Musical storytelling


What is it like to be a gifted musician? This question is explored by the bestselling author Mitch Albom in his novel The Magic Strings Of Frankie Presto. It tells the story of a young orphan born into a Spain torn apart by civil war. The boy learns to play guitar and flees death and destruction to end up in the United States where he has encounters with Django Reinhardt, Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. Frankie eventually retreats from soulless fame and fortune to live a life of obscurity. But his legend refuses to wither and die – despite his best efforts.
What makes this novel memorable is its narrator: Music. Another of Albom’s creative coups was persuading the likes of Burt Bacharach, Roger McGuinn, Lyle Lovett, Tony Bennet and Paul Stanley, of the rock band Kiss, to bear witness to their part in Frankie’s incredible story – hinting at how his musicianship influenced theirs. The Magic Strings Of Frankie Presto is an inspired work of fiction that strives to articulate the essence of music; its rigorous technique and potent emotion. The novel even has its own musical companion to enhance its atmospheric storytelling.


Bishop’s move


Richard Holloway, the former head of the Anglican Church in Scotland who stopped believing in God, does not like being called an atheist because he “doesn’t do certainty”; if you must stick a label on him, he would suggest “expectant agnostic”.
He told a packed audience at York Explore Library last night (20/02/2017) he was fascinated by three questions that had taxed philosophers and theologians for centuries:

What are we?
Where do we come from?
Where are we going?

In promoting his latest book A Little History Of Religion, the former bishop argued there were four approaches those questions:

Strong Religion: Humankind’s encounter with God was all truthful, all actual, all real. This fundamentalist approach left no room for doubt.

Critical Realism: There was an encounter with God but, due to human fallibility, we must be modest about the claims we make. It adopted a fluid approach to history.

Post Religion: (non-realism): This approach was sympathetic to religion; it regarded it as a colossal work of the imagination that spoke to the human condition in the same way as great works of art, such as an opera, play or novel. You can be a religious belonger without being a religious believer; it can challenge you to be a better person.

No religion: These people don’t get religion. They ask the question: “Why waste your time with it?” Some in this camp were benign while others, such as Richard Dawkins, attacked religion with vigour and a certain amount of anger by adopting, ironically, a religious, evangelical approach.

Holloway ended his stimulating talk by referring to Yehudah Amichai’s poem:

The Ecology of Jerusalem

The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams
like the air over cities with heavy industry.
It’s hard to breathe.

And from time to time a new shipment of history arrives.
Houses and towers serve as packing materials
later thrown away and piled in heaps.

Sometimes candles come in place of people.
Then it’s quiet.
Sometimes people come in place of candles.
Then there’s noise.

Amid enclosed gardens, among jasmine bushes
replete with balsam, foreign consulates,
like wicked brides who were thrust aside

lie in wait for their moment.

Morality Play


The Machine Stops explores our complex relationship with technology. The play, presented at York Theatre Royal this week, is based on a chilling and prophetic short story by the acclaimed writer E.M. Forster, published in 1909. The barren earth forces people to live underground in an intricate honeycomb of individual cells. The essentials of life are provided by an omnipotent, self-repairing machine, leaving people with nothing to do but communicate with each other using a system reminiscent of the worldwide web. Physical contact and travel is frowned upon; individuals live a solitary, insulated life, seldom venturing from their hexagonal cells. Ideas are constantly recycled; consequently there is no creativity; original thinking withers on the vine. The moral of this agile stage adaptation, with its haunting electronic soundscape, is: “Humankind cannot live by technology alone.”

What is happiness?


Comedy is a serious business. Berlin director Maren Ade uses it in her acclaimed film Toni Erdmann to explore the relationship between a father and daughter.
“Toni Erdmann” is the scruffy alter ego of Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher in his late 60s who loves to play pranks, with wigs and false teeth being his props of choice. His thirtysomething daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a cold, calculating corporate consultant whose current contract has landed her in Bucharest. In a series of comic vignettes, “Erdmann” sets out to sabotage her career in a bid to convince her there’s more to life than bullet points, spreadsheets and presentations. This movie is a bitter-sweet German comedy that reflects on the notion of happiness. I watched it a York City Screen last night with Janice Olsen and my daughter Sophie Foster who is visiting the UK from Weimar, Germany, where she is studying for a masters degree in public art.

