Saturday, October 10, 2015

All Change

Suddenly, everything is different. After years of being out of the education system, my older son is happy at his new school and is expected to do well in his exams. He has just turned 16, which seems extraordinary.

My younger son is also at a new school and comes home full of enthusiasm, eager to tell us how he has spent his day. The school seems to be preparing its pupils for a forthcoming disaster, as there is a strong emphasis on crafts, woodcraft and self-sufficiency, but I've never seen a classroom with so many happy children. Other schools could learn something.

On the downside, my business is slowly dying - partly because I have to spend a sizeable chunk of the day ferrying my sons around, but also because I'm struggling to find a supplier. Two years ago, it was relatively easy to find stock, but the recycling industry is under far more pressure and separating old books is now regarded as too time consuming.

But even that isn't the end of the world, as my wife has just managed to secure a job in a publishing company. If we continue to live frugally we should survive.

As for me, I will try to juggle the demands of the school run, maintaining my business and running a house, however I realise that this is a normal day for thousands of working mothers, so I won't be expecting a special badge. As long as I have a strict routine, it should be straightforward enough.

In my darker moments, I worry about what I'll be doing in a few years' time, but that's an utterly pointless activity. The important thing is to focus on the present and make the most of it.

On the subject of making the most of the present, here's another batch of photos that I uploaded to Instagram recently. It's just a random selection of shots of East Sussex, but they all capture different aspects of the things I like about the local area at this time of year:

Monday, October 05, 2015

Music For Grown-Ups

The other morning I found myself admiring The Cruel Sea, for the umpteenth time. So many British war films of the 1950s perpetuate the myths that were created to boost morale and have a crass, triumphalist tone. However, The Cruel Sea feels like a film for grown-ups.

One of the key elements that helps to define the film's tone is one that I suspect many people overlook: Alan Rawsthorne's marvellous score.

Take this scene for example, in which HMS Compass Rose is making its maiden voyage. In the hands of a lesser composer, the music would probably be very upbeat and bombastic, but Rawsthorne has written something far more interesting:


(For some reason, the clip doesn't play on some phones)

When a handful of dockyard workers cheer from the quay, instead of adding a patriotic flourish, Rawsthorne's music emphasises the pathos of the scene, with the young, inexperienced officer shyly half-saluting in reply, as the small, vulnerable corvette leaves the safety of its harbour. The atmosphere reminds me a little of a Ravillious painting, from his time as a War Artist.

The use of music is also particularly effective in the next clip, setting the scene, but also knowing when to quietly bow out so that the most harrowing moments take place in silence. The two sailors are the brother and husband-to-be of a widow called Mrs Bell:


And in the film's key scene, there is no music at all. Jack Hawkins doesn't need any help:


Of course, the brilliance of The Cruel Sea is a team effort and with names like Eric Ambler, Charles Frend, Michael Balcon, Jack Hawkins, Denholm Eliot, Virginia McKenna and Nicholas Montsarrat, it would be hard to produce a dud. But I think Alan Rawsthorne's score is definitely the icing on the cake, imbuing the narrative with a bleak, resigned stoicism.

These days, far too much film music is usually cliché-ridden and uninspiring, with an emotional palette that rarely progresses beyond happy, sad, in love, danger, funny and mysterious. Indeed, in music, 'filmic' is now a euphemism for overblown, melodramatic and sentimental and when I hear the soundtracks for films like Lord of the Rings, I feel a sense of despair.

I'm not sure exactly why the rot set in, but I'm pretty sure that it all went wrong after Star Wars, but that's a rant for another day.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"French Suite, First Floor"

Perhaps it's the male menopause, if such a thing exists, but the other day I did something I thought I'd never do. I'd learned about it almost by accident and was told that I would find the house down a small dark alley where, if I knocked on the right door, I would be shown upstairs to a room where a woman called Marcia would entertain me.

It was my first clavichord recital.

The clandestine recital took place in a small medieval building. By day, it houses a workshop, where harpsichords and replicas of other early keyboard instruments are built.

I'd seen some of the instruments a couple of weeks earlier at an open day and was speechless with admiration at their perfection. Every detail, right down to the creation of the metal strings, reflected a painstaking process that required a rare marriage of artistic and technical acumen. When someone mentioned that they occasionally held recitals, I had to go.

