Sunday, 30 July 2017


Image result for cat o'neill illustration

My Name is Lucy Barton [By Elizabeth Strout}. Liked this a lot; wish I had written it. I keep telling myself how much I dislike American female writers but the reality is that some of my favourite novels are in fact by American female writers. Olive Kitteridge [By Elizabeth Strout}. American Wife [By Curtis Sittenfeld}. Alice Munro’s excellent The Beggar Maid, reviewed her back in 2014.

This has quite mixed reviews on Amazon, only 3.5 stars with one persuasive reviewer suggesting her heart wasn’t in it, but I can’t agree.

It is written in the first-person with a limited cast by the protagonist, Lucy from a hospital bed in New York, where she is suffering from an undiagnosed and possibly psychosomatic illness.  Her estranged Mum turns up out of the blue and stays for a week during which by the medium of hindsight and memory, we learn about her past and the reasons for the estrangement. It is so well written: I cannot applaud her writing enough. There is a section early on where she is obliged to do an info-dump, so, so difficult in the first person [I have found, anyway] and she executes it remakably well.

Not a lot else to say; she, Lucy comes from a deprived, dirt-poor childhood to a relatively wealthy existence in NY. So what. It’s just so beautifully written.

Strout is completely on top of her game.


Mend the Living [By Maylis de Kerangal]. This is a French novel, beautifully translated by either Jessica Moore [English edition] or Sam Taylor [American Edition] - - take your pick. It is about a heart transplant and follows the events from the early and tragic death of a healthy young man in an accident, through the grief of his parents to the hospital and the procedures attending the agreements required to donate his organs. It’s good. The sections on grief are tremendously well done and the journey taken by the recipient and her anxious wait for life is equally moving. I wish she had said a little more about her close relatives and their own anxious wait during the actual operation but she doesn’t. The transplant is the final section of the novel and as a writer, I can see why she would want to end it there.

It is full of detail, medical detail, practical detail and emotional detail, which I liked: it all serves to get a sense of momentum, that everything matters and how important each small step is. And she does ask the question; should we be doing this? And when do you die?

It is seriously ambitious and she gets her narrative about as right as anyone could ask for: the major players are sufficiently rounded out for us to care and the lesser characters sharply defined. If I were to criticise anything it would be the rather silly one-sentence paragraphs and chapters which are, I don’t know, irritating and unnecessary, plus she is far too fond of alliteration, for example:

[S] - - and lodges all this self-disgust like a supplication in his stomach

[N] - -  the process of acquiring scientific knowledge, he re-enacts . .  .

There is another particularly striking one full of AW’s

In fact there is an excellent but critical review on Amazon which says that the tricksy writing style gets in the way and I certainly agree that it is an obstacle, not an advantage.

Of course, as someone who recently had a transplant, kidney in my case, it is all the more personal I suppose. It isn’t that I have never thought about the [anonymous] donor or what tragedy lay behind the fact that she was able to provide me with a few more years of life, it is simply that there is nothing to say. I know only that she was a 65-year old woman. I don’t know if she died in a road accident or after a long illness. I don’t know if she was local. I don’t want or need to know any of these things. I do know she was carrying a virus which I subsequently caught at Easter and which almost killed me. I’m not even curious, to be honest.

I took a look at the NHS Website after reading this to see what the success rate of heart transplants is and it is 75% after three years. The Newcastle Freeman Hospital, where I had my transplant done, is world-renowned and survival rates are much better. Quality of life? That’s the question. Can you return to work for example after a heart transplant? There was a youngish guy on our ward . . .  mid-thirties, I would guess . . .  who seemed to me to be almost a permanent resident. His contact with his family was via Skype and you could sense that while he was desperate, literally, to maintain a relationship with his kids they were more interested in going round to Julies for a sleepover, which right now they were running late for and  . . . and . . . it was time to go, Dad . . .

It’s a big subject but if it is one that interests you, I would strongly recommend reading this.

Thursday, 27 July 2017



Saqarra is considered to be the first stone-built building constructed anywhere on earth. Apart from arches and ceremonial entrances, buildings prior to 3000BC were built from mud bricks . . . which is why they have largely disappeared from history.

We visited Saqqara a few years ago, took our daughter then aged ten, with us. We were on an organised tour [with Bales] and stayed in pretty decent hotels, mainly in Cairo. I was the one who dragged us all off in the desert heat to Saqqara. I knew that it was commonly regarded as the first stone building and that Imhotep had built it. We had limited time as you so often do on a group tour but as we were leaving we picked up some small stones that were lying about which looked as though they had come from the stepped pyramid itself, at one time. You aren’t supposed to that, even tiny stones lying on the desert floor but we did and took them back to the hotel room put them in a plastic bag and stored them in our luggage to take home.

