NCH: Igudesman and Joo

Force of circumstance, it was a tight run thing to see whether I would make it to Igudesman and Joo last night; and in the end, fortune prevailed. This is a good thing. The concert was great, great fun.

The National Concert Hall was about half full which in some ways was disappointing; the gig was such that I think the next time the pair come to visit, they will sell a lot more tickets.

If you’re not familiar with them, their big, big viral hit is I Will Survive of which there are a number of versions on Youtube (but here’s one) but that is just a mere hook into the monumental crazy experience that is one of their gigs. Before they close out with that, you will experience the frustration of a time share piano, the wonder of seeing a concert pianist playing Eric Satie while lying on the floor and seeing a kungfu violinist. And I must confess it is completely news to me how much in common All By Myself has with Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. It’s hard to pick out the most effective moments – this version of Rondo Alla Turca by Mozart is evidence of musical talent on a scale which few can offer. If you don’t play music, what they do here is incredibly difficult to do and get right. They did that last night too.

What is on show is some very interesting and rather crazy comic talent, very, very sharply scripted (and they stick robustly to that script), but it would not work at all if the musical talent was not there, underpinning it all. A tango dancing violinist would not be all that entertaining if he didn’t happen to also be playing Libertango near perfectly. And for all the physical comedy involved with contending with Rachmaninov’s handspan chords in one of his Preludes, the truth is, before the props come out, Joo has already demonstrated that he is technically a very strong musician as well. Both Igudesman and Joo are consummate musicians and that is why they are so effective at what they do on the comedy side. In one respect, Victor Borge was the same; his comedy would not have worked without his also being a very strong musician technically speaking.

The boys got  standing ovation and a super reception last night. Ultimately I hope they will be back and that word of mouth will do for them what I’ve seen it do for people like Tommy Emmanuel in the past…grow their audience. What was refreshing (and not often the case on a Friday night) was the noticeable presence of children in the NCH.

The duo’s YouTube channel is here.

The shadow of the wind

Following the abject disappointment of Possession: A Romance, and wanting a book in which to lose myself, I decided to pick up The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, mainly because he has a bunch of other novels and if I didn’t find him wanting on this occasion, I was set up for reading material until after Christmas.

I’ve actually read The Shadow of the Wind before, and somewhere about the temporary bases of my life, there is a copy of it, probably still sporting a Richard and Judy Book Club sticker. What I remember most about the book is the feeling of exhaustion on completion; a book that I wanted never to stop. What I could not remember was the plot; and maybe this is understandable; I am reasonably sure it is nine or ten years since I read it. Why that gap exists I don’t know; whenever I have seen the book on someone’s bookshelf, I have only felt some sort of distant love for a journey I took, once. What I was looking for in the past few days was that journey, again. It did not disappoint.

A look at the Goodreads and Amazon reviews for this book reveal that it is more highly thought of than Possession, with 4.3 from Amazon on 811 reviews, and a 4.21 from well over 210,000 ratings from Goodreads, which are orders of magnitude more than rated Possession by the time I got to it last week. People have clearly loved this book on a scale which was not really the case for the AS Byatt. Sometimes, it’s hard to understand why.

For me, the over-riding question is this: how does a 17 year old Spanish boy in a post Civil War Spain seem so much more real than a pair of current day academics, particularly given the increasing profile of academic poverty and lack of tenure all across the world? Logically, you’d have to assume that books with some connection to your current reality might have a greater hook in believability; livability…

I really don’t know how to work that question out. All I know is that when I read this book, it is so utterly compelling that the rest of the world fades into grey. I have no idea what has happened outside the pages of this book for the last 24 hours.

Credit for this isn’t Zafón’s alone; I have yet to read the book in Spanish and the English edition has been expertly translated by Lucia Graves. I owe a lot to her. My life would be the poorer without this book.

In one respect, I am pretty sure that originally, I was drawn to this book by the pretext of the book; the idea of there being a vast library of books from which I could choose one; one for myself. What I would not have given for such a library as a child. Many twisting aisles of bookshelves, with many books of intriguing title. When I think of the Cemetery of of Lost Books, it is a world that I have created for myself. One of the core concerns I had with the film adaptations of the Harry Potter books and the Lord of the Rings trilogy was a desperate fear that the Others’ worlds, the Others who who had the ability and wherewithal to bring Their Hogwarts to life, would ruin the world I had created for myself; I would have the exact same fear with this.

A book which transports you, and builds itself inside your mind, every brick, every pane of glass, and every pile of books is something special. Something which takes you away, and sketches a broad world inside your mind…for all the books that exist in the world, there are few enough which do this. I read this book almost as pages of soft pencil sketches drawn in front of me, a book that comes to me in stunningly drawn artworks, and not words. I probably could not read this book and try to find it in today’s Barcelona because today’s Barcelona is not in the broad pencil sketches which haunt my mind even now.  The Barcelona of The Shadow of the Wind is my Barcelona, every stone laid by my imagination.

