Monday, 28 March 2016

The rockin' maniac.

35 Glendale Road is an address. The Bop Shack a state of mind. Patrick George Michael Still is a name. Pat The Rockin' Maniac is an identity.

The Swamplord, Stilton, the Hat, call him what you like, towered over my adolescent years like no one else. What thoughts lay behind these pale Irish eyes?

Dark ones, occasionally.  But for the most part not. Mainly love and kindness. They emanated from Pat so strongly it hurt. He sometimes gave so much of himself he was left feeling bereft.

It was a tragedy I watched happen, and one I didn't change, that this man who put so much joy in the hearts of others couldn't always put a smile on his own face.

I prefer not to dwell on Pat's darkness. I prefer to remember the good times. There were a lot of them.

Flour fights at Franklin Avenue, Zodiac zipping, dancing harder than anyone else in the room, the love of Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran. Our paths diverged musically but the passion Pat applied to the music never left me.

To see him bopping around in a music note jumper to Restless was to see a man happy. To know I'll never see it again makes me sad.

On Thursday a light went out over Tadley.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

An Agenda?

40 yr old Asad Shad, a much respected and loved Muslim newsagent in Glasgow, is brutally murdered mere hours after posting a happy Easter message on social media.

Less than a week earlier, also on social media, a man posts a comment about approaching a Muslim woman in Croydon and complaining that she had a 'mealy mouthed' response to the Brussels murders.

Both terrible things but the former easily the worst. Assuming you think death is worse than being maligned on the Internet.

So you'd think my left leaning friends would have something to say about both but, perhaps, fixate more on the killing of an innocent man.

Nah, seems not. Is it because Asad Shah was killed by another, clearly more fundamental, Muslim? Or at least someone who identified as such.

I can't help suspecting it was. The other story had little verification whatsoever yet produced spoof memes, outraged diatribes, and a general shit storm.

I think it doesn't fit the agenda of regressive left thinking where that nebulous death star the West is responsible for all evil.

Even though this all happened during the week that the court in The Hague finally locked up Radovan Karadzic for the genocide in Srebenica in which 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered.

Yes, other Europeans were guilty of those crimes. Others still guilty of inaction and allowing evil to prosper.

But that's my point. The West, in reality rather than notion, contains a huge range of opinion from racist thuggery to Islamist terrorist sympathisers with the vast, overwhelming majority residing in the centre and far from either extreme.

As pointless to lump it all in together as it is to say what Islam is. Islam is not a religion of terror. Neither is it a religion of peace. It is an ideology and like all ideologies it is open to interpretation.

The vast, overwhelming, majority of Muslims take a practical and peaceful approach to things. A tiny minority of those who identify as Muslims don't. All beliefs and all ideologies are susceptible to this.

However, at the moment, it would be ostrich like to pretend that Islamic fundamentalism was not a clear and present danger.

I have no idea what can be done about it but I can see the division both the terrorism, and the reaction to it, is wreaking.

If someone with a Belgian grandparent wishes to express their sympathy with that country that doesn't mean they don't also care about Turks, Syrians, and Yemenis also.

To attack them for it is nasty and counterproductive. Everyone is free to express sympathy to anyone else in whatever fashion they feel comfortable with.

I don't argue for one moment that traditional media, tv/printed press, places too high an emphasis on events in Paris, New York, or London and I think the world would be better served if that changed.

But if you think the way of doing that is accusing genuinely caring people of being racist or Islamaphobic you're being silly.

Those things exist and those things are horrible and should be confronted when encountered. In the meantime if you think your friends are showing too much compassion towards Paris and not enough towards Ankara you know what to do.

Change your profile pic to a Turkish flag. Use the power of the Internet not to attack but to find commonality. You may not like the media but with Twitter, blogs etc; you're now more a part of it than ever before.

The line "no-one talks about Turkey" looks a bit silly when, in fact, everyone is talking about Turkey. It looks plain self serving on the night a bomb kills dozens in an Iraqi football stadium and no-one, neither the Pray for Brussels crowd nor the whatabouters, say very much at all.

To try and negate someone's genuine concern for events in Europe by highlighting equally bad, often worse, events elsewhere is like proving your love for your partner by telling your friends their partners are grotesque. It's mean.

Please try to use this new(ish) media for good and not for petty squabbling. If you think this is all a load of sanctimonious shit that's fine. It may well be but it was what I wanted to say. Or to sum it up in four words "look after each other".

TADS #2:The Thames Towpath and the Chiltern Way (or Springtime in the Chilterns).

