One of my very favourite famous people died today…although to be honest the Rev John Graham, otherwise known as cryptic crossword setter Araucaria, was hardly what you’d call a household name. Now I love cryptic crosswords as much as some folk love other arcane pursuits like ballet or hang-gliding or chess, though I’ve got to say it took me a long old while to get the hang of the various rules and flags that govern them. There have been a lot of great compilers, each with their own signature style and idiosyncrasies, but Araucaria was fairly unarguably the master of them all.
Graham was 92, and had been setting puzzles for the Guardian and other non-Murdoch papers for the last fifty-five years or so – someone somewhere might know exactly how many in total, and where one might find them, but it’s unlikely given Graham’s mild and self-effacing nature that he himself was keeping tally. The important thing was the quality and ingenuity of his work and the care he took to run themes and links through his grids that gave the completed puzzles a sense of unity. At the risk of sounding seriously pretentious about something originally designed as a tea-break diversion, to me the best of them had the appeal and resonance of great poems or songs, and even the more run-of-the-mill ones could be relied upon to provide at least half a dozen clues witty and unexpected enough to make one beam with pleasure. He was, unlike some of his fellow setters, always rigorously fair and never ostentatiously obscure with his clues, though he would often drop in topical or political references that made clear his left-leaning sympathies without ever coming across as preachy (in order to best appreciate his most celebrated clue it’s necessary to know that it was published at the time that Jeffrey Archer was laying low in his famous residence just outside Cambridge having recently been exposed as a perjurer and a cheat: “Poetical scene has surprisingly chaste Lord Archer, vegetating” leads, by means of a flabbergasting anagram, to the solution “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester”).
Inevitably he chose to reveal his terminal cancer of the oesophagus via clues in a crossword a few months ago and his last grid in the Guardian a couple of Saturdays ago contained a few answers that should have tipped us off that the end wouldn’t be long: “nil by mouth”, “cottage hospital”, “time to go”. He was on top of the game even at the last, and I shall miss him. *Oftentimes.
About eighteen months ago I was quite sniffy about the first Hunger Games movie, mainly because I was disappointed that a promising future world scenario, in which random young people from the oppressed outlying districts of a decadent dictatorship were forced to fight to the death, had fizzled out in an over-extended arena sequence which seemed to go out of its way to dodge the potential moral challenges that Jennifer Lawrence’s gutsy heroine Katniss should have had to face. Fortunately author Suzanne Collins’s books form one of these modern Harry Potter style franchises, so here’s another film in which they get to have another go at the same basic storyline (or a pretty familiar-feeling development of it, anyway) and this time round it seems to me to come off a lot more satisfactorily.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire follows straight on from the events of the first installment and assumes that you’re up to speed on who’s who and what’s what without so much as a title card to break the ice. It’s framed as a conflict between Katniss, who is becoming the unwitting figurehead for a nascent revolution since her wily gambit at the end of the previous games saved her life and that of her fellow tribute Peeta, and the cruel and manipulative President Snow who was only a shadowy presence before but gets buckets of choice dialogue scenes and lingering malevolent close-ups here. This is good news as Donald Sutherland can do unsettling and controlling as well as anyone in the business, and he’s not the only heavyweight delivering a classy performance as we also get Stanley Tucci reprising his role as a brilliantly oily TV presenter and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the hard-to-read games designer Plutarch Heavensbee, which is incidentally the most preposterously enjoyable character name I’ve come across in a good while.
Anyway, whereas in the first film we got a gripping set-up followed by a lame pay-off, here it’s the other way round. The first half of Catching Fire seems unremittingly drab and dour and bleak as we witness the various deprived regions suffering brutal reprisals for the mildest acts of dissent against the state while the plot weaves its way through the contortions necessary to contrive a reason to send Katniss back into the arena of death again. None of this is poorly thought out or badly staged, and in a lot of ways it even feels emotionally convincing, but Lord it’s grim, with the only light relief being the bizarre costumes and hairstyles of some of the privileged capital dwellers and the odd moment of deadpan black humour. It really ramps up though when we eventually get to the main event – this time The Hunger Games themselves are meaner and altogether zippier, taking place in an ingeniously deadly environment and involving a much more interesting bunch of competitors than previously. Hell, some of them are even middle-aged or older! One of them even wears glasses!
