Rear Window

The sizzling summer heat forces people to open up their windows and extend their living space outdoors. From my study window, a tapestry of real life drama plays out amongst my neighbours. Debbie Harry claims that the apartment block where she lives in New York City was the building that the writer of Rear Window – Cornell Woolrich – lived. The view from his residence worked his imagination into drafting a short story that went on to become one of Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic classics.

The rotund master of film had a deep understanding of human behaviour. He stated,

Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.

I recently had the pleasure of watching Rear Window on the big screen at Fact Liverpool and I was once again captivated.

RearWindow Movie poster

A wheelchair-bound photographer, L. B. Jefferies played by James Stewart, spies on his neighbours from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them has committed murder. It is a treat for the eye to watch Grace Kelly, in all of her sensual elegance as Lisa Carol Fremont, on the big screen.

rear-window-first-outfit-sitting-down-2

Jefferies finds himself in a conundrum. He is frightened of committing to Lisa. As he works through this problem, he sees a variety of his neighbours at different stages in their relationship, the newlyweds, the bickering couple and the one that kills his wife. The human trait of voyeurism is explored in the film and is still as rampant as it was then, today. Perhaps the windows have just changed?

Take the television for example, Big Brother, which is essentially a room of people interacting, clashing and, in some cases, screwing. Is watching this no different to peeping out of a window? The obsession with watching others is intrinsic to our society, whereas once there were known curtain twitchers in a street, now it’s a little bit more advanced. Facebook and other social media allow people to look without the other person really knowing. I often hear things like,’Oh, I haven’t seen her in ages but I am friends with her on Facebook.’ This translates as, ‘I am watching what she gets up to, looking at her photographs and reading her status updates.’ A socially acceptable type of stalking, perhaps?

We all know what curiosity did to the cat.

As I sat watching Rear Window, I was struck by the cinematic cleverness; as the bamboo blinds go up to reveal the view from the window, the audience immediately made the voyeurs. The watcher watching.

We’ve become a nation of peeping Toms,

complains Nurse, Thelma Ritter, condemning James Stewart’s character, before merrily joining in.

rear_window grace

A very telling comment!

1 Comment

Filed under The Golden Country

Hot Reads Part Deux!

I haven’t been away this year, but I have found John Maguire’s mantra of ‘Read, Reflect, Recharge’ to be a sound one, even if applied at home. I have tried to cram in as much quality reading time as possible, made easier as it has almost been too hot to move. Here are a few of the books that found their way into my hands this summer.

kurt vonnegut a man without a country

A Man Without A Country by Kurt Vonnegut

This could be the perfect holiday read as it is a very slender volume. Although that does mean you will read it quickly, there is so much of interest that you will find yourself leafing back through the pages. Part memoir, part ‘state of the world’ treatise, this is Mr Vonnegut at his finest.

I replied that what made being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music, was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere. By saints I meant people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society.

road home

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

There was so much to enjoy in this tale of Lev’s journey from an undefined part of Eastern Europe via homelessness and a celebrity chef’s kitchen in London, to the asparagus fields of Lincolnshire and back again. He is also moving from heartbreak over his wife’s death and the subsequent parting from his small daughter, we hope to something better. The tale was absorbing and the writing beautiful at times.

However, this is let down by the clichés of some of the characters Lev meets – the Irish landlord who’s a drunk with a heart of gold, a terribly represented gay couple – along with the situations that he easily swerves which must surely sink the precarious finances of most economic migrants. I was also stunned by a glossed-over incident between Lev and his estranged girlfriend. It is left ambiguous as to whether it is rape, but it is horribly uncomfortable to read. Despite this, Lev retains his status as a character we are meant to root for. While I wouldn’t regret taking this with me, I would probably leave it behind in the hotel.

our game

Our Game by John le Carré

It is always a dangerous endeavour to begin reading John le Carré before bed as ‘just one more chapter’ soon turns into 1:00 a.m. But it is the holidays, so why not stay up late reading? Twists and turns abound as the Soviet Empire unravels and with it the relationship of two Cold War warriors. There are also some choice views on the futures of ‘The Office’ and the KGB, which le Carré must have been aiming at any critics preparing to cast him as a dinosaur in this new era. Recent events have made this story seem even more prescient, as the author once more leaves the rest of the airport bookshop looking pale by comparison.

under fire

Under Fire by Henri Barbusse

The anniversary of World War I prompted me to pick up this account of a French soldier’s experience of the trenches. Published in 1916, it had the distinction of being one of the first war books and the only one to appear while the conflict remained unresolved. Barbusse was a student of literature before he signed up and it shows in the wildly abstract opening and a scene where his scribbling of notes during a lull attracts the attention of his fellows.

