31 January 2014

Cinema

Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years A Slave" 
Yesterday morning, Sheffield's "Showroom" Screen 4 cinema was once again packed. This time our film treat was the much vaunted "12 Years A Slave" - based upon an original 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup. Though Northup was a "free man", he was kidnapped in Washington DC and sold into slavery - working on a Louisiana cotton plantation for twelve long years before reclaiming his freedom. The neglected text was accidentally re-discovered by Bianca Stigter - wife of the film's English born director - Steve McQueen.

Would "12 Years A Slave" live up to its glowing reviews and all the positive hype that has surrounded it? In short, yes. I sat there by the aisle on the front row totally transfixed. Though the subject matter was ugly, the cinematography was often beautiful. Steve McQueen frequently let the camera linger, allowing the film audience to fully absorb particular moments. This contributed to a sense of the slowness of passing time and to the continuous tension of life on the plantation under the possessive gaze of the excellent Michael Fassbender who played the part of vile plantation owner Edwin Epps.
You may see whippings in other films but surely none have ever been as a graphic or as convincing as the lashings shown in this film. You share the pain and the cruelty. The worst lashing is reserved for Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey who despite being the best cotton picker and Epps's unwilling sex slave is whipped mercilessly and without reason. Her back is left looking like raw meat in an abattoir.

Director - Steve McQueen
Thinking of butchers, Steve McQueen once explained why he doesn't mingle socially with other film-makers - "That's like if you're a butcher, hanging out with other butchers. You chop meat this way, and I chop meat that way. What's there to talk about?" Perhaps that quote partly explains the originality of McQueen's style. He comes at the task with an independent creative  vision that isn't over-twisted by the influence of others.

There have been many portrayals of slavery in film and television but in comparison with others I recall, this film surely  provides the most convincing portrait ever made. Maybe because the director is himself a black man whose own ancestors were brought in chains from Africa to the West Indies, the black characters are treated sympathetically and painted as individual people in their own right. They have dignity amidst the cruelty and injustice of plantation life.

Northup is played by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor who after twelve long years manages to get a message back to influential friends in New York State. They come to rescue him and the film finishes with a touching family reunion, made more poignant by further lingering camera work.

It is a triumphant film that without preaching spells out the wrongness of slavery and the hatefulness of cruelty towards other human beings. How strange though that such a tale was largely down to a black British director with a cast led by British actors - telling a story that was especially American. The shadows of those times have not yet gone away.

30 January 2014

Read

"East of Eden" by John Steinbeck is a book I never got round to reading before but yesterday I finished it. Published in 1952, it was a novel that Steinbeck had been contemplating for quite a while before he literally put pen to paper. Each week he'd send a section off to his publisher for typing up. No laptops back then. There are 602 pages in all.

"The Grapes of Wrath" (1939) is a damned good story about the human spirit, the American Dream and survival during an economic depression but "East of Eden" gives us something more than a mere story. It is allegorical with many biblical references and it also contains elements of autobiography, set as it is, in and around the Salinas Valley in California where Steinbeck was born and raised. That was his heartland. He even appears fleetingly in the novel himself - as a small child, related to one of the key characters in the first half of the book. 

Steinbeck had two sons and interestingly two brothers are prominent in the first parts of the novel - Adam and Charles Trask. They are motherless and their disciplinarian father is a veteran of the American civil war. He forces Adam into the army in spite of his gentle, homely nature and he becomes involved in various campaigns against indigenous Americans.

Much later when Adam has married Cathy (later known as Kate) he fathers two sons - Caleb and Aaron but like his father before him Adam soon finds that he must bring the boys up as a single parent. Cathy, who might be seen as the embodiment of evil, quits the sunny ranch where Adam had planned to create a garden like Eden for her. And where does she go? She heads for Salinas town to work as a prostitute in a house of ill-repute, never considering the twin baby boys she has left behind.

Into the minds and mouths of his narrator and his characters, Steinbeck places philosophical arguments and pronouncements that ensure substantial tracts of the novel do not echo the everyday reality of human life. Good is battling with evil. Nature is in competition with free-will. Sexuality is at war with civility. The characters are striving to be understood, to understand life, to find the missing jigsaw pieces which will make sense of everything.

"East of Eden" is generally thought of as Steinbeck's most ambitious work. He was pushing the boundaries of his literary craft - consciously attempting to do more than to simply tell another story. In the second half of the novel, the narrator says:
"We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in 
ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while 
good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue 
is venerable as nothing else in the world is." (p. 415)
And perhaps that quotation sums up the prime focus of the novel for in the end it is human virtue with its attendant failings that triumphs as a now grown up Cal (Caleb) anticipates the future beyond the deaths of his father, his twin brother and his mother. Eden may be lost but that doesn't mean that hope must also die.

****

It's not an easy read but I don't have the distraction of work these days so I was able to give my full attention to the novel over a couple of weeks - sometimes sitting in my car in quiet country lay-bys, carefully turning the pages. Would I recommend it? Well, it depends on the kind of reader you are. I have always admired John Steinbeck and had previously read just about everything else he ever wrote, so I'm a bit of an aficionado but in truth I found "East of Eden" awkward. Ambitious, experimental writing isn't always comfortable or safe. Steinbeck had already proven he could give us that kind of fiction in bucket loads.This is something else, something different but it certainly leaves you thinking.
John Steinbeck's childhood home in Salinas. I snapped this
picture in 2005 during our memorable family holiday in California

29 January 2014

Celebrity

It used to be that people worshipped the sun, forces of Nature or water sources. In more recent times, manmade religions such as Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism took over but now, in this modern world, one of the most powerful religions seems to be The Cult of Celebrity.

Evidence of this new religion is very apparent in popular television. It used to be that so-called celebrities stuck to their day jobs as actors, comedians, newsreaders, models, singers or whatever. But now they are unbounded, exploiting their "celebrity" status in unfamiliar fields.

