Thursday, 7 September 2017

A Confession from 1978

Guilt. It's a terrible thing. I now have a very responsible job telling Bible stories to children- with some of the nasty bits left in, because they like it that way. They do ask interesting questions. Often, I prefer their answers to anything I’ve got. But since I am meant to be a bearer of Truth, it behoves me to finally unburden myself of a deed that insulted an entire nation. Yes, it’s that big...

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Barcelona, Two Days On- A Different Kind of Silence

Stress. It’s all relative. Last Sunday, Mrs PGD and I were stressed out by news that our planned two-day break in Barcelona would be wrecked by an airport security guard strike.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

'Baby Driver'- a great sound and fury signifying nothing....

How does a film like this get 4 or 5 stars?

Critic reviews
'An awe-inspiring piece of filmmaking from Edgar Wright that plays out as a musical through the lens of an action thriller.' Terri White-  Empire
'Will resonate most with audiences that skew young, hip, and, like its helmer and its hero (the latter played by baby-faced "The Fault in Our Stars" star Ansel Elgort), more than a little obsessive '.Peter Debruge- Variety

Well, we went to see it, and good grief... what a letdown. Like a 4th of July firework display- Baby Driver is full of artistic light, colour and very loud bangs- but in the end, all you're left with is a mind-numbing pile of toxic ash.

To begin with, the plot sounds promising. A crime lord's young getaway driver is trying to get out of his current profession, gradually working his way towards paying off a debt- to find it's not as easy as he hoped. And so we see him trying to engineer an escape, but it all goes wrong. That's it, really.

What's bowled the critics over and set them scurrying for their superlatives is director Edgar Wright's clever use of classic pop hits to choreograph and colour the action. One case in point: the crime lord's explanation of the details of an upcoming heist, all set to the rhythms of Dave Brubeck's 'Unsquare Dance', with syncopated gestures, tapping fingers and sudden eye movements. Through the first half of the film, this device works like a dream... Remember John Travolta's walk along the sidewalk at the introduction to 'Saturday Night Fever'? It's even better than that.

But then the violence kicks in. Oh boy. All that directorial wit is blown to bits as more and more people are brutalised, bludgeoned, and shot. There's a massive body-count in this film, and an insane level of gunplay. In the past, classic gangster films like 'Heat' or 'The Godfather Part 2' gave this sort of realistic violence a moral context that didn't celebrate the taking of human life, but showed the increasing corruption of those who did. By contrast, 'Baby Driver' is sentimental guff, As the violence increases, so the characters become increasingly two-dimensional and disposable. Perhaps (accidentally) that's the point of this film. Violence degrades everyone, including the imagination of everyone unfortunate to see films like this.

So yes, 'Baby Driver' is definitely clever- but by the end, you forget why you were enjoying it at the beginning.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

What… Just Happened?

Weird things happen to me all the time. This happened on Sunday afternoon.

It was 3.30 pm when I turned up with my guitar at a local church building within our parish, to help lead the singing. ‘Family Communion’ is one of our experiments that uses a non-traditional approach to ‘do church’ with a wider range of people than the regular faithful- but you never know what’s going to happen.
Today, I turned up to see a bunch of ten local kids at the back. We’ve had low-level trouble before, with walls being climbed, property outside being damaged, that sort of thing. Our curate found these ones hanging around outside when she was opening up, and invited them in- so there they were now, sitting at the back, eating their Pringles and being a bit rowdy. A few of our elderly congregation were also filing in, looking rather apprehensive at seeing the newcomers.

When it was nearly time to start, our curate (who knew most of the kids by name), invited them to come up and sit with the rest of us at the front, which they grudgingly did, with lots of giggles and occasional bleeps from their mobile phones. Yes, we were going to try and make this worship thing happen, altogether. I was inwardly cringing, but asked for a Pringle from one of the kids, and was given it. Making personal connections, you see. Always important, not that I know much about it.

So I set up my music stand and guitar to the side, sitting amongst our rather mixed congregation, and started strumming to give the place some atmosphere, as you do. One of the older people was staring daggers at the kids- she wasn’t finding this easy at all, but who does? I definitely wasn’t.

We began. After a quick introduction, our curate got me leading with a very simple ‘Thank you ‘ song which includes spaces for inserting different subjects, and I asked everyone for ideas. What could we be thankful for? ‘Me!’ said one kid, to giggles. ‘God loving us’ said another. We sang ‘Thank you God for loving us’, and added verses about our world and our families. Then our curate went straight into talking about a recent visit she’d made to a friend working with survivors of the Grenfell tower disaster, and the idea of God helping us to keep a heart that stays strong although the outside can be broken or bruised by the horrible things that happen in life. Despite some sniggers, most of the kids were listening hard. More beeps from a phone, and the others told him to turn it off. We wrote down subjects for prayer on post-it notes, handed them in for shared prayer, then sang another song about a faithful God being with us despite everything that life can throw at us.

