Thursday, 31 January 2008

The Path of Most Resistance

Water is smart.
Way smarter than us.
It worked out gravity long before Galileo, Newton & Eisenstein kicked it around.
Water is lazy in that it takes the path of least resistance.
Down its snaking, unpredictable, poetic path, there sits geometry in love with geography. It’s enough to make a skater’s knees wilt.

Man being man thinks the opposite.
We thrive on friction.
We love to challenge the notion of logic.
Anyone for cloning?
Or a seasonless year?

We build cities with lungs, but then pore by pore, we clag them up.
Often we get it so wrong.

But every once in a while we get it right.
My woodwork teacher built a concrete boat (Daddy Cooper, you shone).

Upriver, against the tide, headwind here we come.
Counter-natural is a wild way to travel.
By stomp, by pedal, by paddle, by saddle – each one egged on by bloody-minded will.
That primal urge to trace anything back to its source lies in all our genealogy boots.
Obey it just this once.

Take the path of most resistance.

Peter Kirby

Caught By The River Mole

Hi Jeff

I’ve been making the most of my new found freedom since passing my driving test. Saturday was spent exploring country lanes and secluded still waters near my folks place outside Horsham. At long last I was able to investigate those flashes of water, glimpsed through trees as you’d speed past in the passenger side. With an ordnance survey map on my lap, I scanned those little blue blobs and took off to take a closer look. And I’ve found us a very pretty little pond, which will be glorious during the summer months. It can be fished, but has the appearance and feel of a place long abandoned. Reminded me a bit of Waggoner’s Wells.

I didn’t make the early start required to join Steve on the Medway Sunday morning. Instead, I made my way down to the River Mole in Cobham. It’s a beautiful stretch centred around a 16th Century mill and endowed with deep weir pools and crystal clear gravel runs. I worked nearby a few years back and never missed the opportunity to peer into the water at lunchtimes. I set off armed only with an Avon rod, centre pin and net. Whilst I explored the slacks at the edge of the weir, I was stunned by the sight of an Otter coming towards me, its head bobbing gracefully in and out of the water. It swam right under me along the edge of the bank, followed by a long trail of bubbles. For a notoriously shy creature, I couldn’t get over how close it had come to me.

I stalked my way down stream and entered a wood flanked by grand residences on the opposite bank. After being moved on by a haughty Surrey person, who took exception to me ruining the view from his conservatory, I tried my luck in a fast shallow run and was into a fish within 5 minutes. I jumped into the river, filled my boots with mud and icy water and finally netted my first chub of the season. My face must have been a picture. I imagined myself looking like Geoffrey Palmer in that episode of The Compleat Angler where he catches the huge common carp.

Trudging back across a field in my wet boots to the car, that back-to-school feeling came over me. I consoled myself with thoughts of what lay in wait on my next visit to the Mole. Let’s all get down there really soon.


Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Hi John,

Nothing at Osterley. To be honest, my heart wasn't in it. Had a real tricky end of week and, nowt against the guys but I could of done with a bit of solitary.

Dropped the kids at school and off up the A4 beneath a big blue sky of optimism. The skywriter of my mind trailing "Leave The City". I got properly lost in it and my thoughts turned from Pike to Carp. Then I got out of the car and onto the back path. Not a horse in sight. Omen? Nah, fucking freezing. It's January, fool.

The guys had been there a couple of hours already. Dave was grafting as usual. Earns his fish that man. Up to his tits in water chucking a marker float around. The official cartographer.
Jak and Andrew were sat on the wall behind dead roach. Andrews mug shot eyes between a vintage Tacchini / Napariji combo. South westerly Stanley knives to the face.

I took a walk around the lake with a spinner and realised I was doing it for the exercise. I wasn't going to be fishing today.

Me and Andrew were back at mine by 1,with tea, cake and Scrabble on the table. Bugger hit an eighty on his second word and it was uphill from there. 1 - 0 away.

Dave stayed on for the afternoon and is owed a fish next visit.

