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Thursday, 31 January 2013

Friday, 25 January 2013

Books - There Was A Country - A Personal History of Biafra - by Chinua Achebe

Star rating - 9/10

History is often more easily revealed, and its nuances more thoroughly grasped, through the eyes of a novelist rather than by a historian. Much of what I know about the Biafran War and the bitter internal strife of Nigeria from 1967-70 was gleaned from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's stunning 2006 work of fiction - Half of a Yellow Sun. At least much more detail stayed with me than when I flirted with the study of African politics as a student. And now I find I get the best of both, a history of that hopeful yet terrible time, told by one of the finest living story tellers today, acclaimed author Chinua Achebe. 

His personal testimony of the war, and it's devastating aftermath lingering to this day in Nigeria, is all the more moving as Achebe records how his close friends and family fought, and ofttimes died, for the breakaway state in the south east of the country. 

These were times of great hope, as Biafrans fought to break away from the corruption and ethnic imbalance of the government of post colonial Nigeria. The newly formed Biafran state attracted celebrated sympathisers such as Joan Baez, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Achebe gives a fascinating account of the special position, and indeed as he sees it, responsibility of writers and intellectuals like himself to act as leading lights for change. His own family are forced to flee and flee again, as around three million of his people are mercilessly slaughtered in a brutal war.

And he makes harsh judgement on the role of the British Government in the war, under the leadership of Labour's Harold Wilson, who Achebe feels was more concerned with protecting the interests of British oil companies in the region, than seeing that any sense of humanity, justice, or fairness prevailed. 

This book is not only moving and illuminating as a historical testament; Achebe argues forcefully that the Biafran War needs to be understood in order to address the problems, including endemic corruption, which continue to plague modern Nigeria just as much as they did in the 1960's. This is a powerful and brilliantly recounted book which deserves to be widely read - it is a further tragedy that it is not likely to be.

Gigs - The Cowboy Junkies - Waterside Arts Centre, Sale

Star rating - 8/10

Last time I saw the Cowboy Junkies perform was back in November 2010 in the wonderful setting of Gorton Monastery. Beautiful and inspirational building though it certainly is, it wasn't the best venue for a concert and caused much craning of necks from the audience and moaning from the singer Margo Timmins about the sound quality. And on this bitter January night I was glad to be in more modern, warmer surroundings to be sure. 

The Canadian veterans employed an unusual, and possibly a tad brave, format for the gig, with two sets from them and no support. The first set was made up entirely of tracks from their Nomad Series set of four different CDs produced over an 18 month period. That's quite an output, which they seemed to be strangely apologetic about playing. Timmins pleasantly invited the audience to text their Mums or catch up on emails if they didn't like it. Which was odd as most of it was great. 

I liked the ballads rather than the self indulgent rockier numbers best, no surprise there - my tastes don't change. Damaged from the Start was lovely (although in parts strangely reminiscent of Rod Stewart's I Don't Want To Talk About It - weird). It is from the fourth CD in the series The Wilderness, which is gentler and more melodic than some of the others, and apparently their Mum's favourite - obviously a woman of good taste. The second CD Demons is made up of songs by their dear departed friend Vic Chestnut, and See You Around was a beautifully played example.

After a short break the Junkies were back for a second crowd pleasing set. And they took this very seriously, inviting fans to e mail suggestions beforehand via their website, and performing them regardless of how old and seldom played they are. I really admire Timmins for reading unashamedly from a lyric for a song she doesn't remember the words to. But then with her beautiful voice and years of fabulous recordings of songs written by her super talented brother Mike, she has nothing to prove. The Cowboy Junkies are justifiably comfortable in their skins with such a distinguished back catalogue.

 And yes they played lots of favourite tracks like Sweet Jane; the sublimely brilliant Cause Cheap is How I Feel - its bittersweet lyrics summing up the thousand losers in us all; and my personal favourite, Misguided Angel, which sounded as wonderful as ever. For that I will even forgive her the Robin Van Persie adulation on behalf of her 9 year old son (Manchester United posters on a Canadian boy's bedroom wall - never!)

And by the way, I love discovering different local venues, and the Waterside Arts Centre in Sale is great - easy to get to, perfect views of the stage from all seats, nice bar, safe and cheap parking. Get yourself down there.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Books - Canada by Richard Ford

Star rating 8/10

This beautifully written novel from American author Richard Ford has a very striking opening paragraph. He is confident enough that his exemplary story telling will keep the reader on board that his narrator reveals at this early stage that his parents are going to commit a robbery, and that murders will subsequently take place. This gives an unusual sensation of knowing that these events will occur, and grimly waiting for them to unfold. 

The narrator is Dell, who is recounting events back when he was fifteen years old. His family are living ordinary humdrum lives in a small city in Montana in 1960. His father has recently left the air force and is something of a loser, dabbling in selling black market meat. His mother is doing her best, despite a lingering unhappiness with her lot, and the notion that she could and should have done much better for herself, to grit her teeth and get on with caring for her family. Dell is close to his twin sister Berner, but the earlier onset of her adolescence is pulling her away into a different world from his. Their family, imperfect though it is as their parents' dissatisfaction with each other seeps into daily life, is shattered by a single event. 

