Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Fashion - I don't understand it

I don't normally buy women's magazines, but recently (for different reasons) picked up copies of Harper's Bazaar and InStyle. Harper's Bazaar was for something to read on the train; InStyle was solely for the 20% off LK Bennett coupon inside (I reckoned it was worth paying £3.20 for the magazine to get £45 off the new coat I was going to buy anyway). Thanks are due to the shop assistant in LK Bennett at Canary Wharf, anyway, for the tip! I flicked through both magazines, as a matter of interest.

Both magazines were concentrated on fashion, for want of a better word, though InStyle was more concerned with showing how you too could achieve a similar look to, say, Paris Hilton or Cate Blanchett. At least they showed clothes on real people (inasmuch as Paris Hilton is a real person), rather than six-foot tall models. Both catered towards the higher end of the fashion market, though InStyle also gave a few nods towards the high street shops such as Top Shop and French Connection as well as towards the more designer labels.

I don't understand fashion. I can see the appeal in shoes, hats and bags, though my ceiling price for buying such items is fairly low (though rising, now that I have more money available to spend). I don't understand how leopard print in any fabric can be anything but tawdry, nor how anyone could think that Mischa Barton is some kind of style icon: she's a skinny, pretty actress who always seems to be photographed in baggy clothes that are too big for her. I don't understand why a Lorus 18 carat gold watch can cost less than a tenth of the price of a similar Christian Dior watch: Dior is known as a couturier, not a watchmaker, whereas Lorus make watches.

In fact, the best fashion advice I've read recently has been in Annalisa Barbieri's column in the New Statesman: which probably says more about me than about so-called fashion magazines.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Advance warning!

Anton Bruckner Choir (click on the link to the right) will be performing Monteverdi's Vespers at a concert on Saturday 2nd December 2006 at 7:00 pm. The concert will be at St Clement Danes' church, Strand, WC2.

A review to come later!

Tallis Festival Concert 2006 review

Again, somewhat late in coming, a review of Exmoor Singers' concert last Sunday.

Exmoor Singers do this every year, quite apart from their other concerts, gathering together friends, fellow singers and ex-Exmoor singers for their annual Tallis extravaganza. In other words, the usually small-scale choir expands considerably to about 120, and Thomas Tallis' sublime 40-part motet Spem in alium nunquam habui is sung. There are other pieces performed as well, because Spem, good as it is, only lasts for about 10 minutes in performance (the scores make good fans on hot days, though, being about the same size as a broadsheet newspaper). The concert took place in the church of St Alban the Martyr, off Holborn, in the City of London.

This year, the companion works were Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, Vaughan Williams' Mass in G minor, and a new piece, specially commissioned for the event, by Jaakko Mantyjarvi, Tentatio. Tentatio was lightly accompanied by hand bells, and the Chichester Psalms by organ, harp and percussion. The other two pieces were unaccompanied.

Chichester Psalms was written in response to a commission from Walter Hussey, one of the great modern-day church patrons, whilst Dean of Chichester. The words are in Hebrew, rather than in English or Latin, which can pose some problems for English choirs unused to singing the language. However, that wasn't a huge problem on Sunday because of the organ accompaniment. I was sitting more-or-less in the middle of the church, which does have rather a resonant acoustic, good for singing a capella. The organ completely overwhelmed the choir and turned what they were singing into tuneful mush. In the first movement, where the organ was loudest, not a word could be distinguished. The second movement, very lightly accompanied, mainly with harp, was much better, giving the chance for the words to be heard (The Lord is my shepherd), and the alto soloist to shine.

The choir then disaggregated and reassembled in a different arrangement around the church to perform Tentatio. This was another 40-part motet, but instead of being arranged in 8 choirs of 5 voice (SATBB) parts as the Tallis, was in 4 choirs of 8 voices (SSAATTBB) and 1 choir of 8 baritones. The words were in Latin, and told the story of Jesus' temptation by the devil in the wilderness (from Matthew's gospel). The choir of eight baritones sang the devil's words. This was an excellent work, interesting, tuneful and dynamic, and well sung from all round the church (and even from above, in the organ loft). Big round of applause, for the choir and the composer, who was also singing in the concert.