Though I try not to watch such entertainment, I am aware of "celebrities" appearing in cooking programmes, much-loved quiz programmes like "Mastermind" and "Pointless", "I'm A Celebrity Get Me out of Here" (ostensibly about jungle survival), "Strictly Come Dancing", "Dancing on Ice", "Celebrity Big Brother", "Through the Keyhole", "Top Gear" etc. etc.. There are celebrities everywhere.

I thought I had seen it all but lately I have become aware of  two new celebrity programmes. In one of them minor celebrities compete against each other by diving from a high diving boards into (perhaps unfortunately) a swimming pool ("Celebrity Splash"). In the other, and quite astonishingly, they compete against each other at a winter ski jump. Quite bizarre!

Anyway this set me thinking about other possibilities for celebrity TV programmes and after much deliberation I have come up with four:-

1) Celebrity Teaching Assistant - In which a bunch of celebrities work for a year in tough inner-city secondary schools as teaching assistants - supporting the work of lead classroom teachers. The winner would be the last celebrity to succumb to tears or nervous exhaustion.

2) Celebrity Street Sweeper - In which celebrities are attached to road cleaning crews in several British cities. After six months, the varying weights of rubbish swept up would be compared and the winning celebrity would be the one who had gathered the greatest weight of rubbish. The celebrities - including Angelina Jolie and Justin Beiber - would be required to wear standard issue yellow fluorescent jackets, over-trousers and peaked caps.

3) Celebrity Monk/ Celebrity Nun - In which celebrities are sent - perhaps for five years - to remote monasteries or convents where the vow of silence is observed. The cameras would follow their self-flagellation, early morning "matins" and regular consumption of thin gruel. The winner would simply be the celebrity who lasted the longest. Initial invitations would be sent to Chris Evans (British TV and radio presenter), Roger Federer (suave Swiss tennis player), Sir Alex Ferguson (Glaswegian fitba know-all), Lady Gaga (flouncing and deranged American singer), Cheryl Cole (narcissistic Geordie moneygrabber) and Julie Gayet (The French President's latest mistress).

4) Last Celebrity Standing - In which celebrities enter an arena surrounded by a baying crowd. Hungry lions are released into the arena and the winning celebrity is the last one to be gobbled up by the lions. You might think that celebrities wouldn't volunteer for this but when I tell you that the prize money would be sent to the winner's nominated charity then you'll surely change your mind as we all know how charitable and kind all celebrities are compared with we non-celebrity nobodies.

If you have any other ideas for original celebrity-led TV shows, please share them. You never know - there could be money in this if we play our cards right. Mmm...Celebrity Play Your Cards Right - now that's another idea.

28 January 2014

Seeger

Farewell to Pete Seeger who died yesterday at the ripe old age of ninety four. The picture shows him doing what he did best - working with other people - communicating his love of music - especially songs that spoke of ordinary folk and of our eternal quest for freedom and justice. He was an organiser, a peacemaker, a promoter, a lover, a father, a teacher, an historian, an activist and a giant in the world of American folk music. 

In 1955, he was brought before the noxious House of Un-American Activities Committee but when quizzed accusingly, he replied: "I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this."

Though Pete Seeger self-penned many songs, there were many others that he resurrected, re-arranged or developed. His ego was small in comparison with many other musical artistes. It was the song that mattered, what it meant - not who wrote it. But he has left us "If I Had a Hammer", "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine", "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "Hush Little Baby", "Turn! Turn! Turn!", "Guantaemera" and the dream he lived his life by - a dream of a better world, a fairer world in which the rich no longer get richer and the poor no longer get poorer. Where there is food on the table, water in the well and the cruelty and killing and warfare have been shrunken right down. Pete loved his fellow earthlings.

He didn't actually create "We Shall Overcome". It had its origins in an old slave song, but Pete Seeger heard it anew, nurtured it, changed it and made it the song we know today - a song of hope for the masses:-
Rest in Peace Pete Seeger (1919 -2014)

27 January 2014

Gillette

One of the downsides of manliness is shaving. Of course, I could be an idle and unkempt so-and-so - like certain male visitors to this blog - and sport a piratical beard but for the majority of my adult life I have chosen to be smooth-faced. 

Because testosterone pulses through my blood vessels like electricity, I have to shave every morning. Usually I do this while standing in the shower, holding a shaving mirror. For years I used Gillette's GII twin blade razor blades. They were much better than disposable razors and didn't have the annoying extra of a so-called "lubricating strip". Whoever dreamed up that addition needs shooting.

I don't know exactly when GII razor blades disappeared from our shops and supermarkets but around ten years ago, needing a new supply, I discovered I couldn't get hold of them. They had gone - vanished! Since then, whenever I have travelled abroad I have looked out for GII blades - from Malaysia to Marrakech - but there are no GII blades anywhere. Okay there's GII Plus and a range of other fancy razor blades sold at extortionate prices, but no GII.

One of the really good things about GII was that the blades lasted and lasted - staying sharp for a hell of a long time. And that's important if you want to avoid post-shaving soreness or even painful nicks. What I suspect happened is that Gillette recognised the longevity of their GII blades and realised that that very longevity was a hindrance to profits so overnight they withdrew them - all around the globe.

Anyway, last October, I spotted that an e-bay seller based in Singapore had some original GII blades for sale so I ordered two packs for just £10 in total - including international deliivery, They arrived at the start of November. Shirley scowled at me non-plussed as I danced around the house - delighted to meet up with my old shaving pals again.

The next morning, I put a GII blade in my razor and commenced shaving with it. Ahhh! A lovely feeling. But what is perhaps more significant is that this morning - January 27th - almost three months later - I have not had to replace that first GII blade! It is still as sharp as ever. With any other razor blade I would have had to replace it weeks ago.