The last hour or so of the film is as inventive and engaging as you could hope for, even if the overall tone remains firmly in the zone marked bleak, and there’s real uncertainty as to how the story will resolve. Without wanting to spoil anything, there are another couple of films in the pipeline and this one ends with the sort of revelations that some folk like to call “game-changing”. This isn’t exactly the cheeriest night out, and don’t even think about going to see it if you haven’t seen the first film, but it’s nice to see a sci-fi blockbuster that’s taken the trouble to establish characters as complex and subtle as some of those presented here, and to not make it too obvious which ones are going to win out in the end.
I’m getting to really love The Portland Arms as a venue. It’s just the right size to accommodate a band and an audience that’s still able to see the whites of the musician’s eyes even from the back of the hall without it feeling like you’re squashed into someone’s front room, and you generally get excellent sound too. After getting up close and personal with The Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel Band and The Wave Pictures in recent months I went to see Sweet Baboo last night and it was every bit as great a gig as those that went before it.
Sweet Baboo is the stage name of Welsh singer-songwriter-guitarist Stephen Black, and he’s been releasing singles and albums containing charming romantic ballads and boppers for a few years now. He’s been playing live for ages too, though I think this is his first tour as a headliner rather than a support act, in promotion of recent album Ships and the EP Motorhome. On the evidence of this show he and his tastefully minimal band (just bass and drums) deserve their top-of-the-bill status for sure – despite arriving to the venue late due to traffic snarl-ups on a cold and miserable evening and thus failing to get a soundcheck and being forced to set up in front of a waiting crowd they deliver a beautifully rounded set of what sound like instant classics to me and have the good taste to keep it short (I think they were done within an hour) and leave the people wanting more.
I was in fact really taken aback by how much attack and focus the band had, and how skilfully they managed to vary the dynamics. On record, Baboo’s songs run the risk of sounding a bit winsome and lightweight to me, with his clever way with a mundane metaphor (“this is a song about the Cardiff University electric library”) sometimes standing out as much more interesting than the pleasantly strummed guitars that form the basis for most of the backing tracks. On stage however the band properly rocks and at times even convincingly wigs out – that impressive array of effects pedals is not just there for show – but this is never at the expense of the songs and their melodic and lyrical charms. Baboo turns out to be, like David Tattersall of The Wave Pictures, a really impressive guitarist, capable of lovely flamenco and country flourishes on the acoustic guitar he picks up for the “mellow” section of the set, while his band prove themselves to be positively supple, grooving where appropriate or dialing it down for the quiet numbers (incidentally, I’m very taken with that black Epiphone bass guitar, though I’m not sure I’ve got the funds or houseroom for it). Despite all this conspicuous flair, Baboo maintains a convivial if slightly reticent tone to his between-song chat, as if he can hardly believe that anyone would bother to come out and see him play, though the fact that the room isn’t quite packed is probably more down to the weather than to him.
Baboo rounds the evening off with a solo encore of Tom Waits Rip Off and then heads straight over to man the merch stall, in typically self-effacing style. It’s been a brilliant gig. In one of his songs he’s got the line “Daniel Johnston has got loads of great songs, and I’ve got six” – I think he’s seriously underestimating himself. Catch him while he’s still playing in rooms at the back of pubs.
David Byrne’s How Music Works couldn’t be more different to the last music-related book I read, which was Morrissey’s Autobiography…actually, that’s wrong, if that last sentence was true Byrne’s book would have to be an iceberg or a classification system for light aircraft or a herbal treatment for verrucas, whereas it is, like Mozzer’s, largely an account of the late 20th century music business written by the former singer of an original, literate, musically accomplished and critically adored band. But you get my point. Morrissey’s effort (or at least the second half of it) is a hilarious and highly subjective broadside against the massed incompetent and grasping industry forces that he perceives to have been responsible for sabotaging his career and indeed life over the last quarter century. Byrne’s on the other hand is perky, user-friendly and downright educational, consisting as it does of a series of self-contained chapters that each address one aspect of how music is made, appreciated and marketed. You can imagine these units starting life as a lecture series, to be delivered alongside audio-visual material organised via Powerpoint – there are even helpful, referenced, illustrations of the type typical of this sort of presentation included in the book.
