Category Archives: Reviews

Review : Wounds – a memoir of war and love

The Irish Republic has rarely featured as prominently in the mainstream British media as it has in recent months. Plans for a soft Brexit seem set to founder on the challenges posed by the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland; and the historic referendum on changes to the law relating to abortion was the dominant news story of the late-May Bank Holiday.

Today, the Democratic Unionist Party’s annual conference will be addressed by Boris Johnson, having spent last evening listening to Philip Hammond on why the current Withdrawal Agreement is the best that can be achieved by negotiation.

It was in this context that I came to read Fergal Keane’s Wounds : a memoir of war and love. Having long admired Keane’s forensic approach to broadcast journalism, most notably in his coverage of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 as the BBC’s Southern Africa correspondent, I was intrigued to see how he would tackle a subject that was – literally – much closer to home.

American sociologist Charles Wright Mills wrote that “neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both”2. Keane reflects this philosophy perfectly in Wounds, his account of events leading to the Irish Uprising in 1916, the battle for independence and the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921, and the subsequent civil war and political settlement underpinning the Republic of Ireland as it is today. Keane employs his journalistic skills to excellent effect. Meticulous research and reference to contemporary source materials lends an academic rigour to the writing. But the text is brought to life as Keane draws on his own family history in north Kerry to see the events through the eyes of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events.

I came to the book from a position of woeful ignorance about the history of the island of Ireland, and the series of events leading to the Uprising and eventual secession of the Republic from the UK. This book makes clear that what little I thought I knew was hopelessly simplistic and anodyne.

The caricature of English oppressors lording it over an impoverished native population is comprehensively demolished by Keane. He paints a picture of the north Kerry of his grandmother that is so much more complex and nuanced. Certainly, there are ‘old English’ families receiving an income from Irish tenant farmers on estates that were given to English ancestor-invaders several hundred years before. But these landlords are not all hostile to the interests of their tenants, nor are they uniformly against the principle of a greater say for the people of Ireland in their day-to-day governance. Similarly, some of those who fought most doggedly to preserve British rule were themselves born and raised in Ireland. As Keane writes in his prologue : “This is the story of my grandmother who was a rebel, and her brother and how they took up guns to fight the British Empire. And it is the story of another Irishman… who fought against them because he believed it was his duty to uphold the law of his country.” Towards the end of the book, he concludes that : “There was no absolute telling how the mood of the times and the circumstances of family, the generational shifts and, possibly, resentments could change the way in which young men and women saw the world.”

A recurrent theme throughout the book is the genuine conflict that existed across communities, between families, within individual combatants, throughout the skirmishes and battles that characterised the guerrilla campaigns of first the war of independence and then the civil war in the south of Ireland. Keane links the fight for freedom from UK rule in the period after 1916, directly to the Troubles that claimed so many lives in the lead up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement on 10th April 1998 : “The Provisional [IRA]’s claims of legitimate violence were rooted in the violence of [those] who had no electoral mandate for revolution when they struck in 1916 against a government they declared to be illegitimate.” In this context, the peace process that reached a conclusion in 1998 brought to an end a conflict that had begun 80 years earlier. And this is why questions over the border between north and south as part of the political soap-opera that is the Brexit process have such deep meaning in Northern Ireland and the Republic. In contemplating the possible return of a hard border between the UK and theRepublic, Keane observes : “Nobody thought the war would start again. But so much of our island history is about how unforeseen consequences play out over the long run that I cannot say violence will never return.”

Wounds is a thoughtful, accessible and above all intensely compassionate account of a period of history that has profoundly influenced the last 100 years of politics in the UK. I highly recommend it as a primer for anybody seeking a deeper understanding of the modern history of the island of Ireland, and a better appreciation of why any potential dilution of the Good Friday Agreement is the cause of such alarm.