I have nine GII blades left. If I can make a blade last for say four months then the supply I bought from Singapore should last me three years. That's less than one British penny per shave. In the meantime, if any Gillette spies happen upon this page could I urge you to bring GII back! I will be happy to star in a GII TV commercial for you. I step out of the shower and wink at the camera as my showering companion, a twenty year old Swedish beach volleyball player (female) called Olga runs her fingers tenderly over my cheeks and whispers huskily, "As smooth as a baby's bottom!"

26 January 2014

Larkin

This is my latest avatar. Do your recognise him? No, it's not really me though I know a fellow from Galashiels who looks rather like him:-
It's the poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985). He spent most of his working life in Hull - as head librarian in the university's library. It suited him to be in such an unfashionable place - Up North at the end of the railway track - far away from the chattering self-aggrandisement of London and the Home Counties. Yes, Larkin was something of a misanthrope and that aspect of his character is revealed in many of his bitter-edged, urban  poems. There's an existentialist melancholy hanging about most of them - but also wit, intelligence and a passion for words. These are all carefully weighed and crafted.

The poem I have chosen to represent Larkin's artistry is "MCMXIV" (1914). He wrote it in 1964, fifty years after the start of the first world war - "a war to end all wars". It was the year in which my father was born and 2014 marks the hundredth anniversary of the start of that "great" war. I have a sense of Larkin reflecting on old photographs of 1914 as the poem begins. Here, in spite of himself he reveals a warmth and a kinship with his fellow man. I wonder what you'll make of it, if indeed you take the time to read it:-

MCMXIV

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word—the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

25 January 2014

Millstones

Above you can see the south end of Stanage Edge - a millstone escarpment that runs two miles northwards. It's just  three miles from our house. Nowadays Stanage is a magnet for ramblers and would-be rock climbers but in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it attracted quarrymen and stone masons who saw much potential in the millstone grit - especially for the manufacture of millstones of varying sizes. These were used both in the milling of grain and in metal finishing industries.

I remember the very first time I came across some abandoned millstones. Nobody had told me that such artefacts were to be found out in the hills of  northern Derbyshire. It fair took my breath away. Immediately, I imagined the hard labour of the masons and the great difficulties there would have been in transporting millstones for many miles - via horse and cart. And why had they been abandoned? When you know where to look there are numerous millstone sites to explore but the one at the south end of Stanage Edge is the best known.

Here a blue sky and sunshine make this millstone picture look as if it was taken in high summer but it was three days ago in late January:-
 Then ten minutes later a dark winter squall is beginning to sweep in from the west and I am sheltering beneath an overhang. You can still see the same millstones to the left.
From my shelter I look out across the Hope Valley as sleet and snow blows towards me.
 But soon the brief winter storm has passed and sunshine is once again illuminating the millstones that look for all the world as if they were carefully grouped together by a sculptor.
I scramble up onto the edge and walk a mile or more northwards. There are no other walkers around apart from a lone woman of senior years. We pause for a brief, windswept conversation, agreeing on the invigorating attraction of winter walking. So often when I see single women walking, they avert their eyes and won't even reciprocate my friendly "hellos" - as if they expect every man they come across to be a sexual predator. But this lady was relaxed about sharing a few words with me - alone on The Edge.

Then I cut down through Stanage Plantation where the sound of a chainsaw cut through the sighing winter wind. Along the lanes back towards my parked car and as I looked down on Overstones Farm, I noticed darkening sky and another storm sweeping over the Hope Valley. It would soon be upon me.

24 January 2014

Oliver

Tom Edden as Fagin
On Wednesday evening, Shirley and I went to The Crucible Theatre to see a production of Lionel Bart's "Oliver". In front of us, there were two rows of Muslim schoolgirls in their obligatory headscarves - which they kept on even though they were indoors under warm theatre lighting. Where in the Koran does it insist that Muslim girls should wear headscarves when they are out and about or am I being Islamophobic?

Anyway -  "Oliver". Frances had given us two tickets for Christmas and the show was a delight. It's amazing what a group of human beings can do in the theatre. From absolutely nothing, they plan and plot and rehearse, make contacts, inject new ideas, apply make-up, add music and lighting - bringing it all together with a magical kind of energy and shared vision.

"Oliver" is a fine musical with several strong and memorable songs. It has already passed the test of time. And it has a special resonance for me because in 1982 when I was a young English teacher at Rowlinson School in south Sheffield, I was selected to play the part of the dark and menacing Bill Sikes in the annual school production. It was a role I relished for it seemed entirely in tune with my fearsome disposition:-

Strong men tremble when they hear it!
They've got cause enough to fear it!
It's much blacker than they smear it!
Nobody mentions...
My name!

But the star of Wednesday night's "Oliver" was not Bill Sikes, Nancy or even soppy little Oliver Twist himself but Fagin played by Tom Edden. He was brilliant and his rendition of "Reviewing the Situation" was truly memorable as he danced and strutted semitically around the stage - making each action serve the song - so thoroughly "into" his role that it wasn't like acting at all. Marvellous.

Lord knows what the Muslim girls thought of it all as they filed out - still in their headscarves. I have a natural antipathy towards any kind of religious garb and I wondered if their daughters and grand-daughters will still be clinging to that inherited medieval creed in years to come - still in their headscarves. I hope not.

23 January 2014

Vertigo

Last weekend, I happened upon a Channel 4 documentary entitled "Don't Look Down" about daredevil urban free climbers. In that documentary, a rather disturbed and self-obsessed young Englishman travelled to Kiev in Ukraine to meet up with another urban free climber who goes by the curious nickname of Mustang Wanted. Now this young fellow is something else. He specialises in hanging from high structures with just one hand and with no safety equipment whatsoever. Honestly, seeing that documentary almost turned my stomach and I had to keep looking away. I feel rather the same about televised hospital operations and Tory party election commercials. Irksome.