After the interval, eight choirs assembled around the church for Spem in alium. This is something that gets performed every year, and it's probably quite difficult to conduct in the round. Mostly, this sounded excellent, quite sensitive a performance for such a large choir, though it was clear that James Jarvis, conducting, wasn't getting quite as immediate response from his singers as he would have liked. But then, once you lose your place in this piece, it's very difficult to find it again! The antiphonal effects came across well through the location of the choirs, too.

Lastly was Vaughan Williams' Mass in G minor. This was another work I didn't know, but enjoyed. The double choir effects were not quite as pronounced as they could have been, and there was a tendency to sing much too loudly, so that there was not such a contrast between the very quiet parts and the very loud parts. The solo quartet were excellent, particularly the soprano and bass, singing from the pulpit slightly above the rest of the choir.

I did like the fact that Exmoor used their own singers for the soloists, both in the Mass and the Chichester Psalms, showing that there is plenty of talent to be offered by the amateur singer, as opposed to the professional. And of course, it makes it all cheaper.

And that's the one sour note: very well, the concert was free, and we were asked for donations, but each of the singers had paid to be there, and it wasn't cheap either. So one did feel a little put off by the heartfelt plea for cash when most of us, knowing someone in the choir, knew how little this was costing Exmoor, and what a huge fundraiser it is for them.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Not the rock band

I've been listening over the past couple of days to a complete and unabridged reading of J.R.R.Tolkien's The Silmarillion. It's read by Martin Shaw, whom you wouldn't necessarily think of as the first choice to read an epic, but he reads it very well, even pronouncing the names correctly.

I've read The Silmarillion several times, though I often skip the bits I'm not keen on - Turin's story, for example, because I dislike the character. It's interesting to see just how much of a different style Tolkien used when writing this book, compared to The Lord of the Rings, or The Hobbit. His idea was to create an English myth that owed nothing to any other culture. I'm not sure that he succeeded in creating an English myth, but that he created something that has the power and resonance of true myth is indisputable. To hear it read aloud, one can truly appreciate the form and style, and the ancient form of story-telling which Tolkien was trying to re-create.

Although Tolkien never saw The Silmarillion published in a completed form during his lifetime, in it are many tales that are referred to in The Lord of the Rings, and more fully explained. His account of the creation of the world, and the people to dwell in it, brought into being by a great music, is one of the most beautiful and poetic creation myths I've ever read. In some ways, Tolkien's imagining of the beginning of evil is similar to that of the Judaeo-Christian myth of Satan rebelling against God's rule, but far more subtle and less clear-cut. Everyone acts from mixed motives, not all of which are entirely noble, nor entirely evil. The tragedy which unfolds is brought about both through malice and eagerness, mistrust, pride and courage.

The person I feel most curiosity and interest about, but because of the book's huge scope of time and geography there is little space devoted to him, is Maedhros, eldest son of Feanor. I'm not sure why he should be so appealing: maybe because he was loyal to his friends and to his family, was brave, suffered torture and recovered; and yet was corrupted by the oath into seeking the Silmarils, and killing those who kept any from him. It's because of those redeeming qualities that I find his fate so moving; yet when Turin kills himself, one can only feel that it's something of a relief to everyone else.

I find the book far more epic and heroic than Lord of the Rings, and in The Silmarillion he allows more space to wise and powerful, or even just proud and strong-willed, women than in the later tale. Of these, Luthien is the best-drawn: though she is beautiful and is her father's delight, she doesn't fear darkness, and is brave, loyal and powerful. No shrinking heroine to be protected by the hero, she: Beren and she are partners, complementary in skills and talents, equally willing to face danger and to protect the other.

It's tragedy on a grand scale, descending from a high point of bliss and light to ruin and darkness, but looks forward to eventual hope.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A serious post, for once

The case reported above has been rumbling on for a while now, that of reforming Pakistan's rape prosecution laws. The original bill has been amended after an outcry from religious groups protesting plans to make rape accusations tried under civil as well as Islamic law. At present, a woman in Pakistan has to present four male witnesses to prove her case; if her attacker is found not guilty she can instead be punished for having extra-marital sex. Rape is apparently a capital crime in Islam, and so the need to prove such an accusation is paramount, as for any capital crime. But having to bring four male, not even female, witnesses to one's violation? How many women can even find one man willing to testify? It's also interesting, though frightnening, to realise that the hudood ordinance (which requires the four witnesses), was only promulgated in 1979. The law is thus not even traditional - if that's any excuse for keeping such an unfair piece of legislation.