Would have liked to have been out yesterday. Wasn't it a beauty. Next Monday afternoon is a plan and in the diary. Hopefully I can keep it there and we get Pennie S to join us. Both other dates will be cool. I'll let you decide which one is Blenheim.

have a good week,


The catching of a fish is unimportant

Monday, 28 January 2008

Not Jesus

Greetings Jeff,

I just read Andrew's description of me in his end of year piece (29/12/07). Completely over the top and misguided and undeserved - but my kids howled with laughter when they read it, and I think I'll eventually forgive him, especially if he repeats his misrepresentation in my next book review!!
You're both much too kind and generous.
I'm sorry you couldn't find any pike. I also went to an estate lake recently and caught a dozen fat perch - and saw two whoppers, well over four. But I can't return till I've finished another three chapters or my publisher will burst into tears.

Yours with scales on,


ps I was going out today,as the weather was lovely, but I went to a private view of a freind's latest exhibition instead. It was thought provoking and brilliant, but not as thought provoking or as brilliant as a two pound perch!

Friday, 18 January 2008

Caught By The Liver

– an occasional nod to exceptional tipples

As we’ve been working our way through January with an aching liver, it seems an appropriate time to launch the new Caught By The Liver section of the site. Corny name we know, but seeing as we love a drink, we thought we’d share some of our favourites with you. Here goes.

First up, my two, currant ( pun intended) beers of choice:

Cain’s Raisin

A very different beer. With a twist if you will. Helpful, because they say a change is as good as a rest, and if you’re like me, stopping isn’t an option. I came across it at a family dinner to mark my Mum’s 60th birthday. I’m expecting to enjoy the food (it’s amazing) and the wine is predictably great. The surprise is the beer we have at the bar when we arrive. It stops me in my tracks and I delay sitting at the table until I’ve had another. It was Cain’s Raisin. Here’s the company blurb. ‘A 5% abv prize winning rich, fruit and amber ale infused with succulent Californian raisins. Choicest hops give depth, density and complexity.’ It lies somewhere close to a bitter but the raisins add a subtle sweetness, leaving you with a surprisingly pleasant aftertaste. One that screams ‘drink more.’ It has received accolades from CAMRA, which must mean it’s good. It was even awarded ‘Best Fruit Beer’ at the World Beer Awards 2007. It’s made in Liverpool, home of the Cain’s brewery. At present its best known in the North West, but as Liverpool is the city of culture ’08 and Cains the official brewer, expect word to spread.


Next up, something totally different. Orion beer is a deliciously refreshing crisp lager from Okinawa, Japan. Unlike your average Japanese beer, its not made in the UK and is fairly hard to find here. It won’t be on draft in the pub or on offer in the local supermarket. That said it’s worth searching out. There’s something about it that puts it head and shoulders above any other lager I’ve tried, (and believe me I’ve tried). Orion have recently looked to Asahi to help them market beyond Okinawa. Good news as long as production doesn’t shift to Kent.

  • cain's

  • Andrew Walsh

    Thursday, 17 January 2008

    The Coracle Maker

    My name is Bernard Thomas. My father was a coracle man, but because of the war and then bringing up children I didn’t start making them until I was about 52. I go fishing at night. The number on the side is B1. In the dark the bailiff comes and sees the number and say ‘Oh, that’s Bernard Thomas’. The nets are now made from jute or nylon, but in my younger days we made them from horse hair, the skills were handed down from father to son. There is such a tranquility in the gorge – yes it’s beautiful. When it gets dark you can look up into the sky and count stars.Once you know it is dark enough so that the fish can’t see the net, then you can fish. Fish are very scarce now these days. It’s because of modern ideas, fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides, but also sheep dip, they do reckon from where it is used fish will die up to two miles away.

    I can tell you, many years ago when I started I was averaging 5–6 Salmon a night, and a load of Sewin. Now last year I caught one Salmon all season. I catch mostly Sewin these days. A Sewin is a sea trout and you get them up to about seven pounds.
    Eels don’t come up here so much anymore. They work on a seven-year cycle and come back to where they came from. Up the Gulf Stream they hit fresh water, millions of them – and they go across land at night. 7–12 years later they start coming back to breed. I make coracles between October and January when the frost means the sap is down. I soak the willows in the river for five days. Then I make the frame. The willow is all split and chamfered before, so the frame only takes five hours to make. I keep it out until it loses all its water before applying oil and preservative. The frame is covered with linen, which is then sealed with pitch and linseed oil.
    I had an argument with someone in a pub once about how man arrived on these islands. I said ‘well, it must have been in a coracle’ and they said nobody could cross the ocean in a coracle. So I did it. In 1974 I went to a place called St Margaret’s Bay.
    It took three attempts but eventually I crossed in thirteen and a half hours before finally landing in France.