Some of the natives were restless- so our curate gave them a choice: stay and take part or go out, and come back later for cake. A couple left, the rest chose to stay. We shared the Peace, asking the names of anyone whose names we didn’t know, then began sharing a simple communion liturgy. Everyone was taking part. One of the kids was given the job of taking the bread around, and saying ‘The Body of Christ’ as it was handed over. I began a song (‘Bless the Lord O my soul’) and the kids spontaneously joined in, some singing with real passion as they followed the words on the projector screen. We finished with a traditional hymn, and bless them, they all gave it a go- but at the end, asked if we could do the ‘Bless the Lord’ song again because they really liked it.

As we sat down later, talking over tea, cake and biscuits, some of them told me they wished their school taught them more about God and gave them somewhere to go and pray when they felt all worked up inside. As they left, those of us adults nominally in charge of events wondered and marvelled at what had just happened. God turned up. Worrying, really, when you think about it. What should we do next?

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Alien:Covenant. Big Stuff... with teeth, John Milton, and no obvious plot spoilers

A few years ago, a local museum staged a cut-down exhibition called 'Invaders from Space'- a collection of SF film memorabilia and fan artwork. I'm a sucker for this stuff and it was great fun, but one room had as its centrepiece, a fully-grown Alien from the film series- and something about it was so horrible, I couldn't bear to approach it for a closer look. Other visitors were wandering around with their children and had no problem showing off the fake beasty to their kids. Me, I hung back. It was strange. This was just a costume from a film-set, but I'm a usually-functioning-adult-male with an over-active imagination. There was nobody in there, but it was too close, too real. Why did it have that effect? I've just discovered How.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Watching someone lose it

How... sad.

A few years ago at the Edinburgh Festival, I went with a friend to see a stunning performer whose music and wit lined the Radio 4 airways with comedy for many years. His topical songs had bite, with startling levels of musicianship that made unpalatable ideas actually worth listening to. Because it was so late, and because the trains from Edinburgh shut down so early, my friend and I spent the night wandering round Edinburgh, waiting for the first morning train home. Crazy? Yes, but utterly worth it. That gig was honestly one of the best I've ever seen- despite the performer having a sore throat, constantly dosing himself with swigs of something antiseptic. He covered every style and groove, even improvising a new song to a theme shouted out by a member of the audience (Me), and generally oozed talent. If the Festival is a trade fair, then that’s the way to do it.

Last night, we went to see him again in Newcastle... but walked out at half-time. He’s a changed man. Swearing can sometimes be funny, but not this time. The show was so full of defiant bitterness, and it felt uncomfortable for us to be there as witnesses to someone else's grief. With rage and bafflement, the man described how his marriage broke down two years ago, and how strange it was to be now living alone. His demeanour and language were understandably full of rage, and the air was frequently blue. (At Edinburgh, he hadn’t sworn once.) This show had been on the road for several months, so there’d been plenty of time to iron out the glitches- so what we were seeing and hearing were presumably, exactly what he wanted us to hear.

Grief and anger can turn people extremely bitter, consuming them until they lose grasp of who they are. Perhaps, like Tourette’s syndrome, the experience draws out parts of the personality normally hidden by convention or fear of exposure. I used to know a frustrated vicar whose sermons were described by a curate as 'bleeding all over his congregation', and last night felt just like that. Creative types don’t have it easy- and the trouble with being creative is… it can’t deliver you from life’s chasms. In fact, it can even make things worse, because you feel it more than many others, and the only way to express it is through your art.

Of course, every show has to be a crafted performance, even if someone's talking about their personal problems- so none of us watching, ever really know what's really going on inside a performer's life or head. But this evening seemed to be so full of angry despair, it was painful- except for one moment. There was one beautiful song, a touching tribute to Victoria Wood, that was so full of affection and admiration and respect.... and heart. It was the kind of song I remember hearing in Edinburgh, the sort that celebrated humanity in all its weirdness and made you feel glad to be alive and present in the room.

As it was, this gig felt like a suicide note set to music. I hope one day, he can find something good to believe in, at the end of all this- and finds himself again.