Beset by the constant horrors of attacks, shelling and deaths, the French perspective adds extra weight as many of the men are fighting close to home. A search by the author and a friend of the ruins of the friend’s former village is particularly poignant. There is no better way to mark this dark anniversary than with the words of those who fought and who recognised its futility even as they did.

Don’t forget to tell us about your favourite holiday reads in the comments below!

2 Comments

Filed under The Golden Country

Hot Reads!

As the holiday season looms, I find a simple mantra helps me focus on what I am going to do during my two weeks away: Read, Reflect, Recharge. My suitcase is packed for a trip to Rome and now all I need to do is choose the books to read while I am there. Here are four titles that may keep you entertained wherever you are spending your vacation.

& sons

& Sons by David Gilbert

An autopsy of rivalry and emotional pride between a father and son, as well as the son’s relationships with his siblings. You can taste the atmosphere of New York City, the poisons and fluidity of the electric jungle. Gilbert’s tale has been marinated in Philip Roth and Paul Auster, but this is no copycat of the greats. Gilbert’s version of New York City is contemporary and insightful. The American novel continues to evolve!

Dr. Sleep

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Imagine an ice-cube being placed at the top of your back and melting down, a chill right along your spine, that is the overall effect that King has managed to achieve with this crafted tale of horror. This impressive sequel to The Shining ties up lots of loose ends left in the iconic classic.

I fell out of love with Stephen King’s writing at the end of my teenage years. I felt the excellent writing that had petrified me (The Dark Half, Carrie, Salem’s Lot and Misery) had become somewhat diluted, with throwaway novels like The Tommyknockers. Unbeknown to me, King was battling with his own demons, the white worm of cocaine and alcohol addiction.

I was suitably impressed with his pure honesty in the book/biography, On Writing. I was unsure about this sequel, but a testimonial by acclaimed writer Margaret Atwood on the cover prompted me to buy the book. I was not let down. His writing in this story is punchy, superbly edited and so terrifying that the only safe place to read it is on a beach or a sun lounger. Don’t have daymares!

revenge

Revenge by Martina Cole

A symphony of violent gangland shenanigans. I was keen to read this author as her books are bestsellers, but then again McDonald’s is also extremely popular. I did enjoy the book, but I think like McDonald’s, it is best enjoyed every now and then. An ideal easy read with a good pace. There is a lot of repetition of metaphors, but it is a great peep into criminal activity. Although I am so glad I am not a gangster…

Maggie-and-Me-

Maggie and Me by Damian Barr

This is the biography of a gay boy growing up in Scotland in the 1980s. Barr had a tempestuous childhood, which he details in this memoir with a dry sardonic wit.

Anyone in their mid-thirties will instantaneously feel nostalgic throughout, remembering the references to popular culture. (He-man, Dynasty, Artex wall decoration) It also chronicles what life was like in the industrial areas of Britain enduring the changes wrought by Thatcherism. This book was so entertaining and emotionally charged that I read it in one sitting!

Tell us about your favourite beach-side reads in the comments below. And do be careful not to get sunscreen on the pages!

2 Comments

Filed under The Golden Country

The Museum of The Little Prince in Hakone, Japan

Finding myself with time to spare and a copy of The Little Prince at hand, resting on the shelf more for decoration than for anyone to read, presented an opportunity. So I settled down, opened the pages and drifted off on adventures with my friend from Asteroid B-612.

Later, the realisation dawned that I had been meaning for a long time to write about my visit to The Museum of The Little Prince in Hakone but the endless concerns of pretending to be a grown-up had intruded. The photographs remained tucked away and with them my memories of walking down a French street without having ever left Japan.

A street in Provence, in Japan

This is not so much a museum as its own world: dedicated to The Little Prince and the life of the pilot he meets in the desert, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The buildings that house the museum, along with the gardens that surround them, could have been transported here from Europe.

Museum entrance with gardens

Museum gardens

Little Prince Museum grounds

While the attraction may be owned by a Japanese broadcaster and have been created in the midst of a literary theme park boom, it has clearly been put together by those who love the author and his most famous work. There is much joy to discover in the small details. This window exhibit in one of the shops on the French street features contemporary adverts from airlines and destinations that were popular during Saint-Exupéry’s flying career.

Suitcases on display

Here is the entrance to the exhibition hall where, once admitted, you are required to put the camera away.

Theatre du Petit Prince

That is a shame as far as this photo series goes, however it does allow the visitor to focus on the detailed recreations of scenes from the author’s life, including his childhood bedroom, office from the early days of postal aviation and apartment during his exile in New York, among others.

The exhibits’ descriptions are mainly written in French and Japanese, although there is an audio guide available in English. Having made the decision to go without, I coped pretty well while giving the last vestiges of my French abilities a workout. It doesn’t really matter which language you are most comfortable in though, as the final exhibit shows, The Little Prince now appears in almost every language found on our planet.