    Illustrations by David Sparshott, with thanks to Scania @ Howies


    tree: giant sequoia owner

    tree: giant sequoia

    owner: tommyc (view other images by tommyc)

    location: mariposa grove

    city: yosemite, california

    country: usa

    field notes: fallen giant sequoia root structure (father in foreground for sense of scale)

  • the wooden branch
  • Wednesday, 16 January 2008

    Ladies and gentlemen...

    with the rumour of the discovery of an unidentified 19th century body at the east gate of spitalfields building work inside the market has been delayed and the good stall holders of the market are once more out in the cold. our temporary camp is at crispin place, the ditch that runs between the old market and the new. it is shown here on the map along with a photograph of christ church spitalfields where you are asked to light a candle for the alleged deceased who is said to have gone to his marble keepnet after the bream cough got him. a wake will be held at my stall from 8am until we return to the interior. you are invited to come and raise a glass and view the latest in victorian bottom fishers' wallets, fly boxes and priests.

    i remain your humble servant.


    andrews of arcadia
    angling antiques and books
    crispin place
    london E1
    thursdays 8am-the clink of the pint glass on the tap

    Letters From Arcadia

  • click here for the latest LETTER FROM ARCADIA, a regular correspondence between angling's two most original contemporary writers...
  • Friday, 11 January 2008

    New Years Resolution

    My New Year's Resolution - rather than do something for the last time this is about doing something for the first time.

    Mine is... Attend the annual memorial service at the Chattri just outside Brighton.

    In the middle of an unremarkable field tucked into a fold of the South Downs is a remarkable war memorial. Twenty feet high and ten feet across, with a domed roof set on eight granite pillars, and standing at the top of a broad stone staircase the Chattri looks out over Brighton in the distance and the English Channel beyond. Enclosed in a small windswept ornamental garden it is a magical, lonely place, unexpected amongst the empty rolling fields that surround it.

    It was built in the 1920s on the site of a ghat, a funeral pyre used to cremate the bodies of Indian soldiers who had fought in the first world war. Over 1.5 million Indians travelled half way round the world to fight on the Western Front and those that were injured were brought to convalescse at temporary hospitals in Brighton. Fittingly, the main site was the Royal Pavillion, the town's own mini Taj Mahal.

    When I first discovered the Chattri in my late teens it was overgrown and neglected Brighton Council long since having forgotten their original obligation to pay for its upkeep. Happily since 2000 its cause has been championed by a local teacher Davinder Dhillon who resurected the annual service that the British Legion had organised from the 1950s onwards.

    It is particularly appropriate to be thinking about this today as it was on New Year's Eve in 1914 that the first body of an Indian soldier was driven out of Brighton in an army ambulance, carried up the Downs, covered in wood and straw and set alight.

    The service takes place on the second Sunday in June at 2.30pm but it is worth visiting at any time of the year. Details of how to get there (it is quite tricky) can be found here:
  • chattri

  • Mathew Clayton

    Thursday, 10 January 2008

    River Kennet,The Old Mill, Aldermaston. Sunday, January 6th

    8am tackle up

    Dave unhooking a "jack"pike caught on a Roach deadbait from the weirpool

    Photos by Andrew

    Wednesday, 9 January 2008

    Letters From Arcadia

  • click here for the latest LETTER FROM ARCADIA, a regular correspondence between angling's two most original contemporary writers...
  • Soul & Inspiration.