The night before the 2nd TADS walk of 2016 I got the news that Tadley legend, rockin' maniac, and all round crazy guy Pat Still had passed away. He was 54. Although I'd not seen him for some time he'd been a big influence on my life and many others. Including some of my fellow TADS. It became apparent that our stroll from Henley-on-Thames to Marlow would be punctuated, yes punctuated, with anecdotes and remembrances of Pat.

In fact the last time I can recall being in Henley was in the summer of 1996. It was just after Euro 96 and our friend Stuart was wearing a suit in sweltering heat and trying to do impressions of Gazza (with the ball, not the booze). By the turn of the millennium Stuart would have succumbed to his demons and taken his own life.

So this beautiful walk in fine company was sure to be tinged with a certain sadness. On Thursday night it was pouring down with rain and when I spoke to Adam on the phone and he told me the forecast was good and we'd probably be sat in a pub garden during our Good Friday gadabout I told him I thought that was highly unlikely.

But he was right. The sun came out and lifted the sadness in our hearts. Instead of mourning our walk was filled with laughter, joyful memories, and anecdotes of the NSFW nature.

Once we got there that was. Being a Bank Holiday weekend there was, of course, scheduled maintenance work causing severe disruption on the lines. I met Pam on the train in Paddington. Due to my confusion we had a little wait in the Slough sunshine where we at least got reacquainted with Station Jim. Then an even longer one in Twyford. There we retreated to The Golden Cross for a weak (3.6%) pint of Upham's Tipster. There was a copy of Tractor & Machinery magazine laying dormant on the bar letting us know we weren't in London anymore. Soon we weren't in the pub anymore either. But its garden. I was very happy to have been proved wrong and it wouldn't be the last, or best, beer garden of the day.

Finally meeting up with Teresa, Adam, and Shep we headed straight down to the Thames. Henley looked glorious in the sunshine and it would have been tempting to get a picnic and sit in the riverside park all day soaking up the spring rays.

But the TADS are made of sterner stuff so we set off along the side of the river. Crossing over to the East bank we wandered out of Henley past rowing clubs, Egyptian geese, and below red kites. The book we've been using for our walks was printed over five years ago and mentioned we may be lucky enough to see a red kite or two on our walk. We saw tens, if not hundreds, of the beauties. Showing off their spectacular wing spans as they graciously swooped ever lower.

There were some beautiful houses our side of the river and across we could see over to Fawley designed by Christopher Wren in 1684 with gardens by Capability Brown. Half a kilometre further up was Temple Island, Fawley Court's fishing lodge, a James Wyatt design. It led to a heated discussion of what constitutes a folly.

Things were cooled down with a 99 from a Mr Whippy ice cream van. The first alfresco gelato of the season and as sure a mark of the onset of spring as a bluebell blossom. Looking back across the river again to the village of Greenlands we could see a white Neoclassical mansion built by the newsagent W H Smith. It disappointed me that ol' Smudger hadn't used his shop's corporate colour scheme for his own accommodation but it also occurred to me that I'd never really thought of W H Smith as an actual person before.

We soon reached Hambleden Lock. There's a waterfall, a weir, and a pedestrian only bridge. So many of my favourite things. Almost too much going on.

We pondered briefly before crossing back over Old Father Thames and setting off through the tiny settlement of Mill End, through the fields, and into the village of Hambleden. Wow! What an impossibly quaint place. Village green, churchyard, brick cottages, cobbled streets. It's almost like a Disney recreation of Ye Olde England. You half expect to see an old maid cycling to communion. The only thing that ruined it were the anachronistic modern cars parked up. Though honourable exception is made for the Riley photogenically positioned outside the post office.

In The Stag & Huntsman pub we met Darren, Cheryl, and Tommy. Tommy's beaming smile lighting up the pub garden nearly as much as the now quite impressively hot sunshine. Pam was on the factor 50. The rest of us stuck mostly to Doom Bars. It was such a gorgeous spot and the company was so good that a 'two pint mistake' became inevitable. The old saying "life's too short" seeming more pertinent than ever.

After the pub we had a nose around the churchyard of the Norman Church of St Mary the Virgin. I was trying to find W H Smith's grave. I couldn't see any with a special offer on Mini Eggs and some overpriced Volvic so we asked a church official and he said the newsagent was buried in another nearby churchyard. There was a stained glass window and plaque commemorating him though.

There were also other impressive plots and an alabaster and marble memorial to Cope and Martha D'Oyley (died in 1633 and 1618 respectively) and their five sons and daughters. Two of the sons wear Royalist garb; the rest Puritan outfits. The children who predeceased their father hold skulls. Death, once again, loomed over the walk.