So here's a taste of Mustang Wanted's  bravery... or is it his idiocy? Surely one day before too long he'll lie splattered on the ground... Apologies for the unpleasant accompanying "song" and for any annoying ads that creep in:-
There are other videos of his vertiginous escapades. Just search for Mustang Wanted in YouTube. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'm going to be sick!

22 January 2014

Poem

The Olden Days

Of the olden days
So little remains
Just  a line of stuff
Borne  by the highest tide
Tangled flotsam
To pick through
And sea kelp wreaths
Now rotting...
Yes that’s what’s left
Of the golden, olden days.  

In the olden days
We ran west of the village
Or cycled - laughing
Over Harrison Hill to quiet lanes
That reached for the River Hull
Through wide fields drained
By Saxon men
In the olden days.

Back then
We huddled nightly
In bedrooms
Devouring  Sergeant Pepper
Then  later Leonard Cohen
Black disc lines
Catching the electric light
Catching our breath
In those olden times.

“Cellophane flowers of yellow and green”
With  “heroes in the seaweed…
Leaning out for love”
Yes - that’s how it was...

In the olden days
Tomorrow was kept waiting
And summer stretched forever
Birds trilled in the hedgerows
And families stayed together
Bitter spectral  winds
Swept seawards from the Wolds
Once upon a time
In those distant days of old.

20 January 2014

Inversion

In wintertime there are always a few days when clouds become trapped in The Hope Valley because of a phenomenon known as "temperature inversion". Perhaps I should have driven out of the city a couple of hours earlier in order to capture the entire visual magnificence of today's temperature inversion but never mind - at least I was there, for once with my trusty camera. As I strolled in the sunshine that beamed down upon Stanage Ede, in front of me the cloughs and wooded valleys were dramatically wreathed in white cloud. It was wondrous to behold. Here are just four of the images I snapped:-
Sometimes we should count our blessings that we have the gift of sight. Click on these pictures to make them bigger.

19 January 2014

Bradfield

Bradfield swordsmen preparing to defend the besieged apostrophe.
The last post seems to have stirred some senior bloggers from their slumbers. I mean, who cares about the economy, Romanian immigrants, bankers' bonuses or winter floods? What really matters is the future of the apostrophe. Like an endangered creature, this tadpole-shaped punctuation mark will need to be nurtured and protected if it is to survive. We lost the dodo, the passenger pigeon and the Tasmanian tiger - let us not lose the apostrophe too.

My blood pressure had been raised to a dangerously high  level by yesterday's vehement apostrophe debate so Shirley (my nurse) and I drove out to the parish of Bradfield this afternoon to take a soothing country walk round Agden Reservoir. I relaxed in my Victorian bath chair as she pushed me. Rather too bumpy for reading "The Observer" and there was, in any case, too much huffing and puffing

Later, after watching sword fighters practising their skills on the cricket ground in  Low Bradfield, we drove out of the village via Mill Lee Road which leads onto Hoar Stones Road. That's where I pulled up to take this rather nice picture of High Bradfield... 
If you imagine that the field to the right contains a flock of grazing apostrophes, you are wrong. They are sheep.

18 January 2014

Apostrocide

I took the following picture in Denby Dale last autumn but not because I was going in there to have my hair and beauty attended to. No there was another reason. Look closely at the sign.

Yes, that's right. There's an errant apostrophe between the "o" and the final "s". What was the signmaker thinking of? Or perhaps he blindly obeyed the owner's instruction.

Given my decades as an English teacher, I have a very keen eye for errors - either in spelling or punctuation. The apostrophe is widely abused - either missing from places where it should be or, as in this case, inserted where it isn't needed. There are a lot of careless people out there.

But what is the solution? Perhaps abusers and misusers  of the apostrophe should have their mistakes pointed out to them and perhaps schoolchildren should be better schooled with regard to basic accuracy. However, that would not be the response of Cambridge City Council. Their incredible response to the apostrophe malaise is to ban all apostrophes from their street signage. You can read about it here.

The city of Cambridge is renown the world over for the quality of higher education available in its famous colleges but here's an example of Cambridge City Council's official apostrophe  policy in action:-
The apostrophe isn't some kind of fancy and unnecessary embellishment. It clarifies meaning. Regarding the image above, we might ask ourselves if this lane was named after one scholar or a number of scholars. The presence of an apostrophe after the "r" or floating after the "s" would have made that history clear.

If we let the apostrophe go and send out a message to school pupils that apostrophes don't really matter, what will go next? Shall we let them believe that questions don't need question marks? Shall we allow them to write proper names without capitals or sentences without full stops? Will we let them turn "you" into textspeak "u"? 

You could call it pedantry but I have always believed that there is a symbiotic relationship between accurate written expression and clear thinking. You can't have one without the other and furthermore, in my ever so 'umble opinion, Cambridge City Council deserves to have its (not it's) ignorant knuckles rapped. For Harry and for England - Long Live The Apostrophe!

17 January 2014

Mandela

Cinema 4 at "The Showroom" in Sheffield's city centre was packed yesterday morning to see the over-55s screening of "Mandela - Long Walk to Freedom". You may recall that during the London preview of this film on December 5th, news broke that Mr Mandela had died. Prince William and his wife The Duchess of Cambridge were in that audience and the earlier red carpet ceremonies had been attended by Nelson and Winnie's two daughters - Zindzi and Zenani. A spooky co-incidence.

So - to the film itself. It did its job. It told the wide-arching story of Nelson Mandela's struggle and covered many of the key moments in his life. I must be a soft so-and-so because I must admit that there were moments when I wept - such as the day that Zindzi finally got to see her father at his prison on Robben Island and the bright afternoon in 1990 that he walked out of Victor Verser Prison, a free man ready to lead his people. Yes the film did its job and told Madiba's remarkable story very well. It is a story with which we are of course all familiar - a parable of our times.

