view from the hill

A look at the elements and events that come into view from where I'm standing...
... the stuff that matters in this life. Some flicker and are gone in a matter of hours
only to live in memory, others become life long travelling companions, never far from reach.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Two Brothers

twobrothersThis one’s been a guilty pleasure in the waiting for many months. I missed it when it was in cinemas, and we finally rented it. It’s from director Jean-Jacques Annaud (the guy who brought you The Bear), with Guy Pearce, the kid form Finding Neverland, and tigers! Come on, it’s good stuff! See it with your child. Or, if you’re like us, see it with your inner child.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Rainbow Shakespeare's Hamlet

Each week I scan the theatre listings in Time Out to see if there's a new version of Hamlet that I need to see. Last year seems to have been Hamlet's year here in London with 5 or 6 different productions. This year we've had squat. Until now…

Way in the back of the T.O. listing, behind the West End releases, beyond the Off West End shows, all the way down in the Fringe section, a version of Hamlet was being performed in the park in Greenwich. With the smaller fringe theatres you never quite know what you're going to get, but it's in the park, we could bring a picnic, it should be fun.

Tiff and I raced off Saturday afternoon to catch the evening show. Traffic was horrible, we were insanely late, and once at the park we did a panicked TITLEgrand tour before we found the open air theatre tucked away amongst the trees. We stumbled in just after the ghost made his first appearance, and plopped down on our coats on the soggy ground. Then the rain started.

The clouds had been threatening all afternoon, but we figured this would add to the moodiness of the play. It turns out the setting and the weather were the best things about the show. We got wet, we got cold, the brave audience was spread out on blankets with picnic lunches. The rain fell down through the trees, and birds chirped away adding to the atmosphere of dark and dreary Denmark.

The play was fine. Because we were outside in the park, it's a casual setting to perform in, they aimed the production for some laughs. Polonius was typically bumbling, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were silly. Unfortunately, once you establish a light mood, it's difficult for poor Ophelia to be so tragic, or Ham to become fierce and vengeful without raising some titters from the crowd. Plus people had to laugh when the rain just kept coming down, and actors started slipping on stage, and dying melodramatically.

TITLEThere were some nice touches. When Hamlet finally sees his father's ghost, the figure appears way over on the other side of a field, dressed in full armour. This was cool. When the space was used to it's fullest, the play just about took off. Just about. Another good bit came right at the end when everyone's busy laying around being dead. Young Fortinbras enters to claim the throne. He tears down the Danish flags hanging around, and takes the crown off the deceased Claudius to place on his own head. I hadn't seen that before, I enjoyed that.

But, it was what it was. It's a tough one to pull off properly. Despite (or because of) the conditions, we all a good time. The audience brushed themselves off and dispersed into the park. Tiff and I walked back to the car, and had the heater on full blast in order to dry out all the way home.

Click here for more photos.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Proms 19

My continuing education in the Russian composers got an added boost last night when I saw that the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall was devoting an entire evening to the Ruskies. Perfect timing. Tiff rang up and managed to get tickets, so off we went.

Each summer, the Proms is a big deal here in London. The Royal Albert Hall, thoughtfully located within walking distance of our flat, hosts a summer of classical music every night of the week. For classical fans it's a feast. It's casual and tickets can be cheap. The shows are also broadcast on BBC radio and TV. We caught a bit of Prokofiev's Pictures at an Exhibition on TV the other night, and the conductor was amazing. He so enjoyed what he was doing his exuberance was infectious.

So off we went for a night at the Proms to hear an evening of the Russians.

First up was Tchaikovsky with three pieces form the Snow Maiden. It was wonderful. Shostakovich was next with his Violin Concerto No. 1, with a 20 year old prodigy on violin. This was a tad subtle for me, I could appreciate the playing, but didn't like it much. After intermission we heard Pokofiev's Symphony No. 5. Overall, the Tchaikovsky was my favourite. I could do with an entire evening of his music. I see there's one scheduled later in the summer, we'll have to check our calendars.