Ford is a master at creating a claustrophobic and tense atmosphere, vivid with description and empty with the tedium of the family's lives at the same time. It is reminiscent of Anne Tyler at her brilliant best. He captures perfectly how the twins must have felt in that domestic setting: 'Being a child under those circumstances was mostly waiting - for them to do something, or to be older - which seemed a long way away.'

And Dell keeps revealing future events before they happen as the story unfolds - he won't see his parents again after they visit them in jail following their arrest for the very amateurish bank robbery; terrible things are going to happen when he escapes to Canada with the help of a neighbour ....It is an interesting and original device that on the whole works really well. There are just a few awkward moments in the narration where you wonder how the boy really could have known some of the detail he is describing, such as what happened in detail at the hotel on the way to the robbery, when only his parents were there.

Berner, as the fast maturing and wild twin sister is a very likeable and interesting character. She longs to escape from this world both before, and even more so after the robbery. As their paths diverge, Dell is catapulted on another path altogether, as he is offered sanctuary in a remote part of Canada with a friend's son. This is in effect the second part of the book, and suffice it to say that the promised sanctuary turns out to be something rather different and more dangerous for Dell.

Despite some irksome plot inconsistencies, this is an absorbing and captivating piece of writing by Ford, who paints characters with resonance and vitality, and plants them firmly in the period he is writing about with real style. 

Monday, 21 January 2013

Film - Django Unchained directed by Quentin Tarantino

Star rating - 9/10

As a real fan of Quentin Tarantino, particularly his early works such as Pulp Fiction (one of my all time favourite films) and Reservoir Dogs, I was very interested to see if Django Unchained represented something of a return to form after a couple of offerings generally held to be below his normal exceptional standards. And I am happy to report that it is another gem, perhaps not quite hitting those dizzy heights, but genuinely exceptional, certainly compared to most other celluloid offerings around.

It is his love letter to the Italian spaghetti westerns of the 1960s, but with a focus on that most controversial of subjects, slavery. And yes of course it is ultra violent, this is after all Tarantino. But much of the violence is done in such in an over the top, exaggerated  way so as to be almost comic - almost. And let's deal with the other main popular talking point about this film at the outset - the use of the 'n' word to refer to African Americans, both those who are slaves and those who are liberated. Yes it appears liberally, but it does not feel at all out of place or offensive, at least no more than the characters using it are supposed to be. It is a reflection of the racism of the time the film is set - America in the 1860s, before the Civil War and emancipation of enslaved people. For me this is simply a non-issue.

The story follows the fortunes of Django, played brilliantly by Jamie Foxx, who is liberated from his own slavery by the colourful German bounty hunter Dr King Schultz to help him to track down some wanted men with a fortune on their heads, dead or alive. Christoph Waltz is just wonderful as the nomadic doctor, who is cunning, charismatic, and has an enlightened attitude to going into partnership with a former slave to help him to get what he wants. And Django is prepared to assist the good doctor in his bloody line of business, in return for helping him to find his beloved wife Broomhilda. The couple were slaves together when slaves were not allowed to get married, and then were cruelly separated. 

Their quest brings them into the path of wealthy slave owner Calvin Candie, who is a little less enlightened in his treatment of slaves, to say the least. Leonard DiCaprio plays the racist estate owner with aplomb, in one of his best roles for years. The plot to deceive Candie is delicious, but it does not go quite according to plan.

Tarantino uses humour and violence together like no other director is capable of doing. His imagination is unique and wild, and his talent simply unprecedented. As usual he picks a stunning soundtrack which is note perfect to match the action. It's a long film at 136 minutes, but with such fast paced dialogue and storytelling it never feels like it. So go on - worship at the feet of the master again. You know you want to...

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Theatre - The Accrington Pals - Royal Exchange

Star rating - 6/10

This revival of a 1980's Peter Whelan play deals with the men who volunteer to fight in the First World War from the Lancashire town of Accrington, and with the women they leave behind.

It's a great set, complete with cobbles, tram lines, and interminable dreary rain. And it is very cleverly made to represent the Northern mill town and the Western Front, often at the same time.

There are lots of characters, but sadly none really meaty enough to enable the audience to empathise with them as much as is required for the sad stories involved.  Uptight May runs a market stall with Tom, who came to live with her as a boy, and who slowly and painfully discover that their feelings for each other have deepened. And his chirpy friend Ralph, who brings his girlfriend Eva to live with May, and to help her run the stall while they are away at war.  

The play feels like a piece of distinctly average writing,  acted in the main in an average way, although the actors may settle into their parts a bit when the previews are over. And there was an awful lot of shouting, often when it didn't feel necessary, so dulling the impact when it would have actually been appropriate. A bit more old fashioned voice projection would have been more effective. This is a Royal Exchange first for director James Dacre, but I'm afraid it's a case of damnation by, in the main, faint praise. 

But a couple of actors do stand out in the cast - Sarah Ridgeway as Eva, and Shameless star Gerard Kearns as her boyfriend  Ralph are great. It's a shame the action didn't hang more on their fun-filled young romantic relationship, as it hurtles towards the inevitable looming tragedy - it might have made a greater impression if it had. 

It's a heartbreakingly sad period of course - how the young men of a generation were lost in the carnage of the trenches. And to shine a spotlight on a single community should really serve to amplify this tragedy. But sadly this production feels to be missing something, and fails to make a deep connection with its audience. 

But it's still interesting, amusing in places, and a lovely looking piece of theatre.