Saturday, 21 October 2017

Music – and musicianship – to take the breath away

Veronika Eberle
Every so often, a great work of art comes up for sale and people gasp when it goes for a huge sum – the sort of sum that is pretty unimaginable for most of us.

It’s fair to say that Stradivarius instruments are works of art – and they go for millions too, but while I’ve seen plenty of works of art that have been bought for a great deal of money or are insured for incredible amounts, I have not heard a Strad being played – well, not in the flesh, that is.

Or not until Thursday night, that is.

Back at the Barbican for our first concert since 1 June, when we left the Barbican after being delighted by the London Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink and Mitsuko Uchida, playing Beethoven and Bruckner, this was for Haitink conducting the LSAO once more.

In this case, we started with Three Studies from Couperin by Thomas Adès (2006). The Other Half had not heard any of the British composer’s music before, while I’d not heard only a limited amount: both of us were fascinated.

Baroque composer Couperin was particularly fond of repetition and Adès’s adaptations are striking in their successful fusing of the old with the new and how they retain a sense of the Baroque while also bringing to mind something as modern and minimalistic as John Adams’s Shaker Loops.

Beautifully played and conducted, as a result, The Other Half uploaded my only recording of an Adès work to his digital collection – and I ordered copies of an anthology of his works, plus the opera, The Tempest.

Next up was Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor and out came German violinist Veronica Eberle – with that violin, the ‘Dragonetti’, made in 1700 at the start of the ‘Golden Age’ of Stradivarius. She plays it courtesy of the Nippon Music Foundation, which owns a number of great instruments and ‘loans’ them out to musicians.

But make no bones about it – the greatest violin in the world cannot make a mediocre player sound great: Eberle is exceptional and makes it sing.

Oh, my goodness. Almost from the beginning, I was leaning forward – drawn to the utterly sublime playing. At times, she almost dances while playing; like other truly great musicians, she makes the music come alive and rescues it from any sense of polite drawing rooms.

My view of Mendelssohn has been marred by ‘Here Comes the Bride’ – this rescued it.

At the end, it was like an orgasm: I burst into tears while bursting into applause. A sublime sound – like a soaring bird, on occasions: the clarity of the notes was simply other-worldly. This is why puritans of any stripe distrust (at best) music – because the experience of it can be like sex and, of course, like religious ecstasy.

After the interval, we returned for Brahms’s Symphony No2 in D major, a light piece that beautifully illustrates the composer’s link to Beethoven.

It’s not difficult to see why programmes work in such a manner, but it’s a shame that the Mendelssohn and Eberle were not the climax to the evening.

If June reminded me of just how good live music can be – this took it new heights. Utter bliss – and serious food for the spirit.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Time to care

Over on Facebook, someone started a very serious and sensible discussion about integration of health and social care services. Because of family events in the last six months, I now have personal experience of some of the issues, so replied at length.

But it struck me that what I have observed might help to inform a wider audience of some of the issues – a post here didn’t sound like a waste of time.

What follows is essentially my comments on the issue of integration of these services – based on my personal experience of the last six months. I think it’s clear why I have become drawn into the day-to-day reality of the situation.

This is most certainly not about condemning staff working in really difficult situations. Nor is about condemning any specific council or region, so I am not specifying those.

Indeed, I recommend reading the Ethical Care Charter – a document from trade union UNISON, which addresses a lot of what I have observed in the last half a year. Disclaimer – these days, I work for UNISON, but was not involved,ved in putting this document together, although I have reported since on councils signing up to it.

In the last six months, Ive become a carer (one of several, in effect) for my father. I have power of attorney for his financial affairs (but not health) and increasingly – albeit erratically – adult social services in his area talk to me, since while my father is not ga-ga, he is increasingly divorced from a sort of gritty reality and certainly very forgetful.

The Start team from social services looked after him to begin with. Hed had a fall and a heart attack at the beginning of April, was released from hospital almost a month later and became a widower five days after that.

However, at the time, he said he had no ‘personal care’ needs – he could get himself up in the morning, dress etc and do the reverse in the evening. This impacted on what he was considered to need, within the parameters of some pretty strict rules that are based on funding.

I was asked (told) by adult social services to get a toaster so he could make his own breakfast. He’ll make himself toast occasionally, but it’s not guaranteed. I have attempted a form of bribery to get him to use it – the sort where you tell him that he can toast his own crumpets and slather as much butter on them as he wants, without my mother being censorious about him having “butter with bread”.

