Not forgotten

My Mum died on the 14th of March, 2012. Five years ago today.

I have written a lot about her on this blog, and have previously marked this anniversary of her death. I wasn’t going to do the same again today for some reason, but then I changed my mind. I don’t want her memory to be forgotten. Though I will never forget her, her life, and awful death, needs to be mentioned, if only once a year.

By her own reckoning, she was an ‘ordinary woman’. A Londoner, born into a working-class family, she left school aged just 14, to start work. Her youth was ruined by the Second World War. Long years spent terrified of the bombing, hiding in shelters, and having to cope with the loss of friends and neighbours lost in the destruction, or when fighting overseas in the services.

Despite all that, she got on with life. She married, raised me, and continued to be part of her large extended family too. She was a loyal wife, a devoted aunt and sister, a good cousin and caring neighbour. Above all, she was a wonderful Mum, who would do anything for her son. She also supported many charities, and loved her pets too.

The last years of her life were marred by illness, and problems with her sight. That final stay in hospital, receiving no treatment under the ‘Liverpool Care Pathway’, was one of the hardest things I have ever had to witness. Yet through it all, she only worried about me. My future, my happiness, my health. Never her own.

Violet Anne Johnson, 1924-2012. Never forgotten.

Significant Songs (131)

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Gil Scott-Heron could be best described as being all things to all people. He was a writer, a poet, a political commentator, and an excellent musician too. His music is variously described as Jazz, Soul, Rap, Funk, or as just plain poetry to sounds. His importance in the music scene of the 1970s cannot be exaggerated, as he brought a mixture of genres that highlighted some of the most important causes of the period.

He continued to record into the 1990s, and despite some terms in prison, remained a significant influence in a certain genre, appreciated by many. These days, his work is rarely heard, and perhaps little-known, as he sadly died in 2011, aged just 62.

However, the fusion of poetry, rap, and music in this featured song has even more contemporary relevance than it did in 1971, when I first heard it, and was amazed by its prescience.

Listen, and weep.

Significant Songs (130)

We Got To Have Peace

Curtis Mayfield was around for a long time. Pretty much the whole time that I appreciated music, in fact. He began his career with a gospel choir, moving to the group The Impressions at the age of just fourteen. In that group, he collaborated with the marvellous Jerry Butler, and they produced some of the enduring soul sounds of my youth.

After he left that group in 1970, Curtis worked on film soundtracks, and also became increasingly political with his musical message. His film soundtrack for the ‘Blaxploitation’ film, ‘Superfly’ received critical acclaim, and achieved huge sales. Despite being diagnosed with Diabetes, and also suffering a serious injury, he continued to record. He also returned to The Impressions after a twenty year absence, as well as collaborating with other artists, including the British group, The Blow Monkeys.

Many of his later songs carried a political message, and that did not affect his popularity, or record sales. He sadly died from complications of Diabetes at the young age of 57, in 1999. He left behind a legacy of soulful sounds, stretching over the decades. Perhaps because of the current world situation, this track from as long ago as 1971 sums up his hopes and desires, as well as being all too relevant just now.

Just been watching…(24)

The Reader (2008)

***Plot spoilers avoided***

In the late 1990s, I read a novel that was receiving rave reviews. It was ‘The Reader’, by Bernhard Schlink. I couldn’t put it down, and quickly realised why the reviews were so positive.

In 2008, I noticed that a film adaptation of the book was to be released. Directed by Stephen Daldry, and with a screenplay from David Hare, the cast included Ralph Fiennes, Kate Winslet, and Bruno Ganz. This was going to be a must-see for me, of that I was certain. Very often, film adaptations of an impressive book often fail to deliver. Happily, this was not the case this time. Quite the opposite in fact, as the long running time and flawless cast brought the pages to life in one of the best transfers from a book to the screen that I have ever seen.

Very few films have ever brought tears to my eyes. This was one of them.