Before seeing the film, I was aware of the many plaudits that the main actor - Idris Elbe has received. Now I don't wish to be churlish but I felt that his portrayal of Mandela wasn't entirely convincing. Elbe is a healthy, strong physical specimen and someone who is used to playing tough guys but Mandela needed more vulnerability, more dignity, more twinkle-eyed humour in my humble opinion. I felt that Morgan Freeman  got much closer to that in the rugby film "Invictus" (2009). Naomie Harris as Winnie Mandela was excellent - demonstrating that wine doesn't always mature well with age.The loveliness of youth turned to bitter vindictiveness during Mandela's twenty seven years in jail. Harris showed this well.

Surprisingly, Mandela once said that he had enjoyed his incarceration. He had felt like a monk, with plenty of time to reflect, to work out his ideas and in a curious way he had enjoyed the simple harshness of prison life. Elbe and his director - Justin Chadwick - failed to convey with conviction that intricate sense of how things were for him. So "Mandela - Long Walk to Freedom"  had its flaws but in the end it is a damned good film and seeing it is another way of saying goodbye to a very remarkable human being - a man who lived in our times.

15 January 2014

Sandy

Sandy Denny (1947-1978) sings "Who Knows Where The Time Goes?" - a song she wrote herself at the age of nineteen:-

Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it's time for them to go?
Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming
I have no thought of time

For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

14 January 2014

Distance

West of Sheffield, Ringinglow Road ascends the nearby moors, linking my adopted city with The Hope Valley in Derbyshire. I can start walking from our front door and be on wild moorland within half an hour. It's something that Londoners can only dream of - having such natural, barely-tamed wilderness right on your doorstep. By car it only takes five minutes.

In the top picture, taken this afternoon, I have just pulled in to the roadside near Lady Canning Plantation. Look beyond the footpath sign and you can see Sheffield nestled in the valley where the River Don meets the Sheaf, the Porter and the other tiny rivers that flow eastwards from the hills. 

Then I took my camera, rested on that second fencepost for stability and zoomed down to the valley to get this shot of the city centre:-
I was almost six miles away. The taller building in the centre is  St Paul's Tower - a modern residential development completed in 2010. Why not click on the pictures to enlarge?

For those who don't know, Sheffield is a northern English city with a population of half a million. During the nineteenth century, it grew from rather insignificant origins to become the bustling centre of steel-making in Great Britain. In international terms, Sheffield has two great claims to fame. It was here that stainless steel was invented and it was here that the game of football was truly born. The city boasts the world's two oldest teams - Sheffield FC and Hallam FC and also the world's oldest football ground - Sandygate - the continuous home of Hallam FC. 

Other tidbits about Sheffield... The Arctic Monkeys, Def Leppard, Joe Cocker, Jarvis Cocker and Pulp, The Human League, Gordon Banks (England goalkeeper), Michael Palin (Monty Python), Helen Sharman (astronaut), Michael Vaughan (England cricket captain), Margaret Drabble (novelist), Samuel Holberry (Chartist martyr) and Thomas Boulsover (inventor of Sheffield plate) all came from the place. It is the greenest city in Great Britain - in terms of the proportion of parkland and other green areas that exist within the city boundaries.

And it is now home to the Yorkshire Pudding Photographic Studios - specialising in funerals or pre-funeral albums for your loved ones - Leave a little of yourself behind... Special rates for bloggers.

13 January 2014

£100

"A hundred pounds, a hundred pounds...you can hear the whistle
 blow, a hundred pounds" (with apologies to Hedy West)

This little tale of life in the internetted world began in early December when - out of the blue - I received an e-mail request from an office interiors company based in Leeds. They wanted permission to use one of my photographs of Sheffield. They had found it via Google Image Search. I was informed that the company were furnishing a new office suite in Sheffield and the client had requested a large photo collage of Sheffield images to grace one of the blank walls. Permission was duly granted.

Then a day or two later the company phoned me to see if I had other pictures of Sheffield they could use. In fact, they had a requirement list of about twenty photographs. I already had about fifteen of these and with the promise of some payment I agreed to go out and snap the last four or five which I did one morning in mid-December.

All of the pictures were emailed to the office interiors company. After Christmas, I contacted them again to remind them of their payment promise and they asked me how much I wanted. Being an ascetic* kind of soul with no particular interest in money, I plumped for a nice round sum - one hundred pounds or what we English (and Welsh) call a "ton".  (*characterized by severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons.)

There were no quibbles about my fee. I was just asked to make an invoice for their records and on Friday of last week the hundred pounds duly arrived. So it's official I am now a professional photographer - available for weddings, christenings and funerals. Regarding the latter, isn't it funny that  picture taking is rare at funerals? Oh look - that one's of the casket going behind the curtains - and that one - that's you Auntie Jean - good heavens you looked as miserable as sin! And this was Grandma's burial.... Perhaps it's an area in which I should specialise.
Velocity Tower, Sheffield
This was the picture that started it all
A preserved drop forging hammer in Sheffield's Don Valley
This was one of the special request pictures.

11 January 2014

Poem


Tuol Sleng was once a secondary school in the suburbs of Cambodia's capital - Phnom Penh. It was requisitioned by the Khmer Rouge in August 1975 and turned into Security Prison 21 - though today it is known simply as "The Torture School". Intelligent estimates suggest that around 20,000 people died here - often following horrific ill-treatment and torture. This forgotten and frightened child was one of them:-

I dedicate my poem to him.

9 January 2014

Redford

Robert Redford has been a major film-star most of my life. He is now 77 years old, making another famous Robert - Mr R. Brague of Canton, Georgia  seem like a spring chicken. I went to see another of his films today - Redford not Brague.

It was entitled "All Is Lost" and was both written and directed by J.C.Chandor. It was a most unusual film in that it contains virtually no spoken words and only one actor - Robert Redford himself as "our man". We never find out why - or what went before in his life - but "our man" is sailing a small but very  properly equipped yacht across the Indian Ocean when it is holed at night by a steel container that may have fallen off a colossal container vessel. Interestingly, given my last post, this container spews out Chinese sports trainers.

