Sunday, 27 May 2018

"Like watching Eastenders for 3 hours"

 Just 3 freebies over these past few weeks but they were the most time consuming freebies ever. I can't even be mithered to write about the free Monster Energy water given away at Piccadilly Rail Station or the excellent safety and tourism stuff at the same place. Pretty pictures of them at Insta, instead. As ever, the book reviews are from my Goodreads profile.

Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen (Six Tudor Queens, #3)
I read this for free thanks to The Pigeonhole.

That Henry VIII was a lad, eh? Married his brother's widow and stayed that way for over 20 years albeit with a bit of philandering on the side. Then his eye is turned by young woman with some sexy French methods of seduction and off he sets on a new career of serial marrier.

Jane Seymour was the third of Henry's wives and previously a maid in waiting to Queen Catherine and then Anne Boleyn. Her ambitious family hustled to get Jane into court to further the family's standing. Jane would have preferred to go into a quiet life of prayer but circumstances find her up close tot he politics and scandals of the day and then she catches the King's eye and next thing you know she's the Queen and [spoiler alert] Anne a sword through her neck. Can't say I'd have fancied getting involved myself but with a pushy brother and, well, the King working at you you can't really say no can you?

From this book Jane does genuinely seem to have loved Henry and he likewise. If you don't know your British history then this would be a spoiler but I'll assume you know these basics. Jane died several weeks after giving birth to the son Henry longed for and must be the wife he loved most (we don't find out because the book is all from jane's perspective and ends as she dies).

The good thing about Weir's books is that you don't need to read them in order. Each is self-contained and meticulously researched. A decent epilogue from the author explains where she has made assumptions and used artistic licence but generally the book is factually based.

It is a novel, of course. This isn't a history text and it reads as a plotted story. One gripe of mine is that it is very heavy on dialogue which has to be based on assumption rather than fact. It's not a big deal but I did fancy a bit more description of life at court and Tudor surroundings at times.

If you've read Alison Weir before you'll know what to expect. This is the third or fourth book I've read and won't be the last, I'm sure.

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A Long Day's Journey into Night by Eugene O' Neill at HOME, Manchester.

Oh boy. At the end of 3 hours my head dropped to the back of the seat in front in exhaustion. You know the kitchen scenes in Eastenders? Imagine one of those that lasts 3 hours. 4 main characters and bit part character for 3 hours, arguing relentlessly. The smallest word out of line sends people into a flying rage, about 4 bottles of whiskey are consumed, spittle flies across and apologies are made and everyone calms down.

For 40 seconds, then someone else takes umbrage and the cycle starts again. Jeez. Theatre isn't escapism when it's like this - I could have just stopped at home. We've swapped Albert Square for Connecticut and the modern era for the early 1900s, but the atmos remains a trifle tetchy.

But I'm most likely wrong. this is a Pullitzer Prize winning play that has been performed countless times and I've not found a bad review yet. Katherine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson were in the first movie adaptation - it's obviously a well thought of piece of work. I just couldn't cope with the endless negativity and searched for metaphor, underlying meanings and back stories - I failed. I read some notes after watching this performance and it seems I hadn't misunderstood anything, it just isn't my cup of tea (or glass of whiskey in this case).

But that's just the play. That's my personal view of Mr O' Neill's masterpiece. How about his performance? HOME never disappoints on that part.

I've said before that set deign fascinates me and HOME is special. No curtain and no changes of scenery requires considerable artistry in manipulating the space. In this case the designer (Tom piper?) manages to create an entire house that we can see through, from attic to sitting room with music room and dining room thrown in. The sound changes as people move from one space to another, it really is worth sitting through anything to admire this.

And then the acting. Incredible. George Costigan is one of our most talented actors and has a ball here as James Tyrone, the has been actor sinking into a miserly retirement of drink and worry. He's a good, if flawed man. Sam Philips as his elder son has come a long way since Hotel Trubble and sneers, shouts and lazes into the midnight drunken state that marks the end of the journey that starts at breakfast that morn. Brid Ni Neachtain (no, I don't know how to say it either) and Dani Heron are fine as Mary Tyrone and the maid, Cathleen. Was I the only one to laugh out loud at hearing Irish Cathleen speak first? No other fans of Sir Stevo Timothy in the audience, I suspect.

Finally, a special mention for Lorn Macdonald as the younger Tyrone son, the only character that does attract sympathy. In one scene with his mother this younger actor started on a rant that ended with tears welling in his eyes and then streaming down his cheeks. I've never seen that on stage before - this was a small cast packed with talent. I'm sure they loved the challenges of this play and I appreciated their efforts. This blog was all about me learning more about life, myself and the world around me on a budget and I've done that. I learned I'm probably not a fan of Eugene O' Neill but definitely love HOME more each visit.

Paul McCartney - the biography by Philip Norman.

I found this book. £25 worth and someone left it (with other books) for people to enjoy so I took advantage. My review is posted on my Goodreads profile.

 Paul McCartney: The BiographyPaul McCartney: The Biography by Philip Norman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You may have heard of James Paul McCartney. He is from a place called Liverpool in the land of England and was in a popular group called The Beatles. They sold lots of records and made lots of girls squeal. With his band colleague John Winston Lennon he wrote tunes which lots of people remember and some people still listen to.

This is a huge biography that covers the legend's life from birth until relatively recently. Despite losing his mother at a tragically young age Paul was blessed with having a wonderful father and wider family that contributed to a childhood that appears quite, quite happy. Throughout his career Paul has always thrown nostalgic songs and lyrics into the collection and the Beatles songs that had a 1920s jazzy feel are mostly down to Paul's father's influence - himself an accomplished musician.