(Mills, C. W.: 1959, The sociological imagination, Oxford University Press, London)

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Rest, recuperation and daytime TV

It’s been a restful day of recuperation today. A little bit of work, a little bit of sleep, and rather too much daytime television. The scheduling of television during a typical weekday is fascinating, apparently working on the assumption that viewers fall into one of two main camps : those needing to be warned of the perils of insurance or benefits fraud (as victims or perpetrators is left ambiguous); and those seeking to make money from buying cheap (houses, antiques, or salvaged items from the municipal dump) and selling on at a profit. I don’t know whether it’s the fact that I spend too much time in spaces occupied by students, but I must admit to having something of a soft spot for Homes Under the Hammer.

Each programme is like the unfolding of a creative writing exercise where each participant is given the same opening line and is then free to take the story in their own direction. “You are at an auction and you’ve just made the winning bid on a run-down property in a commuter belt just south of [insert major city] – what happens next?” Today’s instalments included a family who bought a three bedroom house for £90,000 that they spent £40,000 renovating to an incredibly high standard, and which was valued at the end of the works at £165,000. The twist in the tail was the question posed by the presenter to the husband and wife : “So are tempted to sell and move on?” The awkward pause hinted at some serious tension between the two on this very question – she was keen; he most definitely was not. His initial statement that they were going to sit tight for now, being countered by her assertion that they wanted to buy some land and design their own new home from scratch in the next two to three years. He smiled but not in his eyes!

The next property was a terraced house somewhere near Nottingham (I think – I must admit, terraced houses on Homes Under the Hammer all end us looking pretty much identical). This was bought by Tony, the owner of a local restaurant, who was purchasing his tenth property. Tony admitted to having paid slightly over the odds for the house, which was in a pretty poor state even by HUtH standards. Tony was clear what his aims were : get it tidied up for as little as possible and onto the rental market. “Clean, bright and neutral” was his brief to his builder. Tony’s role was strictly financial – not for him sleeping on a mattress in the back room while stripping paper and replacing electrics. Two months to do the work and then start getting the rent in. Damp? Not a problem – it’s just a small leak from the bathroom. £10k all in and the job’s a good ‘un. Well – not quite. That damp was coming up not down, and required a new damp proof course to be installed – something that wasn’t finally decided until the place had been completely redecorated. Budget blown – £22k in total spent and even then the finished produce was described as clean but basic. Rental income of £375 a month was right on the money for Tony though. He was delighted and was off to buy his next property.

Finally, a two bedroom maisonette in Balham, South London that was on at a guide price of £130,000. It was this cheap because, and I mean this literally, the place was being held up by gaffer tape. In fact, gaffer tape was all that was stopping the glass from the bedroom window from falling onto the pavement below! The guy who bought this one also paid a little over the odds for it, but he was a seasoned buyer and seller on, and he knew his market. The transformation was spectacular and the £180,000 purchase price was supplemented by a further £50,000 investment in top-quality internal finished, new windows, new doors and landscaping to the garden. The work was all done in 6 months and the property was valued at £300,000 by two agents at the end of the programme.

Three properties, three outcomes, three satisfied buyers (slightly disappointingly – there’s something strangely satisfying about seeing the ones that go pear-shaped occasionally!) and three new homes salvaged from the stock of abandoned or decrepit housing that is so common across the country.

I guess it’s a triumph for the free market that operates in the property sector, and it’s good that homes like this can be brought back into practical use; but it still seems odd to me that with money to be made like this, there isn’t a more structured, government-led approach to the whole thing. With so many people desperate for housing, it would seem to be a no-brainer.

Book Review : Mythos by Stephen Fry

I’ve been reading a lot recently. This is mainly because being back on the Cardiff to Bristol daily commute invariably means being in bed by 10pm, with reading as a means of relaxation before sleep. I’m not sure what ‘normal’ is in terms of reading habits, but I usually have two or three books on the go at any point in time. I find that this stops me from getting bored, but it does mean that my bedside table is rarely kept as neatly ordered as it is apparently meant to be. Up until Thursday of this week, my reading material comprised the memoirs of a former Dean of Harvard University, David Willett’s seminal work on the history of the university in the UK, and Stephen Fry’s typically irreverent take on Greek mythology. I’ll be honest, I started Fry’s book quite a long time after the other two, and I have finished it in very short order. However, I’ve read it quickly not just because it’s a lot more fun than the other two, but mainly because it’s just so good.