Redford's character is calm and resourceful. He cleverly patches the hole with resin and nylon cloth but a violent storm swamps the boat and he starts to become disheartened, losing control of his situation. As the yacht sinks he ends up in an inflatable life raft and after a few extremely challenging days manages to make it to the main shipping channel between Sumatra and Madagascar. Frustratingly, two container vessels sail past without noticing his flares.

He has almost reached the very end of his tether when he sees the light of another, smaller boat in the darkness. To attract attention he burns papers in a plastic water carrier that he had previously cut open. The life raft catches fire but the new boat doesn't appear to have spotted him. As he sinks far below the waves in some sort of trance he sees his life raft burning above and then he notices the hull of the boat he'd seen drifting into view.

He swims to the surface and a hand reaches out for his. And that is where the film ends. You ask yourself - did the hand represent rescue and a happy ending after those watery trials and tribulations? Or was it  the hand of death taking him to another place?

No oceanic mirages. No remembrances or flashbacks to past times. No mention of family or home. Just one man, "our man" afloat on a vast ocean. It is quite astonishing that such a film could transfix one's attention for almost two hours but it is easy to see what attracted Redford to the role - such a challenge for a lone actor and as "The Guardian" reviewer said, "a strikingly bold and thoughtful film".

8 January 2014

Running

When you can look back over half a century, you notice many changes. Of course there are the obvious things. My family's first television boasted two rather primitive channels - both in fuzzy black and white. I can remember when it arrived though I am still grateful that the first six or seven years of my life were spent in a largely peaceful, television-free home. Today television is sharp, colourful and clear. Programmes are slick and professional - even though you may not like many of them. And there's so much choice.

Then there's the often mentioned computer technology and air travel. Both have changed the way we see the world and how we communicate.

And I can recall the very first supermarket that opened in East Yorkshire - the "Savemore Stores" near King Billy's golden statue in Hull's old town. Our family began to go there every week. My mother always loved a bargain - probably because she herself was raised in poverty close to the coal mine where her grandfather worked. That first supermarket was a rough old place with narrow aisles you had to squeeze down and boxes piled high. Today's supermarket palaces appear to have been designed by space scientists, interior designers and logistics gurus, working in tandem to squeeze as much profit out of shoppers as possible.

Nowadays running and jogging are very common. There's a whole industry devoted to this rather bizarre activity. You see runners puffing along in parks and suburban streets or rural lanes. Frequently, while I am plodding in the countryside admiring the view, runners in fluorescent vests will whizz by me. But when I was a boy nobody went running - apart from dedicated athletes at running tracks or schoolchildren on obligatory cross country runs. The idea of running as a leisure or fitness pursuit for ordinary people was out of the question. So canal tow paths, public footpaths, village or suburban streets were all runner and jogger-free zones.

Today we have sports shops - sometimes of warehouse proportions - stocked with a whole array of sports shoes - what we English call "trainers". But as I recall, in the early sixties there simply weren't any "trainers". The few people who did take up running would wear special "spikes" and for PE lessons children would wear canvas plimsolls or "sand shoes". It was only towards the end of the sixties that shoes resembling modern trainers began to appear. I can still recall my first, second-hand pair. They were light blue "Adidas" shoes with white stripes down the side but I didn't wear them for running, they were for teenage coolness. "What are you wearing them again for?" my exasperated mother would demand to know.

So there we have it. A sixty year old old phart observing the passage of time and some of the changes he has seen. And isn't it interesting how birds of a feather flock together - so that blogs like this one or "Helsie's Happenings" or "Going Gently" or "Adrian's Images" or "Rhymes With Plague" tend to attract senior visitors? I am not sure why this should be as none of us put up barriers to warn off teenagers or twenty-somethings. Perhaps we have bored them away. But what I really wanted to learn about was some of the changes you have noticed - perhaps less obvious ones like the running phenomenon I have highlighted above

7 January 2014

Sheep

A rather grey January afternoon. Whilst walking in the Mayfield Valley - just five minutes by car from our house - I stopped to take wintry photographs of some sheep by Old May House. I was partly attracted by the red and blue buckets - containing food supplements. Being an arty-farty kind of fellow, I thought those colours would add extra visual interest.
Sheep are not native to the British Isles. It is believed that they were first introduced about four thousand years ago by our neolithic ancestors. As centuries passed, ovine husbandry advanced and by the middle ages, British sheep were a source of enormous wealth. The woollen industry was largely responsible for the growth and national importance of several East Anglian towns - including Thetford, Kings Lynn, Norwich and Bury St Edmonds. Back then these places were far more significant than Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham or Liverpool - towns that only really came to prominence in the late eighteenth century.

Below there's an exceedingly woolly sheep that I spotted above Hathersage a few days ago. She  must have managed to dodge the shearers in the summer.
She belonged to this small flock, backlit by sunshine streaming into the Hope Valley through  late December mistiness:-
As previously remarked, sheep are not native to these islands but neither are cows or goats - nor rabbits or chickens. And it's worth remembering that wheat, potatoes and all salad plants were also introduced at different times. It makes you wonder exactly what our distant ancestors ate. Fish, oats and other grasses, certain roots, berries, hunted animals such as wild boar and deer, birds, birds' eggs, native plants like nettles and comfrey. I'm not even sure that the latter  are in fact native plants. It must have been such a  challenge to put food on the table each day - especially in wintertime.

6 January 2014

Goodwill

Now that's a hell of a picture! The location is Porthcawl near Bridgend in southern Wales. The photograph was taken yesterday afternoon and has been used on the BBC News website to illustrate the ongoing stormy weather in the south west of the country. Meanwhile here in Sheffield, it is still calm. I visited the supermarket earlier wearing  a T-shirt (err...trousers and shoes too) and the sun is out.