Leaving Hambleden we had our first real climb of the day as we picked up the Chiltern Way. There was such a variety of terrains in this walk it was never in danger of getting boring. We passed a manor house where Charles I stayed in 1646 during his flight from Oxford to St Albans just prior to his imprisonment.

We passed through the hamlet of Rotten Row. We saw a skylark flapping its wings as if it had forgotten it could fly and wondered what it was doing up in the sky. The red kites hovered again. In the pond there was a duckhouse and we noted, how after the expenses scandal, these can never be viewed the same way again.

We'd seen a few deer earlier on in the walk but around Davenport Wood we caught sight of about 30-40 of them running up and down the field, gamboling and frolicking. I guess it's what counts as foreplay in the deer community. It was certainly a spectacle to behold.

Descending into Marlow our walk was coming to its end but there was one last treat in store. A white villa with pointy Gothick windows where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein between 1817 and 1818. She'd lived there with her husband Percy. It's highly satisfying that such a remarkable tale could be forged in such suburban ordinariness.

Marlow is a pleasant commuter town that I'd visited before but we didn't get to see much of it this time. First Clayton's, a pub with Kool and The Gang posters and Babycham adverts on the wall, where we enjoyed both the table service and the Brakspear's Oxford Gold. After that the Tiger Garden Indian restaurant where Shep made his usual complaint about them not serving Bangla and the rest of us tucked into a well earned, tasty, if not exceptional, curry.

A quick walk back to the station where I woke up the driver of the bus replacement service who, in turn, let me travel home for free. Coach to Maidenhead. Train to Paddington. On the train Pam & I both dozed off. Legs full of walking, stomachs full of curry and ale. Able to reflect on another successful TADS trek that didn't, despite all the hints given above, end with us having our eyes pecked out by red kites. Look forward to planning the next one. A two dayer has even been mentioned.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Fleapit revisited:High Rise

Abba's S.O.S. neither conjures up images of brutalist architecture and imploding dystopias nor serves as a vicious satire of the British class system. Yet it's used twice in Ben Wheatley's new adaption of J G Ballard's 'unfilmable' novel and both times it works a treat. It may well have even overtaken Mamma Mia in my list of favourite Abba songs.

It's one of many, seemingly, disparate components that feel like they shouldn't gel well together but do. Whilst each ingredient looks tempting in its own right it's hard to imagine the sum of their parts adding up to anything other than a dog's breakfast. It's to director Wheatley and writer Amy Jump's testament that that isn't the case.

The film is beautifully shot. If you've got a concrete fetish you'll not be left disappointed, the high rise itself is like Le Corbusier let loose on the Barbican. If you're into retro-futurism, oh boy, there's so much here for you. If you simply want to gawp at Sienna Miller you'll probably not be disappointed. Should you prefer Tom Hiddleston you'll find he's a fantastic specimen of a male. There's even something for Pop Will Eat Itself fans as Clint Mansell's score is utterly superb, working in both the aforementioned Abba covers and a lovely little treat I won't spoil towards the end.

That's all front of house stuff but the actual score Mansell's composed does the heavy lifting. It can sometimes be the mark of a good soundtrack if you hardly notice it and that applies here. Most importantly during the hinterlands of the film as idyllic and futuristic tower block living slowly, and then rapidly, descends into a confusing hellish maelstrom.

Hiddleston's Dr Laing is the closest we get to a moral compass throughout the film. Though we're never entirely sure of his motivations we can at least view the ongoing depravity through the prism of his seemingly aloof exterior. Luke Evans's Wilder is the fire to Laing's ice. Lemmy as working class hero who rails against those on the upper floors while, perhaps, not attending to his own inner crises. It's a bravura performance. Possibly the first among equals in a massively impressive ensemble cast.

Dan Skinner, who I relied on my cinema date (thanks, Toby) to inform me played Angelos Epithemiou in Shooting Stars, also deserves a mention for playing nasty piece of work Simmons. Tracksuited up, his role is, nominally, to act as a gopher for top floor dweller, building architect, and all round creepy fucker Anthony Royal. Played by Jeremy Irons who does seem to have a natural talent for these roles. Honourable mention too to Elisabeth Moss who plays Wilder's pregnant, and put upon, wife. It's something of a thankless role in a film where men, in the style of 1975 when it was set, tend to dominate.

The narrative of the film disintegrates as sure as the moral certainties of the characters. It's a tricky thing to portray but, back to that recipe again, it's done with no little aplomb. Odd dreamlike sequences rub up against quotidian scenes of cereal purchase. Facial hair and Minis very much of the 70s crash headlong into more post-modern mores and societal angst. The glass Sienna Miller's Charlotte nearly drops on Hiddleston's sunbathing Laing is not the last thing to fall from a great height. Either allegoric or actual.