While deploring the appalling rate of rape and violence against women in Pakistan (and hoping that the new laws do get passed with minimal amendments), we can't feel superior in the west. Even here, in a so-called civilised country, where we pride ourselves on our human rights, the burden of proving rape still lies on the woman attacked, and successful prosecutions are rare. This is partly because of reluctance to report the crime, and partly because proving such accusations often come down to one person's word against another's, and which the jury believes. When, even now, large numbers of the population believe that a woman is "wholly responsible" for being raped if she is drunk or dresses provocatively, then the average jury won't give the woman the benefit of the doubt.

It makes one wonder, in these supposedly enlightened days, why many men still fear women and wish to subjugate them.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Something for the weekend?

The weekend saw me in London again, full of plans for re-decorating the kitchen of G's house. As part of our plan (and to avoid spending too much time actually in the house), we went off to Olympus Tiles to select tiles for kitchen and bathroom. I know, we lead a really exciting life!

It wasn't very busy, so we were rather at the mercy of a knowledgeable salesman who would keep coming up and telling us about stuff when we were looking round. It was interesting to see how they had tiles there which, if you put them up in your bathroom, would recall Victorian public conveniences, or seventies' bathrooms, or even show that you had absolutely no taste whatsoever. Who on earth decided that moulded fruit standing out from a tile was a good look? Anyway, we found some tiles we liked and bought some samples to take home and try against the background of the two rooms.

On Sunday, having been chastised the day before by one of the neighbours, I decided to tackle the front garden, which until that point was a mass of weeds and some grass. It's odd that, now feeling a sense of ownership with the garden, which I never felt when I was a child with any garden that my parents cultivated, I set to work with a will that would have considerably surprised my mother, had she seen me. Most of the weeds were removed, and part of the garden dug up and forked, and discovered bulbs decently reinterred. It looked quite tidy by the time we had lunch and had to pack up for the day.

Finding ourselves again in South Kensington on Sunday evening, G and I decided to have dinner at a Moroccan resturant on Brompton Road we'd passed several weeks earlier. It's called Cous Cous, and isn't far from South Kensington tube station. Inside, the decor is fantastic - quite dark, with very little direct light - with red walls, lots of wood, tiled floor, rugs and pierced metal lampshades. There was a lovely smell as we walked in, too - though I'm not sure whether that was due to scented candles or the hookah a patron was smoking! We hadn't booked, but found a table quite easily at 7pm.

We chose things from the menu that sounded interesting, but the host, a very charming chap, was fully ready to explain our choices. We picked a flavoured orange juice to drink that was delicious, so full of other things that the orange wasn't dominant. G had a starter, a chicken pie. This sounds very dull, but it was lovely - moist chicken with sweet spices and nuts, in a round parcel of filo pastry. We both had tagine for main course - G's was of strips of lamb cooked with prunes, boiled eggs and nuts; mine was minced lamb meatballs and poached egg in a spicy tomato sauce - and a bowl of cous cous. The cous cous also was superbly cooked - light and fluffy and tasty, without any water. We both felt rather too full for dessert, but we each had some mint tea, and were suprised by the addition of a couple of pastries after we'd asked for the bill. The pastries were rather sweet, rather like baklava, though I quite liked the one stuffed with pistachio nuts.

It was one of the most delicious meals I've had for ages - partly due to the uniqueness of the cuisine, and partly due to the way in which it was cooked. The service was excellent, and even the permitted smoking didn't interfere too much with our enjoyment of the meal. Cous Cous is highly recommended.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Old fat furry catpuss

The art of blogging, apparently, is to record one's day-to-day life on a regular basis. I generally find that events of interest pass by without me blogging about them. So this post is about something I actually did two weeks ago...