From the first meetings with George, then Paul and eventually Ringo (via Stuart and Pete); from the Quarrymen through the Silver Beetles and from the Beatles to Wings - everything is covered in this tome. The detail relating to the Beatles is always fascinating but my personal enjoyment was the detail given to each album (solo as well as band albums) and the influences and production of each.

It's incredible to remember that Paul was just 28 when The Beatles split and several decades of suing and counter-suing ensued. To achieve as much as The Beatles did in such a short space of time is testament to why this band is the single most important band ever. In just 10 years and 13 albums they reinvented pop, gave the world classics such as Yesterday (one of Paul's, though credited, like all of their songs, to Lennon-McCartney), Hey Jude (mostly Paul's again) and Let It Be (yep, you see where this is headed). At 28 Paul was wealthy, world famous and still full of creativity but tied into many lawsuits relating to business and music rights. His clashes with the law also included a 9 day prison stretch in Japan for possession of marijuana - another of Paul's loves in life.

As well as the music, the relationship commentary makes this compulsive reading. Despite their troubles, the Beatles all did have a respect for each other and the many side characters such as Linda, Yoko, Brian Epstein and George Martin have a huge impact on their lives.

A particularly gruesome chapter relates to Paul's relationship with Heather Mills after his long and close marriage to Linda. It's a cringeworthy story where nobody comes out looking good.

The book is not an authorised biography but did receive Paul's approval prior to it being written. From that the author was able to speak to friends of Paul's and get insights he may not have got otherwise.

I've just realised that I have referred to the subject as 'Paul' and not 'McCartney'. Despite his many faults being displayed, I must have felt a certain affinity with someone who will be a genuine legend for centuries.

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Sunday, 8 April 2018

75% of this post reflects on great British things.

A fortnight of quality, not quantity. Another fine walk, a delicious treat from a British institution and my book of the year so far this year. Plus a bit of stinky tat (literally) that you should skim over. Enjoy.

White Nancy.

An afternoon up White Nancy. Nancy doesn't mind. Many have been there before me, she is a most sluttish hill.

Saunter, as I did, along the ridge away from Nancy to the trig point and admire the views across the Cheshire Plain and towards Wales. Come back a bit and gambol gaily down the hill and into woodland enlivened with birdsong.

Gaze somberly at the ruins of Cow Lane Mill, imagining the blood and tears shed to keep a roof above children's heads before heading up to the road at picturesque Rainow and it's odd little folly.

Over meadows, past more ruined mills - countryside and industry side by side, a match made in The Pennines, my Heaven. Eventually we reach Bollington again, the start of the walk and the site of a free car park. All that above for number. My only outlay being a pint of Bass in The Spinners Arms. A fine afternoon, but by golly that Nancy makes you sweat as you hump your way up to see her from Bollington.

Shawn Mendes Signature scent

A wee sample that came in the form of a tattoo. A smudge on my arm that resembles a guitar with a name under, a sweet scent that isn't unpleasant and suitable for either sex. Sweet, and not really suitable for a middle-aged man and why should it be? I don't want to smell like Shawn Mendes and Shawn Mendes doesn't want me to smell like him. This wasn't meant for me, Ihave no right to be reviewing it. I've wasted all of our time, sorry.

Co-op mackerel pate

So many positives to the Co-op - ethical supply chains and sharing benefits to members being the most well known. Being about a minute from my house is another, as is selling stuff off cheap atthe end of the day. Negatives? It's not cheap and my local stores selection policy is diabolical - they sell a lot off cheap and must throw even more away. I saw hot cross buns being sold off cheap on their sell by date - on Christmas Eve. The staff are either end of the helpful scale - incredibly happy and friendly, a proper northern welcome and chat at the till; or surly and resentful of you're bothering them (happily, there are more of the former than the latter).

And why, when they refurbished several years ago, they decided they needed 6 tills is beyond me when they never have more than 3 on the go. The commuter trains that empty every 20 minutes right next door (it's literally the same building) seem to catch them out every 20 minutes too.

But hey, let's not whinge more and let's do a history of the Co-operative movement another day. The final benefit of the Co-op is that you - YOU - can be a member. This used to entitle you to a dividend of the profits at the end of the year but now mostly revolves around gaining rewards (5% of any Co-op branded product) and getting vouchers. Spend £1 and 5p goes on your card to use whenever you like. Handy when your short and need milk or bread. The vouchers are money off specific types of food (e.g. chocolate, crisps, bread) or money off if you spend a certain amount (usually 10%) - and that's how I got this mackerel pate.

It didn't last long. Smoked fish is a delight in any guise, but when you can spread it over a cracker late at night it's sublime. Absolutely delightful - a smoked, oily fish taste that you don't need to chew. When I'm old and gummy I'll live on this.

Hope and Glory by Stuart Maconie.

Another cheeky freebie. This was found during a clear up operation at work so qualifies as a freebie but I'm not going to profit from it. It'll go to a charity shop and not be up as a competition prize, so no giveaways this fortnight [sad face]. It's an absolute belter though. About 15 years ago I decided that if I won the lottery I would embark upon a lifetime of exploration of Britain. The smallest village, the industrial towns, the countryside, every last inch fascinates me. If I didn't have responsibilities I'd work my way though the index of an atlas in order. Sponsors are welcome. My review below is taken from my Goodreads profile.

