Friday, 31 August 2018

'On the Radar' - RM's Cultural Highlights, W/E 01st September 2018


Slow Burn, Season Two - Slate (Episodes 1-4 currently available)

I’ve already raved about Slow Burn Season One, which focussed on the Watergate Affair. Now the team are back to examine the run-up to the Clinton impeachment. It’s quality podcasting, which often makes for uncomfortable listening as Bill Clinton’s serial womanising is revisited and examined in minute detail. 


Timothy Findlay – Famous Last Words (First published – 1981)

I suspect many of you will not have heard of Canadian novelist, Timothy Findlay (1930-2002). I first came across him when I read ‘The Wars’, his 1977 novel about the Canadian experience of the Great War. 'Famous Last Words' is a page-turning tour de force. It takes its title from an Ezra Pound poem (Pound is a character in the novel), and its mix of fact and fiction focuses on the confessions of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, written on a hotel wall in Germany at the end of the Second World War. In Findlay’s novel, Mauberley is not Eliot’s nobody, but a hugely successful writer caught up in one of the biggest plots in history. Its cast of characters includes Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Ezra Pound, and Rudolf Hess among many others.

It’s a study in insanity and the pursuit of perfection, alongside a forensic examination of vanity, the need to write, and the emptiness of success. Most of all, it has huge scope, is by turns shocking and compelling and it has the capacity to really get under your skin. Given its subject matter, it should be unbelievable; actually, it's all too plausible.


Love’s Labour’s Lost – Folksy Theatre (Ordsall Hall 26/08)

Not even the most passionate Shakespeare comedy fan would suggest Love’s Labour’s Lostcounts among his greats. This tale of noblemen seeking to foreswear women and devote themselves to study (and failing miserably), is slight. Promenade Theatre specialists, Folksy Theatre, did their best with the flimsy material and it was a shame the weather kept this production indoors. The cast were, for the most part, fresh out of theatre school and there were points where the production came across as a showcase for their many and various talents. We had dancing and singing and musical instrument playing as well as a fair amount of physical theatre. It was all good fun and they worked hard to interact with a good-natured bank holiday crowd. Their straight-line, pantomimic production was very entertaining and there was much laughter. What this spritely production revealed, however, is just how tricky it is to allow Shakespearean language in clear shape when proceedings need to be done in around two hours. It would have been wonderful if the actors could have let more of the play’s text breathe. A splendid bank-holiday night out, however.


Martin Barre – Roads Less Travelled (2018)

Martin Launcelot Barre is back for his seventh solo album. By turns gritty hard-rock and cunning folk, Roads Less Travelled shows there’s much life in the guitar maestro yet. Full review to come in Prog Magazine.

Ayreon – Into the Electric Castle (20thAnniversary Reissue)

Arjen Lucassen’s second album as Ayreon is as fresh today as it was twenty years ago. The remastering is delicious and the 20thAnniversary packaging impressive. Full review to come in Prog Magazine.

‘Come From Away’ – Original Cast Recording

I’m grateful to my friend and collaborator Ollie Mills for drawing my attention to this new musical centred around what happened when, on 9/11 2001, dozens of planes were re-directed from New York to Newfoundland. It’s breezy, heart-warming, and charming, and draws out both the shock and the opportunities presented to a small Newfoundland community when people from all over the world ‘landed on’ them in the midst of catastrophe. 

Friday, 24 August 2018

'On the Radar': RM's Cultural Highlights w/e 25th August 2018


Proms 33 – Thea Musgrave/Brahms (BBC iPlayer until mid-September)

Musgrave’s Phoenix Rising remains an exhilarating experience, by turns smart, comforting and challenging. It offers a potent compliment to Brahms’ equally dramatic Ein Deutsches Requiem. Golda Schultz and Johan Reuter bring solo brilliance to the clarity of the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Richard Farnes.

Love in a Cold Climate (Radio 4Extra – BBC iPlayer till late-September)

A repeat of the 1999 adaptation. As ever with Radio 4 Classics, it’s well done, though the final thirty minutes feels a little rushed when compared to the novel. Mitford’s source material is simultaneously of its time – all the talk of ‘coming out’ and ‘we’ve had enough of Fanny’ may sound hilarious to childish modern ears – and yet Mitford’s handling of themes of sex, relationships and homosexuality is surprisingly modern.


Michael Hughes – Country (2018)

Hughes’s second novel takes the Iliad and places it in the Irish borderlands of 1996. Immensely readable, especially if, like me, you’ve always had a fascinating with the Troubles. It’s at its strongest when exploring the moods and motivations of its characters, including its Irish Achilles and British Hector. I struggled with the speechifying of the main characters which felt stagey and lacking in an ear for human patterns of speech. Pompous speeches work in Ancient Greek drama, which Hughes carefully mimics; less so in modern novels.

Agatha Christie – Parker Pyne Investigates (1931)

One of Christie’s minor ‘tecs. Parker Pyne is a fat, bald statistician who uses probability to make assessments about his clients. Something of a time capsule – of questionable social attitudes to women, class and ethnicity – its episodic short stories make for an easy and quick read. Fun, not least for reminding the reader that Christie’s first use of the title, ‘Death on the Nile’ was in this volume.


Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton – Fleurs (2015)

This is one heck of a themed album: Sampson’s powerful voice (noted for her skill with baroque material) takes on flower-based songs from across the classical repertoire. There’s Faure, Britten, Schumann and Debussy, among many others. Middleton’s accompaniment is sensitive and discreet and allows Sampson the space to show her range. A striking solo debut, after years singing with Ex Cathedra.

Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Wapentak (2018)
I’ve never understood why prog-pop geniuses Sweet Billy Pilgrim haven’t become huge. Their previous album, Motorcade Amnesiacs (2015), should have been their breakthrough, but it was not to be. Now they’ve paired back, to a duo. What’s lost is the expansive rock-outs and wild arrangements; what’s gained is focus and intimacy. ‘The Briar Bell’ – a folky and dreamy ballad – is just one of the many outstanding tracks on this album.

Sam Sweeney – The Unfinished Violin (Forthcoming)

Sam Sweeney will be no stranger to fans of Bellowhead. This forthcoming release builds on 2016’s ‘Made In The Great War’ album, his collaboration with Hugh Lupton. On this release, he uses the violin featured in ‘Made In The Great War’ to play folk tunes associated with that conflict. Verity Sharp played the deeply affecting ‘The Battle of the Somme’ on Late Junction this week; some of the other tracks are available to listen to via iTunes. This promises to be very special.

Friday, 17 August 2018

RM’s 'Cultural Highlights' … W/E – 18th August 2018

This list makes no claims to being ‘on-trend’ or especially current. I usually come across new books about two years after they penetrate most people’s cultural consciousness … many of the things I’ll highlight are old faves of mine (especially books) and I’m not going to be too precious about ‘high’ vs ‘low’ culture distinctions. This is simply a list of stuff I’ve either loved, engaged with or intrigued me.


‘Slow Burn’ Season One – Watergate

This podcast is now into season two, examining the presidency of Bill Clinton (more on that in future weeks). Season one examined the last days of Nixon’s reign. Even if you think you know this story, this podcast is hugely revealing and timely. It’s a reminder that what we face with Trump – a bombastic and arrogant man who thinks he’s above the law – is an old story. This is the first podcast that has absolutely gripped me since the first season of Serial.


Matthew Sweeney – My Life as a Painter

Sweeney’s twelfth and – as has transpired – final collection combines all one has come to expect from him: surreal flights of fancy, a delight in word-play and sharp comment on creative-making. His death a couple of weeks ago adds poignancy to a fine collection.


John Le CarrĂ© – The Pigeon Tunnel: Tales from my Life

This book comprises a series of beautifully constructed and revealing anecdotes from Cornwell’s various lives. He’s honest about the malleability of memory and one wonders how many facts he’s abandoned along the way. If his recollections are carefully worked, his novelist’s skill only adds to the entertainment value. At times episodic, it reveals as much as it conceals.


Olivia Manning – Friends & Heroes

The final part of the Balkan Trilogy takes the Pringles to Athens in the months before the fall of Greece. By turns, insightful, frustrating and funny, Manning handles the classical sub-text to the end of the Pringle’s European adventures with real skill. I hadn’t expected to find going back to the Trilogy to be so timely. I recommend the whole trilogy to anyone reflecting on complacency and making the best of things while the world crumbles.

C.J. Sansom – Lamentation

A fine-old page-turner featuring Sansom’s enduring Shardlake character. The plot centres around Catherine Parr’s Lamentations of a Sinner, and for long-time fans its includes one or two shocks and new character developments. Perhaps, in need of a trim: some of the dialogue is flabby and I got sick to death of being told how dangerous everything was for the Queen and all involved. Smashing thriller though.


Kate McLoughlin – Veteran Poetics: British Literature in the Age of Mass Warfare, 1790-2015

A magnificent study of the ‘Veteran’ in British Literature. Sweeping and fascinating, its analysis of Lord Peter Wimsey was especially interesting for me, but it also examines the likes of Cormoran Strike, as well as West’s Baldry, Woolf’s Septimus Smith and Austen’s Wentworth. Readable, even for the non-specialist.


iamthemorning – Ocean Sounds

Fans of prog will already be familiar with Russian duo, iamthemorning. Combining classical chops (pianist Gleb Kolyadin is conservatoire-trained) with the ethereal and strange, their singer Marjana has one heck of a presence and set of lungs. Think Tori Amos meets Kate Bush meets Russian cool. Full review is upcoming in Prog Magazine, but I can say that this studio film is quite stunning: focused, beautifully recorded and performed.

Heidi Talbot –  Here We Go, 1, 2, 3 

Released in 2016, this album is for fans of the Barnsley Nightingale, Kate Rusby, as well as more recent breakthrough folk artists like Nancy Kerr. Less maudlin than many of Rusby’s efforts, Talbot explores spiritual themes alongside the everyday. Very impressive.