The soloist was an elegant, refined woman called Marcia Hadjimarkos, who introduced the pieces she was playing and talked a little about the instrument. "I don't know how you feel about clapping, but perhaps you'd just like to wave your programmes in between pieces and clap at the end. If you feel like clapping." And we did exactly that, with a ripple of muted, embarrassed laughter.

If I'd started filming in the middle of the recital, things might have turned ugly, so here's a clip of Marcia Hadjimarcos playing the fortepiano, with an introduction in French.

It's an odd instrument, with a lid, or swell, that keeps opening and closing. At one point I expected Sooty to appear.

Unlike the fortepiano, the clavichord doesn't have any pedals and it was extraordinary to hear the soloist produce such a wide dynamic range. A vibrato effect was created by wobbling the finger on the key, while pianissimo was achieved by an extreme delicacy of touch.

In the interval, I was fortunate enough to meet the woman who built the clavichord and she kindly responded to my inane questions with patience and charm. I hope I didn't come across as a complete idiot.

As for the music, it took a little while to learn to listen properly, but once I was in the 'zone' (partly thanks to a glass of wine in the interval), I found the recital increasingly rewarding. Listening to Bach's French Suites, with their extraordinary, almost electronic timbre, was a revelation. By the time I heard the exquisite encore, I was a convert.

There's something quite magical about an intimate recital in a medieval building, listening to music as it would have been heard three centuries ago. The phrase 'early music' used to bring me out in a cold sweat, but now I can see what I've been missing. Better late than never.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Clichés of Instagram

It's good to have a hobby and as stamp collecting probably wouldn't provide the same frisson as it did when I was 13, I've become increasingly preoccupied with Instagram. Seeing a random selection of pictures from around the world is fascinating and I also enjoy uploading snapshots and receiving 'likes' from complete strangers.

It may seem a small pleasure, but it's very gratifying to know that someone has enjoyed looking at one of my photos for 1.3 seconds.

However, my love of Instagram is not unqualified and there are a few themes (or should that be memes?) that I'm thoroughly fed up with.

Here are a few of my main irritants:

1. The Cup of Coffee

Why would anyone want to see a photo of someone else's cup of coffee?

I've no idea, but there are thousands of pictures on Instagram that people have taken of their favourite beverage (very rarely tea, for some reason). I know that coffee comes in many varieties, but you wouldn't know that from looking at the endless shots of frothy hearts in white cups.

I appreciate that people are sharing something that has made them happy and yes, it's lovely that the barista has done a little squiggly design in the froth to distract customers from the exorbitant price. But are the identikit coffees of global corporations sufficiently interesting to warrant photographing?

Probably not.

2. Feet

I'll come clean here and admit that I have whatever the opposite is of a foot fetish. If I had my way, everyone over the age of 12 would be banned from wearing sandals or flip flops and socks would be compulsory. But prejudices aside, what possesses so many people to think that it's a quirky, original idea to photograph their feet?

I never ceased to be amazed at the number of 'foot selfies' on Instagram and wish that there was a shoe button I could press to filter them out.

3. The 'Inspirational' Quote.

Uploading quotes onto Instagram is just wrong It's a site for sharing photographs, not moronoic platitudes that collapse under the most casual scrutiny. "It's a good day to have a good day"?

Let's just hang that one up on the wall of an oncology ward. They'll love it.

And to "Be who you are, not what the world wants you to be" is just self-centred nonsense. In the real world, who we are is a necessary compromise between our own desires and the needs of others. It's called civilisation.

Those are my top three. I'd also rather not see so many pictures of cats, Big Ben, poppies, white balloons, tattoos and Amsterdam, but I won't even try to justify those prejudices  (and of course, it's quite likely that someone is looking at my photos and tutting at their predictability and narrow range of themes, along with the paucity of uplifting thoughts and feet).

But even clichés can be good in the right hands. Look at what this photographer has done with a hackneyed, familiar scene:

The same photographer also managed to come up with a stunning photo of Big Ben:

I'd like to see what he could do with a cup of coffee.