The film is set in Berlin, and flashes back and forth between events covering a period from the late 1940s, to the year 1995, but it is never confusing, and always obvious what period we are watching. It deals with the love affair between a boy of fifteen, and a woman more than twice his age, who happens to help him one day, when he is ill with scarlet fever. When he returns to thank her, they begin a sexual relationship that lasts for one summer. Hannah (Winslet) will only grant sexual favours after the boy has read to her from books he brings for the purpose. When she suddenly leaves the town for no reason, young Michael (David Kross) is confused and heartbroken, but gets on with his life as best he can, eventually going to Law School in Heidelburg. But he is always detached and serious, unlike most of his student colleagues.

As part of their studies, the tutor Professor Rohl, (Bruno Ganz) himself a Holocaust survivor, takes the class to witness a trial in action. It is a war crimes trial, with a group of women who were former concentration camp guards being tried for their part in a particular horrific incident. Michael immediately recognises Hannah as one of the accused, and is overwhelmed by this discovery. Although he is reluctant to watch the proceedings, he keeps going back with the class. As the trial continues, Michael suddenly discovers that Hannah is keeping a secret from both the court, and everyone who has ever met her. He divulges his discovery to the professor, who tells him to visit her, and discuss it. But he lacks the courage to go into the prison, and says nothing.

The second half of the film sees the older Michael (Ralph Fiennes) as a successful lawyer. He has a daughter, but his marriage has ended in divorce. Busy with his law work, he still sometimes thinks about Hannah, and the secret he never revealed to her, or to anyone. After moving from the family home into his own flat, he resolves to do something about it, and gets back into contact with her once again. To add more detail would involve plot spoilers that could well ruin the film for anyone who wants to see it, so I will stop there.

This is an unusual film, dealing with uncomfortable subjects in a very different way. There is some nudity and sex, but it is tastefully done, and never offensive. The viewer is also challenged to see another side of the murder of Jews during the war, that of a simple and ordinary young woman who viewed being a guard as little more than a well-paid job. This is a great deal more than a coming-of-age love story, but love is at the very heart of it. A love that lasts into middle age, and has a devastating effect on all other relationships. At times it is hard to watch, more so as you will find yourself feeling sympathy for Hannah, like it or not. And you may well identify with the life of Michael, consumed by a first love that endures despite all the other events surrounding his maturity.

Ralph Fiennes is as good as you might expect, lending a taut and obsessive air to the character of Michael. The always watchable Bruno Ganz makes a small role stand out with his usual consummate skill, and every minor character part is perfectly cast, never feeling less than authentic. But this is Winslet’s film. She is an actress that I can generally take or leave, but ‘The Reader’ may well be remembered as her finest hour. From her first scene to her last, she is mesmerising on screen, and portrays emotions with a studied nuance I hardly believed she was capable of. She acts the part of Hannah from the character’s late thirties, through to her late sixties, with little make-up used to age her, and no obvious prosthetic additions. Her transition from a relatively attractive woman to an elderly and tired old lady is simply amazing to watch, and the film comes alive when she is on screen.

She won the Oscar for best actress for this film. She also won the BAFTA for best actress, and the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. (This is a strange one, as I cannot imagine who she was supporting.) I urge you to watch it, to find out why.

Here’s the official trailer.

Just been watching…(23)

The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1968)

***There are plot spoilers, but this is a well-documented historical event***

This was not the first film to be made about the famous charge during the battle of Balaclava, in the Crimean War. But it is by far the best, and has held up incredibly well, over the decades since I first saw it at the cinema, then aged just sixteen. When I noticed last week that it was to be shown on TV, I happily sat down to watch it again, for the first time since that night forty-eight years ago.

Director Tony Richardson caught the mood of the sixties, using some of the acting darlings of the time, including Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings. He then added a crop of distinguished thespians, not only John Geilgud, but Alan Dobie, Harry Andrews, and Jill Bennett. The film also features the use of animated political cartoons, a nod to the contemporary satirical pieces often used in the newspapers during that war. Even the accurate clothing and uniforms shown in the film were popular during the 1960s, with trendy young men and women buying army red coats and cavalry jackets, at fashionable boutiques in London.

