27 February 2010


This famous painting, "The Scream", was created by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch in 1893. Actually it is one of a series of very similar pictures that Munch made - all called "The Scream". It has come to act as a metaphor for modern living in which a stressed out individual screams out at the world around him - a world which threatens both to ignore and to crush him.

Back in 2004, when I paid the princely sum of £34 for a Ryanair return flight to Oslo, not only did I want to see Ibsen's hometown, I also wanted to walk by the still waters of the Oslo Fiord, see Viglen's famous sculpture park, Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki Museum, the Viking Ships Museum and the Munch Art Museum. That summer the most famous version of "The Scream" was stolen so that when I got to the art museum on Oslo's quiet inner ring road, there was just a space where the original should have been. Fortunately it was retrieved in 2006

From what sort of inventive mind did this disturbing picture surface? Munch came from a creative middle class family. His father was obsessive about religion to such an extent that the painter once said that he had inherited "the seeds of madness" from his father. One summer night, it seems that Munch took a walk along a wooden promenade on the Oslo Fjord. Trying to explain the inspiration he felt that evening, he said:-

I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.

At the Munch Museum I bought a poster-print advertising an exhibition of Munch's work in 1997. The central image is naturally of "The Scream". I had that print framed and it now adorns a wall in our living room. I like the way the paint strokes flow. I like the slightly alien appearance of the central character and I notice very clearly his lonely anxiety - as if the world has become too much for him - so much so that those fluent brush strokes seem to represent his inner turmoil. It is, in my view, a painting that was ahead of its time - drawn from the dark obscurity of Norwegian winters and from the sort of social repression that Ibsen explored with language.
Edvard Munch at 29

24 February 2010


Lucy Cohu and Antony Sher in "An Enemy of the People"
Sheffield has two great theatres. There's the Victorian splendour of The Lyceum with its traditional proscenium arch and balconies and there's the concrete nineteen sixties' Crucible with its big thrust stage. That building also accommodates a more intimate studio theatre. The Crucible, famous for the World Snooker Finals which are held there every spring, has been closed in recent months for refurbishment. The first major production after the makeover has been Henrik Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People", reworded by Christopher Hampton.

I took a semester long course on Ibsen at university and when I visited Norway six years ago, I made sure that I included his hometown of Skien in my itinerary. The country house he bought during a time of bankruptcy is situated a couple of miles north of the town. It overlooks a shallow green and peaceful valley with apple trees in its garden. The citizens of Skien thought enough of their most famous son to erect a statue in his memory and the house is now a seasonal museum.
Skien in Norway with Ibsen's statue in the centre.
Written in 1882, "An Enemy of The People" focuses upon Dr Tomas Stockmann. In The Crucible production his part was played quite brilliantly by Sir Antony Sher. Stockmann is a man against the world but motivated by selfless intentions. He has discovered that the town's water supplies have been polluted by local industries and is especially concerned about the new spa baths that are expected to bring in hundreds of tourists and boost the town's ailing economy. But because of greedy self-interests, nobody in authority will listen and he is ostracised by his community. At the very end of the play, in painful isolation he says "...the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone."

It's not only the environmental reference that gives this play its modern relevance. There's also the issue of how thinking individuals operate within established social structures. Rocking the boat, even for eminently justifiable reasons, is frequently viewed with outright hostility. Stockmann speaks out against the "majority" and claims that fools are perpetually in control. These fools break his windows with small stones which he gathers in a heap.

I hadn't been to see any live theatre in quite a while and I must say that I did enjoy this production. With Antony Sher at the helm, it was as if the rest of the cast upped their game. However, I thought Lucy Cohu as Mrs Stockmann was too young for the role - she looked little older than her daughter Pietra and should have been a more careworn, matriarchal presence upon the stage.

Regarding the theatre's makeover, it seemed essentially the same as before - just spruced up. I was puzzled as to why it has been pretty much closed for a year and how even after that year and an expenditure of £15m the finishing touches "to do" list still has a way to go.

22 February 2010


Jimmy Saville - legendary British DJ - promoting seatbelt sense.