Despite its preppy, slightly earnest approach though How Music Works turns out to be an excellent read, putting forward some genuinely revealing and valuable insights into what makes musical performances and recordings really live and hacking efficiently through some of the mysteries and contradictions of record company practices. Byrne is fascinated by the way that collections of noises and voices can combine to make compelling tunes, grooves and atmospheres and uses his own experiences and those of many artists he admires to illustrate the sometimes random and unpredictable nature of creativity. He starts with the history of music and over the course of the book takes in anthropology, architecture, astronomy, computer science and even some politics, all of which is admirably well-researched and explained in clear, and often unexpectedly funny and self-deprecatory, prose. A central theme is that our appreciation of music both recorded and live is highly dependent on context and nebulous variables such as one’s mood – a piece that has a room full of people happily dancing for ages in a nightclub may well sound bizarre and repetitive if one heard it played in a cathedral or at a dinner party. One therefore shouldn’t set too much stall in establishing critical hierarchies or canons of acceptable work in any genre as it’s just as possible that you’ll come across a life-changingly wonderful song in a disco or at a local jam session in a bar as in an opera house. In the spirit of encouraging serendipitous collisions of musical ideas the author also provides some advice on how to set up and foster a thriving music scene, based on what he observed back when Talking Heads were a regular band at CBGBs in New York (a good tip: provide customers with pool tables to give them something else to do when the groups are playing other than just being a captive audience for a bunch of malnourished freaks).
Byrne’s candour about his working practices and many collaborations extends to a willingness to discuss the economics of being a musician, using himself as an example. In one chapter he provides detailed breakdowns of the costs involved in making two of his albums, one funded by a record company in the traditional manner and one a self-released project with Brian Eno which the two of them paid for themselves: although the two sold a comparable number of copies he made much more on the second, which demonstrates why a lot of record labels are getting hot and bothered these days about the ease with which the internet has allowed artists to bypass them. Byrne has decidedly mixed feelings about innovations like Spotify which provide ultimate convenience to consumers but don’t necessarily pay the people who actually made the music anything more than pin money but on this issue, as on all others that he covers, he keeps an open mind and argues his case fairly and convincingly (it would be hard to imagine Morrissey, say, taking such a balanced approach if he had suspicions he was being ripped off). How Music Works is ambitious, detailed and wide-ranging and it’s a must-read if you want to know about the nuts and bolts of how and why you get to hear the songs and pieces you love and the various creative and financial challenges of the artists who make them.
Yesterday I spent much of the day unsuccessfully trying to fix a dripping tap. It was awful. The fittings were corroded, it took me ages to get the stopcock to turn, the screw-thread on the cylinder of the thing was shot and no matter how many times I tried different washers the problem just kept getting worse. I was a jangled wreck by the time the decision was taken to give up on it and call the plumber in.
Later on though I went out to see the much-heralded Gravity, which turned out to be a big help in putting my problems with hardware, and indeed everything else, in perspective. This movie, in which Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play space-walking astronauts whose mission to repair components on the Hubble Space Telescope is seriously disrupted by a random fly-past of Russian space debris, is right and properly awesome in a way that I can’t remember seeing on screen since HAL 9000 refused to open the pod bay doors way back in the day. It takes place in a vast and implacably indifferent environment that’s rendered so well you’re made to feel as insignificant and vulnerable as one of the little nuts or bolts you occasionally glimpse drifting off into the infinite blackness and much of it plays out in daring near-silence and in unbroken and fiendishly complicated takes lasting minutes on end. It is however despite all the extraordinarily well designed and realised space stations and equipment and detailed views of the Earth not really a science fiction film. It’s more like the worst day at work ever, which just happens to have taken place in space as opposed to on an oil rig or at an airport or in an installation at the bottom of the sea.
I’m not going to go into much detail about what happens in this film because the thing is so immersive and gripping and thrilling and vivid that it would be like trying to describe a bungee jump or a rollercoaster ride that somehow managed to include sections in zero gravity. I will say that at ninety minutes it’s admirably streamlined and focused, with Clooney’s tiresome know-it-all wisecracking and an overly contrived tragic backstory for Bullock the only minor elements to distract you from the extreme and gruelling peril you find themselves in the midst of. There are sequences that are stunning for the degree with which you find yourself identifying with the astronauts’ fear and disorientation and there are moments that are still and quiet and beautiful. I’m not sure if it adds up to anything profound or revealing about the human spirit but the ingenuity, care and skill with which it’s been executed means that anyone planning a movie set in space is going to have aim high or risk looking hopelessly outmoded. Director Alfonso Cuarón is some kind of visionary, with an enormous facility for overcoming technical challenges (this is, apart from anything else, the first film I’ve seen since Avatar that really demands to be seen in 3D, and I can imagine it being absolutely overwhelming in an IMAX cinema). I wonder if he’s good with bathroom taps?