I’m slightly ashamed to admit that Greek mythology has been something of a closed book to me for my entire 52 and a half years on the planet. While this has mostly been a nuisance rather than socially or professionally disabling (I reckon it costs me about two questions a week on University Challenge, and leaves me a little exposed to the jibes of colleagues with a solid grounding in the Classics), there is no doubt that my lack of familiarity with the stories and characters has limited my appreciation of a lot of other writing over the years.

Mythos deliberately sets out to avoid any detailed analysis of or commentary on the Greek myths and to let the stories speak for themselves. Fry’s gentle humour and reflections on some of the characters and events is largely restricted to the footnotes, many of which are laugh-out-loud funny and fascinatingly informative in equal measure. Fry draws on a number of Classical source texts in compiling his anthology of stories, and makes a very good fist of creating a narrative thread that leads through the various orders of the gods and describes the gradual elevation of humankind from the dumb playthings of their creators, to our current status as first among equals of all mortal beings.

If like me, you haven’t previously spent time reading Apollodorus of Athens, Hesiod, Sophocles and Euripedes, (and maybe even if you have) then I highly recommend Mythos as a primer leading to a greater understanding of the stories of gods and nymphs, of the world below the earth’s crust and the events that played out on the highest mountain tops, and the enduring impact of the Greek myths on so much of our language and imagery today. You won’t regret it.

To finish today’s post, a relevant joke : an ancient Greek walks into a tailor’s shop carrying a pair of torn trousers. The old tailor walks out from the back of the shop and says : “Euripides?”. “Yes”, replies the customer. “Eumenides?”

I’m here all month!

My top three Christmas Films

love actuallyThe internet has been getting its knickers in a twist over what constitutes a “Christmas Film“. Does a film need something more than simply being set over the Christmas period to be a Christmas film? The particular focus of the controversy in the article is Die Hard. Set on Christmas Eve it is a classic, all-action, shoot-em-up with a shoeless, bare-chested Bruce Willis single-handedly outwitting the evil gang led by Alan Rickman and saving the hapless hostages, including his wife. Declaration of interest : I love Die Hard and I have no doubt whatsoever that it qualifies as a Christmas film. However, it doesn’t make it into my top three favourites.

For me, number 1 must be Love Actually, the Richard Curtis rom-com that includes practically every half-famous British actor of the past 25 years (including the much-missed Rickman). Tracking the intertwined lives and loves of a group of London residents in the month leading up to the festive season, it always makes me laugh and cry. And its got Keira Knightley in it, so, you know.

wonderful

Just behind Love Actually, my second favourite Christmas film is It’s a Wonderful Life. This classic, starring James Stewart and produced and directed by Frank Capra, is everything that a Christmas film should be. It recounts the tale of a trainee angel sent to earth on a mission to show a local building society owner facing ruin as a result of the accidental loss of depositors’ money, that his worth is greater than any bank balance. It’s the ultimate feel-good movie and generates all the same feelings of warmth and faith in human nature that must surely be essential prerequisites for a Christmas film.

muppetsxmas

Finally, my number 3 on the list. It can only be The Muppets Christmas Carol, with Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge, the wizened money-lender who completely reviews his priorities following visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmases yet to come, one fateful Christmas Eve. And all told through the uniquely, Muppet-focused eyes of Gonzo, assisted by Rizzo the Rat. When a cold wind blows, it chills you, chills you to the bone, but there’s nothing in nature that makes you feel better than a Muppet re-telling of a Christmas classic.