There's some gore, there's some violence, there's some sex, there's some spot the reference stuff if that's your thing. You'd be hard pushed to miss the nods to Don't Look Now, The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, and even Columbo. So it's got all the makings of a blockbuster. Yet, judging by the surprisingly large number of people who walked out of the Curzon Soho during the screening, it resides more in arthouse territory. If you're in either camp you'll find plenty to admire in this film. If, like me, you keep a foot in each that's better still.

As the occasional outside shot reveals, this high rise is just one of many in development. There are eight million stories in the city. This was just one of them.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Non-alignment pact

How did I not know about the Calvert journal? An online magazine and shop in, whisper it, Shoreditch that aims to promote cliche-free content from Russia, Eastern Europe, and further afield. It ticks so many boxes for me and I look forward, eventually, to getting round to reading their blog posts on Estonian architects, Polish kitsch, and travel guides for Yekaterinburg.

Things Fall Apart, the Chinua Achebe novel about the devastating impact of colonialism in Africa, lends its name to their current exhibition. One which seeks to shine light on the similar effects on the African nations caused by the collapse of the Communist Bloc and the Cold War thaw.

Kiluanji Kia Henda's exquisite photos of a rusted up boat called the Karl Marx in Luanda, Angola greet you and set the tone neatly for this narratively tangential exploration of the relationship between Africa, Eastern Europe, and beyond.

Yevgeny Fik's series of social realist, even modernist, digitised images utilise caricatures of black stereotypes, idolised peasantry, comments on Apartheid era South Africa, flags, KKK masks, Cyrillic script and bullets. A lot of bullets. They're pretty interesting and you can sit in an armchair while you watch them too. Which may not seem appropriate but is rather comfy.

You've got to stand up to look at Jo Ratcliffe's murals of Castro, Brezhnev, and MPLA leader (and first president of Angola) Agostinho Neto. Her photos of pastoral areas around Cuito Cuanavale mislead as they were actually dangerously mined during the Angolan Bush War. It's a clever trick but one that will be missed by anyone unfortunate enough not to have read up on the history. Or in my case to be stood next to someone who had.

You can also check out some of my old favourites, the architectural models, and look at the strangely beautiful Place des Cineastes in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou as photographed by Isaac Julien.

Alexander Markov's Our Africa film gives you a feel for the time. White men in suits visiting African villages, shaking hands with dignitaries freshly disembarked from jet planes, performances of local customs and culture, and that old staple of the ambassador abroad - a factory inspection.

Downstairs there's a model of Onejoon Che's Three Dikgosi monument in Botswana plus his photos of obelisks and monuments in Senegal, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe. These correlate satisfactorily with the overarching theme even if it's a little hard at times to remember what that is.

One of the most divergent, though still interesting, strands concerns objects (lab shirts, military style badges etc;) pertaining to the Heroes of Baikonur who were rocket scientists based in present day Kazakhstan.

More politically pertinent is the story of Stevan Labudovic. Born in Crna Gora, Yugoslavia, in 1926 his great breakthrough came when establishing a film school for Algerian partisans. Breaching colonial rules by producing war photography by those affected by the war rather than those whose vested interests lay in propaganda. His shots became irreplaceable testimony during Algeria's independence struggle and he was declared a national hero in that country.

It's the former Yugoslavia's links with Africa that form the main body, and the best parts, of this free exhibition. Tito visited Africa in '61 and met up with Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah, Guinea's Sekou Toure, the Malian president Modibo Keita, and King Hassan II of Morocco.

Tito had fallen out with Stalin back in 1948 and had been expelled from the Cominform, the information bureau of the Communist and Workers' Parties. Frustrated by the binary nature of world politics and its domination by East and West (sound familiar?) Tito, along with Sukarno of Indonesia, Egypt's Nasser, and Jawaharlal Nehru of India, formed the Non-Aligned Movement.

They sought to become a credible force in world politics and, in Tito's case at least, revive the WWII Yugoslav partisans (often seen as Europe's most effective anti-Nazi resistance movement) and support the Algerian and Palestinian struggles. Their first summit took place in Belgrade in 1961 where both JFK and Khruschev were addressed indirectly in a letter signed by, among others, Haile Selassie, Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia, Nkrumah, Nasser, and Nehru.

The NAM became a prominent force and an important brake on world affairs until the end of the Cold War. Since then it's had to redefine itself but it still exists and its current presidency resides in Iran. This exhibition doesn't, can't, tell the entire story but it gives you a taster and should you want more there's more films showing than you'd have time to watch and more books there than you'd have the energy to read.

