Sunday 28 March 2010

Upside down days

Full-time work is defining. How could it not be, swallowing such a large part of time and energy? Defines me: tired, frustrated work machine. Nothing ticks inside a stopped mechanical, so ticking through the past few days was just the small, uncertain part that's not machine. Upside down, out-of-sorts days these have been, moving jerkily from inaction to action and back again. Tick. Hesitation. Tock. In the hesitation, things disappear: glasses, money... me. Finding my own rhythm would take so much longer than a week. The clocks went back last night. The mind treads water, while the body pushes forward and away [away until 9 April].

Upside down photo of Poise by Angela Conner at the Fitzwilliam.

Saturday 27 March 2010

At the Fitzwilliam

Yesterday was a lovely day, spent at the Fitzwilliam Museum with my friend L who lives near Cambridge. We saw the exhibition of Netsuke: tiny, exquisite, curly-whirly genius in every piece. Some of the figures reminded me fiercely of Michael. The newly refurbished Greek and Roman galleries are coolly organised and spacious and a joy to wander in. A selection of Sargent, Sickert and Spencer had much that was no more than pleasant (or unpleasant in Spencer's case), but the luminous clarity of a couple of portraits - including the one here - and one architectural study by John Singer Sargent continues to glow in my head.

Passing between galleries, as rain alternated with sunshine and provided some nice lighting effects, we took in the Sculpture Promenade in the museum's front garden. Some pieces currently displayed work exceptionally well there. The one in the foreground above is by Rob Ward.  More of these, and some other quick glimpses of Cambridge (no photography allowed inside the museum, alas) in my small photoset.

Thursday 25 March 2010

Footnote - different ways of seeing

Dave Bonta's podcast, which now appears weekly on his blog Via Negativa, this week takes the form of a tribute to the poet Ai, who has sadly died. Ai was a fine poet and I'm not drawing a literary comparison with unashamedly populist works, but the poems Dave reads and some of his comments speak directly to what I was groping for in the post below about the novels and films of the Millenium Trilogy - how there are depictions of violence that just perpetrate further violence, and then there are depictions that bear powerful, necessary witness in quite a different way.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Men Who Hate Women

Scenes of snow, sea and forests float through my mind. Good and evil, horror and safety, shadows of history and intriguing, compelling characters. Landscape and plot in black and white, but grey shades too, dreamy and resonant: a hugely pleasurable couple of hours in the cinema, which isn't something I have too often these days.

I'd been waiting eagerly for the release of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the film of Volume 1 of Stieg Larsson's wonderful Millenium Trilogy (everyone should read the novels - an absolute must for our times!) about radical journalist Mikael Blomqvist and angry  hacker Lisbeth Salander crusading against horrific crimes of past and present that lurk in Sweden's lovely countryside, cosy small towns and hi-tech, cosmopolitan cities. Like all the trilogy's many fans, I expect, I waited with trepidation too. The 'film of the book' most often disappoints, for obvious reasons: you've already cast and directed this film in your head. There were other reasons too, in this case, for trepidation: the books' gut feminism and anti-capitalism, the super-unconventional heroine, the long digressions scattered through the main, fast-paced narrative of these very long books (digressions not appreciated by all readers, but much appreciated by me).  A huge risk, surely, that the films (two sequels coming soon) would lose or fatally compromise all these, to focus only on pace, special effects and the extreme violence which is also in the novels.

My hope of something better lay in the fact that the films were being made in Sweden (I hold out a lot less hope for the promised Hollywood remakes). As it  happens, Sweden is not for me an unknown land of dark, dramatic beauty like Norway. I've long had Swedish friends, been a few times to that country for work and holidays, found much to like and admire in the open landscapes and peaceful islands, in people often gentle and ironic, and in the social democratic society, even while suspecting that comfortable state provision breeds a certain conformism which might give a bloody-minded loner like me a hard time, and also being aware of an undoubted dark underbelly of disaffection, corruption and crime.