In the summer, social services decided he didn’t need them: he could have meals on wheels for lunch (with a sarnie in a bag delivered for his tea) and have visits from district nurses bookending the days to ensure he took his medication.

In the meantime, he has been going deaf, due to wax build up. The carers cannot apply unprescribed ear drops. The doctor hasn’t prescribed any. He had a GP visit him at home a couple of weeks ago – but not to do his ears, even though the GP themselves couldn’t get entry to the house because my dad can’t hear the doorbell at present. The GP had to ring someone to get the safe key code. Yet my father has now been ‘referred’ to some other ‘community practice’(?) to do his ears.

The district nurses couldn’t do that, and indeed, complained to an Age UK carer that he pays for, that his is not the sort of case to justify their £150-a-visit cost.

I had his head case worker on the phone a week or so ago saying that the district nurses had noticed that he is dehydrated. He doesn’t drink enough. Since then, she’s put two carers a day back on – and the district nurses have now disappeared into the mists of memory.

This is a classic case of people being bounced between budgets – between the NHS (district nurses) and local government (carers).

She told me the other day that she is confused by my father. She doesn’t want him to be so dependent, yet apparently cannot comprehend why he won’t get himself a drink.

Frankly, he’s not even eating much more than his breakfast (sometimes) and his meals on wheels lunch at present. I arrived at 10am on Tuesday: he hadn’t even had a drink, let alone anything else, since lunch on Monday. His first carer (who is wonderful) arrived just as I was making him tea and toast.

But I have realised that, for him, drinking is inherently social. Tea is a drink to share over a chat with someone. In the past (he’s a retired clergyman), he’d visit the local Catholic priest where they’d gossip over whisky; he was no stranger to the local pub (that was a down-to-earth social life away from the church); he spent his days in pastoral visiting (much of that to elderly women who would make him a cuppa or pour a cream sherry into a delicate little glass).

When I ask him if he wants a cuppa, his first response is to ask back if I’ll have one too.

The clues are there.


What carers need to really do their jobs, is time: time to chat, time for a cuppa. One of the biggest problems that the elderly face is loneliness. This is no secret: this isn’t rocket science.

They also need a properly-funded NHS that doesn’t palm off something like ear syringing so that a vulnerable, frail person cannot even hear the fire alarm for weeks.

They also do not need the piss-poor excuse that passes for tea from my Dad’s meals on wheels service. Every time I go, I find uneaten sandwiches (which we pay for, incidentally – its not free) in the fridge. And I cannot blame him – they look awful. Utterly unappetising.

Just as we feed hospital patients dross, because we have forgotten the connection between health, recovery etc and proper food (or have conveniently decided to forget it for the sake of cost) the elderly don’t lose their taste buds – but they do need to have them tickled.

On Tuesday, I heard a groan as he looked inside the paper bag that contained his ‘tea’. It was a meat paste sandwich – so unappetising that it would make supermarkets’ own-brand sarnies look like haute cuisine. I nipped back to the shops and bought a few things – ready-to-eat Cornish pasties and sausage rolls, cream cakes (I can guarantee those will never be left to moulder) and Cornish clotted cream and Golden Syrup.

Back in the house, I made ‘thunder and lightening’. It’s an old Cornish treat that I remember my (non-Cornish) mother making when anyone sent us a tub of clotted cream from the south west.

Take a couple of slices of plain white bread. Butter both. Add a sheen of syrup to one side and then spread clotted cream on top of that. Put the other slice of bread atop. Cut as needed. Eat.

My (Cornish) father didn’t remember having it before, but at the first taste, his face lit up. I have passed on the recipe to his Age UK carer, at his request.

Now, you can tell me ’til the cows come home that this is not ‘healthy’ – but between ‘Dad won’t eat’ and ‘Dad will eat’, which do you think is healthier?

So, in short: proper funding for all. Time is a serious time: time for carers to care, with proper recognition that actually, company is a genuine health issue for the elderly.

I can most certainly see advantages in services being linked – but it is far from the major problem that social care faces.

Why have we, as a society, apparently stopped seeing the bleedin obvious?

Friday, 25 August 2017

The Hitman's Bodyguard is fun with a bit of grit

If sweary language makes you feel uncomfortable – then look away now. Because The Hitman’s Bodyguard is full of it. And if "this guy single-handedly ruined the word ‘motherfucker’,” said of Samuel L Jackson’s character, isn’t one of the lines of the year, then I haven’t heard it yet.

Various reviewers have sighed over Patrick Hughes’s new film, expressing a wearied view as to its apparent staleness.