Up until 1983, wearing seatbelts in cars had simply been advisable in the UK but in that year it became mandatory. I passed my driving test without the protection of a seatbelt and began driving cars regularly in the late seventies. My first car didn't even have seatbelts and the next couple of cars were temperamental starters so I was often lifting the bonnet (hood) first thing on wet or wintry mornings - I needed to be in and out of those blasted cars and a seatbelt would have been a painful hindrance so I never bothered.

I watched the famous Jimmy Saville ads of the early eighties - "Clunk! Click! Every trip!" but when 1983 came I was an entrenched non-wearer. Subconsciously, I think I always set off still expecting my car to stall and to have to get out and fiddle under the bonnet. Obviously and logically, the wearing of seatbelts is eminently sensible. So many lives have been saved since the law became more insistent about them. However, non-wearing had become part of my psyche and most days I would set off having failed to clunk and click. First Shirley and then our kids would remind me to get my seatbelt on and I tried, really tried but I just couldn't establish the habit.

Then one bright August morning in 1999, when I was travelling into school to undertake yet more hours of unpaid and unrecognised holiday work, the law finally caught up with me. A police motorcyclist spotted me in the Crookesmoor suburb of Sheffield and chased after me. He himself was of course not wearing a seatbelt. I believe I was given a fixed penalty fine of £30. You would have thought that this would have taught me a lesson and for a while I really did try harder to remember my seatbelt but it was not until we bought our Vauxhall Astra in 2006 that my seatbelt donning became quite habitual. And this is simply because the car whines at me and flashes a red signal on the dashboard whenever I forget. I am like one of Pavlov's dogs.

On Saturday, Shirley and I were thundering up the East Coast railway line to Doncaster at speeds well over 120mph. Neither of us were wearing seatbelts and nor were any of our fellow passengers. Recently, I jumped in a taxi at Hunter's Bar roundabout. The driver wasn't wearing a seatbelt and I didn't have to wear one in the rear of the cab - a strange legal exemption. Police, fire brigade and ambulance personnel don't have to wear them nor do delivery drivers. Riding on buses to and from the city centre you don't have to wear seatbelts - there aren't even any fitted. Cyclists and motorcyclists don't wear seatbelts. Car drivers are legally obliged to stop themselves from flying through windscreens like action heroes but it is okay for motorcyclists to head butt trees or slide on their leathers to untimely deaths at lamp-posts.

Here are some interesting facts. For every 100 million vehicle kilometres travelled in the UK there will be 121 deaths or serious injuries to motorcyclists compared with 2.6 deaths or serious injuries to car users. In 2004, 4008 motorcyclists died on roads in the USA. Such statistics suggest that motorcycles should simply be outlawed. Even though I struggled to become an instinctive seatbelt user, I know that wearing them makes complete sense. But if governments are going to use laws to protect us from ourselves then they should be more consistent - ban motorbikes, ban hang-gliding, ban cigarettes and ensure that seatbelts are fitted on all trains and buses. And that's just for starters.

20 February 2010


Wired? Insulated? Excluded? I have even invented a new word - "techluded" with a definition that might run something like this "to be removed from everyday life through addiction to technological aids (e.g. mobile phone, digital music player, laptop)". It's not logical I know but I can't help bristling about certain aspects of the "digital revolution" to which we are all meant to subscribe like unthinking moonies. Let me elucidate with some examples from the last twenty four hours.

I am on a London bus riding from Golders Green station to Euston because the Northern Line on the tube system is closed for engineering works. A Russian student from Kings College plonks herself next to me and for the next forty five minutes, as we move sluggishly from traffic jam to traffic jam, she gabbles on in Russian to two or three different friends. On and on it went. Samovars and Pushkin, Siberian suitors and Crimean crimes. Somebody sharing my personal space but with her mind elsewhere - not caring a fig for her fellow passengers and probably oblivious to the unnaturalness of her mobile communication. She's grown up with it.

Near Hampstead Heath I notice Saturday joggers all wearing their obligatory white ear wires. Are they jogging to the beat of banality - Take That, JLS, Girls Aloud? Who knows?