My visits to Sweden were some years ago, but I'd begun to dream of the place again recently. British journalist Andrew Brown's fine book, Fishing in Utopia, about the years he lived in Sweden is the kind of book we need more of in this age of superficial globalisation. As each appeared in English translation, I've also devoured all of Henning Mankell's books about Inspector Kurt Wallander and crime in a small southern Swedish town. The popularity of 'Nordic crime' novels, which are mostly founded in uncompromising social criticism, seems to me a rather good thing, despite my qualms about the extent to which the publishing industry - and the small translation industry too, these days - are in thrall to the all-too-saleable crime fiction genre at the expense of more varied fiction, and about the way it panders to some of our worst instincts for vicarious horror and violence.

Late last year my  Finnish friend came back from Finland with a boxed DVD set of the Swedish TV Wallander films (made by the same production company as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and better, to my mind and my Finnish friend's, that the British TV films with Kenneth Branagh) and when she'd watched them all back to back I borrowed the box and did the same, revelling in the somewhat different take on a familiar genre, the landscapes and the wry, singing Swedish language, the quiet scripting and acting, and most of all the matter-of-fact portrayal of women which made me realise anew how stereotyped the 'strong' heroines of British or American cop shows still are.

So, might the film of Stieg Larsson's first novel just be less compromised, less compromising than I feared? After all, they had kept in Sweden the book's original title, Män Som Hatar Kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women), too bald and uncommercial for the anglosaxon market. I wasn't disappointed. I was spellbound. This may well be the only time I'll unequivocally experience the pleasures of an action thriller, the kind of thing I'd usually find a complete turn-off for its noisy, illogical violence and sexism. Just for once, oh my goodness, here's an action thriller with a heroine who is not objectified, a solid but vulnerable hero, and its heart and soul firmly in the right place.

Not everybody thinks so. Some critics  have accused the film of sadism and misogyny. Excuse me? These reviewers need to look to their own ingrained reactions if they felt the film was propagating violence against women rather than than exposing it. Stieg Larsson's stories deal with terrible acts of violence against women, perpetrated by sick individuals and by organised crime. They are lurid tales of horrific deeds. Some people will therefore want to avoid the films as gratuitously upsetting in spite of the perspective taken, and that's a legitimate reaction. But for those not too sensitive to this, who can watch and hear about violence in a stylised, almost cartoonish setting and find their visceral upset adequately held by the equally visceral structured resolution of the form - well, this is as good as it gets.

When Lisbeth is mugged in the subway, the impact is personal and emotional. I gasped and tears came to my eyes. But the graphic scenes of her sadistic rape and subsequent violent revenge, though they horrified and repelled me, didn't have the same emotional effect. I don't know enough about film technique (soundtrack, camera angles?) to account for this, but I think it was deliberately, successfully achieved.

I've never seen a film more faithful to the book it was based on, though sadly and inevitably without the digressions. But of course, of course, if you've read the books, imagined your way through those three long volumes, the film actors will not be the characters of your imagination. Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist are not much like Lisbeth and Mikael as I imagined them, but they are the screenwriter's, and the actors', legitimate and sensitive versions. They work. They are, perhaps, more interesting than 'my' versions, especially the depiction of Mikael as tough but almost passive in comparison with Lisbeth's vivid unpredictability. Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist are both terrific actors, as is every one of the supporting cast (and, gosh, the women in their forties and fifites actually have a few wrinkles). Characterisation, in an action movie, is necessarily sketchy. But here you don't feel you've seen all there is to a person, but that you've just caught a glimpse of a complex character about whom you can continue to speculate, you'll perhaps find out more in the sequel, but that will still not be all...

Indeed, I do continue to speculate. I've not stopped thinking about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and would happily see it again - an uncommon reaction, surely, to a thriller, which once climaxed and resolved has generally done its stuff, and a tribute to a rather amazing film. Three cheers. Unalloyed enthusiasm. Not a lot of that about.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Swedish trailer with subtitles. Avoid the English-language trailer, which is terrible - one of those horribly cliched and overdone voiceovers.

Monday 22 March 2010


review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in progress - there's rather a lot to say)

Sunday 21 March 2010


I've just read The Photograph, by Penelope Lively, a perfect small novel, pretty close to perfect anyway, the story of a perfectly beautiful and charming woman whose life, in spite or perhaps because of this, is not a happy one.