    Brian Case – a jazzer and no fan of rock’n’roll - has been, and done, a lot of things in his life, but I doubt you recognize the name.
    He’s been a writer for NME and every other ‘head’ mag worth its salt, he’s been a critically-acclaimed author (his 1968 novel The Users – a kind of violent existential English bebop farce– is so good he never wrote another one) and for anyone who’s ever known him he’s been the ultimate source of hipster nods for everything from books (great on crime) to films to records (jazz only, of course).
    Along the way, he’s taken live ammo to an Al Pacino interview (it’s a long story..., but his Dad was a copper), abruptly ended a Burt Lancaster press conference by referring to him as Mr. Reynolds, wrestled Will Self to the floor at a book launch (he likes a drink), been hospitalized in the States after taking horse tranquilizers with Ian Dury, been on the road with the Sex Pistols on their first ill-fated UK tour (“Idiots!”) and interviewed Miles Davis in a completely blacked-out room (“I didn’t interview Miles, I interviewed his voice”).
    So for over four decades, he’s been consistently in the know about everything worth being in the know about, and he’s always been willing to pass that information on. Yet when they read out the divine roll call of feted music journos – the entrenched canon of Kent, Bangs, Morley, Burchill, Parsons – he never gets a look in. Too jazz, probably. Too contrary, definitely. Which is all a bit of a pain really, because he’s got more talent than all of them.
    At this point, I should declare a personal interest. I first met Brian when I was 16. He was a friend of my future wife’s parents and he’d been told that I was into music. By that he assumed jazz (what else is there?). Despite my protestations to the contrary, he followed me round the house simulating the hiss of Max Roach’s hi-hat. Tsk, tsk, tsk! He kept putting on record after record, determined to make me see that this was one of the greatest noises ever. Bearing in mind that at the time I thought I was in the Jesus And Mary Chain, he was up against it. He didn’t care though. He knew he was right. Tsk, tsk, tsk!
    I’d never met anyone like Brian. Still haven’t. His love and knowledge for music was all-consuming, as all-consuming as his love for red wine and roll-ups. When he’d finished with music, he’d zigzag over to books or films. He turned me on to some of the great loves of my life – Jim Thompson, James Ellroy, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Gil Evans, Max Roach (!), the lot.
    I haven’t seen him for a couple of years now. It’s a shame because whenever I do, I always come away enriched. Someone, Jeff probably (actually definitely), once said to me that the only meaning of cool was that if you knew something was good, you had to tell someone else about it. That definition makes Brian Case one of the coolest people around. If you see his byline on the bottom of anything, make sure you read it. It’ll be about jazz or pulp fiction or something interesting. Whatever, it’ll be worth it.

    James Oldham

  • the users
  • Favourite books 2007.

  • Amazon
  • Monday, 7 January 2008

    Christmas Piking

    Morning Jeff,

    Hope you had a good Christmas and New Year.

    Had a very relaxing one and even managed three quick 'guerilla' spinning sessions on the River Till, 5 minutes walk from my folks house up in Lincolnshire.

    These days it's probably more of a drain than a river having been straightened, tamed, imprisoned within some imposing banks and generally press-ganged into use as a drainage channel for the surrounding farmers fields. However, it's still home to some impressive flesh-eaters who lurk in the shadows of the decaying reed beds.

    It was the place I fished as a kid - full of roach, bream, gudgeon, perch and a skulking pike every few yards. There's talk of 20lb-ers coming out of there and I was told that a friend's old man actually put 30 carp in there at his own expense some years ago. He says they're still in there and have barely moved from the stretch he put them in. I'll go back in the summer to have a crack.

    I managed to get a couple of Pike out (and lost a third) when I went just after Christmas. Both jacks. I had a second quick session the following morning and lost another but managed to foul-hook a huge old bream who didn't look too impressed to be speared by a treble on its flank; a bream that looked more dour than usual.

    Had a bit of a longer session on the 30th. Started dead baiting around a fallen tree where I've had pike out before but no luck so changed back to the spinner and started wandering along the bank trying a few casts along the reeds every 50 yards or so. Managed to get one out that was approaching half-way decent just as it was getting dark. As I was unhooking the old fella we were graced by the presence of a barn owl hunting along the banks. A great way to end the day. I took that and the catch as my cue to pack up.

    Anyway, hopefully see you soon. I have a feeling '08 may bring my first barbel!


    Letters From Arcadia

  • click here for the latest LETTER FROM ARCADIA, a regular correspondence between angling's two most original contemporary writers...
  • Sunday, 6 January 2008

    Friday, 4 January 2008

    Irvine Welsh meets H.E.Bates uptown - by the Wimpy


    just when my copy turned up in the post. thanks for the dedication - will read it in a sitting this weekend. just recovering from the flu - knocked me sideways for almost 3 weeks my latest letter from arcadia was no more than a note in an empty benelyn bottle cast into the waves from a desert island.

    sky like lead here and i'm looking for the connectors to wire myself back in. feel like a heron that's been left out in the rain. bait long stolen off the hook.

    garlands on the birdtable


    ps: in case you hadn't already found it online - boyd tonkin's review (from The Independent online) below. well done mate will raise a glass on the kingsland road for you tonight.

    Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

    Published: 04 January 2008

    This year may mark the 40th anniversary of a fabled revolutionary spring, but Britain's novelists have set their sights elsewhere. How revealing that the soiled Seventies rather than the shiny Sixties should preoccupy so many gifted writers, including some scarcely alive on the Mars of that not-so-distant decade. Early-birds such as Hari Kunzru have already sung their retro songs, and a flock of others – Linda Grant, Philip Hensher, Hanif Kureishi and Helen Walsh among them – will add their own notes over the next few months.

    Novelists' nous has served them well. In the British Seventies, long-simmering tensions over class, culture and cohesion reached one boiling-point after another. Now, after the smoke-and-mirrors "revolutions" of both Thatcher and Blair, the decade's unfinished business returns to haunt us in the shape of stalled social mobility, yawning gulfs between the haves and have-nots, economic "stagflation" and a paralysed Labour government (with Led Zeppelin as the hottest band in town).

    Another new novel tackles the class divisions and humiliations of the Seventies with the passion and even fury of a tale for today. Dexter Petley has published four books but chooses to live far from the madding literary crowd, as an angling journalist with an organic plot in Normandy. His One True Void (Two Ravens, £8.99) brings the sensibility of Irvine Welsh to the landscapes of HE Bates. Slackly proof-read, with some silly howlers, it still delivers scene after scene of exhilarating rage, tenderness, lyricism and pitch-black comedy as its angry young hero discovers that "there was a chasm in society that no book-reading would ever fill".

    Conventionally enough, this is a rite-of-passage story about the events that fix the path of a bright but stranded 17-year-old. Less predictably, Petley writes, with a bittersweet mix of stifling intimacy and sizzling exasperation, about the English rural working-class of the early 1970s – no longer the peasant stalwarts of Hardy or Lawrence but the pikey scum that all now feel at liberty to loathe. Aspiring poet Henry Chambers grows up clever in a forlorn council-estate village in Kent, a "weirdo" loner scrapping with defeated parents ("the baggots") who "had bleakness down a fine art". Between run-down semis and the "big 'ouses" of privilege a war of attrition drags on – a war that brings "inequality, misery and depression" to the poor.

    After a sink secondary-modern, his sixth-form studies in Tunbridge Wells only confirm Henry's contempt – blended with doses of murderous envy and raging desire – for the local toffs. Their glossy kids read The Hobbit while he devours Pound's Cantos. The plot twists around his affair with a married grandee, Maxine: the wrecked femme fatale of Plato Villa. She both opens the door to a more expansive life and, deeply damaged, slams it shut.

    Shades of both Great Expectations and Lady Chatterley combine to make the self-harming Maxine an almost mythological anti-heroine, a druggy belle dame sans merci in Athena-poster style. Meanwhile, Petley's knife-sharp rendering of the ambient hum of 1973 – from Tubular Bells to Austin Maxis and Chelsea Girl tops – delivers not nostalgia but an object-lesson in how, to stratified Britain, every trifling taste will carry indelible marks of caste.

    One True Void ends with Henry striking out for France, as Petley did, ready "to cuff and rub that anger into a shine, the insults into freedom". Petley's poetry of longing and loathing feels more like headline news than a period piece, as the language of class creeps back into the lexicon of public life. Those wounds never went away; no more than the sounds of Neil Young and The Eagles which (along with Led Zep) twang away in the background. Plus ├ža change, as young Henry would learn to say.

  • independent online

  • buy at Amazon
  • Caught By The Reaper

    Wasn't gonna run anymore of these but I came across this rememberance of Bobby Byrd today and I didn't even know that he had passed away. It's a heartfelt and knowledgeable tribute by a guy called Red Kelly. It's taken from his blog, "the B side". It's a great site, dedicated to the flip sides of old Soul and R & B 45's and backed up with incredible, in depth information. There's a link to it below. Also thanks to Chris Salmon for bringing it to my attention (check his piece in the "film & music" section of The Guardian today for more music sites);

    Bobby Byrd, Musician, August 15, 1934 - September 12, 2007

    So here we are saying goodbye to yet another giant of this music, Bobby Byrd, an absolutely pivotal figure in the history of Soul.

    I don't know if you'd be right to say that without Bobby Byrd, there would never have been a James Brown, but you'd be close. It was Bobby who took James under his wing, and welcomed him as a member of his own family after he helped get him paroled from a Georgia juvenile prison in 1952. It was Bobby who welcomed him into his Gospel quartet, The Avons, a group which would soon 'cross-over' and rename themselves The Famous Flames.