The bulk of the film deals with setting the scene just prior to the outbreak of the war. Idle cavalry officers sit around in the Officers’ Mess, drinking and playing cards. They engage in horse riding and drills, more concerned about the cut and fit of their uniforms than their military skills. By contrast, the poor working-class recruits are subjected to stern discipline, and long hours of hard work, preparing the horses, and cleaning the stables. They live in barracks with their wives and children, their only privacy a sheet hung over a length of rope.

The senior officers and High Command are portrayed as a bickering, vain gaggle of ageing men, most of whom had served under Wellington, and fought the French at Waterloo, almost forty years earlier. Geilgud is perfect as Lord Raglan, a man almost senile, who is later given overall command of the British forces in Russia. Likewise Trevor Howard, as the pompous and womanising Lord Cardigan, who pays for his cavalry brigade from his own funds, insisting on immaculate uniforms, and strict behaviour. Topping off this trio of bombastic generals is Lord Lucan, played by Harry Andrews, the man given command of all the cavalry, much to the annoyance of the outraged Cardigan.

Young Captain Nolan, played by David Hemmings, arrives at the regiment. He soon upsets the other officers, especially Lord Cardigan, by his unusual behaviour. He is kind to the horses, fair to the men he commands, and refuses to take part in the petty niceties and squabbles with his fellow officers in the mess. He is also in love with the wife of his best friend, Captain Morris (Mark Burns) who is an officer in the Lancers. Clarissa Morris, played to 19th century style perfectly by Vanessa Redgrave, returns Nolan’s affections, but they keep their affair a secret from her husband, as war approaches.

News that they are to go to war against Russia, supposedly in defence of Turkey, and that France will be their ally, rather than the enemy, throws the regiments into turmoil. Preparations get under way, and wives are allowed to travel with the officers, and some of those of the enlisted men too. After a long sea voyage in difficult conditions, the expedition finally lands in the Crimea, and heads for the Russian stronghold of Sevastopol. They show little regard for their Russian adversaries, and soon discover that they are unprepared for the harsh conditions in the region. Before they even get as far as a battle, many are soon dead or dying from all manner of maladies, especially typhoid.

One they stop to set up camp, the rivalries of the high-ranking officers become ridiculous in the extreme, with one telling the men to line up their tents in a certain fashion, then another coming along to make them move them all back to how they were in the first place. Camp life reflects the situation at home, with the High Command dining at fancy tables in evening dress, as the ordinary soldiers struggle to make the best of much worse conditions. As crazy as this must appear to the modern viewer, it is an accurate look at the life led during that time.

When they finally encounter the Russian Army at the battle of The Alma, Lord Raglan decides not to use the cavalry, who have to stand idly watching, as their officers continue to argue about who is actually in charge of them. Nolan becomes increasingly frustrated by the lack of action, and the apparent reluctance of his superiors to make any decision. He is sent to act as a messenger, after once again upsetting Lord Cardigan, and considered to be in disgrace. As they proceed to Sevastopol, they again encounter the Russians, this time at Balaclava. When the enemy capture many of the British guns, the cavalry are sent into action, tasked with getting them back.

The Light Brigade is drawn up in formation, with the Lancers behind, and the Heavy Brigade in reserve. The valley is overlooked by the officers of the High Command, as well as some wives, reporters, and non-combatant officers. The atmosphere seems more like a picnic, than the command of men in a fierce battle. Unfortunately, neither Cardigan nor Lucan can see the enemy, so Nolan is sent with orders for them to attack. The hot-headed Nolan confronts these Lords, urging them to move forward. Looking along the valley, they can see two positions ahead of them. The Russians to the left are still escaping with the guns, but to the right, they are forming up on both sides, with many cannon, and hundreds of troops.

Still arguing among themselves, Lucan finally orders Cardigan to advance, much to the delight of the excited Nolan, who secretly intends to join in. But Cardigan takes the wrong path, and his six hundred cavalrymen go forward into a hail of shot and bullets. Nolan rushes up, trying to tell the stubborn commander to move to the left. But it is too late, and Nolan is one of the first to be killed by the Russian artillery. On the hill above, the confused Raglan is at a loss to understand the error, but is unable to recall the regiments.