In the back of a cupboard, successful 60ish academic Glyn Peters finds a photo in a sealed enveloped marked 'do not open', so of course he does. The photo shows his dead wife, Kath, holding hands with her brother-in-law and comes with a scrawled note to 'my love'. A cliched start, almost, to a story wherein Glyn sets out, with the scholarly researcher's thoroughness, to investigate this secret infidelity: a tour of their mutual friends and family, each of whom has a chapter, remembering what they knew of Kath, who turns out to have been rather far from what she seemed.

Nothing very original here, but it's entrancingly well executed, gripping as a thriller. In fact it is a thriller, circling closer and closer to how Kath lived and why she died. The characterisation is fabulous: each of these people has feet of clay, and is not less engaging for that, but more. The writing is fabulous too. It's the sentence structure and the rhythm, I think.
" And so, on this day so much later, when Mary watches Glyn get out of his car, look around, open the gate and walk up her garden path, she sees a man who carries baggage - the baggage of all those years. He is freighted with her own initial mistrust - the mistrust which gave way eventually to tolerance. She sees a man she once disliked, and then got used to, because there was no alternative and he was by then an unavoidable feature of her friend's life. She sees a man she sparred with, on occasion, a man she thought too ready with an opinion, a man inclined to talk everyone else into the ground. She is startled to see that this man is now an older man, and then remembers her own grizzled head. All the same, he is palpably the same man, and all around him there float other times, and other people. He brings Kath; he brings Kath's voice saying Glyn this, Glyn that, Glyn's away for a few days so I'm going to play hookey and come to see you, right? He brings that house of theirs in Melchester which Mary seldom visited and always found in some way a house without a heart, a house in which two people came and went but in which they somehow did not live... "
 So it's written in the present tense, of which I am emphatically not a fan, often returning books to the shelf in the bookshop when I find this. The first time I noticed was on page 188. It hadn't obtruded because it was so natural, written in the present because this is in the present, the ongoing moment of somebody thinking, remembering, realising, the reader in the moment with them, waiting to see what this one hasn't remembered yet, but might remember any time now.

The Photograph is a remorselessly clever, sharp-eyed book about some rather common ways of being limited and selfish, but more kind than cruel, more sad than cynical, and very affecting. This was superb. This was why I don't think I'll ever abandon reading fiction.

Saturday 20 March 2010


When I dropped the champagne glasses yesterday evening (we'd been toasting a new PhD - no, I only had a sip), it seemed prudent to conclude that I was too tired to keep working. So, not for the first time, a holiday begins with Saturday in the office. Bah. Just finished, and off through the rain to see this.

Friday 19 March 2010

Weather for umbrellas and wellingtons

Rain is forecast for every day until next Tuesday at the earliest. Oh well, so I can legitimately stay in bed late, pore over the computer screen and generally slob around for the first few days of my break.

Thursday 18 March 2010


OK, we’re still in ‘here is a nice but unrelated photo’ territory. In part because I went to the British Museum last weekend and had a good day for photos; in part because there’s a break coming up, so this week is surreally busy. I did try, without success, to think of something to say about fingers… 

At the BM I was reminded that there’s really nothing better than very ancient stuff for taking you out of yourself – it comes from somewhere very far off, so I guess it quickly also takes you to somewhere very far off, or at least to a level of presence that is timeless and different.

Sunday 14 March 2010

Dark in the park

Dark, muddy earth with gold crocus nuggets. Dark, rainy sky with cartoon crows in bare trees.
Behind me, heavy footsteps in the gravel and a dog panting. Shrieks from the distant playground.

Friday 12 March 2010

Wrap me

Friday afternoon. So bloody tired. There's something* I wanted to write. But after a couple of paragraphs it stalls. Fruitless engine-revving. Broken down. And broken up, the fragments of thoughts crushed and scattered. Somebody, wrap me in plastic sheeting, rebuild me.

*and I didn't mean to post it, of course, barely started... if anyone has that in their feed-reader. sigh.

Thursday 11 March 2010

The second, and more coming...

...another two, three, four buds waiting to burst.  A new bloom makes my day: their lush, gentle softness, so like young human skin.  Having these on the office windowsill reminds me of all that is warm and simple and unforced, all that is lacking in computers - much as I love them, in bureaucracy - much as we need it; that ultimately people are more like orchids than like computers - well, I hope we are.