Perhaps, if one has seen hundreds of odd-couple, road movie flicks, then one might feel the same. I haven’t – and I don’t. And perhaps this is one of the pleasures of only having returned to cinema going in 2015 after a 16-year break.

Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) is a top bodyguard who finds himself with no option but to protect hired killer, Darius Kincaid (Samuel L Jackson) as he tries to get the Hague to testify against genocidal Eastern European dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman).

The backstory means that, over the years, Kincaid had made a number of attempts on Bryce’s life – and had killed one of clients, thus rending his reputation somewhat lower than it had been.

Between Coventry (yes, you did read that right) and the Hague itself, there are an awful lot of very violent foot soldiers of Dukhovich in the way, armed to the teeth and determined to stop Kincaid, without whose testimony, the dictator will go free.

Nobody said it was a particularly innovative plot, but this is good fun, made even better than that by the two stars having a field day. The banter never lets up and there are even occasionally one or two interesting little ideas that get thrown in – not least the question of whether the man who protects an arms dealer is really the good guy compared with the man who kills the arms dealer.

Reynolds and Jackson also enjoy excellent support from Élodie Yung as an Interpol agent and former girlfriend of Bryce and Salma Hayek as Kincaid’s equally violent, sweaty wife. Kincaid’s remembered first sight of Sonia is a hoot.

Richard E Grant with a funny little cameo, while Tine Joustra plays it very straight as a senior Interpol officer.

There’s some inventive violence and the car – and boat – chases around Amsterdam are great fun.

The Other Half and I were also able to play our game of: this is not the way you get from A to B – particularly in terms of driving from central London, south over Tower Bridge, to get to London City Airport.

It’s a game we’ve been playing since our very first film together – The Tall Guy. But of course, these routes are planned to show off the locations – and oh boy, this film revels in its use of the locations and makes the most of them.

The banter and comedic elements aside, what helps to give the film some sort of weight is Oldman. His understated performance as Dukhovich is utterly chilling. There is nothing remotely funny about his brutal abuse of power and his murderous attempts to cling to it.

The relationship between, in effect, the two elements of the film could have been jarring, but Hughes handles them well.

If you’re after some cinematic fun this bank holiday weekend, you could do worse than try The Hitman’s Bodyguard.

Friday, 18 August 2017

An insight into Matisse's inspirations

Spot the milk jug from Collioure
Honestly: who could paint a red beach, with pink-infused sea, and be taken seriously?

Such was pretty much my reaction as a teenage A level art student when confronted with Matisse, the art-changing ‘wild beast’.

I was such a dreadfully conservative and conventional creature, even as a teen, that I simply could not ‘get’ any modern art. Apart, that was, from Picasso – but that was only really in terms of a sense that any artist who was as good as he was conventionally at 16 needed to evolve or die creatively.

The Other Half and I found our way to Collioure entirely by accident – or rather, it was because of rugby league and not because of art. The art followed.

And as we returned, year on year, utterly beguiled by the place, I had an epiphany: I ‘got’ Matisse.

It was the same experience – a northern European seeing and experiencing the light of the south.

Give or take another couple of years, and I returned from Collioure with fingers simply itching to take up art again myself.

After almost three decades, I started trying to create art once again.

Flowers and vase
There’s not a huge amount of Matisse’s art in British galleries. The Courtauld in London has a couple – including Red Beach from the year of Fauvism, 1905. In real life, the beach is Port d’Avall in Collioure, and we’ve spent a fair few very happy hours on it.

The Tate Modern’s cut outs exhibition in 2014 was a thrice-visited treat.

Last year’s Gardens from Monet to the Matisse at the RA was, in terms of Matissian content (given his presence in the title) disappointing.

October 2016’s exhibition of Matisse drawings at Eames Fine Art Gallery was a gem.

So when a new exhibition promises lots of Matisee – and an insight into just how his artistic mind worked, then it is an opportunity to be leapt at.

Mattise in the Studio opened at the Royal Academy in London earlier this month.

It’s a compact exhibition by the standard of some of the city’s recent wearying blockbusters – and this is no bad thing.

Grand Mask
The central idea is simple. Matisse collected all sorts of items during his life, which he used in his works, from strips of fabric to African masks to Chinese calligraphy to pots and vases.

Here we see some of these items displayed alongside works that they helped inspire or which directly feature them.

Thus the first room begins with Vase of Flowers from 1924

Next to it is the sea green Andalusian glass vase that is central to the composition. And after that, Safrano Roses at the Window from a year later.

Not only do we get to link the object and the paintings, but these two works offer Matisse in a much more pastel mood than is often the case: in the former, the delicacy of a lace curtain is simply delightful, but for all its simplicity, the use of lines and textures in the composition is sophisticated.

