Tuesday, August 26, 2008

'The Rain Before It falls' by Jonathan Coe

26 August 2008

Jonathan Coe is one of my favourite contemporary authors: I loved his novels 'What a Carve Up!', 'The House of Sleep', 'The Rotters' Club' and its sequel 'The Closed Circle'. Coe's latest novel, 'The Rain Before It Falls' is quite a different kind of book. It feels more conventional and straightforward though it does use an interesting narrative device: most of the story is told as the main character reflects on her life by describing a series of twenty photographs. This creates an episodic telling of a dramatic family saga focusing mainly on mothers and daughters. It's a sad tale without any of the set-piece comedy or the political links to current events of Coe's earlier books. The story kept my attention and was very moving but I was hoping for something more. After finishing the novel I began to wonder whether I was missing a subtle twist. Were we not supposed to trust the narrator through whose eyes we have been looking? Was there something she wasn't telling us? Or was this simply what it seemed - a well-written, gripping, melancholy tale?


Edinburgh Festivals 2008

26 August 2008

Despite the endless rain and the notorious box office software failures, we had a really good week in Edinburgh. We packed in 25 shows in 6 days and saw some wonderful things (and only one turkey!). Particular highlights included: Prokofiev's second violin concerto played by Leonidas Kavakos with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Usher Hall - stunning; 'Are There More of You' - a one-woman play written and performed by Alison Skilbeck (who a very long time ago was Polly Perks in The Archers!) at the Quaker Meeting House; and I am very grateful to Kelly Donaldson for pointing us towards 'Pericles Redux' - an amazing production of Shakespeare's play by physical theatre ensemble Not Man Apart at The Pleasance - enthralling, beautiful, hysterically funny and moving to the point of tears - totally brilliant! We also enjoyed the one-woman shows 'One Day I'll Go To Compostela' and 'Another Kind of Silence' (about the environmentalist Rachel Carson) - both at Hill Street Theatre - and 'ABFCAP: the life and rhymes of Ian Dury' at The Zoo. We always try to take in a concert at the Festival of British Youth Orchestras at Central Hall, Tollcross, and saw a great performance there by the RSAMD Junior Academy Orchestra. We were lucky enough to get tickets to see Denis Healey - a week before his 91st birthday - speaking in the chamber of the Scottish Parliament about his life in politics as part of the Festival of Politics. Lord Healey is still a very entertaining raconteur and had some interesting reflections on current political issues. It was fascinating to be sitting in an audience with many well-known faces including Tam Dalyell, Clive James and Brian McMaster (who we saw at several shows during the week - I think he is following me!). And no visit to the Fringe is complete for us without starting the day at the Spiegel Tent in George Square Gardens to see the live broadcast of BBC Radio Scotland's 'MacAulay & Co' - a great way to see the best bits of this year's comedy shows, without the swearing.

Labels: , , , , ,

Friday, August 15, 2008

'Bleak Expectations' by Mark Evans

15 August 2008

I was delighted to see the return of 'Bleak Expectations' - Radio 4's wonderful Dickens spoof by Mark Evans which started a second series last week (listen again at www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/bleakexpectations). Mixing its metaphors and Dickensian clichés in an enormous Victorian cauldron of gruel, Bleak Expectations creates a hilarious surreal world that could only exist on radio. Our hero Pip Bin is now a wealthy man - having made his fortune inventing the waste paper bin - but is still being pursued by the dastardly evil, and erroneously named, Mr Gently Benevolent - with only his one remaining sister, Pippa, and his best friend, the eternally optimistic Harry Biscuit, to help him. This week Pip and Harry find themselves building an entire railway network in their bid to catch Benevolent. Harrumble!

