jeremy Hardy. This theatre, which had Ken Dodd the previous week and Jimmy Tarbuck the following week – seemed an odd setting for a left-wing political alternative comedian. We booked our tickets and, on the night, found ourselves lost in a sea of empty seats with only about a dozen other people but Jeremy Hardy dealt with a potentially embarrassing situation extremely impressively. Quickly abandoning his prepared material he probably worked harder than ever that night and completely won his tiny audience over – one of the most impressive comedy performances I’ve seen. Last night we were at the Library Theatre in Luton to see the Australian comedian Sarah Kendal and she was great. I’ve realised over the years that to really enjoy a comedian’s performance I need to feel I like the person. Some picking on the audience is fine but it has to be done gently and in good spirit and to be balanced with a good dose of self-deprecation. Sarah Kendal had the balance about right – she has a good line in carefully constructed observational stories and is a good improviser and ad-libber. But above all she charmed Luton by getting to know her audience and treating them with respect. Watch out for her.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

'Bottoms of Barrels' by Tilly and the Wall

8 March 2007

My discovery of the week is Tilly and the Wall – a lively, young, five-piece pop band from Omaha, Nebraska. They write light, cheerful, catchy songs but what grabs your attention is the fact that instead of a conventional drummer their rhythms are provided by a tap dancer. The amplified tap shoes of Jamie Williams give their songs a unique flavour. Sometimes this sounds a bit like flamenco – it’s a compelling, pulsating sound. Coupled with unusual syncopations, sing-along vocal harmonies, uncompromising lyrics and an upbeat, sunny disposition, it’s a winning formula. Only a couple of days after trying the second Tilly and the Wall album, ‘Bottoms of Barrels’, I was so hooked I had to get a copy of their first album, ‘Wild Like Children’. I was fascinated by what it would be like to see them perform live with the tap dancer centre stage. There are numerous clips of them on YouTube – try: But the highest praise I can give is to say that their songs make me feel happy and make me want to get up and dance: I want to be that tap dancer!

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

5 March 2007

On Saturday I played in the first Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert of the year. This was an 'Opera Evening' at Spinney Hill Theatre in Northampton with a mixed programme including instrumental music from operas by Wagner, Verdi, Bizet and Tchaikovsky, three arias sung by the bass, Ian Spencer, and two pieces for ladies' chorus. I'm not a big fan of opera, nor of concert programmes made up of many short pieces, but I found it a very enjoyable evening. As always, it was good to get to know music I might not have otherwise chosen to discover and I particularly enjoyed the aria 'Ella giammai mamo' from Verdi's 'Don Carlos'. It was also good to play some Wagner - the overture 'Rienzi' and the 'Entry of the Gods into Valhalla' from 'Das Rheingold' - particularly rewarding for a brass player, if somewhat exhausting!

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