    While Brown soon asserted himself as the leader, Bobby didn't seem to mind. "I've never seen a man work so hard in my whole life," he said, " was hard to keep up. He was all the time driving, driving, driving." That fire inside soon translated into a record deal with Syd Nathan in 1956. Whether it was early vocal group sides like Please, Please, Please and Try Me, or groundbreaking classics like Out Of Sight and Cold Sweat, It's important to remember that all of Godfather's King and Federal sides were credited to 'James Brown And The Famous Flames', right up until late 1968.

    Their incredible run of over 45 R&B chart hits (placing over 20 in the top ten, including five #1's) during that 12 year period just boggles the mind. The Flames' soulful moan, along with their precision dance steps, helped define the James Brown experience, and have become an indelible part of our culture. After original Flames Bobby Bennett and 'Baby Lloyd' Stallworth walked (in a squabble over money soon after #2 R&B smash Licking Stick-Licking Stick), Bobby Byrd stepped into his role as 'Soul Brother Number One and a Half' (as Fred Wesley would come to call him).

    It's hard to imagine what songs like Soul Power, Make It Funky, Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine, and I'm A Greedy Man might have sounded like without Bobby's equally important (yet uncredited) vocals. As I've mentioned before, the banter between Bobby and James (saying things like, "Don't get so funky!" "I can't help it, Byrd") just does me in. Soul personified, y'all. His keyboard skills and songwriting abilities would prove equally essential in those days as the James Brown Band evolved into The J.B.'s.

    Byrd's solo records are just as important, as he took James Brown productions like I Need Help (I Can't Do It Alone) and the mighty, mighty I Know You Got Soul onto the charts in the early seventies. He and his wife Vicki Anderson would become an integral part of JB's People label, and produce some of the funkiest music this planet has ever heard. This high energy mover we have here today, issued for some reason on Brownstone (another Polydor subsidiary) would crack the R&B top 40 in early 1972. Get out da way! This is just as tight as it gets, man. Shortly after the release of this monster, Byrd would leave all of it behind, finally tired of 'not getting paid'.

    Although he charted twice more on his own, by 1975, he was basically off the map.

    He and Vicki continued to perform overseas, and a whole new generation of fans was waiting as Polydor began it's ambitious CD reissue campaign in the mid eighties. Despite their differences with him over the years, both Bobby and Vicki were there last December in Augusta as James Brown lie in state. I'll never forget watching him perform I Know You Got Soul that one last time with the solid gold casket of his fellow Flame there at his feet...

    Fred Wesley won't you blow one time.

    Red Kelly

  • the "B" side
  • No Country For Old Men.

    So the first must see movie of the year arrives early enough to coincide with everybody’s New Year’s resolutions, when everyone is still trying to keep things tidy before the wheels inevitably fall off the wagon. It also arrives in time to make us realise just how barren the last couple of years have been in the movie theatre. I can’t really remember the last film someone demanded I go and see something on the big screen for the full, deep hit experience of seeing a film (my little brother insisting on Spiderman 3 doesn’t count as it was utter shit). “No Country For Old Men”, released mid January, is such a film, one you should make the time, spend the cash, get the sitter, put the effort in for. It's made by The Coen Brothers and is the film that finally sees off a particularly dry patch for them – so much so, it’s arguable as to whether this is actually their best film to date.

    “No Country…” is brooding, pensive and at times shocking in its vindictive acts of violence. It is evocative of the Coen’s own “Blood Simple” alongside Peckinpah’s westerns. That's no faint praise on either count. The most recognisable face on screen is Tommy Lee Jones, who plays a sheriff, disillusioned and facing down retirement, much reminiscent of his role as Pete Perkins in the ridiculously underrated “Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada” (as to why that one got away - well, I imagine people must have walked up the Odeon ticket desk or the counter at Blockbuster, paused, worked the title round their mouth a few times and then realised it was easier to ask for the new Harry Potter instead). The rest of the cast is made up of tip-of-the-tongue names, no one so famous as to overshadow the film itself (lest we forget, the Coen’s have revelled in their biggest outsiders status for years, employing the likes of George Clooney, Catherine Zeta Jones and Tom Hanks to increasingly less success with each film - "The Ladykillers", anyone?). Javier Bardem’s turn as an almost alien assassin (in a Bowie "Man Who Fell To Earth" kind of way) is Oscar worthy, even if just for the haircut – how a Beatles mop top might look placed on the head of a Mexican wrestler. Thankfully, it takes about 15 seconds for the haircut to fade into insignificance and for the full throttle insanity of the character is revealed and allowed a demented free reign of psychopathic activity. Perhaps most brilliantly, the film features no incidental music whatsoever. As a result, the tension is ratcheted up in your own mind, there are no directions or signposts from orchestras or metal bands churning away. Even the credits roll in a morbid silence. I’m sure it’s not the first time that such a sleight of hand has been used in a motion picture, but in this context, it is a truly genius move that actually sets the brain working, rather than just receiving information.