 Hope  & Glory: The Days That Made BritainHope & Glory: The Days That Made Britain by Stuart Maconie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was never sure about Stuart Maconie before I read this book. On the odd occasion I have caught his radio shows (usually with Mark Radcliffe) I have found them entertaining. On the other hand I always find his talking head appearances on nostalgia shows slightly arrogant and sarcastic. Journalists from the golden age of pop journalism really care about music and I'm with them when they talk about the manipulation of pop by dinosaurs and the how they tried to suppress anything that might have sent the poor youth wayward and disturbed the establishment. On the other hand, those same journalists were giving us their view of alternative music - there aren't many journalists who write a piece from a purely objective viewpoint.

This book is no different and it has put me firmly on Maconie's side. I'm a definite liker of the chap now. Let's get it out of the way - I'm a bit of a leftie and reading a social history of Britain from someone who leans the same way was never going to see me disagree much. One chapter alone made me think "hmmm, not sure about that" but otherwise I was with Stuart all the way.

Maconie looks at the 20th century in Britain by focussing on one event in each decade. Like most of these books it says it's about Britain but it's mostly about England. However, this is about the people - the majority. Many (not all) of the issues discussed will affect people from anywhere geographically as this mostly focuses on social positions and (that awful word) class. When considering the impact of the first large wave of immigration it is obvious that London and other English cities would have a larger focus but there are interesting diversions to Thetford, Kings Lynn and elsewhere. The 1950s focuses on the Coronation and the ascent of Everest that (officially, but not actually) happened on the same day but contains fascinating visits to Snowdon, my neighbourhood of Kinder Scout and the Lake District. The Lake District also features heavily in the early chapter about the first world war where Maconie visits one of the very few (and I do mean very few, we are talking double figures) parishes in the whole of Britain that suffered no casualties in the Great War.

And this is the absolute joy of the book. The historical core is fascinating, as it should be, but Maconie also describes with intimate detail his journeys and stays in many British towns. Small towns, towns that you will have heard of but have never visited - Maconie doesn't just visit them, he lives them. If you went to Holmfirth, you wouldn't learn half as much as Maconie who just notices stuff. Small stuff, menial stuff, but he notices and learns so much about a place.

Of course, throughout the book there are pop culture references. As you would expect from an ex-punk (I wonder if he would dispute the 'ex'?) and music journo there are many musical references and also film and TV. Maconie is a nostalgist as well as a modern thinker - and in a good way. Most people who wallow in nostalgia seem to take the view that everything was better in the olden days, but Maconie is happy to say "remember when....wasn't that good?" as much as he is to say "remember when...better now, isn't it?"

And the chapter that I'm not sure about? It's the focus of Live Aid in 1985 as the day when celebrity was born. Don't get me wrong, I know it was pivotal and a huge moment but I'm not convinced it was the birth of celebrity status. Maybe it hurried things up but I don't think it was as definite as that. But that's the only moment in the book that I'm not sure about - that doesn't happen very often.

The quotes on the back of my copy are quotes I fully agree with. Maconie is an engaging writer, he is as [possibly] as funny as Bryson and [possibly] as wise as Orwell and this book should DEFINITELY be made available in every school. Anyone who says it is dangerously left wing is wrong, it counteracts the version of history you might have read and this book is the truth you probably already knew, whatever position in society you sit. It doesn't just make me want to read it over and over again, it makes me want to get on a train and just live.

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Saturday, 24 March 2018

Free weeks of threebies - win three free fings!

Three weeks have passed since my last blog, but what a variety of riches they brought. From some hard hitting drama to a joyous musical via the by-product of brewing, this is quite a positive blog - nothing much disappointed me these past few weeks. You can win several of the things below in this posts hugely glamorous giveaway. Read on, metal guru.

You Were Never Really Here

I was lucky enough to see a preview showing of this film at The Printworks Odeon in Manchester. I didn't do any preparatory research and went into it totally blind. Well, not quite. I met my datemate for a couple of pints beforehand and he told me two  things: 1) It's not a comedy and 2) It's described as Taxi Driver for a new generation.Odd that we should be watching it together then as the only time I have seen Taxi Driver was on VHS 25 years ago when we both went back to some girls' flat with high hopes and spent the night on the lounge floor. It was our early morning viewing while we waited for those same girls to arise.

It is Taxi Driver for a new generation. A troubled individual saving a young girl whilst battling his own inner demons. It differs in that Travis Bickle starting breaking in front of us whereas here Joe is already broken.

Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely mesmerising as Joe. There is no glamour to the character, no heroics or quips or clever fighting techniques. Joe is efficient and terrifying to those on the wrong side of a hitman for hire. Phoenix has a driven weariness in his walk, his eyes and the small amount of dialogue needed. Flashbacks to Joe's childhood and earlier service days explain how he became this pill-popping merchant of death but the scenes that focus on Phoenix's face tell enough. He's always been an oddball and is known to through himself into roles but how much method does it take to get the story in the depths of his eyes? Honestly, the performance is extraordinary.

As a relatively short film the plot is secondary to the character. Joe takes on a job to rescue a politician's daughter from an underage brothel and in the doing so uncovers an even shadier affair. To be honest, you won't get that from the film and it doesn't matter. It's a film that is to be interpreted rather than followed. You can surmise things here and there and who's to say you were wrong? This blog isn't a spoiler fan so I'll leave it there on plot. What you do need to know is it is violent and very unsettling. The violence is mostly off camera and cleverly cut but don't be swayed into thinking it isn't a violent film - it is.

It's early in the year but Lynne Ramsay has produced a masterpiece that deserves to be talked about at Oscar time next year. An incredible piece of work.

The Amazing Spider Man 

Two films on the bounce, unusual for someone who's generally a book reader or episode junkie. This DVD came courtesy of Skystore as a free gift for registering - no subscription, commitment or postage, a proper freebiet. Even thought the film is 6 years old it's still retailing for £7.99 on the Skystore site itself so fair play on a generous offer.