There is, as you would expect, a well-stocked gift shop, café and restaurant. Yet even on a grey day such as the one of my visit, with rain never very far away, the gardens are not to be rushed through. To do so may mean missing one of the many scattered sculptures.

Here is our hero with the characters of the sheep and the fox:

Little Prince, sheep and fox

Little Prince detail

And here he is on his small home, with his rose:

Little Prince and Asteroid with rose

The details of Saint-Exupéry’s life are worthy of a hundred adventure tales and, whether you are familiar with his works or not, a stroll around this beautifully crafted museum is an excellent way to discover more about the man and his creations.

Model of Saint-Exupery's plane

If you are lucky enough to find yourself in Japan, the museum is about an hour away from Tokyo. A visit will delight all who are children, or were once children or who wish they still were children.

What better guide could you ask for?

Le Petit Prince, Hakone

For you it’ll be as if all the stars are laughing. You’ll have stars that can laugh!

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Japan

Grayson Perry’s ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’

Have a look around your current living space. Open up a few of the drawers and cupboards. Are they crammed with things, crammed with stuff? We all manage to accumulate things and, even if you de-clutter, if left for a few months the stuff accumulates again. What we accumulate is all a matter of taste.

The current exhibition at The Walker Art Gallery by Grayson Perry,
‘The Vanity of Small Differences’, presents a series of tapestries that are littered with things. A body of work that displays an impressive attention to detail and telling commentary on society today. The exhibition was created during the filming of the artist’s Channel 4 documentary, All in the Best Possible Taste (2012).

Perry was inspired by Hogarth’s 1733 work, A Rake’s Progress, which tells the tale of a young man who inherits a fortune, tries to integrate himself into high society – with all its pompous airs and graces – squanders his wealth and ends up dying in a madhouse. Perry’s tapestries chart the life and ‘class journey’ made by the fictional Tim Rakewell from working-class origins to fame and fortune.

GP360_Expulsion-From-Number-8-Eden-Close_2012-FULL

The pieces are bold tableaus, woven Polaroids. Perry has put the mirror up to society and reproduced what he has seen. This exploration of British taste is impressive. ‘It is all part of life’s rich tapestry’, words that I often cite when explaining the insanity of life and the varied things that can occur. It is all here: from the politics of consumerism, mobile technology, to celebrity culture. At the core is Perry’s belief that

Class is something bred into us like a religious faith.

Each tapestry is littered with objects that can evoke memories, a 70s horse ornament, fake fire and industrial portraiture. The action that takes place is subtly thought-provoking, tattooed and toned cage fighters presenting gifts to a new-born baby, while in another, a suburbanite is rapidly vacuuming the Astroturf lawn.

the-adoration-of-the-cage-fighters

As Hogarth captured the Britain of his day, so Perry has ‘gone on a safari’ around the country to identify its ‘taste tribes’. His findings resonate through his work. The gym now as one of the last strands of community, replacing the pride of working industry. The business of football as a tribal industry, where winning a trophy is like bringing a stag back from the hunt and club shirts are like a talisman, a marked indication of the tribe you belong to. Females use makeup to create a persona, a tribal mask that is constructed to indicate a degree of artifice. This alter ego comes out to play at the weekend, but who is it for?

The Guardian reader, cultivating an organic life of sustainability, filled with chickens, vegetables and cupcakes. The old aristocracy, an endangered species. In contemporary society, the aristocratic family coat of arms is now made up with corporate logos. Idols are now more I.T.ols, with the Gods of I.T. being worshipped. Bow down to Steve Jobs, genuflect to Bill Gates, please. Or salute the god of social mobility, Jamie Oliver, and his quest to feed us properly.

Perry’s work is both parody and celebration. What I like is the way he looks at his subject matter with an accurate critical eye, but never ridicules or patronises them. This is in complete contrast to the work of photographer Martin Parr. I find Parr’s work has a lack of humility or compassion towards the people he shoots.

My favourite image was the final tapestry that illustrates a horrific car crash. Once again the detail is symbolic, a shattered mobile phone, a shredded cover of a Hello-style magazine that has the protagonist’s wedding snaps on the cover. An onlooker takes pictures on a mobile phone to send out to the net, to make the tragedy go viral. The retail logos that shine in the background give off a subliminal message, Dreams/To Let/ Toys’R’ Us.

favourite Grayson Perry

We are all but toys, perhaps with dreams to rent.

The exhibition is on at The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool until 10 August.

1 Comment

Filed under The Golden Country

That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick by Ellin Stein

If they say the best books are like a conversation with the author, then ‘That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick – The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream’ by (disclosure: friend of ten minutes hate) Ellin Stein goes one better. A conversation where the author allows you to eavesdrop on some of the funniest men and women America produced in the at times quite dour latter half of the last century.