It's been ages since I've been to the symphony, but I always look forward to watching the interplay between the musicians. This time though, I was drawn to the conductor. He was really directing the orchestra in ways that I hadn't paid attention to in the past. He was really working them, cajoling them, tugging, encouraging, softening, and rousing them. It was amazing. But all this visual stimulus was too much to take in. I wasn't hearing the music. It was when I closed my eyes that synaesthesia took over and the images from the music flooded in. The music was suddenly cinematic. I was transported to the steppes of Asia in a sweeping landscape filled with men on horses doing battle with gigantic beasts. The sky was magnificent.

When I opened my eyes, the images vanished and I was once again watching the inner workings of an intricate machine of brass, wood and string. The visuals of the orchestra drowned out the images on my screen. I had the sensation of seeing through a screen that depending on the lighting is either opaque or transparent, as in the theatre.

I don't know which I prefer, to see the music, or to see the workings of the orchestra. A symphony orchestra is a fascinatingly complex machine, with one man conducting emotions and guiding the story. But, the music itself is so richly visual as well. To see an orchestra in front of me accompanied by all this music is an odd sensation. My eyes don't believe what they're hearing, and my ears can't see the music. Maybe it would be different if I were seeing a piece I was familiar with, but with something new to me it's almost too much to take in. I feel I have to chose between watching the conductor and orchestra, and watching the music.

So I chose. At times I watch the fascinating interplay between musicians and conductor, the show of the night. I marvel at the BBC camera crew who have a book of notes that they use to follow along with the music so they know which musician to focus on just before something happens. I watch the audience in this grand concert hall, listening intently.

And at other times I close my eyes and watch the music.

I can't decide which show is better.


Sunday, July 24, 2005

Swan Lake

TITLETiff wanted to see it because of the dress on the poster. I was talked into it because it's Tchaikovsky. We went on the last possible performance of the run here in London of the Australian Ballet's Swan Lake, and it was wonderful. It wasn't the tiny pixies in tutus that I was expecting. The Australians aren't the crème de la crème that the Russians are when it comes to ballet, the dancers are a little bigger, a tad on the clumsy side. But still, the music is hard to beat, and the modern dress production was wonderful. From the opening bars of the score familiar melodies washed over me and I had the distinct sense that I was somehow home in this music.

Olivia Bell as the Baroness stole the show, she exuded grace and poise, and was perfectly cast. The loudest applause though, at the end of the night was for the lead, Rachel Rawlins as Odette. She's the one who gets to wear white, it's her story.

But what a tragedy it all is! Who knew? Lives are crushed and torn apart. There's insanity and melancholy. And it's all like a dream of a silent film. The only other ballet I've ever seen is the Nutcracker, (countless times as it comes around each Christmas). So seeing a different story presented in this way is a bit of a revelation for me. There's something so unpolluted and pure about just music, movement, and expression. There's no words to get in the way. Charlotte Higgins, the arts correspondent for the Guardian, recently praised ballet in one of her articles. She says, "Ballet is about limbs and bones and muscle, about flesh and skin. It is visceral. Ballet is about what it means to be human while the blood pumps through our veins; about the things that are too strange, dense and delicate to be strangulated by human speech or song."

I agree! It's such as expressionistic art form. Dreamlike. There's no translation needed. It's not the heady stuff of Shakespeare's language, or the concentrated passion of opera. Ballet comes at you form a completely different angle, and aims directly at your heart. Somehow you have to listen with your emotions.