Music is social - for sharing. Looking up my carriage on the 20.05 train back to Doncaster, I count sixteen people with tiny earphones in their lugholes privately absorbing their chosen tracks inside their own little dream worlds - voluntarily stepping away from everyday reality as if in a trance. It's always other people's music - never music they have made themselves. There are half a dozen tapping away at laptops. One might imagine important business deals but as I return from the lavatory, I see they're mostly on entertainment or news sites and one is playing solitaire. They are all wearing headphones. Doubly cut off.

There are bleeps from text messages sent or received and phone calls to friends and families. The railway carriage of 2010 is a much different place from the carriage of 2000. Just ten years and we find all this technological ease and absorption - I-phones, MP3 players, laptops, internet access even in transit. Instinctively I have partly excluded myself from this cult and see it with a mixture of curiosity and horror. Making this blog and being internet-savvy, I don't think of myself as a technophobe at all but this tendency for people to enter their own little technologically supported worlds - even in public - is one that makes me shudder. It's almost as if the real world doesn't matter any more. Woh oh woh indeed.

Walkin' about with a head full of music
Cassette in my pocket and I'm gonna use it-stereo
-out on the street you know-woh oh woh...
Cliff Richard "Wired for Sound"

18 February 2010


From Peru to You...
Wanna be snug but stylish? The fashion hit of the moment with bloggers all over the world is the Peruvian Alpaca Herder's Hat. You'll be square if you're seen out and about without one! This stylish head garment comes in a range of designs - all hand-woven in the foothills of the Andes. The Peruvian Alpaca Herder's hat has already been a massive hit with a range of celebrities and fashion trendsetters but in the blogging community it is fast becoming an essential fashion accessory. Here's what a selection of leading bloggers said:-

"I can only blog when I 'm wearing my Peruvian hat. It seems to give me inspiration. Mine is beige with white stripes and has some stylised alpacas on the earflaps. There's also a big beige bobble on the top" - Daphne "My Dad's A Communist"

"Here in Georgia, all eyes look my way when I walk into the local Wendy's or Denny's wearing my Peruvian mountain hat. Other customers smile broadly when they see me. The pink, green and chocolate stripes are exquisite and when it's cold I simply tie the earflaps under my chin." - Robert "Rhymes With Plague"
"I dispute that these hats are Peruvian at all. I always thought they were from Wales. I was wearing mine long before Peru was even invented. It's in Welsh colours with a big green dragon on the back and a knitted yellow daffodil in place of a bobble." - Jenny "Demob Happy Teacher"

"Up here on Westray in the Orkney Isles, I have two Peruvian Alpaca Herder's hats. There's the bristly pink pig-coloured one I wear when mucking out my pigs and there's the old gold and black one I wear for special nights out with the missus. She overknitted the word WOLV across the rim. There wasn't enough room for the "E" and "S" ". - Malc "The Edge of Nowhere"

So what are you waiting for? To purchase your own unique Peruvian Alpaca Herder's hat send a cheque for £17.50 to Yorkshire Pudding Enterprises Ltd. Remember to state your preferred colours and ask for a special 2% bloggers' online discount!*
Legendary blogger Brad the Gorilla
*you can ask but you won't get it.

16 February 2010


Once upon a time in the Kingdom of Heaven, God went missing for six days. Eventually, Geoffrey the archangel found him on the seventh day resting. He enquired of God,"Where have you been?"

God pointed downwards through the clouds. "Look Geoffrey, look what I've made" said God. Archangel Geoffrey looked puzzled and said, "What is it?"

"It's a planet," replied God, " and I've put LIFE on it. I'm going to call it Earth and it's going to be a great place of harmony and balance."

"Balance?" inquired Geoffrey, still confused.

God explained, pointing down to different parts of the Earth, "For example, North America will be a place of great opportunity and wealth while South America is going to be poor; the Middle East over there will be a hot spot and Russia will be a cold spot. Over there I've placed a continent of white people and over there is a continent of black people."

God continued, pointing to the different countries. "This one will be extremely hot and arid while this one will be very cold and covered in ice."

The Archangel, impressed by God's work, then pointed to another particularly beautiful area of land and asked, "What's that?"