Songs from Bagpuss was a show staged at the smaller of the two venues at The Sage, Gateshead, a decagon-shaped room, with at least three tiers of seating. It was the first time I'd been to The Sage, though I'd seen it many times from the other side of the Tyne (being an actual Geordie, I don't normally go south of the river). It's an impressive space, on the inside as well as on the outside. The acoustic of the venue was great, and the audience, primarily though not exclusively parents with small children, very much enjoyed themselves. We were all asked to join in with singing, squeaking along the mice, and shouting out the relevant missing words in some of the songs. Most of us were also wearing paper mouse masks which were supplied at the door.

There were four singers and musicians, two men and two women; two of which had been involved with the music for the original Bagpuss programmes, fondly remembered by many thirty-somethings. These were Sandra Kerr, voice of Madeleine, the rag doll, and John Faulkner, voice of Gabriel, the toad. Kerr and Faulkner had actually written many of the songs themselves, and the other songs were traditional folk songs. It was amusing to see that the two newer performers were the ones who knew the words... Very impressed that the younger woman (apologies, can't remember her name) could play the violin while clog dancing.

Anyway, the songs were sung enthusiastically by the performers and the audience, all in the auditorium squeaking loudly along with, "Heave! Heave! Heave!" in response to Sandra Kerr's "Marvellous mechanical mouse organ!" We had a great time. If the show ever comes your way, I'd recommend you go and see it: even if you don't have kids.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Strange but good

Although I nominally listen to BBC 6 Music in the mornings when I'm getting up and ready for work, I find myself often hearing things but never finding out who the songs are by. For example, I'd heard that thing by Lily Allen several times before I realised who was singing, and I'm sure I've listened to several up and coming new bands without actually being able to identify any of them. Mind you, I could argue that none of them have ever inspired me to find out the band or singer so that I can buy the stuff myself (apart from searching iTunes to find XTC's "Senses Working Overtime" which I heard on Phill Jupitus' show a couple of weeks ago). One exception, though, has been Amy Winehouse's "Rehab", which I did feel the need to buy.

This morning I heard what has to be one of the oddest cover versions ever considered: The Divine Comedy covering "No-one Knows" by Queens Of The Stone Age. I missed probably about half of the song: the bit I did hear was good, but... It's just the utter incongruity of it, rather like Nouvelle Vague's smooth versions of punk classics, that was so striking. Neil Hannon's take is not quite as sleazy as Josh Homme's, and the Divine Comedy's version features (namechecked) banjo and violin solos!

Having now checked The Divine Comedy's official website, I see that the cover version is listed on the Q&A page. However, it doesn't appear to be slated for an official release.

Monday, November 06, 2006

You can’t believe all you read, you know...

Whilst one naturally takes into account that all print media appear to have their own slant on the news, politics, celebrities, fashion, and so on, it’s interesting to see how that bias can in turn influence one’s own opinions. It’s said that there are two ways to lie: suppressio veri and suggestio falsi. Most magazine articles, unless the journalist in question hasn’t done his/her research, or is completely unscrupulous, steer clear of outright lies. Even when this is done, the moderately-informed reader can generally detect this.

Suppression of the truth, or the bits of the truth that don’t happen to fit, however, is another matter entirely. The facts are generally correct, but the reader is not presented with the full story, and so is unable to reason based on full disclosure.

This sudden realisation (perhaps rather late in coming) was sparked by reading an article about Hispanic immigration into America in this week’s New Statesman (an admittedly left-wing-biased publication). A short feature about Eva Longoria was also included with the longer article by Mario Vargas Llosa. Now, I don’t know much about Longoria, apart from the fact that she’s an actress, who plays an unfaithful wife in Desperate Housewives. Previous press articles have suggested that she’s rather a vain, self-obsessed woman, and have not hinted at the fact that she might have a brain or a social conscience. Yet the New Statesman’s feature suggested that she has both, and campaigns for the Democrats. Unlike many other high-profile Hollywood Democrats, however, she’s actively campaigned to raise the status and positive profile of Hispanic Americans, whether illegal or not. The feature makes the comment that a journalist from Maxim (a men’s magazine), was utterly taken aback when interviewing her, to find someone who tried to use the interview to highlight her concerns. A far cry, I daresay, from the article which finally appeared.

