Thursday, September 30, 2010

A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacCulloch (Penguin)

The Flagellation by Piero della Francesca (c.145560)

Christianity began a thousand years before the birth of “Joshua the Anointed One” (aka Jesus Christ), argues MacCulloch in this gargantuan tome, which is why he starts with classical and Hebrew culture, audaciously adding another millennium to Christian history. Originally, he says, Christianity was “a dialogue between Judaism and Graeco-Roman philosophy, trying to solve such problems as how a human being might also be God”. A “candid friend of Christianity”, MacCulloch’s aim is to step back and see it “in the round” and in this he succeeds magnificently. Concerned about the “moral health” of Christians (“For most of its existence, Christianity has been the most intolerant of world faiths”), he shows how 19th- and 20th-century Christians created “a reaction of fundamentalist intolerance” in Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. Huge areas of Christian history are covered, but his main theme is the sheer variety of ways in which one can be a Christian. He presents us with a plurality of Christianities, but through all this diversity, MacCulloch brings a singular clarity.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Hooray for the NHS

What a marvel the National Health Service is. My three-year-old son was rushed to A&E last week with a perforated appendix and he was operated on and cared for in the Children’s Hospital at the John Radcliffe.

Aside from its impressive architecture (the cafe, above), it's one of the best facilities in the country for treating sick children. My thanks to all the staff there. Fingers crossed, my son should make a full recovery.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Illusionist

I saw Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist on Sunday and enjoyed it immensely, but don’t expect the surreal escapades of Belleville Rendez-Vous. This is essentially a Jacques Tati film with a slow-paced, gentle humour. Much of it is set in a lovingly depicted Edinburgh, which looks very beautiful, even with the constant rain. At one point near the end of the film, after Tatischeff makes a gesture on a hillside (the precise nature of which I’ll not reveal), the camera sweeps around Edinburgh, the movement of the camera (and the soundtrack) carrying much of the emotion of the scene. It’s hard to explain without seeing it, but it was breathtaking. A nice use of computers combined with an eccentric, hand-drawn aesthetic. I’m sure there were lots of details I missed, but I did notice the Edinburgh pawnbroker’s shop was called . . . Brown and Blair.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814, by Dominic Lieven (Penguin)

“No Western professor has ever written a book on the Russian war effort against Napoleon,” Lieven complains. So here it is: a provocative military history from a Russian perspective. It starts with Alexander I and Napoleon pledging peace in 1807 and ends with the Russian army’s entry into Paris in 1814. Russia routed the French in 1812, but whereas Tolstoy (and later Soviet propagandists) depicted it as a “people’s war”, Lieven argues that it was in fact a victory for the Russian empire and the Tsar’s efficient military machine. He makes a strong case for the quality and versatility of the Russian army, especially the light cavalry units. Lieven is also keen to show that the undervalued campaigns of 1813–14 are just as impressive, highlighting Russia’s diplomatic skills. The tsar’s influence and commitment, he insists, led to Napoleon’s overthrow. Lieven also examines the crucial role of horses (Napoleon ran out of them, while the Russians had the swift horses of the steppes) and the logistics of feeding and equipping a Grande Armée.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian, by Andrew McConnell Stott (Canongate)

Hancock, Milligan, Cleese – depression and comedy have long been associated, but according to McConnell Stott in this lively biography “Grimaldi brought into culture the figure of the sad comedian, the solitary being whose disproportionate talent to provoke laughter is born of a troubled soul.” Grimaldi also came up with the classic clown make-up and baggy clothes, his character, “Joey the Clown”, being a “cunning, covetous and childlike . . . uncensored mass of appetites”. It was a life of frequent tragedy: Grimaldi’s first wife died in childbirth, his alcoholic son (also a clown) died aged 21, and the leaps and falls that delighted Grimaldi’s audiences left him crippled. Nevertheless, he was admired by Byron, Hazlitt and Dickens, who edited his memoirs after his death, and some 2,000 people watched his last performance in 1829, even though he could barely move. Stott includes the full text of Grimaldi's greatest triumph Harlequin and Mother Goose (1806), although it only proves his point that comedy is “an untranscribable art”.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Man I Love (Take 2)

I recently got hold of Miles Davis vs Thelonious Monk, solely because I’d read about this legendary track: the second take of ‘The Man I Love’.

It really is a gem. Miles and Monk were both innovators, but Miles here is more concerned with mood and atmosphere, whereas Monk is enjoying breaking down a melody as far as he can, taking it apart and not always bothering to put it back together again. In fact, throughout this legendary 1954 session, Monk’s playing is quite aggressively dissonant, in contrast to Miles’s cool tone. It makes for a strange listen.

Nobody knows what made Monk stop playing. Maybe Miles made clear his displeasure. I actually think Monk was breaking down the song to such an extent that the silence is part of his solo. Certainly, when Miles comes in (around 5:40) to fill the silence, Monk rallies and seems to almost chase Miles off his territory, as if to say, ‘Hey, I’m still playing here. This is my thing.’

So here it is. Have a listen. It starts with Milt Jackson on vibraphone. Monk comes in around 4:54 and falls silent at 5:29.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Good news everyone

My poem 'Mrs Beltinska in the Bath' is Poem of the Month on the Poetry Society website.

Meanwhile, Film of the Month on the BFI website is Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist, adapted from a Jacques Tati screenplay. I loved Belleville Rendez-vous (as did my six-year-old daughter) and I really want to see this.