Should you wish to take some home there's also a shop selling coffee table tomes concerning Angolan art deco cinemas, post-Soviet high rises, Yuri Gagarin's British tour, and a copy of 'Tattooed Mountain Women And Spoon Boxes Of Daghestan' which must certainly stand as a contender for most niche publication of all time. Why, you can even get a peppermint tea there. I think I'll be going again.

Pomp and pomposity.

The square mile is a lovely place to stroll around on a Sunday. It's not as dead as it used to be but it's still remarkably empty. Many of the pubs and shops are shut and there's hardly any traffic on the roads so you get a great chance to take in the architecture of the area. Duck behind St Lawrence Jewry (a church that seems to rhyme with the overcast sky) on Gresham Street and you're presented with George Dance's Hindoostani Gothic facade of the Guildhall, the only non-ecclesiastical stone building in the City to have survived through to the present day.

It's surprising how so few Londoners pass this way. This does, however, add a little aptness to the title of the Guildhall Gallery's current Unseen City exhibition. Consisting of photographs taken by Martin Parr of those whose lives are dominated by archaic goings on within the self same square mile.

There's two problems for me already. Firstly, I'm not particularly interested in these people. I don't know any of them and I have no great desire to get to know them. Secondly, I sometimes find Parr's photography to be sneering and contemptuous. Worse still, like early Mike Leigh, most of the sniggering seems to be directed at the working class. The working class with delusions of bettering their selves particularly. Think Abigail's Party.

But it was the first day of spring, I'd just had a nice cup of coffee and a lemon drizzle cake, and I was prepared to check my preconceptions in at the door. Which, with the airport like security employed at he Guildhall, is nearly viable. Checking for weapons or whatnot is fine. What's not is being unnecessarily rude like the man on the counter was. Three fucking times! First of all refusing to serve me, then answering a very simple question bluntly and sarcastically, before, finally, leaving my change right down the other end of the desk so I had to walk round to get it. Hardly a major inconvenience but mildly humiliating all the same. I could feel a strong blogpost coming on!

I entered, initially, an antechamber adorned with unframed photos of enthusiastic crowds waiting for an appearance by the Queen and noticeably less enthusiastic crowds watching The Lord Mayor's Show. The pac a macs of the proles contrasted markedly against the ermines of the elite in some of the adjacent pictures. I took a photo of a photo of some people taking photos.

An image of musketeers at the Ash Wednesday Poulters Procession gives us an idea of how utterly impenetrable this territory is to the layman. I'm not sure what Parr's intention was but if he's trying, as I can only suspect, to convey a sense of boredom dressed up in its finest glad rags he's succeeded. I was as baffled as the people who'd popped into Pret A Manger for a quick bite and saw this....

Next we're introduced to ward beadles attending a pancake race, the dyers' company out swan upping, St.Dunstan's college beating the bounds on Ascension Day and something called the Trial of the Pyx (which it transpires is ensuring that newly minted coins conform to required standards - so at least it's something they'll have a personal interest in). All of these were taken post-crash so as austerity bites harder and harder on the disabled, single mothers, immigrants, and the homeless one thing becomes very apparent. We are absolutely not all in this together.

For some reason I try to reproach myself for feeling such contempt for these liveried loafers, these bankrolled bellends, these moneyed motherfuckers, but, despite the occasional hospital visit and almsgiving very little in the way of humanity or compassion comes through. I feel more empathy with the upped swans.

Whether or not this is a failing or intention of Parr's work is unclear but it's instructive that the gigantic John Singleton Copley painting, The Defeat of the Floating Batteries, Gibraltar, 1782, that adorns an entire wall of the gallery, hardly seems anachronistic in its present company.

You can almost hear the rattle of gold chains, the chink of champagne flutes, and the braying certainties of so much aristocratic hot air as you ponder Parr's portraiture. The only non-white face you see is, of course, performing the menial duties of a drudge at the Worshipful Company of Glover's Annual Banquet. For fuck's sake!

£5 a pop won't break the bank but it's pretty steep for such a small show. The fact we're being asked to pay, again, to view the overprivileged at play sticks in the craw more. Maybe the grumpy git of a doorman was a class warrior repulsed by my willingness to partake in this charade. Maybe not. One way or another, though, he certainly set a worryingly appropriate tone before my immersion in this chamber of chumps.

If you're going to see anything at the Guildhall then come for the impressive Roman amphitheatre and the permanent collection with its glorious Atkinson Grimshaw nocturne. This will hopefully go down as a blip in Parr's career. His portfolio has, prior reservations aside, been mostly impressive but it seems, like so many before him, he's been co-opted into this world and, at times, appears a little spellbound. There's none of the haughty derision that populates his New Brighton dwellers eating lurid ice creams and chips on the beach. Which suggests I may've been right to suspect a sneering attitude all along.