In the next room we have the wonderful Yellow Odalisque from 1937 – and alongside it, the small, decorated table from North Africa and the large pewter jug that feature in the work.

Yellow Odalisque
In the work – another illustration of how Matisse could combine colours on a canvas that, you feel, really shouldn’t work together (and there are a number of artists in Collioure these days who try for the same sort of effect but cannot pull it off) – there seems to be a meeting of worlds.

The jug came from the same area of the country that the artist himself hailed from and its very greyness could be taken as symbolising the grey north meeting the vivid south.

It’s easy to forget, in Matisse’s ecstatic use of colour, that he also had a superb sense of line.

And in the third room, we have a series of brush and ink pieces from the 1950s that that illustrate this perfectly – and the influence of the African masks that Matisse had encountered and collected.

The simplicity of line is simply wonderful – it has such purity and elegance.

These are not simply copies of the masks: have served as an inspiration; a jumping-off point for the artist rather than a straightforward appropriation.

Take The Italian Woman from 1916 as an example. At once extremely conventionally and formally posed, yet she appears to be dissolving into a drab background. It could almost be that the conventionality, with her mask-like face, render her less substantial as an individual.

The Italian Woman
Later, we encounter fabrics and more objects from North Africa – and it was fascinating to come at last into the final room, with some of the cut outs.

These included exhibits that had been seen at Tate Modern back in 2014 – not least the designs for the priests chasuble for the Chapel at Vence. Here, against the background of the decorative influences, you see them in a new light and with a new understanding.

It is a room that also includes a panel of Chinese calligraphy, hung as it was in Matisse’s own home in Nice, alongside some of his own work.

If this exhibition doesn’t have quite the uplifting impact of the cut outs, it has a depth that will set visitors thinking, whether they themselves make art or not.

The idea to group objects of inspiration and the works produced together was itself inspired, but even if you don’t really ‘get’ that, then the chance to see some superb works by such a major figure is not to be missed.

And of course, Collioure is here too – it is believed that the milk jug featured on the painting in the poster (and in other works) was from the village.

The objects themselves have plenty of interest – but it is in their role as ‘actors’ in these artworks makes them so much more.

I’ll be back before it closes.

Matisse in the Studio is at the Royal Academy until 12 November.

Find out more at the Royal Academy.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Valerian's visuals light up the screen

Valerian and the Planet of a Thousand Cities may not be quite up there with Luc Besson’s camp sci-fi classic, The Fifth Element, but it’s an enjoyable romp for the holiday season.

In part crowdfunded – helping make it both the most expensive European and independent film in cinematic history – it’s based on the iconic French sci-fi comic series, Valérian and Laureline, by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières.

Valerian and Laureline are 28th-century special agents who have been sent to retrieve the last of a species of animal, known as a converter, from black market dealers.

But Valerian realises that the cute little creature – and an unknown race of aliens who are desperate to get their hands on it – have featured in an apocalyptic dream he had.

Back at a vast space station where millions of beings from across the universe live and work together, Valerian and Laureline are plunged into further danger when the converter is stolen and Commander Filitt tells them that part of this ‘planet of a thousand cities’ has become infected by an unknown force that is spreading.

Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne as the leads are perhaps not entirely convincing in terms of holding the film together – certainly at the beginning – but they grow into the roles and also have welcome help from Clive Owen as Filitt, Rihanna as Bubble, a shapeshifting alien chanteuse, and Sam Spruell as General Okto Bar.

Herbie Hancock, Ethan Hawke and perhaps particularly, Rutger Hauer, don’t really have enough screen time to make a great impact.

The plot is entertaining enough, with a nice ethical heart, but where the film unquestioningly wins is in its sumptuous, superb visuals.

There are all sorts of little references, as you’d expect from Besson: I’m not sure I’d be alone in seeing a subtle thread between the K-Tron robot warriors here, the battle droid army in George Lucas’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999), the Mondoshawans in The Fifth Element (1997) and Jacob Epstein’s Torso in Metal from The Rock Drill (1913-14).

Nor does it seem too farfetched to feel that in his central alien race, Besson has looked at what James Cameron did in Avatar – and then done it better.

And in the Doghan Daguis – a trio of devious, platypus-like characters – he seems to be saying that he can do irritating characters without going too far, as Lucas did with the legendarily awful Jar Jar Binks.

All in all, eminently watchable – and probably worth seeing more than once if only to play spot the reference and to enjoy the look of it all.