On BBC Four: Benjamin Zephaniah at the Eisteddfod

Benjamin Zephaniah in front of the Pafiliwn (BBC)

“When I was growing up my mum told me that they [the Welsh] hated us [the English] because we stole their water.  And it’s true, we did.  And I’m sorry.  But your water was lovely.”  So soliloquises Benjamin Zephaniah, Birmingham Rastafarian poet of Jamaican ancestry, as he drives in the direction of this year’s Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru (the Frenhinol doesn’t seem to get a mention these days) to learn what on earth the annual festival of Welsh language culture and competition (and druids) is all about.

Zepahaniah was a more than engaging host.  His charm and passion for poetry and people enabled him to put people at ease – despite committing what used to be a capital crime of speaking English within sniff of the competition tent – and learn (and share) the passion of the attendees and performers at an event that might not date back to ancient times but which does belong to a Bardic culture centuries old and, as poet and chair-winner Twm Morys observed, has now been going for 200 odd years in its own right.

There was good mix of arts represented, sadly only in passing owing to limits of time.  Cerdd dant got a good airing and I enjoyed Zepahaniah’s own singing along to the harp playing.  It was interesting to see his reaction to realising that the members of the first choir he heard sing probably really were builders – art and culture by and for the people. There was also a good introduction to the strict meter poetry cynghanedd for which the Chair is awarded.  Alex Jones of One Show fame popped along to talk about how proud she is of being nominated to the Gorsedd of Bards, and Cymdeithas yr Iaith made an appearance although no one seems to have translated the signs for our Benjamin – although the point was made that it’s traditional that they protest about something.  Zephaniah thought they could show more fire.

Apparently I qualify via my degree for membership of some outer level of the Gorsedd.  I doubt I’d survive an interrogation though, not least as I’d have to rush off to Google Translate these days.  Via some cosmic coincidence I had a postcard of some Zephaniah poetry in front of me whilst I was struggling to get to grips with Welsh in my first year.  And I’ve only ever been in the flesh to one Eisteddfod despite always catching a fair bit of it via S4C.  But Zephaniah’s infectious enthusiasm and, again, seeing all over again just how much quality there is in this people’s art has made me get the dream going to maybe pop over to Abergavenny next year.  If I have even a quarter as much fun as Zephaniah it’ll be a helluva time – but I doubt I’ll come even close to expressing it all as well as he did in this programme.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Film review: Inside Out

The next time I get worked up and shout pointlessly and uselessly in the direction of my children I’ll know that it was fireheaded red worker inside my head that made me do it.  So will they.  The three of us made our way to a Sunday afternoon showing because it was raining and the park was out.  We emerged from the cinema with memories but whether they are happy or sad, or will be forgotten along the way, who knows.  What is certain is that Inside Out is one of Pixar’s strongest non-sequel offerings in years and that, like all great films from that studio, it is both a defiantly enjoyable kids’ film but also one that has a lot to say for adults as well.

Riley is a midwestern girl who likes ice hockey and her family.  She’s 11 and happy.  But one day her family ups from the wide open Minnesota spaces and heads to a surprisingly bleak and angry San Francisco.  Inside Riley’s head her emotions are led by the perma-happy Joy who fights to keep the memories and personality glowing yellow as around her Sadness, Disgust, Anger and Fear just fight to keep up.  But it all goes wrong – not just for Riley in the ‘real’ world as school goes badly and her parents squabble, but in her head as Joy and Sadness get blasted away from the emotional control leaving her with just Distrust, Anger and Fear.

There are multiple stories going on. Joy (Amy Poehler, genius) and Sadness must make their way through the disparate territories of Riley’s mind; Distrust, Anger and Fear must try to keep together an 11 year old girl who is losing her happiness, imagination and reason for being; and that 11 year old must cope with being in a new city where they put broccoli on the pizzas.  The scale of the film is vast but credit to the storytelling and direction it is never overwhelming.  There’s a lot to get across whilst keeping everyone on board – and Inside Out manages it with ease.

It’s rare that a film is genuinely wise and funny.  Inside Out most definitely is.  It recognises, as the characters in the film come to acknowledge, that living is not just about Joy but about Sadness too.  If that sound trite then that’s why Pixar have made a feature length film about it rather than leaving it to me to write in a tweet-length sentence.  Being Pixar there are so many excellent supporting characters – the imaginary friend from Riley’s early years makes an appearance that will sustain whole PhD theses in years to come – and sight gags that you almost immediately want to see the film again.  As per usual, the end credits contain some of the funniest material.  I can only say that that’s exactly what I expect to see inside a clown’s head.