I don't mind the odd superhero film but I can't say I'm a junkie. My wife and son guide me in what's what and I do get confused with the sheer number of films around. There must be a fair market for them though - this 2012 film is a reboot of a franchise trilogy that ended just 5 years earlier according to Wikipedia, the first of which was just 10 years earlier. If it's generally kids of a certain age that watch these then maybe there's mileage in going through the origins of the hero and giving them their own version. Like Roger Moore is 'my' James Bond and Tom Baker is 'my' Doctor Who, maybe one day kids will describe Andrew Garfield as 'their' Spider-Man.

And a fine Spider-Man he is too. It's not so much the times in costume that impress (as most of that is CGI and the talking bits could be anyone) but the bits in between. The awkward teenager that is regularly bullied; the science geek who finds evidence of what may have happened to the father who disappeared when he was young; the boy who makes the most of a piece of fate and gets the girl. I'm not the first to note how much Garfield resembles Anthony Perkins in Psycho - the nervous tics and twitches but the determined sense of being right when challenged. This is an interesting performance and brave to steer away from a wise cracking slick boy.

The plot follows (I believe) a similar origins plot as other films. Young boy lives with his aunt and uncle, sees uncle killed, gets bitten by a spider and gains spidey powers. The love interest changes (well, the name of the character does - played here by Emma Stone) and the villain too. Rhys Ifans plays the shadowy scientist who gives himself superpowers and becomes the Lizard, wreaking havoc on the city until - well, see if you can guess what happens?

The plot doesn't really matter. It's not challenging and there's no depth but that doesn't seem to matter. The action scenes are fine and Spidey's ways of swinging through the city are almost believable (unlike the cartoon series I grew up with, where one was never quite sure where the 'ropes' were attached) and fun. It's the opening half hour that really grabbed me. Garfield and Stone are reaally engaging and Peter Parker interested me more than Spider-Man himself.

I'm giving away my copy of this DVD, along with other stuff I've received this week. Scroll down for the comp.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie.

 Another Goodreads win and lucky to be from one of my favourite authors. You may well know the plot but there are no spoilers in the review below (taken from my Goodreads profile). Scroll down to win the copy I won, amongst other things.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Cards on the table (to reference another Christie book) - I adore Hercule Poirot. I'm a huge Agatha Christie fan but it's particularly the egg shaped head of the Belgian detective that excites me. I was lucky enough to get a copy of the latest paperback edition from Goodreads.

A train heads back to Western Europe from the Middle East with passengers from a variety of nations on board. Somewhere in the Balkans it hits a snow drift and remains trapped. It could be several days before they are rescued...

... and in one of the sleeping compartments a body is found, stabbed many times. The door is locked from the inside.

Classic mystery set up covering two of the most popular motifs - the locked room and the confined group. Since crime mystery stories first began the locked room has perplexed many of your famous fictional sleuths. How on earth can someone be dead in a room locked from the inside? Poirot will help you out. The carriage is stuck miles from anywhere in the snow with nowhere to escape, so the killer must still be amongst them. Will he or she strike again? Poirot will sort it.

What follows is a methodical survey of the scene, of each character and a listing of the facts as they arise. It's far more linear than most other Christie books and quite claustrophobic - mind you, Poirot gets to sit in the lunch carriage to conduct his interviews. Everyone else is stuck in their compartment, even the innocent must be ready to crack. A whole train full of killers, there's an idea.

The plot doesn't sound exciting but it is so intriguing. Poirot delights as ever and Christie builds the clues up like blocks until the structure is there but you can't quite make it out until Poirot suddenly spins it around and then OF COURSE! How did you not get that?

J'adore Hercule.

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Twentieth Century Boy - the Marc Bolan musical.

Last Monday an email dropped in my inbox offering free tickets to see this musical at Buxton Opera House. Now I adore that place, and I love the music of T-Rex so 24 hours later I'm on my way.

 If you haven't been to Buxton Opera House then I hope your wait isn't long until you do, wherever you are. It's divine. A stunning frontage leads to a small lobby (this is a very compact theatre) where the friendly staff all wait to greet. The bars are also small and quaintly set out (several pubs are so close that they also offer interval drinks to be pre-ordered) but I can never wait to get to my seat to take in the decoration of the theatre itself. Imagine this in the early twentieth century when it was built, and what a tragedy it would have been to have lost it in the seventies, as seemed likely. Now it's as busy as ever and a joy to visit.

But what of the show? Well the music is the star and George Maguire does a great job emulating Bolan, which can't be easy. To my untrained eye most of it looked live which gives even greater kudos.

The plot follows Bolan from childhood to tragic end, from the Mod model through the psychedelic folkie and into the Electric Warrior - the founding moment of Glam Rock. At his side throughout is his mother and alongside him his wife, June and later Gloria Jones who was driving the car on the final fateful night. The entire cast comprises of just about 10 actors who play multiple roles and the scenes merge in and out in quite a fluid way that reminded me (and this is meant in a good way) of Legz Akimbo - is there a term for that style?  It's not rich in scenery or effects, the music does the work.

For me, the times when June and Gloria sing slowly about how much they love him were a bit too long and I yearned to get back to the glam and louder music. Luckily, the talking bits were minimal and the best music saved until last with a fine finale. These actors graft hard and have quite a punishing touring schedule, they deserve plenty of praise.

Have a bop to this and then enter that competition.