The filming of the battle is second to none. Aerial views of the formed-up cavalry are beautiful to behold, and their advance is shown in a series of slow-motion and real-time scenes that chillingly convey the futile nature of the attack, as men armed only with swords or lances ride forward into the hell of modern warfare. Despite reaching the Russian positions, the remaining cavalry is unable to continue the attack, and has to return to the British lines, many without horses. As the full extent of the folly becomes apparent, the High Command is once again shown arguing, each blaming the other for the mistake. In the real battle, almost half of the six hundred men involved were either killed, wounded, or captured. It has gone down in history as a military blunder, and was immortalised in a poem by Tennyson, just a few weeks after the event.

This is an excellent historical epic, and one of the best made about the British during the 19th century. As well as the leading actors, there are memorable turns from Peter Bowles, as the paymaster, and Jill Bennett, as his flirtatious and unfaithful wife. Norman Rossington is convincing as the sergeant poorly treated by Cardigan, and Alan Dobie impresses as the useless officer, Mogg, who is ridiculed by both his colleagues, and the men he commands.
Here’s a clip.

Bonfire night

This Saturday is the fifth of November. It was once known as ‘Bonfire Night’, ‘Firework Night’, or ‘Guy Fawkes’ Night’. When I was a child, it was eagerly anticipated. Wood and combustibles would be collected during the preceding weeks, and stacked into bonfire piles on old bombsites, or cleared areas in London. Children and their parents would use old clothes to build a ‘Guy’, a dummy to represent the unfortunate Mr Fawkes, that would eventually be placed on top of the bonfire, to be consumed in the flames.

Great care was taken with these effigies, as we would them sit with them outside shops or pubs, asking strangers to give us a, ‘Penny for the Guy, please.” The money collected would be used to buy fireworks, which would be set off around the bonfires, adding to the annual celebration. Sometimes, we would travel to the house of a family friend or relative, those lucky enough to have a garden. There we would have a ‘firework party’, watching as the adult men set off the various fireworks, as we warmed ourselves in front of the bonfire outside. Traditional food would accompany these events, usually baked potatoes, and sausages.

Every year, we would chant this old English folk verse.

When I was very young, I didn’t really understand the reason behind all this. I was just happy to be out on a cold night, watching the fireworks, and enjoying the heat of the bonfire. Back then, (the late 1950s) fireworks could not be bought at any other time of the year, so it was always special. I still remember the smells of those nights, and seeing the debris the next morning; paper cases and sticks from spent rockets, burned planks where Catherine Wheels had been nailed into fences.

The high point of the evening was to watch the carefully-constructed ‘Guy’ catch fire, and disappear into the flames. We would have been wearing cheap cardboard masks, and holding sparklers, attempting to write our names in the light trails they produced. Like most things in childhood, it always seemed to be over far too quickly, and we would soon be talking about bigger and better bonfires and ‘Guys’ for next year. I don’t remember when I considered myself to be too old to go to these parties, but I was probably around thirteen. Many years later, they were popular once again, this time for adults. We would go to a friend’s house, and set off a huge amount of fireworks, usually accompanied by lots of barbecue food, and copious amounts of beer.

These days, some families continue the tradition, though most prefer to attend the many organised and controlled displays run by local authorities, or organisations. You don’t see children asking for a ‘Penny for the Guy’ anymore; that is probably considered to be unsafe, in our protected world. Fireworks are rightly considered to be dangerous these days, and their sale is carefully regulated. People are also more aware and considerate of the distress caused to pets and farm animals by the constant explosions and screaming rockets, something we never thought of back then.

It is also very close to Halloween, hard on the heels of all the expenditure and excitement of this relatively recent import from America. Something we didn’t have to think about, when I was young. But it still goes on, albeit diminished in importance, and overshadowed by modern excitements. Perhaps it is worth looking into why it came about in the first place, for those too young to share my fond memories.