Other people have written at length about why this is a great film.  I can only concur.  Inside Out is a brilliant piece of cinema.  It will fill you with Joy.  But also Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust.  And that’s how it should be.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged | Leave a comment

At the match: Sussex v Yorkshire

Hove, not a bad place to watch cricket

Sadly, nobody is going to be able to claim that Gary Ballance hitting 165, Ed Joyce a century or Adil Rashid taking three wickets to re-stake his claim to at England shirt was the most dramatic thing to happen in Sussex today.  Radio Sussex was broadcasting non stop from the site in Shoreham where an airshow plane had crashed into the A27 as we made our way away from Hove on the same road but in the other direction.  If nothing else it was an up close reminder that for all the fun and glory sport brings it is never more important than life and death.

This was my younger lad’s first cricket match of any kind and my first attendance at a Championship match this century.  This is the four day kind of cricket and even on the weekend you’re meant to regard a crowd as meaning ‘I had to share my row with someone else’.  Not so today, swelled by Yorkshire-ists and fine weather bringing out their own supporters, Sussex had a more than decent number of people looking on as they attempted to get much needed points in their battle against the drop to Division 2.  The visiting White Rose sit atop the table, 36 points clear (it’s 24 maximum for a win) and with a game in hand.  Their supporters had more positive reasons to applaud.

We arrived just in time for the second over which means we were settled into the busy main stand when Gary Ballance turned his overnight 98* into a century; Bresnan soon followed with a 50.  The stand, for the seventh wicket, eventually worth 197 was part of a Yorkshire total of 494.  It could have been higher but the Yorkies decided that comedy run outs would feature.  My lad, although genuinely interested in everything else too, was particularly pleased to see stumps fly.  He was less pleased that our lunchtime knockabout on the outfield was delayed by 30 minutes whilst Sussex failed to prise apart the final wicket stand until the very last second.

In the afternoon session, the home team fought hard.  Ed Joyce showed positive intent and a sub two-hour session ended with the visitors having a ‘solid’ (I, with the aid of a nice woman keen to indoctrinate my son into the ways of cricket lore, finding the right terms for a ‘century stand with no wickets but when the opposition have a big score of their own’) start.  It wasn’t to last as in the evening session the close calls but no wickets that Sidebottom and Bresnan had endured became wickets for Adil Rashid (3/67 for the day) and Liam Plunkett.  Joyce made his century (we’d gone by then) but then got out.  Sussex ended on 175/4.  A long way behind but with six wickets left.  They will be hoping for rapid scoring and fair weather if they are to get the win they need.  A draw may be most likely though given the weather forecast.

All in all, it was a wonderful day for us in Hove.  The sun shone brightly, the wind blew gently and the cricket (and crowd) entertained.  We had two announcements over the tannoy worthy of note.  The first asked whether anyone had located Dickie Bird’s cap.  There was laughter.  The second told us about a major incident on the A27.  There was a realisation that for all the emotion we have at a match, it is just a game.

(I took some photos.  They are here.  There’s an official video too.)


Posted in Waffle | Leave a comment

On the radio: The Bin Laden Tapes

Start typing “The Bin Laden Tapes” into google and the all-knowing search engine will offer you “are fake” as an ending.  But it turns out that what the sceptical end of the internet are really moaning about are videos produced (or not) by bin Laden in the years post September 11, 2001.  What Radio 4 wanted to talk to us about were audio cassettes amassed by al Qaeda but then abandoned when the Taliban fled the Afghan capital city in the face on the incoming US forces.

These cassettes were nearly wiped but a eagle-nosed CNN journalist saved them.  If only they could have done the same to missing Dr Who episodes.  Instead, the entire collection of some 1,500 tapes found its way to Flagg Miller (that’s the name of an expert in Arabic language and culure) via the Afghan Media Project based in Massachusetts.

Miller has listened to the whole lot and you have to feel some sympathy for him because, frankly, as things to get excited about, time has not been kind.  Radio 4 was quite happy letting most of the tapes play in the background, untranslated.  When we did get English ‘subtitles’ what we heard was the sort of thing you might expect at a testy Anglican sermon.  Most of the ire towards the west, at this time, manifested itself in calls to boycott goods.  Like an anti-apartheid protester not picking up South African fruit.  The real wrath was directed towards impure Muslims and those already on the Arabian peninsula who were not being suitably devout.  And this was interesting to hear.  It also gives context, as Miller explains, to al Qaeda’s activities and attitudes towards Muslims which is ongoing today.  The foundation of al Qaeda and its proselyting, on these tapes, was about sorting out the Middle East not about destroying the West.