That's Not Funny That's Sick Ellin Stein

How the Lampooners went from Harvard grads to kings and queens of Hollywood via a steady conquering of print, radio, stand-up comedy, improv theatre, TV and movies, wielding an influence far beyond the things they actually created themselves, is a heck of a tale. Crafted by Ellin Stein and including one-on-one interviews conducted over many years, it is fair to say it crackles off the page, with all the intrigue and derring-do, deal-making and double-crossing you would expect from such a talented gang.

While it seems safe to say that The National Lampoon’s reputation for counter-culture activity was perhaps over-stated – mostly by themselves – the book doesn’t shy away from calling them out on it, quoting one contributing editor’s view that,

It was a commercial venture from the start, and subversion was the product being sold.

The parallels with the music industry are clear and Stein’s narrative is adept at placing the magazine in the context of the politics and culture as the idealistic late ’60s becomes the cynical ’70s and block-busting ’80s. I was reminded of Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, lamenting of the money men:

…they will ruin rock ‘n’ roll and strangle everything we love about it.

It is not always clear if the right subjects were being lampooned, with certain editors claiming that anything and anyone was a legitimate target and still others stating their attempts to work from a ‘base of integrity’. That base was still so firmly rooted in the white, male, college frat-dwelling mindset that the guys had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that non-male, non-white, non-Ivy League types could also produce humour. (In case you wondered where present-day Hollywood gets it from…)

In the UK, writers tend to work alone and the teams that are locked in a room until the hilarity is honed are largely unknown to us. Perhaps this adds to the Lampoon mythology and brings it closer to the legendary sporting teams we love to laud. It is clear that what Stein calls the Lampoon’s ‘gym of the intellect’ fostered a competitiveness that spurred some individuals into levels of fame that can be difficult for such sensitive types to contend with. The push and pull between the mercurial types and the ones who have to manage their ‘output’ is painfully and truthfully detailed.

There are some books where the epilogues are to be skipped or glanced at, but not here. As the roll of honour lists, there is not an element of the media that remains untouched by an NL alumni. Not all have remained in comedy, with everything from serious drama to children’s cookery books making use of their talents. Given their starting point in satire it is perhaps strange that so much of mainstream American cultural life wouldn’t exist without them – although perhaps it takes more to erase that Ivy League destiny than growing one’s hair long and lighting a joint…

A fascinating snapshot of the era and a kick up the bum, or ass as our American cousins would say, for creative readers from what must be one of the most prolific groupings of writers and performers ever gathered. They would probably make faces at any use of the word ‘inspirational’, but tough. It is both an inspiration and a real pleasure to listen in on their tales.

Leave a comment

Filed under The Golden Country

Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge

I will rise but I will not shine

This line from a Tennessee Williams play came into my head as my alarm buzzed annoyingly at 5am. I awoke to full-on birdsong outside the bed and breakfast we were staying at. It resembled a rural Yorkshire version of the Overlook Hotel from the horror novel, The Shining. Self-served breakfast in an empty dining area was decidedly surreal.

To complete the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge involves reaching the summits of Pen-y-ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough, usually in this order and in under 12 hours. The peaks encircle the head of the valley of the River Ribble and form part of the Pennines range, situated in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

The start of the route was a test of fitness and although I was gym-ready (training with yoga, weights and rowing machine), it suddenly bit me viciously. This is no three-hour walk followed by a Sunday lunch and stodgy pudding with custard, oh no. If this was a power aid type of drink, it would be called ‘triple intensity’.

The top of the first peak revealed a skyline devoid of human mistouch. The pink red sky brow drew a line across the clouds, emphasising the storm-filled heavens. Marching on through sheets of green in several different shades, the landscape was sparse.

A notable landmark is a lone viaduct, engineering elegance. After the first peak, you tend to see it from different angles, walking alongside it, up close and eventually a 360-degree manoeuvre around it.

Whernside

Whernside

The limestone viewed from a certain height is like nature’s dandruff. Crumbling farm buildings are beautiful in their degradation. There was a scent of deep heat, sweat and wine gums – if this was a fragrance like Terre d’Hermes, it would be known as ‘Rambler Number 7′.

The knees felt like they were going to burst open, omitting a spray of pistons and springs. We are so used to a barrage of sounds, ever blasting, demanding space in our ear drums. The stillness is a significant silence. No mobile phone signals, an enforced digital detox. No means to check in, hashtag or update status. You confront the natural world, instead of living in a self-indulgent bubble.

The final push up the cracked crag stairwell, a vertical slate path. Reaching the last peak is a kind of metaphor for life; it is difficult and seems at times unclimbable, but with perseverance and commitment it eventually gets smooth.

Almost at the top of Ingleborough

Almost at the top of Ingleborough

Leave a comment

Filed under The Golden Country