Everyone has their own book which touches their lives in such a way that to pick it up is to travel without wings or wheels. For me, at this time and this place, and at a previous time and other place, it has been this book.

 

Possession: A Romance

Possession: A Romance was released in 1990 and I finally got around to reading it last week. If you have not read it, it is worth noting that this piece will feature spoilers of detail – in general, the core plot of a romance generally can be distilled down to “two people eventually fall in love” and most of the rest is window dressing.

The book has won a bunch of awards, is highly popular, features in lists of books to read and currently (ie Dec 2014) has an rating of 3.86 from Goodreads.com and 4 on Amazon.co.uk. In short, quite a lot of people like this book. For the record, Goodreads has it rated by well over 40,000 members; Amazon has it reviewed by a few over 90 people. It might, at some point, be interesting, from a datascience point of view, to compare Goodreads and Amazon ratings.

Many years ago in a French literature class, a lecturer recounted an encounter she had had with a major Irish playwright subsequent to some honorary award he had received but in which, she thought, the speech outlining why he was to get this award had listed a couple of his major works in the wrong order. She asked him whether in fact, the sequence of production had not been the other way around for two particular plays of his. His response was “Whatever you say.” From this, she took away the salutary idea that maybe literary critics and academics spent a lot of time looking for meaning and significances that just didn’t exist. I have wondered about this for years; that a cohort of people spend a lot of time looking for things which just aren’t there.

I am pretty sure the average academic whose life work is focused on doing this might find that idea to swallow. This brings us to Possession: A Romance by AS Byatt. I did not like it. I was not impressed by it.

For the tl;dr version of why, I felt it was a contrived plot featuring unenticing characters with a vaguely ridiculous closeout.

Books are a method of mind travel; the most engagement you will get from a book is by wishing yourself to be a character on the pages, or to be with a character on the pages. I have a suspicion that this explains the extraordinary success of some books and failures of others. Who would not have wanted to go to Hogwarts? I wanted to be on the Dawn Treader. I wanted to be on the Brendan. I wanted to travel back in time on many occasions. I wonder if much of the joy about Possession comes from people who want to find a mystery letter in a long bound tome in the British Library and can overlook the fact that basically, at the outset of the novel, the character who does is a loser. That the book may be an icon of day dreaming for the literati, a fantasy which could happen to them as they peruse the minutiae of some not frequently read author to whom they have devoted their lives and on whom they feed.

It is entirely possible that my view of this is coloured by not agreeing with the assumption that a couple of literary experts, choose any of the characters in this book as they are all profoundly guilty of this have the right to invade the privacy of someone long dead. Of reading the love letters he wrote and received. Of editing them. For this reason, although I read it as a teenager, I have never felt comfortable with the publication of Anne Frank’s diary either. When people write with some expectation of privacy, even if they are dead, it strikes me as profoundly lacking in respect to break past that expectation and poke around in their mind.

Given that much of Possession focuses on the desperate and rather unedifying search for a set of love letters, and closes with the justification that someone long dead meant people to find a particular final letter, purely on the grounds that they buried it with the recipient rather than burning it, I found it hard to identify with any of the characters. They all struck me as rather self-absorbed and lacking in respect for the characters they exploited for financial gain.

Also, in my view, when someone buries something with a coffin, it might well be with the expectation that “I personally cannot destroy this myself as I have some personal anxieties about so doing, so I will bury it with him when he dies and so he shall have it, albeit without having read it, and I shall not feel guilty of destroying a letter which was not meant for me. Plus, helpfully, as it is buried with a coffin, it will almost certainly never come to light again because frankly, no one would dig up a grave…”

But no. Definitely, she must have meant for Maud, a woman who was born years later, whose existence she could not necessarily have conjectured to find the letter. This is odd since frankly, whatever else you could say about Maud, she doesn’t come across as the sort of person who would stand over a grave with a shovel to get at some mystery box.

I would like to say I hated them all, but frankly, that overdoes it. Mainly, I identified them as the kind of people I would avoid at a dinner party. In any case, only four characters appeared to be built as characters, namely the two primary characters (the ones who ultimately we are rooting for to wind up together, and the two who are long dead, whose private lives is being raked over by a bunch of people for financial and professional gain who would be too snobby to do the same for The Sun for living celebrities).

Too many of the characters were introduced purely to drive plot along; the person who located the diary of another writer in France which revealed that the woman poet at the core of this mess was clearly pregnant at that time. A cardboard cut out who existed purely as a device to tell Maud and Roland that Christabel had had a baby. It did not appear to occur to any of the modern experts that if someone goes missing for the guts of a year in the 19th century and she is female and they have suspected, now at least, that she had an affair with a married man, that she may have been pregnant.