That night we each of us had terrible nightmares. My daughter was extremely distressed, couldn’t sleep, didn’t want to try in case the terrifying dreams returned but really we were all in a state. Maybe it was something we ate, or drank.

Maybe it was the presence in the room of the pebbles from Saqqara.

At half-three in the morning, I got out of bed found the stones, went down to the hotel lobby out the front door and tossed the stones out into the gutter across the street. Went back upstairs and we all went to sleep more or less immediately. No more bad dreams.

That is a one-hundred percent true story.

Saqqara is generally accepted to have been constructed c. 2620BC so not the least significant thing about it is that it has survived for so long. Imhotep is said to have built it for King [not Pharaoh in those days] Zoser. Imhotep is one of the most significant people who has ever lived. High Priest of the Kingdom, he knew everything, controlled everything. Erik Von Daniken thinks he was probably an alien visitor and that he kick-started what we might call Civilisation. He taught levitation; they simply didn’t have the technology to move the massive stones but more than that they didn’t have the population, or the means to feed them or even the timescale to construct such a building: it should have taken 80-years minimum. They did it in twenty-five, start to finish. In his fabulous book, A guide to Sacred Places of Ancient Egypt J A West states:

Architecturally and artistically, the Saqqara complex is a prodigious achievement . . . as elegant and clean in line as anything the Greeks would do two thousand years later, and displaying a perfection of craft that seems inconceivable without centuries of practice. Yet architecturally there do not appear to have been any precedents. As an analogy, we might say that starting off with Saqqara is like starting motor car production off with the Porsche 911.

There is nothing remotely like it in Egypt or anywhere else.

Imhotep’s own tomb has never been found; Von Daniken suggests he went home to the stars. For sure, the chambers and shafts are constructed to align with Sirius, Orion and a number of other planetary systems. That has never been challenged but Von Daniken argues that it was sited at the centre of the earth’s land-mass [see image]. If you search the internet, there are something of the order of ten million references to Saqqara; I haven’t enough life left to research this but Imhotep is or was, I haven’t read the recent literature, also thought to be Lucifer. In her amazing book, The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing makes a convincing case for her theory that he was some kind of anti-Christ, spreading evil everywhere which is still the prevalent and dominant means by which humanity conducts itself, even today.


Saturday, 22 July 2017

Tuesday, 18 July 2017


Freesias I - Nerys Johnson

We bought another Artwork at the weekend: this is it.

It is in fact a print, number 95 of 95 . . . the very last one.

Don’t suppose anyone has ever heard of Nerys. I met her once when she was Curator of the DLI in Durham. From memory she was in a wheelchair at that time, she was quite ill for sure. Someone gave us two of her original paintings; I didn’t really appreciate them at the time to be honest but they must have been easily worth £1000.00ea then; £3000.00 plus now.

Briget Riley was her contemporary and is on record as describing her as a master of colour.

Nerys herself said of her work: ‘For a long time, flowers have been a major source of inspiration for my work. They are alive, and I try to convey that sense of living. They grow, change, decay and metamorphose. In a drawing, the sense of movement, structure and rhythms is expressed through the marks and lines; in a painting, this is achieved through the balance and contrasts of colour. Whether the flowers are grouped in a riotous bunch or [shown] singly, my aim is to reveal the particular feeling of that image - a potent lily, a burst of spring or the battered remains of winter’.


Wednesday, 12 July 2017


Image result for bamiyan buddhas
Anyone ever heard of Dan Cruickshank? He is a Historian. A bit more than that, an architectural historian: very interested in and a leading figure in the Building Conservation movement. He still appears regularly on TV and last Saturday he came to South Shields to give a lecture, which he illustrated with images from his new book, A History of Architecture in 100 Buildings.

Interesting and erudite; his thing was whether it is important, or not to reinstate buildings which had been destroyed. He started off with Bamiyan, where I have been and then Saqqara, where I have been, them Palmyra, where I have never been. His image of Bamiyan was post-destruction of the Buddhas whereas when I went, the demolition had not yet taken place. He said that the local Hazara people didn’t seem to be bothered by the destruction; he said the tourist dollars had never filtered down to them. Then he talked about Palmyra and became rather emotional about that. He had several before and after pictures and to be quite honest, I could get quite emotional myself about the demolition of Palmyra. He said and I had not heard this before that it was done very professionally; it wasn’t just a few cowboys with some gelignite. So somebody or several somebodies who knew what they were doing were involved. Then he showed an image of Warsaw in 1947, almost entirely obliterated by the Germans when they retreated from the City in 1945: 85% of the buildings annihilated in a horrendous act of cultural vandalism. Then he let us see what has happened since. Completely rebuilt and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. He had images of other Historic buildings that had been faithfully rebuilt, several Russian Royal palaces which was kind of surprising to me. I’ve never visited Russia and would not have expected the government there to sanction the millions of Roubles it must have cost to reconstruct these emblems of privilege that their Revolution was all about.