"Ah," said God. "That's Yorkshire, the most glorious place on earth. There are beautiful, generous people, seven great cities, moorland, seascapes, rich arable land. It is the home of the world's finest artists, musicians, cricketers, footballers, writers, thinkers, explorers and politicians. The people from Yorkshire shall be modest, intelligent and humorous and they're going to be found travelling the world. They'll be extremely sociable, hard-working and high-achieving, and they will be known throughout the world as speakers of truth."

Geoffrey gasped in wonder and admiration but then proclaimed, "What about balance God, you said there will be BALANCE!"

God smiled and replied very wisely, "Wait till you see what I've done next door in Lancashire!"

14 February 2010


At Wicken Fen

Living here, it is easy to forget that England has so much variety, so much beauty, so much history, so much evidence of our forefathers' ingenuity.

Shirley and I decided to have a weekend break in an area of England we hardly know - the fenland north of Cambridge. Here the rich peaty soil is as black as coal. The mainly flat landscape is criss-crossed with dykes and ditches that were first dug by hand in medieval times to drain what was once a waterlogged marshy world. Above those marshes, occasional clay and gravelly hillocks rose - perhaps only a few feet higher than the surrounding marshes but it was here that ancient fenland settlements grew like islands. One such island was The Isle of Eels where the tiny city of Ely is situated. In medieval times eels were incredibly plentiful in the area and they were an important source of both food and wealth. It is said that each stone of the magnificent Ely Cathedral was paid for in eels.

Ely Cathedral began as a simple Saxon church in AD 673, founded by Saint or Queen Ethelreda. So when the Normans arrived, there had already been an important place of worship in Ely for four hundred years. They set about constructing a vast abbey and monastic complex. That job took over a hundred years to complete and then in the fourteenth century, reflecting East Anglia's economic power, further additions were made including the unique "Octagon" in the centre of the cathedral with its lantern tower that rises 43 metres above the ground.

Above - Ely's "lantern" - internal and external views.

For me one fascinating aspect of medieval church construction concerns the origins of the stones that were used. Around Ely there is no stone at all. The limestone that was selected had to be brought along ancient waterways by barge from quarries over fifty miles away. Imagine that! Hewing huge blocks, dragging them onto carts, taking them to primitive wooden wharves to manoeuvre on to wooden barges that were powered by sails or horses and then days later dragging those same blocks from the Great Ouse wharf at Ely before hauling them up to the cathedral site. Voyage after voyage. The audacity of it! And what was driving them? The power of Christian belief or some sort of economic might that had to declare its presence?

On Friday night we had an amazing curry in the Sylhet curry house on Market Street, drank several beers on Saturday night and on Sunday morning we headed south to Wicken Fen - a National Trust property. Wicken is both a bird sanctuary and a piece of the original fenland landscape with sedge meadows, an original wind-driven pump, reed beds and watery channels. Agriculture has never mastered these unique acres.

Studying the map, I see Thetford, Downham Market, Kings Lynn, Saffron Walden, March, Chatteris - all Fenland or East Anglian towns we have never seen. This was once the cradle of England's economic power - especially as the wool trade burgeoned in the fourteenth century. I think we will be back some day soon...

10 February 2010


Derelict and remote Lincolnshire house

It's a jungle out there! Well - at least the Internet is. Nobody could possibly "know" even 1% of the websites out there in the ether. Last August I came across a British website called geograph.com. Set up perhaps in 2004, its aim has been to illustrate the British Isles through still photography. Contributors earn points - especially for prized first geographs - being the first photos of particular grid squares. I think that each Ordnance Survey grid square is a hectare. Clearly, before I encountered this fascinating but slightly awkward to navigate website, hundreds of others had done a fine job of trying to "capture" every hectare on these islands from Lands End to John O'Groats and beyond.

This morning I was ranked 1283rd by Geograph.com having contributed some fifty photos including six prized geograph firsts - all in western Ireland. However, with a good weather forecast for northern England, I did something really quite crazy this morning. I drove forty miles east to the rich farming land south of Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. My sole purpose was to photograph some previously unphotographed squares and to thereby earn precious geograph points. A side benefit would be a bracing walk in unfamiliar rural territory.