Roland’s boss exists solely to provide us with a good reason as to why Roland is a loser without a job of any reasonable earning potential (Roland has seen his standard reference for him and it is not particularly exciting) and then morphs into a device by which the letter which Roland found and removed from the library at the outset of this mess is returned without repercussions, and a device by which we are given to believe that after a number of years of inadequacy, in the end, Roland is sufficiently hot stuff that universities in three countries are desperate for his services.

Another Ash scholar, who is depicted as generally creepy and personifies all that is horrific in this personal need to take ownership of the lives of dead people for professional and financial gain is purely a device by which we might believe that all of a sudden, a lot of people have figured out that Ash may have had an affair. An ex-lover of Maud is a device to drive the plot into a race between the creepier of the Ash scholars and Roland and Maud.

All of these characters come across as having the substance of a sheet of white paper. Seriously, I could not imagine anything more depressing that sitting down to dinner with any of them.

Ah but the book is beautifully written is a common refrain. What of it? The plot is mundane: Roland and Maud are thrown together, he’s a loser and she’s written off as a feminist with the implication on the part of other characters that her work and the work of women like her is of less value in literary appreciation. 500 pages later, they wind up in bed together. This is predictable from the outset; the problem is ultimately you wind up just not caring. Roland’s girlfriend exists purely as a plot device to add greyness to the losershipness of Roland’s life, and to provide links to other plot devices in terms of legal advice. When most of the characters in a novel come across as mere machines, it really doesn’t matter how beautiful the language is if there is nothing of real substance beneath it. Pride and Prejudice may be the most hackneyed and widely read romance of all time, and the reason for that is each of the characters is very deftly assembled in such a way as they come across, for the most part as human beings.

The closure, a scene of one of Ash’s descendants (another character with 1 dimension) and the creepy academic who is pretty much a badguy caricature at Ash’s grave digging for this box which Ash’s wife had buried with him in the 1987 UK storm, came across as fundamentally unbelievable and at odds with the depiction of the two main characters, and the other cardboard cut outs which were bit part players in the plot of Roland finds a letter.  Ultimately, the main plus point is that it was over.

I wanted to enjoy this. I really did want to believe that it would be a rich a reading as it is painted to be. But the characters themselves did not come across as massively attractive to know, the plot was contrived. The flashbacks to the poor misfortunates whose lives were now the stuff of academic fluff were unengaging if reasonably accurately drawn. The beauty of the language was depressingly isolated.  At no point did I really want to stay in this story, travel in this story, be in this story. In that respect, the book was deeply disappointing. I am not a fellow traveller of the academics in this book, and the world created is not one I care to visit.

 

Greenpeace in Peru

Greenpeace

This is Greenpeace’s apology on Facebook to the people of Peru for accessing the Nazca site without permission.

I have a lot of problems with it. I have a lot problems with the activity anyway but ultimately as an apology, this is disappointing. If you walk up to a restricted and highly fragile site with a view to using it as an advertising platform, that’s wrong. I’m not interested in Greenpeace apologising for offending people. I’d rather see them apologising for the activity of laying a [message of hope] up there. They should not have done it. The issue is not that the people of Peru got offended; it is that Greenpeace plonked an advertising hoarding up there. Sure it was temporary but also, it was grotesque. They would be the first to savage a commercial company who did the same thing, I feel.

When you are an activist organisation, you cannot afford to be hypocritical. The area where the Nazca lines lie is fragile. Land access is justifiably restricted and subject to certain organisational requirements. Greenpeace have been told by officials in the area that they have caused permanent damage; Greenpeace appear not to want to accept this.

A statement on the group’s Facebook page earlier in the week insisted that “absolutely NO damage was done” by the stunt, and that “no trace was left behind.” The activists laid out yellow cloth lettering next to the hummingbird with the group’s logo and the message: “Time for Change! The Future is Renewable.”

However, if Greenpeace were even remotely qualified to comment on this, they wouldn’t have sent people up there to do it in the first place.

And it is not a message of hope. It is a message of hectoring. It is an advertisement for Greenpeace. The fact that that Greenpeace are an NGO does not remove the commercial aspect of what they did there when they leave their trademark/brand behind them.

It seems to me, from the apology above, that Greenpeace aren’t really all that sorry about this. The actual act of plonking their advertisement up there is what is wrong and that is what Greenpeace should be apologising. Personally, I see something like this as an act of vandalism and Greenpeace’s apology should be reading:

“We are sorry we damaged a fragile landscape in our ill-educated bid to force people to think like we do. Being an environmental organisation, at least one of us should have considered that damaging a fragile environment is a bad thing to do, particularly when that environment houses a piece of humanity’s heritage which is unique in the world. It is obvious that we need to reassess our own values and stop using gesture politics to draw attention to humanity’s need to pay greater attention to environmental concerns. We are ashamed that none amongst us considered the counterproductive nature of striving for improved environmental care by damaging a fragile desert environment. Our campaign director X who was responsible for this has resigned”

Instead, we get “Sorry you were offended, Peru”.