Well, I think I hope we are. Gentle and fragile isn't always good. If I receive one more email today with a subject line: 'Help!' (oh, no, look, the latest one says: 'HELP!!'), I may delete it unread.  Alas, I don't mean that - there is a hypothesis that only some of us, like me and my helpless correspondents, are orchid types.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Sunday 7 March 2010

Was it the wind?

Was it the wind?  Or can I just catch their shadows, here outside the bar, if I narrow my eyes against the biting cold? The bare knuckles of their white hands holding cigarettes to blue lips. Warming herself on her own temper, she fizzes, shouts, jumps up and knocks over her chair, walks away unsteadily on high  heels.

Friday 5 March 2010


The astonishing urban chaos is more tolerable if you shift your focus from any purported meaning or wholeness, allow what you see to separate out into pattern, colours, shapes, signs. (all these within yards of my office)

Thursday 4 March 2010


Bare trees by the Thames

Lined up like shivering kids beside a swimming pool

Waiting for Spring to come with warm, enveloping towels.

Tuesday 2 March 2010

Norwegian things

The first Norwegian thing is Martin, my moose with the endearingly worried expression.  Here he is in a video of his natural habitat, in that mysterious 'dark light' which also characterises my other Norwegian things.

If the long, morose muzzle of the moose always makes me smile, it's perhaps for the same reason that Ǿrnulf Opdahl's dark, dark paintings fill me with light and joy. The rush from work on Friday evening to see this exhibition before it ended was worth it: I thought I'd like the work, didn't know how much. His paintings are like polished marble shot through with mineral colours.

Ǿrnulf Opdahl exhibition at Kings Place - click to enlarge

Opdahl lives in the landscape, by the seascape that he paints, knows them, treads them, breathes them. The writer of the exhibition catalogue finds a contrast between this daily material knowledge and immersion and the spiritual quality of the paintings. I don't. He's just there, deeply there. There is such subtlety, and the light - the deep, dark light. It's this dark Winter light that seemed perhaps to go out for me this past grey February. So I exult to see it in these paintings of Norway, even farther from the sun.

photo by me:mo, via
(the website of another wonderful young Chinese photographer)

I chanced on the same dark Norwegian light a day or two later in some pictures taken in Norway by a young Chinese photographer known as me:mo. The dark light, the blue verging on black. It's present too, if more diffuse, in the Norwegian novel I've just read, my first by the much praised mystery writer Karin Fossum. I happened to start not with one of her well known Inspector Sejer series, but with a slight and touching one-off novel, Broken.

Slight is the word that occurred to me recently as a criticism of The Winter House. My problem was not with its slightness as such, though - I like novels of all sizes and complexities. I found The Winter House too slight to bear its broad, heavy themes. Broken is a simple tale, pared down, cool but affecting: not really a crime story, more of a wry look at the failngs and redemptive qualities of character. The lonely, inhibited protagonist works in an art gallery (synchronicity). Spare prose evokes a sparse life. There's space enough to comfortably hold the novel's second strand, a low-key conceit of dialogue between character and author. Slow and spaciously atmospheric, it all feels muted, but not snuffed out - quite the opposite - by the dark light and intense cold of Winter in a small Norwegian town. The somewhat unattractive characters, unemotionally dealt with, are nonetheless, through the force of telling detail, engaging. This was a quiet novel that worked beautifully. I look forward to reading more by Karin Fossum, and feel drawn to Norway every time I look up and smile at my moose.

Monday 1 March 2010

February is the hardest month

The first day of March is a shock. February, for all it's the shortest month, seemed eternal. An even greater shock is today's blue sky. February is the hardest month. The British winter isn't cold or long, compared with many, but yegods it's grey! This year especially: the grey skies low over rain and snow and death. Like four months shut inside a low-ceilinged room with the curtains drawn.  The sky's grey has been just the grey of those inert plastic curtain linings that bar the light in the bedrooms of soulless chain hotels, and suddenly today the curtains are swished back.

So, blinking, noticing in the new light that this was a season of getting older. I've noticed before that I don't age gradually, but chug along for years much the same, then a shuddering shock and abrupt tipping over into older, falling into new folds of inelastic flesh. This winter I tipped. Daft to take aging personally, and on the whole I don't. But I could wish it was a steady, gradual shift, not these sudden falls. It wouldn't be this way, perhaps, if I wasn't so clenched against life.

Time for a bit more sunshine!