So here's the competition. I'm giving away the Spider-Man DVD that I received, the copy of Murder on the Orient Express I read for my review and a wee pot of Marmite. All three things can be winging their way to you by entering the easy competition below. 
Listed On Loquax
My free weeks of threebies giveaway!

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Win a crap book!

Another fortnight of surprises, culture and downright greedy eating freebie fans. In spectacular shoot-yourself-in-the-foot fashion I have decided to give away the most disappointing freebie of the fortnight. Well, it's all about opinion and maybe you disagree. Flick through the soup, music, books, cultural event and ice cream to get to the stinker of a review and competition at the end. Enjoy life's little victories x

Nestle Meritene chicken soup 

 I received a sample of this dried soup mix in the post. It allegedly contains all the minerals, vitamins and protein needed for those over 50. I'm in my late forties so maybe I've done irreparable damage to my insides.
It tastes OK. Just like weak chicken Cup-a-Soup. There's no lumpy bits - no croutons or dried veg - just some green bits that could be parsley. This stuff retails for around £5 for 4 sachets whereas Bachelors Cup-a-Soup is around £1.20 for 4. So those added vitamins must be worth a lot, right?
Or maybe this is Nestle's latest attempt to stop a demographic getting their vitamins by natural means? Now that people are wise to their aggressive marketing of formula milk to third world countries then maybe they have turned to using us first world middle agers to expand their evil empire? As I say, it tastes OK. If I were you I'd buy normal dried soup mixtures and vitamin supplements or make your own chicken soup. You could sell it to African kids and become an international corporation.

BBC Philharmonic at The Bridgewater Hall. 

Can you believe that in all the years I have been in and around Manchester and with my fondness for a bit of classical music I have never been to the Bridgewater Hall? Well, my freebie adventure has resolved that. Built in 1996 to replace the tiring Free Trade Hall as the home of the Halle Orchestra and with state of the art acoustics, the hall is a breathtaking performance space. It's external shape is fine, pointing valiantly toward the city centre, but the materials seem dated. Inside it is wonderful. The foyer is average but the concert hall itself is stunning. Fans of straight lines should head to the auditorium where the seats aren't just on rows but large cells, all designed for acoustic perfection. I was lucky to have my free ticket right in the first row. Well, luckyish.

I had the perfect view of the solo performer for the first piece - 'A table of noises' by Simon Holt.The performer was Colin Currie, for whom the piece was written, and from my six foot distance I could see the concentration and skills with which he played each item, accompanied by a selection of orchestral instruments.

I've said before that I love seeing art and artists at work, whether in the creation or the performance of that art. This freebie blog has taken me to things I wouldn't ordinarily have gone to and it has helped me find new things to enjoy. This wasn't one of them! Undoubtedly talented and ticking all my creativity and performance boxes, but too syncopated and avant garde for me to appreciate.

After the break was my cup of tea. Conducted by John Storgards the whole BBC Philharmonic took the stage for Mahler's seventh symphony, the soaring 'Song of the Night'.

Why does Mahler get classed as heavy, I wonder? I've a few pieces and CD (but not the 7th) and find them quite invigorating and moving. This one was no different and my body tingled through the final movement with it's rousing but abrupt finale.
I've said it in several blogs before, I'm no muso. I write to express my opinions and to analyse fro my viewpoint, which in this case isn't that of an educated expert. To me, the performance was perfect and it's fun watching a conductor and wondering how his movements can be so important. I know they are, because every one of those talented musicians on stage kept their eyes on him. Marvellous how he waves an arm, someone draws horsehair over catgut and such exquisite beauty emerges.

For fellow non-musos the 2nd movement was used to advertise Castrol GTX in the early eighties.

Chinese New Year - Manchester.

I'm not going to review Chinese New Year - what right have I? I'd be happy to hear what my being born in the year of the pig means though.

This wee piece is just my experience of taking my family into Manchester to see the traditional parade. Again - 26 years in and around Manc and this is the first time I've done this. Disgraceful really. We headed straight to Charlotte Street to soak up the atmosphere in Chinatown itself. I'm glad we did - reasons later. A few stalls and fairground rides around here but we headed straight through and towards the Town Hall.

In Albert Square there were a few more stalls with Chinese toys (clacking drum things, paper dragons, that sort of thing) and some Asian food stalls. The square was quite busy and the view of the entrance poor so we headed round the corner and took up our spot on Princess Street. This too fills up but after about half an hour the dragons appear and bounce along the street, sweeping over the crowds to the accompaniment of drums (quite the percussive blog, this), back and forth the dragons dance, up and down their lengthy bodies. Great fun and a wonderful way to celebrate a cultural event. Sweets are given out and as the parade passes we follow towards Chinatown.

Yowser. Here it gets busy and, in my view, dangerously so. Crowds hold themselves inches from the tram track as trams crawl though and the small side streets of Chinatown are blocked off leaving the crowds to walk around looking for a way in. We gave up and, glad that we had at least walked though Chinatown before the parade, headed home. I wasn't content to leave town without eating some Chinese food but with everything choc-a-bloc we settled for noodles near the station. I great, free, event and there are a lot of other things going on around it in places the art gallery and central library. Can't wait for next year, and a happy year of the dog to you all.

Before I go by Catherine Cookson. 

Another Goodreads win - I won this for my mother but decided to read it first. Rather wish I hadn't! The review below is from the Goodreads site.

Before I GoBefore I Go by Catherine Cookson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Another win from Goodreads and one I entered in the hope of a surprise for my mom - a big Catherine Cookson fan. Hands up from me - I've never read a book of hers but I am told that they aren't your typical family saga. No reason why only middle aged women should be the only ones to read a particular genre but there are genres that do have audiences of a particular demographic. The majority of Cookson's readers (and there will be many - she was the most borrowed author from British libraries for several decades) will be women.