Labels: ,

Thursday, August 07, 2008

'Low Culture' by Jim Moray

7 August 2008

Jim Moray is one of the young stars of the current English folk music revival. I enjoyed his 2003 debut album, ‘Sweet England’: armed with his fine folk voice and a laptop computer he reinterpreted some of the best known traditional songs in a very modern way. What seemed like the natural reaction of someone from a generation that grew up with rock and pop provoked some controversy amongst folk ‘purists’. In his new album, ‘Low Culture’, Jim Moray takes this approach further, including electronic beats, rock drums and a rapper. But coming after some of the pillars of the folk establishment entered similar territory in The Imagined Village (reviewed here in August 2007) the shock value has diminished and Moray can be appreciated for his honest attempt to make traditional music relevant today. ‘Low Culture’ is a more varied and interesting album. It features an eclectic mix of styles and instrumentation – including strings and brass that make some tracks sound remarkably like Bellowhead (reviewed here in October 2006). Moray includes the song ‘Three Black Feathers’ by Bella Hardy (reviewed here in March 2008) – fast becoming a modern folk classic. And having made traditional folk songs sound like rock music, he stunningly reverses the trick with a re-interpretation of XTC’s ‘All You Pretty Girls’ which transforms Andy Partridge’s pop classic into a centuries-old sea shanty – joyous, rhythmic and incredibly catchy, I can’t get it out of my head.

Labels: ,

Friday, August 01, 2008

World Music Celebration Prom

1 August 2008

On Wednesday I was back at the Royal Albert Hall in London for the World Music Celebration Prom – a concert by five of the winners of this year’s BBC Radio 3 Awards for World Music. It was a very hot evening but one which built in musical intensity as the temperature cooled. We heard slick Latin-flavoured African pop from Mayra Andrade from Cape Verde and dramatic flamenco from Spain’s Son de la Frontera (including the most amazing display of flamenco dancing from Pepe Torres). China’s rising star Sa Dingding gave a visually spectacular performance – though I would rather have heard more of the traditional Chinese instruments and less drums and synthesisers. The ‘culture crossing’ award winners, British rock guitarist Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara from Gambia who plays the riti (a one-string fiddle) showed that ‘fusion’ need not be a bland dumbing down. Their music is a genuine partnership – uncompromising, infectious and rhythmic – dominated by the other-worldly sound of the riti. I recommend their album ‘Soul Science’. But the night belonged to Bassekou Kouyate and his band Ngoni Ba (reviewed here in December 2007). Winners of both the Africa and ‘album of the year’ awards, they provided a wonderful finale – virtuoso playing, joyous dancing, a fantastic sound – they brought the house down. (The Independent called them “the best rock'n'roll band in the world”) You can watch the World Music Celebration Prom on BBC4 on Monday 4 August and Monday 11 August or catch it on iPlayer.

Labels: , ,

'Something Rotten' by Jasper Fforde

1 August 2008

Having really enjoyed Jasper Fforde’s ‘Nursery Crime’ novels featuring Inspector Jack Spratt – ‘The Big Over Easy’ (reviewed here in April 2007) and ‘The Fourth Bear’ (reviewed here in October 2007) – I turned to Fforde’s other series of novels. These feature the literary detective Thursday Next and I’ve been reading the latest, ‘Something Rotten’. Whereas the Jack Spratt books create a surreal parallel world – familiar yet inhabited by characters from nursery rhymes, Greek gods and aliens – ‘Something Rotten’ takes things considerably further. This felt more like Terry Pratchett than Douglas Adams (which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your point of view). I was amused, confused and exhausted by the combination of characters from fiction, characters in fiction, time travellers, Neanderthals, clones, genetic experiments, dodos and much more. It probably didn’t help that I had started with the fourth book in the Thursday Next series but it did feel like Fforde was throwing in everything including the kitchen sink. Having decided not to bother trying to make sense of it all and just going with the flow, I began to enjoy the journey – and it is very funny. And as we headed towards the dramatic conclusion it gradually all began to make some sense. Despite the silliness, Jasper Fforde is a master plotter and it is very satisfying when numerous early episodes and references return towards the end of the book and fall into place. Whereas Jack Spratt lives in a version of Reading, Thursday Next is based in a kind of Swindon. It was the weirdest experience, last weekend, to be reading the chapter about Leigh Delamare services on the M4 being a hidden gateway to the underworld while sitting in Leigh Delamere services! Don’t worry, I didn’t cross to the ‘northside’ …