So, a few days after the show, with the music still swirling in my head, I took myself off to the library and checked out a stack of CDs by Tchaikovsky. I also picked up a couple by Rimsky-Korsakov. The Russians are coming! Suddenly a door has swung open on a new room in the mansion of my interests, and I'm filled with the inevitable excitement of walking in and exploring.

click here for the Guardian article

Thursday, July 21, 2005


I've just finished the best book I've ever read in my life. It's also the biggest at 930 pages, but what an epic adventure! It's a grand sweeping tale that if it wasn't true you'd never believe it could all happen. It's author Gregory David Roberts’ story of his escape from a maximum security prison in Australia and tumultuous experiences while in hiding. The book starts with his touchdown in Bombay, India, and follows his adventures for the next eight years in that vibrant and kaleidoscopic city.

I was drawn to this book as it sat waiting for me on the display table in Waterstones. I picked it up and quickly put it down again. At over 900 pages it's a real brick of a book, and represents a huge time investment. But I kept coming back to it, picking it up again.

shantaramOn the back cover, the Time Out review says, "In the early 80s, Gregory David Roberts, an armed robber and heroin addict, escaped from an Australian prison to India, where he lived in a Bombay slum. There, he established a free health clinic and also joined the mafia, working as a money launderer, forger and street soldier. He found time to learn Hindi and Marathi, fall in love, and spend time being worked over in an Indian jail. Then, in case anyone thought he was slacking, he acted in Bollywood and fought with the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan … Amazingly, Roberts wrote Shantaram three times after prison guards trashed the first two versions. It's a profound tribute to his willpower … At once a high-kicking, eye-gouging adventure, a love saga and a savage yet tenderly lyrical fugitive vision."

Another review described it as a novel of "moral purpose." I don't want just an adventurous romp, I want vision. I want to be inspired. I want to see the world through someone else's eyes. As one character in the book says, "Love is the passionate search for a truth other than your own."

I read the first line … "It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make…" Then I read the first paragraph, "… but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn't sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it's all you've got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life."

I was hooked. This book was coming home with me.

Apparently it took 13 years to write, and the book has the feel of a story where every word has been thought about deeply and chosen with meaning. It's about freedom and redemption, forgiveness, sacrifice and true friendship. It's filled with joy and heartbreak, subtle insight and wisdom. As I read, I kept underlining sections, there's so much in there that I want to remember, so much I will never forget. It's a book that makes me see the world in a different light. I take stock and realize how much freedom and choice and wonder there is in this life. There are faces that will stay with me, characters who’s lives have enriched mine. I will carry their names with me now. When I hear news stories from India or Pakistan, Iran, Nigeria or Zaire, I listen closer because I feel I've now spent time with people like these.

I knew I was reading a book by an escaped convict, and as I was swept along by the story, my inner sceptic started grumbling. Could this really all be true? I wondered not at the events, but at the thriller-like timing and cinematic order of happenings. The bio of Roberts reads like a list of the scenes form the book, so he’s definitely lived this life. But is it an autobiography that reads like a novel, or a novel that reads like an autobiography? And at the end of the day, does it matter? Oscar Wilde used to say he never lets a little thing like the truth get in the way of a good story. Shantaram is more than just a good story. There is definite Truth in here, and questions of accuracy quickly become irrelevant.

Roberts describes himself as "a revolutionary who lost his ideals to heroin, a philosopher who lost his integrity in crime, and a poet who lost his soul in a maximum security prison." Shantaram is about the search for things lost. It’s about the meaning of home, and the countless pearls we find along the way. It’s brilliantly written and a testament to Robert’s love for the humanity in the faces that are half a world away from us. And it's about the choices we make in each moment, the possibilities that shape our lives. One character's favorite phrase is, "Every human heartbeat is a universe of possibility."

This is what a novel should be. Big and daring and honest. A universe of possibility. I’m a bit blown over by the experience. It will be a long time before I read something that’s so moving.

Check it out here at Amazon.

Monday, July 18, 2005


festivalWriter/director Annie Griffin's film follows the exploits and foibles of aspiring actors, narcicistic stand-up comedians and jaded festival judges as they're all caught in the swirl and energy of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The film is shot in the style of a documentary and it's chaotic, funny, noisy, and grimy, and I left the cinema completely depressed.