I spare the innocent children in these photographs my wrath but as for the rest of them - fuck 'em.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Fleapit revisited:Rams

Sarah Lund's jumper in The Killing became a thing, didn't it? It's pretty unlikely, though, that the patterned knitwear sported by the hirsute and emotionally constipated cast in Icelandic sheep farming drama Rams (Hrutar) will reap much in the way of bonuses for Phillip Green's buyers.

It's not because the sweaters aren't canny or, more pertinently, that the film's a stinker. Just that, like its hirsute and taciturn protagonists, it works on a much smaller scale.

Feuding farmers Grimmi & Kiddi share a plot somewhere in the north of Iceland. They've both been there a long time. They're both starting to resemble the sheep that are their livelihood. They've both got shit going on. But they don't speak to each other. Not at all.

Both men yell impotently into the void that is the bleak Nordic landscape, and their anachronistic way of life, and rely on a sheepdog to pass messages between each other.

This lack of communication is highlighted during an agricultural show that reeks of passive-agressive behaviour. A dysfunctional way of existing that is heightened still by the long lonely nights. Gummi drinks milk and does jigsaws while Kiddi necks vodka and stumbles around in the snow.

Despite the good guy/bad guy set up both men are equally hamstrug by their demons and the film zones in on them and how, when hardship is imposed upon their valley, they deal with them. It's interesting how easily a relationship of any kind can be poisoned. More so how readily available anti-venoms are eschewed through vanity and pride.

There's more beards and truckers caps than a Grandaddy rehearsal in this film. Don't let that put you off. It's artfully shot with gentle nods to Bela Tarr's legendary long takes (dungaree donning, snow shoveling, even bathing) but with astonishing lead performances from Sigurdur Sigurjonsson, whose expressive eyes write their own scripts, and Theodor Juliusson who though painted in broader strokes has perhaps the more intriguing character arc. Charlotte Boving gives excellent support as sympathetic inspector Katrin. Her and her colleagues investigations helping to unravel both the pastoral and the personal mysteries of the valley.

This film may not send you rushing to Reykjavik, or even the H&M sales, but spare a corner in your world cinema collection for this fable of friendship and bring these Icelandic icemen in from the cold. Sometimes you can get a warm feeling in the coldest of places.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Fleapit revisited:The Witch

A dying boy vomits up a blood soaked apple. A corvid suckles a liminal teat. A baby is stolen by an unseen wolf. A hairy man chops up wood in the moonlight. Chuck in a Hansel and Gretel cottage, goats, twins, and both the post and pre-menstrual state of womanhood and you're dealing with a lot of horror tropes.

I say tropes and not cliches because first time director Robert Eggers has put together a spellbinding, sumptously filmed, and shit yourself scary piece of work. It sometimes feels like it shouldn't work but it always does.

Jump back nearly four centuries and William (Ralph Ineson) plays a pig-headed, if well meaning, Cromwellian patriarch whose deluded puritanical ethos is so extreme it's seen him and his family expelled from the community. The English accents suggest this is not the first time their fervour has seen them cast out and, later in the film, the older family members reminisce about time in the old country. Lincolnshire apparently.

The hard life gets harder still. The brown barren woodlands are shot both beautifully and bleakly and bring home both to us, and to William and his family, just how difficult it will be to live even hand-to-mouth in this unwelcoming environment. Eldest daughter Thomasin is looking after baby Sam one comparatively sunny day when during a routine game of peek-a-boo he goes missing.

At this point the paranormal element kicks in. We cut to a very disturbing scene of a witch smothering her broomstick with the blood of an unbaptised infant. Initial repulsion is partnered with a chaser of chill - and not for the last time.

William presents himself very much as a man of God but is riven by weaknesses. He trades his wife's family heirloom, a silver chalice, with some native Americans and lets Thomasin (the names, the names) take the rap. Poor Thomasin (brilliantly portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy) is also suspected of being responsible for the disappearance and death of baby Samuel.

Her creepy twin siblings Mercy and Jonas (easy on the twins but what did I say) further heap pressure on her and, even though they're the ones hanging out with a goat called Black Phillip, Thomasin is suspected of being a witch. We're dragged into a world of accusation and counter-accusation as the family face starvation and isolation. Their hut in the middle of nowhere offering little solace. Each long shot forces home the fear, the paranoia, and the possibility of it all ending very badly.