Judge the poet, not the man


Philip Larkin’s reputation took a battering with the publication of two books in the early 1990s. First came his selected letters, compiled by Anthony Thwaite, followed by Andrew Motion’s official biography: Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life. Suddenly one of England’s best loved poets was regarded as a misogynist, racist and bigot. It was no longer cool to like his poems as Larkin had committed the cardinal sin of being politically incorrect.
James Booth, Larkin’s colleague at the University of Hull, has sought to restore the poet’s reputation by writing another biography entitled Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love.
Booth argues Larkin kept many relationships alive by developing a different persona for each; consequently his friendships, like his love affairs, were contained in separate silos.
It is a fascinating read that prompted me to return to the poems and what a treasure trove they are. Booth makes a compelling case that Larkin is one of English literature’s great poets; a status he achieved while holding down a demanding day job as a university librarian when higher education was undergoing a major expansion.

Barbershop pain & memories

WRESTLING FAN: Edward Brooks as a young man

My ears are still smarting 24 hours after visiting my local barber. Rather than trim them, he used thread to remove the hair by its roots. Ouch!

Taken completely by surprise, I was not prepared for the pain, which was eye-watering. Pride compelled me to keep silent as my barber went about his task with great dexterity. I spent an uncomfortable few minutes in his chair as my extraneous earlobe hair was removed. I broke into a cold sweat and could see myself in the large mirror opposite desperately trying to keep a poker face; I just about pulled it off… as my barber pulled it out.

Unexpected memories flashed through my mind as I coped with the pain; for instance, when Mr Leece, my primary school teacher, threw a piece of chalk at me for not paying attention in class. It clipped my right ear; I was hurt more by the shame than the pain. Teachers were allowed to throw improvised missiles at pupils in those days (the 1960s); there would be hell to pay if they did it now.

Another barbershop memory concerned the wrestler Mick McManus. The Achilles’ Heel of this Saturday afternoon villain was, so to speak, his ears; he didn’t like his opponents touching them. When he retired from the ring, McManus, known as “the Dulwich Destroyer”, became a connoisseur of antique porcelain. I recall thieves targeting his sought-after collection when I worked as a reporter for a news agency in Surrey.

McManus reminds me of the time when I interviewed fellow wrestler Shirley Crabtree (aka Big Daddy) for Red Rose Radio as he prepared for a bout in Preston.  I asked him if wrestling was fixed; he looked me in the eye and said “No”. Coincidently, I was getting my hair cut the next day when my interview was broadcast on the radio playing in the background. My barber was incredulous; at least he avoided clipping my ear with his scissors as he reacted to Crabtree’s robust denial.

Crabtree turned out to be a decent bloke. I told him my elderly grandfather, Edward Brooks, was a big wrestling fan so he wrote a personal note that grandpa treasured for the rest of his life. It read: “To Eddie, Keep punching, from Big Daddy”.

Manchester By The Sea


In the movie Manchester By The Sea, Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a man castrated by catastrophe. A family tragedy has left him seething with self-loathing, forcing him to flee his home town to work as a janitor in Boston where he snaps at tenants and gets involved in bar-room fights. Here’s a man with an atrophied heart in desperate need of hope. Redemption beckons when he’s named guardian to his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) and he returns to Manchester By The Sea. It’s a New England coastal town of fishing boats and timbered buildings in the grip of snow and ice; it remains an emotional wasteland to Lee for reasons that soon become apparent. But will the seed of family love take root in this frozen ground?
The ensemble acting is impressive, as is director Kenneth Lonergan’s use of classical music. The Pifa from Handel’s Messiah was particularly consoling for this viewer at York City Screen yesterday; perhaps it was consoling to poor, battered Lee as well.