An hour ago I went up the garden to dismantle our Christmas garden display. Always a sad thing to do. Controlled by a timer, our dark Yuletime nights were prettily lit by a glowing Father Christmas with a string of flashing red lights above him. All observed by a be-tinselled Beau and Peep - our obedient pet sheep. Now it's clear that Christmas 2013 is really over and we are well into 2014. I must make some travel plans - The Isle of Man, Montenegro, Seattle and Vancouver perhaps...

Michael Schumacher is still in a coma after his awful skiing accident and now Mrs A. Merkel - the German Chancellor has fractured her pelvis while skiing. It has always seemed a silly activity to me. I wonder if it is possible to sponsor an Alpine skiing trip for our own chancellor , the odious Gideon "George" Osborne with a coachload of other irksome "celebrities" - including TV and radio "personality" Chris Evans, the entire England cricket team, Jordan (aka Katie Price), Leonardo di Caprio, Stephen Fry and Bashar al-Assad. After all, the season of goodwill is now officially over.
The west garden of Pudding Towers on Christmas Day

5 January 2014

Men

Putin - so manly at only 5 feet 6 inches.
Women must often thank their lucky stars that they are not men. Being a man is hard. There are many difficult things to learn and challenging skills to master.

When men sneeze, they mustn't emit pathetic, whimpering sneezes but full-blown, powerful blasts that make small children and sleeping pets jump. To achieve this impressive level of sneezing takes months of secret practice and I am eternally grateful to my late father Philip for the many hours he spent with me down by our local canal teaching me the art of manly sneezing.

It's exactly the same with the passing of noxious wind. Real men must fart like trumpeters - not sneaking them out with feminine silent apology. A manly fart should reverberate, causing the performer to smile with a sense of masculine achievement and pride. It should measure no less than 160 decibels and if possible form a small chain of loud emissions - not a solitary blast.

Burping requires a lifetime of exercise in order to maximise length, volume and the disgusted glances of female witnesses. Of course, certain foodstuffs and drinks will aid the production of impressive burps. Personally, I find that "Pepsi Max" is excellent burping fuel and from one single can I can easily muster fourteen or fifteen manly burps.

Men have to learn to master a range of manly devices from the screwdriver to the electric lawn mower and from the power drill to the television remote control. Even so, there are devices that real men must never come to terms with and these include the vacuum cleaner, the steam iron with ironing board, food mixers, automatic washing machines and central heating controls. Real men do not feel the cold and even when their home is freezing like The North Pole they must walk around in string vests and underpants, scratching their private parts while announcing "I'm not cold".

When proper men go shopping, they do not browse or loiter. They have no understanding of the term "leisure shopping". Visiting the shops is like a Viking raid. You know exactly what you want. You go into the shop, purchase it and then get out  as quickly as possible. This is why the average family man only spends a maximum of ten minutes on Christmas present shopping each year.

To be a fully qualified man you must be able to fight. Okay you are not going to be fighting every week or even every year but you must always be ready. You never know when you are going to need to get another bloke in a headlock or beat him to the floor. It's probably something inscribed deep in our DNA that goes back to our hunting and gathering ancestors

Modern men - at least in the rich western world - drive cars. When in charge of a car a man must adopt a state of mind in which he sees himself as the world's best driver. As he looks out on other road users he will see thousands of mindless wallies whose driving skills are so appalling that they will require certain hand gestures, mouthed swear words and angry blasts from the horn.

With regard to food, a man must never leave an empty plate. He must eat the entire meal - no matter how high the plate has been piled. This will include fat, gristle, bones and any accidentally included foreign bodies such as caterpillars or hairs. And naturally when the meal is over he must signal his satisfaction with a manly burp. It is the same down at the pub where a man should never partake of soft drinks or less than five pints of beer on each visit.

Yes. Being a man isn't easy. I have tried my best to pass on all that I know to my own son and am happy to report that he is a chip off the old block - demonstrating his manliness each day in most of the ways described above. As Rudyard Kipling wrote:-

If you can sneeze with power and keep your virtue,
Or fart like Kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can outburp you,
If all men fight with you, but none too much;
If you can clear your plate in just a  minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!
William Tell and son

4 January 2014

Storm

This dramatic picture from Saltcoats, Scotland has appeared in several British newspapers this morning. It shows a train travelling along the Ayrshire coast by the Firth of Clyde. In recent days, our national media has been filled with tales of meteorological doom and gloom as our country has apparently been battered by  a succession of winter storms surging in from the North Atlantic. In contrast, here in tropical Sheffield I am happy to report that the weather has been unexceptional and at times positively balmy.

Not for the first time, it has been interesting to observe the BBC generalising from the particular. Down in the south east - home to BBC people, politicians, Arabian sheikhs, bankers and the like there has been flooding and stormy weather. Rather arrogantly, news teams have concluded that this bad weather has been a nationwide phenomenon. It hasn't. The same thing happened during the so-called "Great Storm" of 1987.

It's the same when a street murder occurs in London. We hear all about it but if an identical murder happened Up North, it would be either overlooked or given minimal airtime. The London bias is often blatant but sometimes subtly endemic.

Meanwhile, in The Pudding Mansion, I am alone with a mug of tea. Shirley is doing a rare Saturday morning shift at the health centre. Frances is back at her flat in Leeds and Ian travelled back to London yesterday afternoon. It was so lovely to have them both at home this Christmastime. We feasted and relaxed and they met up with old friends. We are lucky to be blessed with two such kind, morally decent, fun-loving and hard-working "kids" - though they are not really "kids" any more. Ian will be thirty this year and Frances will be twenty six. How time flies.