Near Knaith Park, I drove up to a well to do farm with an attached equestrian centre. My aim was to walk through this farm and venture along the muddy farm track that left it going south. I saw Farmer Giles with his half-cocked shotgun and his two black Labradors. I waved to him and he came over. After explanation and a little debate, he gave me permission to wander south. Perhaps he thought I was an escaped lunatic. As expected from the map, I found an isolated derelict house miles from anywhere (see top photo) and though I failed to snap them, the RAF Red Arrows team were practising their aeronautic tricks above those sprawling fields.

Later, I parked up in Willingham by Stow and wandered off down the track to Park Farm to capture my next precious "geograph (first)". I am guessing that this must be a man thing. My wife thinks the expedition was totally barmy. However, I have always been obsessed with matters geographical and I am forever trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to capture photographic images that are special to view. And there are no more opportunities for would-be Captain Cooks and Roald Amunsdens so how can one find some adventure?

I took this photo of distant Cottam power station today. Click here to link to the Geograph website and start seeing the British Isles rather differently:-

8 February 2010


Last week I went to see two films. Firstly there was "Avatar" directed by James Cameron and then "A Prophet" directed by Jacques Audiard. What do you want from a movie? For me it is about being gripped so that you are lost in the film, unaware of time and uninterested in the kind of mental wanderings that accompany the viewing of poor films. Visually there is no denying that "Avatar" is a masterpiece - at times quite breathtaking. I had never seen a modern 3D film before so it was a novelty to sit there in the semi-dark with my 3D glasses on. When the main humanoid avatar is walking on high mossy tree limbs far above the ground you experience a vertiginous sense of distance and the danger of falling. However, the core storyline of this film is quite banal and predictable. The "awesome" shoot-em-up scenes near the end are yawn-making - by then the novelty of the 3D effect was starting to wear a little thin. However, I accept that in order to gross massive profits the film had to have mass appeal. Subtlety and courage in the storyline might not have gone down too well with generations raised on Sonic the Hedgehog, Armani Rice Krispies and reality TV shows.

"A Prophet" was always focused on the central character - Malik El Djebena played by Tahar Rahim - a rookie prisoner in a tough French jail, dominated not by the prison authorities but by different power factions within the prison such as the Corsican mafia and North African muslims. Gradually Malik finds out how to survive in jail as the power dial shifts to him. Delivered in French with English subtitles, this disturbing film is a long way from Hollywood schmaltz. It provides a view of prison life that is rough and impolite, a world in which "dog eat dog" and "watch your back"appear to be the inmates' guiding principles. I am not a fan of gratuitous violence in films but the swift moments of shuddering violence in this film are essential to the overall tapestry.
The other week I saw "The Road" - for me a five star film that held my attention throughout. "A Prophet" also creeps in to that five star category but I was rarely lost in "Avatar". The story was nothing new and surely that's what thinking movie goers are after - stories that enthrall you, that make you think, that get under your skin like a good novel. Generously, I award "Avatar" three stars - one for each of its three dimensions - but guess that it will be a big oscar winner at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood on March 7th.

5 February 2010


Rudolph Valentino in the 1922 film version of "Blood and Sand"

We may think that we are free. Independent people who can make up our own minds and take on the world but we're not, not really. Look in a mirror and what do you see? You see inherited genetic patterns. The shape of your eyes, the colour of your skin, your hair, your height. And if you listen to yourself you hear the accents of the adults who raised you - mostly parents. Their influence upon you is like the veins in Blue Stilton cheese - inextricable - no matter how much you may squirm and protest.

The spoken words that escape our lips are like signatures - personal and rather unique. They define us as much as our actions do. We think that we are in control of them. We think that we are choosing them as they tumble out of us in chains. In states of exasperation, annoyance, amazement or confusion, stock phrases or single words emerge to ease or to signify those moments. And very often these expressions will have been distilled from our childhoods. Heard expressions repeated. Echoes of the past.

One of my pet expressions is "Blood and sand!" I remember my mother using it but never consciously sought to imitate her and besides, how did she acquire it? I see Tony Blair playing games with the truth at the Iraq Inquiry - "Blood and sand!" I mutter. The car hits a pothole in the road following the recent Arctic weather - "Blood and sand!" On the TV they're going to have a celebrity dancing competition for disabled people in wheelchairs - "Blood and sand!"