So – there’s my top three. Do you agree? What films would you have on your list? I look forward to hearing from you!die hard

God save the Queen, but not as we know it!

Manchester University Wind Orchestra’s (MUWO) latest concert was held on Saturday 25th November 2017 in the wonderful Cosmo Rodewald hall in the university’s Music School. MUWO is one of a number of ensembles managed under the banner of the University’s Music Society. Musicians, conductors, orchestra managers and front of house staff are all drawn from the student body and learn a whole set of transferable skills from their involvement. Players gain performance experience under a range of different conductors and conducting styles; conductors have the chance to hone their skills with ensembles that may be new to the music being performed; and ensemble managers and front of house staff pick up all sorts of organization and management skills that are highly transferable into almost any workplace post-graduation.

The concert on Saturday featured three American composers, and one Englishman whose inspiration came from the east coast of the US, whose works spanned the whole of the 20th century. The opening piece “Watchman, Tell us of the Night” by Mark Camphouse is a tribute to the survivors of child abuse, and fluctuates between the frailty and discordance of the survivors stories, and the soaring, harmonious themes of hope and future possibilities.

Nigel Hess took the geography and people of the US east coast as the inspiration for his East Coast Pictures. On Saturday, MUWO performed the Pictures beautifully, effortlessly capturing the coastal solitude of Shelter Island, the grandeur of the soaring Catskills Mountains, and the vibrant energy of Manhattan.

Charles Ives “Variations on America” was a tour de force. Written in 1891 and based on the then popular American tune “My country, tis of thee”, it is more popularly known in the UK as the melody for the UK national anthem, “God Save the Queen”. There was something almost prophetic in the way that the melody was set to some deep south, New Orleans-style orchestration that conjured an image of a jazz funeral procession. Somehow, the image of the UK’s funeral being played out in a US jazz style seemed entirely appropriate in these days of Brexit and Trump! Have a listen to a version of the piece here and see what you think.

Eric Whitacre’s piece Cloudburst was originally written for voices, but was later transposed for performance by wind orchestra. It charts the development and climax of a mid-western storm, including audience participation involving random finger clicking in the final movement to replicate the sound of the falling rain.

The concert finished (as all wind orchestra concerts focusing on American and America-themed music must) with a piece by Bernstein. This series of excerpts from On the Town gave each section of the orchestra the chance to show their virtuosity, and they didn’t disappoint. The little girl sat just in front of us, who danced all the way through, was the litmus test to how enjoyable this piece (and indeed the whole concert) was.

Well done to everybody involved. I can only hope that you enjoyed being part of it as much as I enjoyed listening.

 

 

Stop the world…

… I want to get off! There’s a definite sense of this being the Monday after the weekend before. In a moment of madness, I took the day off on Friday and had almost three clear days of no work (barring a couple of phone calls early on Sunday morning). It was really nice to spend some time just pleasing myself. On Saturday evening, I sat down with C. and J. and we watched the film “Hampstead”. It’s a lovely, gentle film in the mould of Notting Hill or Four Weddings and a Funeral, that captures the idiosyncrasies of suburban English life through the eyes of an American widow and an Irish recluse who share an interest in a small patch of Hampstead Heath in North London. Brendan Gleeson plays the Irishman who has effectively dropped out of mainstream society to live a largely self-sufficient life on the edge of the Heath in the grounds of a former hospital. It’s a simple, self-contained way of life that depends on no-one and makes no demands of anyone. When his way of life is threatened by developers looking to convert the site into luxury apartments, Diane Keaton’s character (the US widow) takes him on as a cause celebre. One is left with the sense that her interest is at least in part an attempt to escape from the reality of her own financial crisis that threatens her continued ownership of the large apartment across the road from the Heath. Inevitably, things work out for the best for all concerned in the end, although there are a number of twists and turns along the way. I won’t spoil the plot for anyone who might want to watch the film for themselves, but it’s a definite feel-good ending!