What a strange movie this is. It's billed as a comedy, and it's funny enough (the clueless Canadian acting trio is almost worth the price of admission alone), but the film is absolutely bleak in its outlook of human affairs. Everyone's either an asshole or an idiot.

We're meant to laugh at these lives, which is a tad sadistic. But it's these same self-obsessed jerks and clueless fools who are rewarded in the end, while those with integrity and conscience are destroyed by circumstance. The actor/priest kills himself out of despair. The unappreciated personal assistant is left alone and shattered, turning to drink. And the naive talentless Innocent remains naive, talentless, and innocent with absolutely no change. It's tragic all around. I'm left wondering if the filmmakers hate people.

I feel I've glimpsed a window into the present, and I don't like what this world has grown into at all. It's helter-skelter and desperate. Sure, it's also funny, but at the end of the day, Festival is a cruel circus. Wahoo.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

His Dark Materials

These novels kept me company on those late night tube rides back from the East End this last winter. I poured through the first two books, but stalled somewhere in the middle of book three. In my latest phase of finishing off loose ends, I've finally completed the last in Phillip Pullman's trilogy. Collectively known as His Dark Materials trilogy, Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass are kind of the dark side of the Harry Potter phenomenon. They're part science fiction/fantasy, part social commentary, part thinly-veiled attack on organized religion.

I was interested in them because of an interview with Pullman I read in the Guardian ages ago. He seemed like a fascinating man with something to say. Then I learned he wrote childrens books. It turns out he's quite the celebrity author here in the UK.

Last year went a bit Pullman crazy here in London. The National Theatre did a two-play series on the novels that we didn't manage to get to. It looked amazing and got great reviews. There's also talk of a movie, but last I heard, the producers were feeling pressure to remove all the Church references. How lame is that? It's like the DaVinci Code without Jesus. We'll see if anything comes of it.

northernBook one, Northern Lights, takes place in an Oxford that is similar to the one we know in this world, with differences. Everyone has their own animal daemon, a sort of soul-made-visible, that is a constant companion and guide. As children, these animals are free to shape-shift at will, expressing the moods of the child. It's only when we reach adulthood that the animals find their final form and remain fixed. It's a pretty intriguing idea, and fans of the books will ask you what animal your daemon is.

Our hero, twelve-year-old Lyra is pulled away from her childhood days of sneaking around college campuses and playing by the canals when her uncle arrives with terrifying news from the North. Soon, she's plunged into a world filled with experimental theologians, arctic explorers, and an army of armor-clad polar bears.

subtleThe second book, The Subtle Knife, takes us deeper into strange worlds. We meet ancient witches and horrible soul-eating Spectres. The subtle knife is a tool that can slice through dimensions into parallel worlds. The book is the best of the three because we follow different characters on their various adventures, the pacing just works better than book one. Of course, all this jumping from one land to another, leaving holes in the fabric of space, has it's consequences, dark forces are gathering.

amberBook three, The Amber Spyglass, goes a bit off the rails as our heroes enter the world of the dead, and ultimately find a way to liberate the ghosts of the deceased into union with the greater universe. Ok.

Throughout all this there's the undercurrent of attacks on organized religion. I'm all for anything that encourages people to think for themselves. The Church in this country is understandably not amused by the popularity of the books, but like a lot of things that gets people up in arms, I found the actual attacks in the books rather mild. Sure, there's all this stuff about living your own life without the need of a Higher Being, and the death of God, but I read it as more a coming-of-age story than anything.

Everyone needs an escapist fantasy every now and then, but I may be a bit old for these books. They're good enough in the juve-adult lit world, but I need heroes that don't whine so much in their passive British ways. After all the drama of three novels, escaping from prisons in the frozen tundra, battling tiny warriors that ride on the backs of dragonflies, and Lyra nearly getting her daemon sliced off, these being English books, in the end they all go home and have a nice cup of tea.

Check them out here at Amazon.