When I was about ten I was given the responsibility of running the book stall at a fundraising jumble sale at my local chapel. People brought bags of old books as donations and I arranged them and sold them for a few pennies in aid of the church. My mom left me with a little instruction: "If anyone brings 'Our Kate' by Catherine Cookson then put it to one side and I'll put the money in the pot". I was so happy to open almost the first donated lot to find that very book and Mom was just as happy too as she dropped the pennies in the pot. She'll be delighted when she gets this too.

This book follows on from previous biographies and autobiographies (such as 'Our Kate') and is a previously unpublished memoir. To be honest, as my first experience of Cookson I wish it had stayed hidden. Cookson doesn't come across as particularly likeable to me and I feel bad about that.

Catherine Cookson came late to writing. Before then she earned a living through hard work running laundries and as a landlady. During this time she kept patience with her chronic alcoholic mother and was taken advantage of by several people she befriended, some for many decades and well into her years of fame. Cookson knew she was being taken advantage of but, and this is going to sound awful, she does seem to relish the victim state. She had several various serious illnesses and conditions throughout her life that eventually left her blind. She suffered a lifetime of bleeding and there is no doubt suffered long bouts of pain. Coupled with several heartbreaking miscarriages and it seems harsh of me to say she enjoyed relished being a victim but on top of this we hear about her debilitating fear of heights (she cowered on the back seat when driving on mountain roads) and other conditions that, to be honest, aren't really that serious and sometimes one can perhaps understand why several doctors fobbed her off even when she was ill. As well as illness the book also details many, many people who did Mr and Mrs Cookson wrong. In fact, one suspects the memoirs are little more than a black book of hate. The only person who has Cookson's unswerving love and devotion is Tom, her beloved husband. The love appears mutual and together they faced the endless trials like Mr and Mrs Pooter.

The book does touch upon the journey to becoming a famous writer but not enough to make this a book about her career. I am assuming that aspect is covered elsewhere. All told, this is one for the fan who has read everything else - the tagline on the back "A story of talent, good humour and determination" is quite misleading.

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Magnum classic ice cream

Quite a spectacular giveaway in Manchester Piccadilly Station last week. Thousands and thousands of these tubs were given away and they weren't sample size - they were your full size comfort eat. I didn't risk trying to get it home, I ate it at my desk and felt sick for the rest of the afternoon. That's not down to the product, that's down to greed.

You know your average Magnum on a stick is a creamy white ice cream covered in lovely Belgian chocolate? (I think it's Belgian, it tastes Belgian). Well image that ice cream filling a pot but still being surrounded by that chocolate. Yes, that's what his is - the entire pot is lined with chocolate and the chocolate filled with ice cream that itself has shards of chocolate in it. The idea is that you squeeze the pot to crack the chocolate and then smash through the lid to get at it - boy was it good. The chocolate really is something else (the ice cream I can take or leave). My challenge with my remaining pot is to see if I can get it out like a sandcastle rather than cracking it. Photos will follow if that is achieved.

Love, freedom, aloneness by Osho

yet another Goodreads win and one I'm going to giveaway to one of you lucky readers. I'm not expecting many entries as I gave it a stinking 1 out of 5 stars! But it's all about opinion - maybe you disagree? Win it and let me know.

Love, Freedom, and Aloneness: The Koan of RelationshipsLove, Freedom, and Aloneness: The Koan of Relationships by Osho
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Osho was an Indian spiritual guru who spread his teaching in Asia and the US until his death in 1990. His advocacy of more open sexual relationships was perhaps ahead of its time and stems from the overarching theme of love and happiness. Osho eshews family and marriage and this book wholly relates to his teaching of meditation and love of oneself. Everything is about oneself and to love oneself is above all things.

It's claptrap.

I fully agree with peace and love. Nothing epitomises my own beliefs more than this. I disagree with Osho's demands for communes and no families, with the selfishness of love for oneself and the simplistic belief that if everyone did as he said everything would be alright. The book refers to many religions and most of them are criticised (fairly in most cases), with Hinduism and Buddhism coming closest to being near Osho's own beliefs. On a general level I can see the frustration in politics and religion keeping people in their place but this is the outcome of moral corruption and not the primary purpose. I don't believe that without organised religion and a political system people would all be happy.

Two passages sum the book up for me. The first is Osho's description of his childhood "I have never been associating with people....they thought something was wrong with me"; "The reality is something is wrong with you, I am perfectly happy to be alone".

Fair enough, but why make this the basis for teaching and a belief that everyone should follow his guidance? The second passage is on the next page: "When I became the professor at the university...I used to park my car under one tree". You'll need to read the entire book to understand why this annoyed me, but 240 pages telling you to do nothing but meditate, love yourself first and just be, rather than think. Who services the cars, mends the roads or runs the university?

Nah, I'm not buying it. How this became a career is beyond me and advocating freedom and fulfillment in a book selling for $16.99, with links to the Osho Meditation Center and other corporate moneymakers does nothing for me. If Osho were around he'd probably just look at me with a sad smile and tell me that I just don't love myself yet. Fair enough, but I'm not believing the religious man either.

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Monday, 12 February 2018

Cruise! Conquer! Crunch! Dance! WIN!

A week of freebies that almost became perfectly alliterate but I couldn't think of a suitable synonym for dance. But did you notice that important word in capitals? Yes, you can WIN the copy of Caesar's footprints that I received from Goodreads. It's hardback, dust-jacketed and retails for £20. It could be yours by entering via the widget at the end. Until then read about all the freebies I enjoyed this week, total value should have been about £35.