Cruickshank then said that he thought the Bamiyan Buddhas would never be reconstructed. The Afghan government didn’t have the money and the Hazaras didn’t care anyway. He thought the reason that Warsaw was rebuilt was because of the determination of the inhabitants and the support of the whole nation; the City and its buildings were a testament to Polish Culture, which up until then had lasted for millennia. The loss of the buildings represented the loss of their culture; the loss of their country . . . as the German High Command must have known when they ordered the destruction of the City [at huge cost of course, the time and resources spent on destroying Warsaw could have been more usefully deployed elsewhere].

So, this was his message. If the people want it, it will happen, even if it takes decades or even generations. Do the Syrians and Iraqis want Palmyra rebuilt? If yes, then it will happen. If not then it will end up inert like Bamiyan, a forgotten byway on the great Silk Route. Maybe the Chinese will take it on particularly now that they are recreating their own version of the Silk Route.  

I think the message of Saqqara was that even ruins have a value.


Tuesday, 11 July 2017


Photo: B Beaven

This is a picture I did on Saturday in oil pastels.
The teacher said it was dark and brooding. Said she liked it.
I haven’t done oil pastels in what - - twenty-five years? I used to be quite good at it but I almost never use my artistic talent now. As I have mentioned before . . . in fact quite recently . . . I used to spend every waking moment drawing, painting, sketching-out comic-strip cartoons and generally doing Art. But no longer. I suppose it all got channelled into product design. See my October 2014 Post - - My Life Before Now
But someone drew my attention to an art class scheduled for Saturday called, Using Pastels in the Landscape, just up the road at Horsley Arts Centre, so I decided to give it a go. Everything was provided, crayons, paper, coffee and biscuits, plus teaching of course. I thought we were going to be sitting outside in the sun but in fact we were inside all day in the Studio, copying pictures torn out of magazines. No matter. Teaching was okay; you could have one-on-one if you needed it.
I thought the standard was high: everyone could draw well and apart from one person, who attempted to reproduce the magazine image exactly, in pastels, everyone was sufficiently creative to get their own personality across in their final work. My magazine photo for example was of a bright dawn just coming up over the horizon; not dark and brooding at all.
God, I was so rusty. Foolish to think I could get straight back into it after 25-years. It’s harder than it looks, actually. Don’t know yet if I want to pick it up again; it can take over your life.

Thursday, 6 July 2017


Image result for almodovar films

Clouds of Sils Maria. I thought that this was pretty good. It’s a French film but spoken entirely in English [no subtitles] starring Juliette Binoche and Kirsten Stewart and has received mostly excellent reviews but no major awards: it was nominated for Best Director at Cannes a couple of years ago. It’s wordy and actressy, very much up my street and unusually for these days features wealthy, sophisticated people with the sort of problems wealthy and sophisticated people have. We see them constantly in the best hotels eating the best food and being waited on by always-available handmaidens. They are chauffeur-driven everywhere and in the case of Mlle Binoche, flattered and fawned upon by almost everyone around her although there is a strong sense that she is still respected.

Briefly, very briefly it is about a famous French actress who shot to stardom twenty-years earlier when cast in a play in which she was given the role of an alluring young girl who drives her older boss and mentor to suicide. She has now been offered the role of the older woman in a new production of the play and has to work opposite a new, American starlet playing the alluring young girl. She and her personal assistant played by Kirsten Stewart, travel to Switzerland to rehearse the lines and that is where the dramatic tension largely lies. That is why it is actressy and wordy.

Early on, we are told that Binoche has a husband and that he recently died and soon after is given a line in which she says something to the effect that she has never been even slightly tempted into a lesbian relationship. Perhaps this is to assuage audience expectations over the casting of gay icon, Kirsten Stewart. But it is there. Kind of hovering.

The screenplay proceeds of course as a mirror of the play: older woman/younger woman; one dominant and needy the other cautiously respectful but increasingly irritated by the other woman’s self-absorption. It all becomes extremely intense and when late in the film in a terrific mise en scene [I’ve been re-reading McKee recently!] Binoch meets with the American starlet in London, all of Stewart’s submerged emotions are revealed.  

Much is made in the reviews of how great the lead performances are and if acting is interesting to you, then yes there are two amazing performances going on on screen but I don’t care that much. I recognise bad acting when I see it but great acting can’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk film.