Guy Fawkes was an English Catholic, born in 1570. He later became part of a notorious plot to kill the King, James I, and establish a Catholic kingdom in Protestant England. He and his fellow conspirators leased a large cellar beneath the Palace of Westminster, directly below the House of Lords. They planned to fill it with barrels of gunpowder, and detonate the explosives when the King came to the palace, thereby killing all the Lords of England, and the King, at the same time. Fawkes was tasked with guarding the barrels, and was discovered there, on the 5th of November, 1605. The group had been betrayed, and an anonymous letter of warning had been sent to the authorities.

(Image from Wikipedia)

Fawkes was imprisoned and tortured, eventually confessing to his part in the plot. He was sentenced to the brutal execution of being hanged, drawn, and quartered, but was lucky enough to die from the hanging, avoiding the rest of that awful process.

Commemoration of the plot’s failure has continued ever since.

Whatever happened to? : Joe Jackson

In 1979, I heard a great record on the radio. It was called ‘Is She Really Going Out With Him?’. I liked the structure, and thought the obviously English vocal was top-notch. The song was outstanding, with good lyrics that anyone could identify with, and a really refreshing new sound.

I soon had the album it came from, ‘Look Sharp’, and I had also seen him perform the song on TV. He was an unusual-looking pop star, with receding hair and high forehead, but oh how I loved his voice. At the time he was marketed as a New Wave/Punk performer, and often compared to Elvis Costello. They are the same age, and both English, but as much as I liked Costello, I didn’t get the comparison. Joe sounded jazzy and soulful to me, whereas Elvis was obviously from Punk roots.

Later that same year, Joe Jackson released his new album, ‘I’m The Man’. And he was. Now sharp-suited, full of confidence, and belting out some great songs, including this amazing ballad. This was a young man who understood women. You can feel that in the sentiment, and hear it in the lyrics. This was also someone who had style, and looked cool. As a bonus, his music had class too.

In 1980, ‘Beat Crazy’ failed to impress in the same way, and I wondered if he had lost direction, after achieving success. But I was wrong. The following year, his tribute to Swing, containing covers of many classic songs showed that he had not lost direction at all. He had just gone in a different one.
‘Jumpin’ Jive’ was a retro-treat, and showed another side to him, as well as something of that love for jazz that I had detected from the start. I now had to add versatility to his talents.

The next year had a real treat in store. Joe was back on form with perhaps his most complete album ever. ‘Night And Day’ contained two of his biggest hits to date. Not only the great foot tapper, ‘Steppin’ Out’, but also the sublimely heartbreaking love song,’ Breaking Us In Two’. Joe wasn’t just singing either, he was playing piano, saxophone, organ, synthesizer, and harmonica. The guy did it all.

In 1984, he went in yet another direction. Having relocated across the Atlantic to New York, he changed his style with the release of ‘Body And Soul’. We saw a Jackson presenting Salsa, mainstream Pop, and Soul too. He might have lost a few fans as a result, but I was still on board, and enjoying the ride.

Two years later, he experimented with the live album, ‘Big World’. A double-disc of all-new songs, it failed to capture the imagination of the fans, and also failed to make the top 40. In 1987, he continued to diversify, and this time with classical music on ‘Will Power’. But we were not really interested in his Classical side, so his new direction proved to be a wrong turn. More instrumental music followed, with ‘Will Power’, in 1987. But nobody was really getting it except him. Determined to drive home the point, he released ‘Blaze Of Glory’ in 1989, returning to vocals, but still experimenting with form and structure. The critics didn’t much care for it, and neither did I.

Following a ‘Best Of’ compilation in 1990, Joe changed labels, and came up with ‘Laughter And Lust’, once again failing to break the charts. Despite still singing well, and writing some very good songs, it had started to sound wrong. Too many changes of direction seemed to have left him in a state of confusion. Something that also applied to many of his loyal fans too. He went on to record three more Classical albums, followed by a couple that were supposed to get him back on track, but came across as self-indulgent, and a little desperate. But it was all too late. We wanted the Joe that we knew, not the one he had become.

In 2012, he went back to his love for Swing and Jazz with ‘The Duke’, a tribute to Duke Ellington. He had waited too long though. By now, we had all but stopped listening. Joe continues to record, and since 2006 has lived in Berlin. I may have stopped buying his records a long time ago, but I still love to play the ones I treasure.