But where did this odd expression come from? Apparently, it's the title of a Spanish novel about bullfighting published in 1909 by Vicente Blasco Ibánez (the Spanish title is "Sangre y Arena"). This story has been filmed several times, most famously starring Rudolph Valentino. I dimly recall my mum talking about Valentino. She remembered him from the movies of the early nineteen thirties but is that how she absorbed the expression? Indeed, does the expression predate the 1909 novel?

If only there were an archaeological "Time Team" for words.

The English language is brilliant at accepting new words, opening doors from other languages and recognising the innovations of youth and technology. But how open are we as individuals? Some people want their English to remain fixed in time like Roman ruins whereas others sponge up the latest words and expressions as gladly as seagulls chasing trawlers. It's complicated. The words we choose and why we choose them... but I think that in essence they are as much a part of our inheritance as the colour of our irises and the shape of our toes. Blood and sand! At one thirty in the morning...perhaps I'm talking tosh - whatever that is.

2 February 2010


Gardner and Mouyokolo celebrate with Terry and Drogba behind.
Riding on a double decker bus from the "park and ride". It's full of pilgrims in black and amber. Scarves and bobble hats, replica shirts, manager's coats. Along Anlaby Road there are fans in pubs, fans queuing in kebab and fish and chip shops, fans just walking along to the game. Alighting the bus as usual there's the guy with dozens of shiny City lapel badges on a big felt board. £1.50 a shot.

Buy a programme. Skipper Anthony Gardner on the front. Buy a halftime draw ticket. Up to our turnstile - number thirty. Rip out the season ticket - number twenty. No bodysearches here as at Stalag Man City and I'm carrying a supermarket bag crammed with semtex, flares and a heat-seeking missile. Up the concrete stairs right to the top of the stadium. Up to our seats.

Soon the teams are out. Over the loudspeakers - "Tiger Tiger burning bright in the forests of the night". They line up. They shake hands. The whistle blows. We're off. We press. We look "up for it". England captain John Terry gets the ball. "Scandal Skipper". He's roundly booed. "Terry! Terry! Where's your wife? Terry! Where's your wife?" We get corners. Chelsea look subdued. Their captain made a laughing stock by the media. His cheated wife hiding in Dubai. This is not "Team Bridge". It's "Team Terry".

We sing. "Silverware? We don't care. We follow the City everywhere!" And then...and then another corner. For once Hunt hits the right spot and there's young Steven Mouyokolo - typical French name that. He meets the ball perfectly, beautifully and powers it pasts the hapless Peter Cech in his nancy boy scrum cap. What a wonderful header! The black and amber pilgrims go wild. Our cutprice, make-do team of minnows and maybes is beating the mighty Chelsea. Chelski. A Russian oligarch's plaything. And we deserve it. Deserve to be ahead.

Just before halftime. Just before halftime. We have been here before. A dubious free kick award on the edge of the box. Tony says - "Why don't they have a defender guarding that post?" And yes. Didier Drogba, just back from the African Nations Cup, manages to pierce the wall with his driven free kick. Sick. Sick. Chelski have equalised. It's undeserved.

After the break, we give as good as we get. We have chances. They have chances. Our lads look determined, together. Battling. Team spirit. Ashley Cole comes on so it's "Ashley! Ashley! Watch your wife!" In the final minute Sturridge closes in on goal from the left. Oh no! Not again! He hammers the ball but Myhill saves magnificently. "We are Ull! We are Ull! We are Ull!". The whistle blows. A point against Chelsea - the league leaders. We'll take a point but it should have been three.

Down the stairs. The black and amber army. Heading home. Proud of our lads. Mouyokolo and the new lad - teenager Tom Cairney. Real potential. On Radio Humberside as we drive the motorways home to Sheffield we hear the eloquent Dutchman - George Boateng sing Cairney's praises - "I'm telling you. He is a future England star". It was a great night. A wonderful night. And we all lived happily ever after... well till Saturday when we play Manchester City again. Team Bridge.