Gingerella (RockaFela) at HOME, Manchester.

Freebies have taken me places I would never have gone if I was paying. I've been to HOME before but an arty improvised film about improvisation? That's a new one for me and a chance to expand my cultural horizons.

Written and directed by Alex Reuben the film is an exploration of "the meaning of dance and synchronisation" resulting from a collaboration with leading neuroscientist Prof, Chris Frith.

Reuben took 10 years to make the film which stitches together scenes from vsarious locations with Eleanor Sikorski the dancer who literally improvises her role in each scene. At the heart of the film are 13 interpretations of the Cinderella story. I know this because I read it on the HOME website because, to be honest, I hadn't got a clue what was going on. It was the weird arty film I expected and I thoroughly enjoyed it, not because I was moved by the yadda yadda but because I work in an uncreative profession so seeing the results of so much inner creativity being appreciated by similar types was a night out in itself.

As a bonus Reuben was at this showing and sat for a Q&A session after, expertly hosted by a director of HOME. This session showed the real desire to translate something into art and the trials of producing something like this which will never be a commercial venture. Tip for the audience though - asking a question doesn't need to be that long. Once you've reached the bit with the question mark stop and let the chap answer it, don't carry on into the next sentence and answer it yourself. It's not about you! I'm becoming a fan of HOME, a marvellous venue.

Caesar's Footprints: Journeys to Roman Gaul by Bijan Omrani

The review below is from my Goodreads  profile. Thanks again for yet another Goodreads win. I've stopped entering giveaways for a while as I really need to catch up on a few wins. Fancy this expensive work of history? Enter the competition below. 

Roman culture was well established around the Mediterranean before Caesar set his sites on further conquest. This book describes how Caesar conquered Gaul with cruelty, military skill and a little diplomacy. Bijan Omrani is a historian and classicist with several books to his name and a fine learning pedigree. Such a clever chap is obviously going to produce a well researched and scholarly work and at the outset I found myself wondering about 2 points - would it be dry or readable; would I find myself engaged in the history of a place I have never been (I'm thinking of the southern parts of France, not the North which I have visited many times) where I find it easier to identify with British history?
The answer to both questions was positive. It IS readable and not overly wordy, but does not patronise with everyman language. This is a reference work that can be read from cover to cover as I did. Roman history does impact on britain too, of course. We have our own Roman ruins and a chapter of the book is given to the Roman conquest of Britain.

Of course the biggest reason we Brits should understand about the Roman conquering of Gaul is that it led to a change in our own history and the history of Europe as a whole. It moved Roman influence away from the Mediterranean and towards Northern Europe - a legacy which remains with the latin based language of French and the eventual passage of Christianity into the region.

Caesar's rising through the political system is like a mini-series or soap opera. His ambition and actions are scary and parallels can be drawn with every age though history including the present. Someone with ambition can get to a powerful position and abuse that power most cruelly, however scary that sounds. Early in his career Caesar is captured by pirates and held to ransom. When he reasons the sum being asked he is incensed and insists that the sum is higher. He also promises to return and crucify his captors - which is exactly what happened when the ransom was paid and he was released. Money wasn't as important as power to Caesar. The average annual salary of a soldier was 900 sesterces; Caesar's debts ran to 31 million sesterces.

From the conquest the book moves everyday life in Gaul and how Roman culture was assimilated into Gaulish life. Many high born Gauls were keen to adopt the Roman way as it was more luxurious than the harsh tribal ways they were used to. It is much easier to retain an empire when the natives are shown a better way of life and can receive protection from raiders of other Northern tribes.

Throughout the book the author intersperses the narrative with snapshots of the sites in modern times. He gives us a first person, present tense stroll through ancient sites and modern towns. These moments are the highlight of the book for me, to not just read about history but to also understand it is still all around us. Omrani's enthusiastic research is infectious.

Further interest is gained in the description of life under the Romans and how Gaulish religion was absorbed into Roman. Gaulish gods were worshiped alongside the Roman gods as equals and rituals retained. this continued into the Christianity era as the Roman Empire started to adopt the new faith. Pagan rituals were retained in the guise of Christianity and the timing of certain festivals could be fluid so that the old and new worlds could merge - much as happened in Britain.

Caesar used bloodshed to conquer Gaul but later leaders showed the benefits of membership of the Roman Empire by increasing trade, protecting Gaul from other invaders and building large towns and civic buildings. High born Gaulish leaders embraced this and Roman and Gaulish influence came together in the beginnings of modern France.

An interesting read. I wasn't hooked by any means and what I have learned has filled a small gap that I may or may not return to, but I'm grateful I had the chance to enjoy it thanks to the Goodreads giveaway.

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 Caesar's footprints book giveaway Listed On Loquax

Saturday, 27 January 2018

"Need to know" by Karen Cleveland

I was lucky to get access to this book for free courtesy of Pigeonhole. Pigeonhole is new to me and different way to read books. In this case a section (usually 2 chapters) was released each day which both heightens the tension (there are some real cliffhanger chapter endings) but also stems the flow. My full review below is taken from my Goodreads account.

The real novelty of Pigeonhole is that it's an online book club. As you read you can comment alongside the text and reply to the comments of others. In fact, you are encouraged to comment - that's the point of doing it this way. In this instance we were informed the author was reading along with us and not to hold back - a great new development.

Joining doesn't give you free access to all the books you want, this was a draw to be one of many people, but the chances of getting involved seem good. Definitely worth a try.

Need to KnowNeed to Know by Karen Cleveland
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received an e-copy of this book free of charge from The Pigeonhole.