Even the animals aren't cut any slack. Black Phillip is backed up with a couple of sidekick goats, rabbits suggest alternative dimensions, horses bolt, and dogs disappear into the distance. Thomasin's younger brother Caleb (played by Harvey Scrimshaw, yes I know) is thrown off his steed and finds himself lost in the forest. When a lady dressed like Nigella Lawson on her way to a hallowe'en party seduces him he reaps the punishment he deserves for copping a look at his teenage sister's cleavage earlier on.

As the promise of a decent harvest recedes in almost equal proportion to William's family size the tension is mounted. Mark Korven's score, much like the film itself, can at times seem obvious. But it works. Perhaps we've seen so many tongue-in-cheek takes on this that we've almost forgotten just how effective it is to play it straight sometimes.

I've put some semi-spoilers in so I'll stop before I spoil big as I'd really like you to get along to see this film. It could be read allegorically as both a feminist text and as a treatise on religious extremism, expansionism, or even as a simple moral fable. They're all interesting things to take on board but, most of all, it's best enjoyed as a good old fashioned fright night feature. If Carl Theodor Dreyer, Rembrandt, Joseph Wright of Derby and Tobe Hooper ever made a film together this'd be it.

If this is Robert Eggers' first film I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

TADS #1:St Albans And Around (or Very vernal in Verulamium).

2011 wasn't the greatest year of my life. Readjusting to reduced circumstances I found myself, occasionally, fed up, lonely, and at a loose end. Sitting in pubs watching football on my own was only fun up to a point and was, predictably, creating other problems. One Sunday morning I woke up and decided to take a trip down to Eastbourne and a stroll along the coast to Beachy Head. Just to have a look. I wasn't THAT depressed.

By the time I reached Victoria station I realised there was a 2 hour wait for the next train so the Beachy Head visit was postponed (it happened eventually) and instead I popped in to WHSmiths and picked up a book. The Rough Guide to Walks in London & Southeast England. It turned out to be one of the most important purchases I ever made.

I chose my first walk Along The Arun because you get the train to Amberley (where it started) from Victoria (where I was). I then strolled 11.5k along the banks of the river Arun into the West Sussex market town of Arundel. Despite being stared down by a bullock in a field covered in shit I caught the train back to London that evening feeling both happy and proud. I was definitely going to do more of these walks. All of them probably.

Though to my initial shame and then later my gratitude only one took place in the next two years. Cissbury Ring near Worthing was ascended solo. By 2014 my oldest friend Shep was looking to get some exercise and getting into walking so we picked up the thread. We did a couple of walks not in the book like the mavericks we were but soon we reverted to the tried and tested routes in the trusted tome. Well, they did have pubs handily marked out on them.

In late 2014 we left Lewes, climbed Mount Caburn (got lost for a while, a recurring theme) and returned to Southease with plans to pick the walking up next year (or season).

Which we did - with gusto. 2015 is the year TADS became TADS proper. On our first walk from Salisbury to Stonehenge we were joined by our friends Teresa and Adam. On having our photo taken in a pub garden (that looked like something from a horror film) I realised our initials spelt out TADS - and as we're all from Tadley (where TADS is a thing) the name stuck.

Last year we walked from Kintbury out to Inkpen and Combe Gibbet, did 20k around Windsor Great Park, explored our home turf of Roman Silchester, rambled out from Amersham to Chalfont St Giles and back along the Misbourne valley and had a look at Chequers from the Northern Chilterns. Patterns developed. It became less a walking club and more a peripatetic debating and ale tasting society. Normally it'd end up in a local curry house.

Best of all we got some new recruits. Pam, Virginie and Kathy brought a new perspective to the days out and possibly reined in (a bit) our Tadley chat. Unfortunately their names don't fit easily into the acronym so TADS we remain.

It's not really a winter pursuit. Not so much because of the cold and wet (we've been lucky there) but more because it gets dark too early and it's pretty difficult to locate a stile in a field after sunset. So TADS had lain fallow since late last year. I was bursting to go and pretty excited about convening in St Albans yesterday lunchtime.

Our first walk of the season took us initially into the centre of St Albans city and its nineteenth century town hall adorned with fluted Ionic columns before dropping down to the cathedral. Named, as is the city, for Britain's first Christian martyr initially it looks more like a parish church, it's no Salisbury, but closer inspection reveals it to be quite an impressive beast. Old Roman brickwork has been incorporated into the exterior, Robert Runcie's buried in the VIP section of the graveyard, and a brief perusal of the interior found violinists soundchecking for a Mozart and Faure recital later in the evening.