Obviously that changed but the only true reference to the storm to come is on a late tape recorded at a wedding.  Bin Laden, clearly talking about America, says we will soon here big news and that we must pray that the mission underway is successful.  The clear inference is that he is making reference to the flying, but not landing, lessons his men were undertaking at the time.

Miller has a book out and a key premise of it is that these tapes change entirely our understanding of al Qaeda.  From this radio summary I’m not sure.  I think they increase our understanding of the sheer scale of enemies al Qaeda and their successors see in the world but it doesn’t particularly alter the view of them as religious fundamentalists of a particularly brutal and terrifying kind.  After all, they may have inserted cheery music from an Algerian Jew into one of the cassettes but they also left 1,499 others telling people exactly how to live and what punishments would await them if they fall short.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Film review: Shaun the Sheep

Shaun the Sheep has already conquered the world via the power of branded backpacks and sellable dialogue free short films so it’s good that in the movie version we continue to lack words and the backpack gets its own sight gag.  We’re also firmly into Aardmanland – an inclusive, modern England that somehow also looks like a well-crafted Hovis advert.  Combine all that into an 83 minute stop-motion film of quite amazing intelligence, wit and warmth and you have a movie that all should surrender to.  It’s brilliant.

There is a story.  It involves Farmer finding himself in Big City but forgetting who he is.  It involves sheep trying to rescue him.  It involves an evil animal quarantiner.  It involves trendy modern hairstyles.  It involves … oh, it pretty much involves everything.  Shaun the Sheep is not overly frenetic but the movement is relentless.  And each time we move on there are new, incredibly detailed, scenes to explore – goodness knows how many visual jokes and film references there must be but it would take a lifetime of rewatching to spot them all.  Somehow, that doesn’t seem like a punishment.

Such is the nature of animation that I imagine it’s taken them something like 56 years to craft this film.  We’ve come a long way since A Grand Day Out but the essential elements that Aardman consistently bring are still here.  Hopefully there’s plenty more ideas whirring round their heads – this is a world that we should all want to visit again.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Film review: A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

A crisply cool vampire film, shot in beautiful black and white and largely soundtracked by a Persian language band, it is possible that A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night might alienate people even before they settle down and wonder quite where the action has gone.  Let those people eat Twilight, this is proper cinema.

The debut film of Ana Lily Amirpour (who makes a fleeting appearance in a rare scene with a fair of dialogue), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is set in the town of Bad City.  A place where people drift.  Druggies, prostitutes, loners …  the vampire doesn’t seem to be particularly out of place.  Some of the characters have names but there’s really no need.  They are tropes more than people (at first) and it is the cinematography, sound and direction that gives them depth – and which then connects them.  It is common that vampire films drift easily into bloody sensuality but it is rarely so effective as here.

There are few jumps and scares – the occasional hint that a shot might be being set up for an off screen spook doesn’t materialise.  Also there is very little hugging and learning.  Why people (and vampires) act the way they do is unimportant.  They do – and they live with the consequences.  Nothing is really explained.  And this is a good thing.

You can, of course, be too cool, too arch.  But despite flirting near the danger zone A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is defiantly, wonderfully, hypnotically ‘other’ whilst being recognisably human and engaged.  If I were a student it’d be the film poster I’d have on my wall. There can be no higher praise.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

At the match: Women’s Ashes Test – Day One

DSC_0208It is the nature of Test cricket that the answer to the question “So, who’s winning?” comes with caveats.  Not for the multi-day, two-inning, version of cricket a straightforward ability to read a scorecard and say, “Oh they’re definitely in front.”  And so when we reach the end of  day one (of four) and Australia are 268/8 all you can say is that they are probably happier but that may only be because they’ve added over sixty for the ninth wicket not because they really wanted to be so far shy of 300 with all their batters back in their box.

This was my first visit to Canterbury cricket and a very satisfying one it was too.  I reckon there were about 1,000 people there which can’t be bad for a working Tuesday.  The Spitfire ground does a nice line in Shepherd Neame beers and the view from all seats (we tested a few) is sound.  It’s also nice to be there when Sky bring their cameras so you can always catch the things you miss – although a bit of a shame that service wasn’t available to the captains to review any decisions.  We did get an umpire’s review of a run out though – and a day’s play that ebbed and flowed without either side really being able to stamp their authority on it.

Australia, who lead the Ashes series after the one day internationals, will presumably, be looking to take the match into a place where they can’t lose so they can be in the driving seat when the whites are swapped for brights and the series ends with the T20s.

I took some photies and they are here.

Posted in Waffle | Leave a comment