The presentation of celebrities in the press can be equally skewed through no fault of the journalist, however. Stars’ PR people can be oddly determined that journalists shall portray the accepted view of their star, and not allow any questions on subjects that may show another light. Nicole Richie, for example, is generally portrayed as an airhead blonde bimbo, though she is apparently quite intelligent and interested in more weighty matters than her PR allows, according to one journalist (the encounter, apparently, led to the hack in question giving up celebrity reporting). But what purpose does this serve? Why would it be in Ms Richie’s interest to appear less intelligent than she actually is? And why would her PR actively encourage this view of her client?

Admittedly, most people would like to portray the good bits of their personalities. So-called "celebrities" may well be as vain, shallow and meretricious as they appear to be, but if they are not allowed to express themselves completely, how can we discriminate? Let's have the whole truth and make up our own minds.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Good Night, And Good Luck

I haven't posted for a while because the broadband at home is being temperamental, and I've been busy at work. So here, long overdue, are my thoughts on television.

Having seen "Good Night, And Good Luck" reduced lately, I eagerly bought the DVD of the film, which I watched yesterday evening. It’s a good film, though I hesitate to give it the full five stars because of a certain lack of tautness and some irrelevance in the plot (though perhaps comparing it with “All The President’s Men” is rather unjustified). The performances are very good, particularly David Strathairn as Edward Murrow, and a very sub-fusc George Clooney (who also co-wrote and directed) as Murrow’s producer, Fred Friendly. Frank Langella also impressed with his performance of CBS boss Paley.

The main scope of the film covers Murrow’s attempts on national television to point out the unconstitutional and illegal methods of Senator McCarthy in rooting out Communism. It’s stated clearly that the CBS crew were in no way Communists themselves, apart from Joe and Shirley Wershba (Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson), but what concerned them was the damning by association, of hearings held in camera at which accused were not allowed to meet their accusers, and where the whole due process of law was not followed. Clooney admits in the DVD featurette that of course the film could be used to point the finger at the current treatment of Guantanamo detainees, but it’s about more than that.

Murrow’s thesis, expressed at the beginning and end of the film, is that television must not insulate us from real life, by shrinking from telling the public the truth, and being afraid to editorialize. The film makes the point that expressing dissent is not the same as being disloyal. Murrow became disillusioned by the increasing “dumbing down” of television news, and the increasing preoccupation with flashy visual images that he thought distracted from the message. It’s worth pointing out, perhaps, that he began life as a radio journalist.

While, in Britain, the news and current affairs still appears to be taken more seriously than in the United States, we can’t become complacent. While ITV seems to be descending into the search for mass audience, even the BBC is not exempt (with some notable exceptions, such as Radio 4).

It seems somewhat salutary to reflect on the media circus surrounding Madonna’s decision to adopt a child from Malawi, having just watched “Good Night, And Good Luck”. At first glance the two are not related, but the overarching message of the film is that television has a duty, as in the BBC’s charter, “to inform, educate and entertain”, but in that order. Newsnight’s decision to have Kirsty Wark interview Madonna, for example, is coming perilously close to being entertainment. I haven’t seen the interview, and frankly am unconcerned whether Madonna chooses to adopt one, many or no children from anywhere. But Wark is reported to have conducted an interview which did not press the singer about any of her claims, as she would have done, had her interviewee been, say, Tessa Jowell. It seems that even hardened journalists are not immune to the cult of celebrity.

The BBC is funded by public charter, and should not, ever, have to chase ratings. The BBC should have a duty to make unpopular programmes for minority interests, should programme news and current affairs at prime time slots, should question and get answers, and should bring us opinion, editorial and truth. It should not have to worry about losing audience to commercial stations: it should concentrate on making quality programmes that will make us think and sharply question the world we live in, not insulate us from it. However, the current BBC management, not helped by the Government's ideas on the subject, seem bent on propelling the corporation in the opposite direction, and pursuing style over substance.

At least we have relatively independent broadcast media, not controlled by government or their cronies - compare that to Berlusconi's stranglehold on the Italian media, for example - and we should fight to keep it that way.