The book told us we needed to take the diagonal path from the south transept. Despite having no sense of direction and not knowing what a transept was we could all recognise a diagonal path so we headed down to the banks of the River Ver, passing The Fighting Cocks pub (more later), and heading into Verulamium Park.

What a gorgeous park. A pathway runs between the Ver and a lake abundant with waterfowl. Canada geese, coots, moorhens, and seagulls competed for bread and fish. Swans, er, swanned around and there was talk of kittiwake identification. We know how to have fun. A trio of juvenile ducklings swam by (swam?) and the dappled sunlight on their green heads was quite a spectacular thing indeed. We'd chose the right day to come.

Verulamium Park opens up into St Michael's, once a small village but now absorbed into St Albans' suburbs, where stands a ludicrously popular waffle house. The queue was too long for us but, boy, those waffles must be good. We stopped instead at The Rose & Crown where veggie sausage sandwiches and soft drinks were consumed. We'd be back for a proper ale tasting later.

On leaving the pub we passed both the Verulamium Museum and the Roman Theatre without entering either. Time was of the essence and one of the frustrations of these walks, along with life in general, is there simply aren't enough hours in the day. How things have changed since 2011.

Crossing a busy road into Gorhambury Park we hit proper countryside for the first time. The 5k path that sweeps you round in a semi-circle is a permissive path. That means we're only allowed to use it by the 'kind' permission of the rich landowners of the area. Gee, thanks guys. How about letting us have a look at The Fosse (Roman fortifications) and Verlamiom (a first century stronghold of the Belgic Catuvellani tribe) while you're at it?

Despite these limitations it's a pretty stretch. It feels like an extended private drive leading up to a stately home where posh weddings might take place. You get a look at the creamy white facade of Gorhambury House but far more impressive still are the remains of the earlier Gorhambury Manor.

We learnt the meaning of the word lustrum (thanks Teresa) and had a brief discussion about ruin porn and how the back story of this manor predated Detroit's version by some time. Sir Nicholas Bacon (father of philosopher Francis) once lived there and Elizabeth I came to stay once. The mardy madam complained the place was too small so an extension was built before selling on to the splendidly monikered Grimston family. The Grimstons eventually moved to Gorhambury House but intentionally left the manor looking like romantic old ruins. The fakers.

A downhill stretch us saw us flanked by sheep to the left and longhorn cattle (whose horns seemed to be pre-tagging them for any social media photo use later on, as if!) to the right.

After that we dipped under the M10 and across the A4147 where flowers on the side of the road indicated the perils of crossing here. Quite what the box of discared Bon Jovi CDs, calvados decanters, and DVDs indicated though I don't know.

The path then continued alongside the M1. Not your typical afternoon stroll in the country. We passed through the barely there hamlet of Appspond and arrived in Potters Crouch, a pretty village of duckpond and black weatherboard houses, with the promise of a pint in The Holly Bush. It was closed. I'd forgotten country pubs do this.

We walked off our mild frustration, headed through Park Wood, along King Harry Lane, through a suburban 70s housing estate before finally reaching Verulamium Park again and heading back to the Rose and Crown where Shep was eager to get his lips round a pint of Adnams. I opted for Thwaites Wainwright and enjoyed both the beer and conversation as I jealously eyed the Scrabble players at the next table.

Up the road in The Six Bells I tried an equally delightful pint of Tring's Bring me Sunshine and as rugby played in the background pub talk turned to politics and punctuation. The latter much to Shep's distaste. Though to be fair to him he did order Teresa a latte without complaint. Something of a first?

I was starting to get hungry but there was no way we were leaving St Albans without a drink in The Fighting Cocks first. It's one of about a dozen contenders for Britain's oldest pub (other notables being in Nottingham and Stow-on-the-Wold) and it looks impressively antiquated from outside though less so once inside. There was a fairly dreadful blues rock band running through their repertoire in one bar so I nursed my pint of Pure Ubu in another before we headed off. We'd ticked that box.

Our final stop was, you guessed it, a curry one. Trip Advisor had rated Alban so we gave that a go. I had a cheese and tomato concoction I can't remember, or find, the exact name of. It was tasty if a little too mild. I'm not the type of maniac to order the spiciest thing on the menu before submerging my head in the nearest available fish tank but if the water on the table remains untouched that tells me something. It must be noted in passing that other diners remarked upon the absence of lime pickle with the poppadums and Shep was most disappointed they didn't serve Bangla. Although he enjoyed the Cobra enough to go back for seconds.

It was a good walk, a great day, and a fun start to our season. Plans are already afoot to go again in April and there'll, no doubt, be more on that at the time.

A brief note on the numbering system (like anyone cares!). TADS #1 refers to the first blogged walk rather than the first actual walk.