3 January 2014

Ladybower

Fifteen minutes due east of Sheffield, you arrive at the Upper Derwent Valley where three large reservoirs were created in the nineteen thirties. They are Howden, Upper Derwent and Ladybower and it was largely by the last of these that I was walking yesterday afternoon. A sad thing about Ladybower is that when the valley was dammed, two small but significant villages had to be drowned. They were Ashopton and Derwent. Less than half of Derwent remains and these gateposts that are now in a thicket on the edge of the reservoir once led to the old vicarage:-
Here I am looking over Ladybower from the track that leads up onto the moors:-
Here's the remains of Bamford House - an old farmstead on the valleyside above Upper Derwent:-
Here you can see two visitors and their dog standing in front of one of the dam walls - near the Fairholmes Visitor Centre. As you will observe, water is cascading over the dam after heavy rain the day before:-
Click picture

Back at my parked car, I notice Ashes Farm overlooking what remains of Derwent Village. A working shepherdess called Kath Birkinshaw lives here. She is a remarkable, hard-working woman who came down from the hills last year to speak about her life at Shirley's Women's Institute. Her father and grandfather before her were sheep farmers. Talks to local groups help to supplement her meagre farming income. There's not much money in sheep these days.

2 January 2014

Shindig

Chatsworth House is arguably England's finest stately home. It was there last evening amidst much pomp and ceremony that the Laughing Horse blogging awards were presented to the various winners. Above you can see fireworks bursting in the Derbyshire night and the grand Regency house itself distinctively  illuminated in blue. Use of Chatsworth had been made possible only because the writer of these words has become a personal friend of the Duke of Devonshire over the years - since meeting in "The Castle" pub in Bakewell back in 2001.

The house boasts over 175 rooms and a third of these are luxurious bedrooms so there was plenty of accommodation for Laughing Horse winners though Mr R. Brague had to be satisfied with an austere room in the servants' quarters. It used to be the private suite of a former butler and notable womaniser called Percy.

The main event took place in the Grand Ballroom which in its heyday looked like this - very suave and sophisticated:-
But on the Awards Night, it looked more like this as bloggers from around the world attacked the free bar and drank as if the apocalypse was to happen the next morning:-
Katherine from NZ, Carol from Cairns and Helen from Brisbane at the ballroom bash
After The Arctic Monkeys (from Sheffield) had performed on the ballroom stage, the room was skilfully hushed by your faithful compere - "SHUT THE F*** UP!"  "Pray be quiet!" I bellowed. A bucket of iced water was thrown over Ms Kate De Chevalle, the bohemian Kiwi artist  as she had continued shouting at the top of her voice - "One Edouard Manet! There's only one Edouard Manet!" like a rabid football supporter.

The awards were presented by The Duke of Devonshire who welcomed the international blogging community to his home and said he'd spotted some gorgeous "fillies" in the assembled ranks who he would happily invite to join him on an invigorating morning ride. "Dirty sod!" whispered Adrian from "Adrian's Images".

The first award was presented to itinerant blogger, Mr GB from both Napier, New Zealand and Eagleton, Isle of Lewis, Scotland. Dressed in an evening suit and with his beard neatly trimmed, it was unfortunate that Mr GB hadn't realised that his flyhole was unzipped and this fact caused much suppressed mirth as he read out his lengthy acceptance speech. It was even more unfortunate that the tail of his dress shirt was peering through the hole like a miniature white sail.

Penguin-like waiters flitted about the seated guests, filling their crystal champagne glasses while the awards ceremony proceeded.

Overall Welsh winner, Earl John Gray of "Going Gently" of course delivered his acceptance speech entirely in Welsh, putting his success down to the inspirational power of scotch eggs and the love and support of both his animals and his long-suffering partner and live-in therapist Dr Chris of the University of Bangor's Bestiality Studies Department. Throughout it all, Jenny the "Demob Happy Teacher" smirked at the Earl's woeful pronunciation.

Top Catalonian blogger Brian Cutts appeared on the stage in traditional Catalan dress, raving that his "people" needed the support of the rest of the world if they were to achieve independence for Catalonia and remove the repressive yoke of Spanish imperialism:-
Top Feline Care Blogger, Jan Blawat slid onto the stage like a cat, wearing a tight-fitting cat suit made entirely from feral cat fur. "Hi y'all!" she grinned coquettishly as The Duke of Devonshire's blood pressure rose like an old steam locomotive preparing to leave King's Cross.

And then The King himself was called - The Blogger of the Year who had arrived from Johannesburg that very morning. Dressed in a khaki safari suit and wearing a brand new bush hat made by "Tilley" of Canada, he looked every part the adventurer with medals dangling from his breast and an electronic cigarette in his muscular right hand. 

"Oooo! He's gorgeous!" swooned Carol from Cairns.

Cap'n T. Gowans pulled out his long speech. It had been written on Izal toilet paper and rolled back into a familiar cylindrical form. It was a speech that should have been witnessed by "The Guinness Book of Records" people such was its length. It covered happy childhood  days in and around Cannock Chase, the important influence of his beloved father, the trials and triumphs of soldiering, snake bites, whisky, African maidens, the love of his two sons, vehicle maintenance, man management, cooking in a medieval helmet, the importance of accurate grammar and spelling, Cliff Richard, his brothers, map reading, airport security....zzzzzzzz!

"God, he goes on a bit doesn't he?" moaned Adrian.

And Mr R. Brague agreed as they slugged back their French champagne.

Finally, Cap'n Gowans was suitably applauded and the evening consequently descended into an unwholesome vision of debauchery and excess that was reminiscent of Gomorrah. After being plied with strong drink, Jan Blawat - the Catwoman - was ushered away to The Duke of Devonshire's private quarters while Katherine de Chevalle's tongue explored Brian Cutts's Catalonian tonsils in the exotic palm house and Earl John Gray chased one of the liveried footmen up to the hay loft in the stable block. And throughout it all, the author of this post sat in a wing-backed armchair like Methuselah with legs crossed simply observing the goings-on. What a night!