It’s something different; worth a look but as usual with French cinema you only get out of it what you put into it.

Fortunately, this is a silk film.


Ilo Ilo. Another super film. Just loved it.

This is set in Singapore. I went there once; can’t remember when, late nineties, I think. I went on business, long story, but yet another Police State. Like Iran. Like Amerika, in my opinion. Seems superficially normal, people like us then you say something or see something and you suddenly realise that you don’t know the coded rules that everyone around you knows by heart.

Rural Northumberland, it ain’t.

I digress. This is about a working Singaporean family: Dad, Mum, brat of a child that they can’t control who live in a modern apartment block together. The film opens just after the death of the grandfather, the Dad’s father who up until then had been the live-in child minder for the boy. With both parents working and the wife pregnant, they need help and take on a Filipino maid to both care for the child and carry out domestic tasks. This alters the dynamic of the family.

At first they treat the maid as little more than a slave forcing her to cook and clean until midnight. The maid has a twelve-month old baby back in the Philippines so she has little choice but to accept the terms on offer. The boy is horrible to her and the parents never rebuke him.

But things change and as the narrative develops the maid and the boy form a kind of alliance as she increasingly takes over the role of the stressed-out mother and the boy becomes her substitute child. As for the father, well he is stressed out too. We see a short scene of him at work, trying to sell unbreakable glass to a client . . . which duly breaks. Then he resigns but cant get another job and loses money by gambling, in an attempt to maintain their standard of living and retain the services of the maid.

And that is more or less it. A man cannot serve two masters. It’s just a One-act structure with only four characters but the Emotional arc is so beautifully realised that one is drawn in completely.

Filmed almost entirely on hand-held cameras with probably no scene lasting more than 60-seconds it turns out that it is a directorial debut. The woman who plays the mother won Best-supporting actress at Cannes in 2015.




Not my favourite Director . . .  but who is these days? He’s an auteur which I think means doing everything yourself; writing the script, directing, editing and relying largely on a repertory cast of regulars to populate the film.  And work with not against, the tantrums.

As usual, there are obligatory scenes of graphic sex at the beginning. In a way, I don’t mind: people have sex. But does it move he plot along? Maybe, maybe. The scenes on the fishing boat seem fairly gratuitous to me but given that the guy is cheating on her at the time I suppose they show her bonding [in no uncertain way] with a charlatan. And yet . . .  this is Almodovar’s USP . . . he doesn’t need a reason to show gratuitous sex; if you don’t want to watch, don’t go.

I haven’t read, at least I don’t think I have, the original Alice Munro short story collection upon which it is based but I’ll lay any odds there is zero gratuitous sex in the book.

What’s it about? A Mum in Madrid whose only daughter goes on a summer break to a mountain retreat, then is so indoctrinated that she never returns home. She completely disappears in fact and breaks her mother’s heart. Eventually, after twelve years of no contact she finds her living in Switzerland but we only discover this in the dying moments of the film. We don’t see any reconciliation or emotional meeting. There is too much sex to be gotten through to be bothered about a resolution.

The film contains two of my pet hates in TV/Cinema: in one scene, she turns on the television and just at that moment . . . the very second she turns the thing on she hears an announcement that is incredibly important to her. Yeah, yeah she would have got there eventually but it is lazy lazy writing. And the other thing: the whole plot is set in motion by an unbelievable coincidence. She bumps in to an old acquaintance who is only in Madrid [pop 3.1 million] for one day. Robert McKee in Story talks a fair bit about coincidence. He will allow it say in the case of the television if it shortcuts the narrative and doesn’t become a deux a machina. But he would definitely not permit a plot-turning incident like bumping in to someone by pure chance in a city of over three-million people.

It’s not bad, it’s not bad. I am making it sound worse than it is. He is reflecting Spanish society as he sees it; in the present, with phones, with the Internet and the daily struggles we all have. All of which is refreshing and if it takes Alice Munro’s short stories to make a decent basis for a plot, then I’m fine with that.


Tuesday, 4 July 2017


photo: Susan Gray

This is a picture of the Nile Cataracts which my friend Susan took last month in 54deg of scorching heat. She flew into Khartoum and then travelled across the desert in a group of [4] Landcruisers mainly to see the Upper Egyptian tombs and monuments. Susan lived in Cairo for four years and is more familiar than most with ancient Egyptian culture. Having said which, she has never visited Abu Simbel just down the road from the Cataracts, which I have.

In Victorian times when Richard Burton and other famous explorers were trying to find the source of the Nile, they thought the Cataracts were it but of course we know now that they are only the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile. Even now, it is an incredibly difficult place to reach.