Friday, 14 April 2017


It's a tough life, visiting exotic locales, taking in the sun on a foreign shore, tasting the local brews and wandering the winding streets of a mediaeval city- but someone's got to do it. Venice can be a frantic buzz, bursting full of other people just like me who have the cheek to be there at the same time, and looking at the same things ... but there are quieter places where hardly anyone gets mugged, you rarely tread in something awful, and a sense of history echoes back to the sound of your own footsteps.

Sunday was my chance to see Damien Hurst's latest offering: his new exhibition staged for the Venice Biennialle, 'Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable'

The Guardian loves it... 


….  but if you're not popping over to Venice in the next 6 months, then here's wot Our Damien has been up to, using his millions to create some Big Art about Truth, Lies. Faith, Belief, and Remembering. As you enter, 'authentic' film footage recounts the story of a fabulous treasure ship from the second century, newly discovered on the bed of the Indian Ocean. The museum entrance sports the following quote over the entrance:

With that we're off, wandering around displays of 'discovered' objects from the sea-bed that owe more to the stop-motion cinematic genius of Ray Harryhausen ('Clash of the Titans', 'Jason and the Argonauts'...) than real history- but never mind. There are monsters,  heroes, heroines, gods and demi-gods. Amidst the swords and sorcery, there’s occasionally a hint of real human feeling lurking inside all the cleverness- but let's start with the awesome stuff. Imagine an 18 metre-tall cast-metal giant demon, headless, bursting with muscular malevolence. It's a colossus, a gob-smackingly big piece of engineering that makes you wonder how they even got it into the building (through the roof, apparently).

There's a horse-rider under attack from an enormous sea-serpent, and evidently not enjoying the experience.

Here's a magnificently resplendent mermaid, blasting up from the waves accompanied by sundry crustaceans, molluscs and other assorted denizens of the deep.

Clash of the Titans-territory again. Andromeda, menaced by the approaching Kraken without a rescuer in sight.

A Warrior-woman rides into battle astride a rearing Grizzly.

The Hindu goddess Kali meets the Hydra of Greek myth in a celebrity death-match- underwater.

A massive Sun-disc from the time of the Incas- and Indiana Jones.

But Our Damien is throwing in clues all the time. Can you spot one here?

Third one down. I probably bought my grandson one when he was six. Now check out these helmets.

Nobody ever made winged helmets like that. (They get knocked off too easily in battle, unless you're an extra in Lord of the Rings.) As for the goddess Kali's swords- they're mediaeval two-handed broadswords from North-Western Europe, not the usual tableware for a Hindu deity. 

This 'Proteus' is actually based on John Merrick, the original Elephant Man of the Victorian era (a gentle human being).

And this? The original lab-rat from a rather dubious experiment appeared on Have I Got News For You as the end-of-show caption competition. (Paul Merton: 'Pardon?')

This is Quexacoatl, the Mexican snake god. Or is it Optimus Prime?

So by the time you get to this one, you know that Damian Hurst is truly taking the Michael.

Sometimes, it's banal. A jade Buddha, a mocked up sculpture of Durer's Praying Hands, the phallic Chinese Drummers, a busted Bacchus. Is Hurst saying that the Disney organisation repackage ancient myths for modern consumption?  (So what's new?) That's him with Mickey, by the way, best buddies by the look of it.

One particular piece is horribly real- of a life-size Minotaur raping an Athenian girl. No, I'm not showing the picture. The outrage on the girl's face, the pain and disgust... is that art, or pornography of the worst kind? Is it an attempt to portray sexual assault for what it really is...  or just bad art? I can't decide. Looking back over the whole show, you can see Hurst is trying to provoke reactions. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. There's Pride... Horror ... Sorrow... Awe... Mystery... Pathos.. But curiously, we see nothing about Love.

The gallery's first opening to the general public (on two sites) came on Palm Sunday. Around Venice that morning, worshippers had processed through the city waving palm branches, celebrating a divinity and humanity that was more down-to-earth than the flash-bang mythology of the exhibition. Palm Sunday remembers a wild parade through an excited crowd wanting a Messiah. They sing their Hosannas. A Temple market is trashed. Protests are made, and broken bodies mended. Children sing in delight. In that story there are no monsters, the only swords are wielded by ignorant disciples, soldiers and Temple guards. The lurking horrors don't have teeth or scales- just clubs and whips. Does this story contain any more truth than the tales told by Damien, Donald or Mickey? Historically yes- but curiously, there seems to be more human compassion in it, too. 

Believable? Unbelievable? This Easter, as we see what's happening in the world, what do you and I want to believe in- and Why?