Viv Miller is a CIA agent working on Russian counter intelligence. She's a spy, but drives a desk rather than an Aston Martin. When she finally decrypts a laptop known to belong to a Russian spy she uncovers evidence that tests her loyalties and emotions beyond the limit.

The Pigeonhole released this book in daily sections which does work well with cliffhangers. I do think, though, that those that say they have sat and read it in one sitting are the best judges. It is a relatively short book for a thriller of this type and flows freely. The style isn't challenging and there are multiple twists and turns. It's quite a clean book, not too graphic in language, violence or sexuality.

The core theme of the book is really about love and trust, not politics or espionage. Written in the first person we hear how Viv's trust of colleagues and her husband change throughout the book, and the deep love she feels for her children.

In plot alone, it's a great read. A single day of a holiday or a long train journey would be all the better for this. For the more discerning thriller fan I would suggest it lacks depth. Viv's feelings change quickly and her actions are unnatural - often we wonder why she took a turn when we should be either with her, or at least understanding her rationale. During the central part of the book we really would have benefited from a deeper understanding of the relationship with her children and how they are affected by events.

The story also lacks a killer turning scene towards the end - a big action piece that grips. There is a scene which could fill this plot but it seems too brief and too easily cleared up. I wouldn't expect lots of actions pieces - this is a psychological work and not an action one, but I would have enjoyed a few more key big moments rather than lots of little ones.

But I'm being picky. 3 stars is good and there is enough here to fill a very pleasant gap in your reading time. You may not remember it all months later but that just leaves space for more doesn't it?

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Monday, 1 January 2018

"Militia" by Michael Hill

Another win from the marvellous Goodreads site. The review below is taken from my Goodreads page.

MilitiaMilitia by Michael Hill
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

William Mitchell is an apple farmer in rural Massachusetts when tensions rise between the local Patriots and the British-supporting Tories. Joining his local militia William finds himself going into battle against the well trained British and struggling with balancing his ordinary home life with life as s soldier, trying to protect that very life. His time in service sees him take part in several battles of the Revolutionary War before becoming a representative of his community and being a part of the development of the US Constitution.

Whilst William is a fictional character the novel is based on actual events and features some real names - several of whom are the ancestors of author Michael Hill.

The novel is short at under 200 pages and doesn't delve into the depths of the War of Independence, the catalysts and aims of the Revolution. It does, however, give a neat overview of the period through the eyes of one ordinary man. Many brave men (and women, as the book acknowledges) did take up arms to protect their communities and their fears and trials are recognised in William's experiences.

The brevity of the story means that things are explained quickly. There is little time for background descriptions of William's home or time to develop the personalities and characters of him and his wife, Doll. Conversations and speech is unnatural and somewhat wooden and I admit that the first chapter didn't excite me into looking forward to the rest of the book. That soon changed as the conflict started and I did start to get right into William's motives and fears. Here is a quite real hero - an ordinary man thrown into something that he doesn't really want to be part of. His experiences in battle are as confused as battle itself is (I imagine) and his post-traumatic stresses are genuinely moving. The human condition is skillfully understood even if the overall depiction lacks a true novelist's touch.

Criticising the quality of writing isn't the point here. Michael Hill is rightly proud of his ancestry and their achievements and getting their story into a wider audience is the point. Hill has done that and the story is entertaining and educational.

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"Broken by Messines" by Mark Wardlaw

Broken by Messines in WW1 - The Grandparents I Never KnewBroken by Messines in WW1 - The Grandparents I Never Knew by Mark Wardlaw
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Peter Wardlaw met and fell in love with Catherine (Kate) Hay in the heady days before the Great War. The world was open for them to explore and neither forewent the opportunity to squeeze the most out of life. Peter worked hard for an engineering company and set up his own business while Kate sailed to work as a teacher in New Zealand - both remarkable adventures for such young people. Throughout the few years they were apart they wrote to each other, getting engaged by correspondence and keeping each other informed of daily life.

And yet a massive cloud covered the World. Europe plunged into war and soon other nations followed, including many New Zealanders and Australians who sailed to the other side of the world to protect the Old Country. Peter enlisted too and found himself fighting in the same theatre as these Antipodeans at Gallipoli, one of the most famous and most tragic battles of the War. From Turkey to Egypt and then on to France, Peter wrote to Kate often. Would they and their love survive the war?

We know the outcome of this because Peter and Kate are the author's grandparents. Many of the pieces of correspondence (from other family members and acquaintances as well as Peter) received by Kate survive and have been curated and pieced together with commentary by Dr Wardlaw.

This isn't a book about war and doesn't contain great detail about the events of War experienced by Peter; the letters would be censored so details would have been edited anyway. This book is a picture into Edwardian courtship and everyday life in Britain before the war. The interest isn't in the content, it is in the context. This is an unadulterated view of how people faced the time of great change and their feelings during this time. Much is hidden and in the final chapters we feel the emotion ourselves as their destiny reveals itself.

In my view the book would have benefited with more historical detail of the events that impacted upon Peter and Kay. The battles, U-boat peril and some social history are introduced but not built upon and with that background it would have been more interesting but to make too much of that would be unfair. Dr Wardlaw isn't trying to tell the story of the war, he is telling the story of his family. Ordinary people in an extraordinary time - would our own lives turn out the same if we faced the same challenges?

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Blind Haze & Daxx and Roxanne at The Globe, Glossop - boogieing in my own backyard.

Dirty, dirty rock 'n' roll Back to The Globe, Glossop for yet another incredible gig with no entry fee. I've happily parte...