After the day I’ve had today back in the office, a simple life on the edge of a Heath, growing my own vegetables and pleasing myself, looks like a very good career option!

Retour a Bordeaux

I first visited Bordeaux last summer to watch Wales playing football at the Euro 2016 tournament. You can read my blogs from that trip here and here. It’s fair to say that Dan and I had a fantastic time in this south west corner of France; but to be honest, I didn’t really get much of a chance to look around the city itself. When C. and I were thinking about places to go to help celebrate a significant birthday for C. therefore, a return to Bordeaux in September 2017 seemed an ideal choice (and not only because the flights from Bristol were astonishingly cheap!).

Having stayed in what was effectively a glorified youth hostel for the football trip, our first task was to find a hotel that was more typically French and accessible to the city centre. This is where we really fell on our feet. The Hotel Au Coeur de Bordeaux is so quintessentially French that its only a bike, beret and onions away from being a pastiche. From the moment you enter the downstairs reception/dining space, to the point where you ascend the spiral stone stairs to a room dominated by ceiling to floor French doors and a Juliet balcony, there is no doubt about the country that you are staying in.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe staff at the Hotel were excellent hosts, happy to help out with restaurant recommendations and hints and tips on places to visit and things to look out for. The breakfast that was included in the room rate was excellent – a choice of cereals, yoghurt and fresh fruit, cold meats and cheese, and (of course) croissant, pain au chocolat and baguette – all washed down with coffee or hot chocolate.

Bordeaux itself is at the heart of the great claret vineyards. Incidentally, ‘claret’ derives from a period in the 17th Century when wines exported from the region were much lighter (clearer) than those from other regions. Marking this heritage, La Cite du Vin is a modern, fully interactive and (frankly) enormous celebration of all things wine and wine-related, drawing inspiration from all four corners of the globe, and across the past 3,000 years of history. The building itself is unashamedly modern in appearance, and whilst the entrance area and ticket hall are perhaps a little austere, don’t let that put you off. This is a place that is well worth a visit, and devoting some proper time to. Included in the admission price is a complimentary glass of wine from a wide selection, served in the top floor viewing gallery of the building. Sommeliers will guide you through the choices on offer, helping you to select the perfect choice for you, before you wander around the building taking in the panoramic views of the city.

Bordeaux owes its city status to its strategically important location on the river Garonne, with excellent access to the sea. Historically, ties between the region and England and Scotland in particular have been strong, and even at times of ‘official’ war between France and England, claret was still available via the merchants in London and English provincial cities. This trade generated significant wealth for Aquitaine families, which was invested in impressive buildings around the city.

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Palais Rohan, reflected in the water mirror on the quayside opposite

One of the paradoxes of Bordeaux as a city (similar to both Cardiff and Bristol in many ways) is that it is small enough to easily walk around, but big enough to offer all manner of museums, galleries, shops, bars, theatres and places of interest. The problem with walking everywhere, though, is that you inevitably end up finding delightful places to stop for coffee or (after 11.30am of course) a glass of wine! Thus it was, that on several occasions we set off with the clear intent of visiting such and such a church or museum, and then ended up whiling away a very pleasant hour in a pavement café watching the world go by.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne place we did make it to, however, was the roof-top spa at the Grand Hotel de Bordeaux. This was undoubtedly the most luxurious and relaxing part of the whole trip. There is nothing quite so satisfying as sitting in a hot tub on the roof of a 5* hotel overlooking the main square of a busy city on a working day. Especially as the sun was shining and the sky was a near cloudless, azure blue. It was very nearly heaven.

I could write many more words about the excellent food and wines that we enjoyed from an ecelectic mix of traditional and modern restaurants around the city; the wonderful range of shops (from outlets of Paris boutiques to local independents), and the beautiful gardens and squares that bring space, colour and nature right into the heart of the city. However, what I will say is simply this : if you get the chance to visit this wonderful place, don’t think twice. You won’t regret it.