So when does Steve Coogan find time to sleep then? He seems to be have been in half the cinema trailers I’ve seen of late, as assorted porn barons (The Look Of Love), estranged fathers (What Maisie Knew) and legendary East Anglian titans of naffness (Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa), roles he must have struggled to squeeze in between his sterling Murdoch-bashing turns on Newsnight and the Leveson inquiry and the filming of a new series of The Trip with Rob Brydon. And, look, here he is again, not just starring in but co-writing the script for Stephen Frears’s new film Philomena. Is there maybe more than one of him?
This latest is an adaptation of former journalist and spin doctor Martin Sixsmith’s memoir about an Irish woman’s search for her lost son. Philomena was a victim of the now notorious Magadalene laundries, in which unmarried teenage mothers were forcibly separated from their children by hard-faced nuns and turned into workhouse slaves until it was felt that they’d atoned for their sins and repaid their (non-existent) debts to society (for another account of this see Peter Mullan’s brutal The Magdalane Sisters, if you have the stomach for it). Judi Dench plays the older Philomena, who only chooses to reveal this secret of her traumatic youth on the 50th birthday of her son, while Coogan takes the role of the smart but supercilious Sixsmith, who initially only agrees to help research the story because his high-flying careers as a journalist and a spin doctor have come off the rails amid much media acrimony.
This small-scale but potentially unwatchably dour story doesn’t sound much like a fun night out on paper but rather miraculously Philomena turns out to be a wonderful film, with an intriguing detective story and constant instances of wit and humour perfectly balancing the worthy but grim subject matter. It’s essentially an odd couple two-hander between Dench and Coogan, and Frears is enough of an old pro to pare away distracting sub-plots, complications and overblown setpiece revelations and just let them get on with it. Coogan’s Sixsmith is a muted variation on his stock tactless know-it-all character who unlike Alan Partridge et al does know how to press his case to get results but often finds his glib assumptions about his subject seriously misplaced. Dench on the other hand skilfully projects an air of artlessness and benign naivete which covers some surprising worldliness and great emotional maturity. At different times the two grate on each other in different ways but both are rounded enough human beings to gain insight from the various strained encounters they find themselves in, and they get some brilliantly funny dialogue too.
And on top of all this lovely character stuff there’s an amazing, and apparently true, story here that on a number of occasions catches you off guard and develops in ways you couldn’t have anticipated. One scene in particular, in which what starts as a petty domestic-style row between the two suddenly converts into the most dramatic of bombshells, left me reeling and the impact was heightened by the lack of any bombastic devices on the part of the director to prepare the audience for what was coming. The restrained, TV-movie style of Philomena doesn’t make it look like the kind of film you should go out of your way for, but it’s so brilliant, funny and in places devastatingly effective that you really should.
Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant doesn’t have too many overt similarities with the Oscar Wilde story from which it derives its name but it certainly shares something of its fable-like and melancholic tone. It’s an impressively spare and naturalistic film set in a deprived Northern city where the only opportunities for advancement available to two lads from disadvantaged backgrounds who find themselves excluded from school are in the gift of the hardbitten foreman of a scrap metal yard. One of the boys, the gentle Swifty, has an affinity with the horses and ponies that are still used for transporting the dodgily acquired cable and spare parts that represent what passes for currency at this level of society and starts to see a future for himself as a rider in one of the illegal but exhilarating cart races that regularly take place on public highways at the crack of dawn. The talents of his friend Arbor, on the other hand, lie more in the area of having the gall to strike cocky deals anywhere he can and being fearless enough to go after the kind of electrical parts that any scavenger with a sense of self-preservation would leave well alone.
The most obvious influence on The Selfish Giant is Kes, and like that film it’s likely to become a bit of an enduring classic of disenfranchised youth and doomed aspirations by virtue of its clear, uncluttered and often courageously quiet filming style (there’s no music soundtrack, for example, and the credits at the start are more or less non-existent), the uniformly excellent and entirely convincing acting particularly from Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas as the two young leads and the complete absence of any high-handed moralising. It’s too well crafted and composed to be mistaken for a documentary but you have no trouble believing that things like this happen and that makes the eventual dramatic reverses at the end of the film that much more gut-wrenching. My only real problem with it is that sometimes there seems a bit of a mismatch between the frenetic and chaotic lives of the two boys and the studied, neutral way they’re observed by the camera – please go see the Dardenne Brothers’ brilliant The Kid On A Bike for an example of how a director (or pair of directors) can really make you feel the fizz of a young man on a mission. Nonetheless, this is a pretty impressive and moving film that easily transcends the average run-of-the-mill Brit-movie bleakness.