    The unspoken, unseen star of “No Country…” has to be the writer on whose book the film is based, the reclusive, Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy. Although the first post-film credit says “written for screen by Joel and Ethan Coen”, anyone who has read the book will realise that their source material was pretty much bombproof when they arrived at it. McCarthy’s book is sinewy, direct and visually evocative to an almost hallucinatory point. Structurally, it’s odd, in that it doesn’t play out as you’d expect, something that the Coen’s have bravely replicated, controversial coda and all. As with much of McCarthy’s books, there is no flab, there are no wasted words. The Coen’s have tapped the source material to career-best effect, reigning in any of their cinematic quirks or idiosyncrasies to let the dialogue speak for itself, all Texan and hard boiled like tar. The best lines, lifted as they are directly from the book, would still sound like rough cut pearls of wisdom in a school production. This is not to take away any achievement from the Coen’s – they recognized the book’s “pitiless quality… (and the fact that) McCarthy did not follow through on formula expectations” and have breathed cinemascope life into one of the most startling pieces of fiction I’ve read in the last few years. In “No Country For Old Men”, by bringing McCarthy’s world to the screen, they have pulled off no lesser feat than making themselves relevant again. Got to say it’s good to have them back.

    By the way, if the film leads you to explore McCarthy’s work any further, I’d highly recommend the bleak frontier country western novel “Blood Meridian” alongside “The Road”. “The Road”, a stunningly powerful and almost overbearingly desolate novel, is being filmed for the big screen by “The Proposistion” director John Hillcoat. If you’ve read the book and seen that film, you’ll know what a ride you’re in for…

    Robin Turner

  • Cormac McCarthy
  • Thursday, 3 January 2008

    Shadows & Reflections; Jemma Kennedy

    The job of a writer, as I am constantly reminded, is to be truthful. Veracity without frills, specifics rather than generalizations, a cynical eye and ear in order to avoid mushy homilies in place of incisive prose. Above all – sentimentality is strictly forbidden. (This is why writers don’t skip around grinning, but languish in subterranean bars with furrowed brows). Anyone can write a pretty paragraph about a sunset or a child laughing – but to truthfully describe grief, anger, loss – this is the true challenge of the author. Perhaps if I am really honest this was one of the reasons I decided to spend Christmas day working in a homeless shelter with my brother. OK, I’ll come clean; I had other non-altruistic motives – we basically didn’t want to spend the day cooped up with so many members of our large, complicated family. We wanted to do something productive, we wanted to stay in London, and we thought we’d get a nice magnanimous glow from volunteering. So on the morning of the 25th we were up at six and driving through the rain-soaked streets towards the shelter.

    It was in a condemned office block near Old Street that had been lent to the charity by the council for the Christmas period, in which up to 350 homeless and hostel-dwellers could be accommodated for a week. By eight AM I was standing in the lobby of the building watching the rowdy crowd of ‘guests’ that had gathered outside the front door. And then the security man unlocked and in they came. My first job, with four other women, was to frisk the guests as they entered to liberate any hidden contraband; bottles, needles, knives (this was a ‘dry’ shelter and the boozing and drug-taking was supposed to take place off the premises, which it did, liberally). My overwhelming feeling, as the various misshapen human beings with their bedrolls and sleeping bags and tattered plastic carriers lurched towards me like the zombie chorus from the ‘Thriller’ video, was abject fear. It was, frankly, I’m ashamed to say, quite frightening having to make eye and body contact with people who I would normally pretend were invisible. However, the guests (mainly men) were delighted to be frisked by a group of nice liberal ladies wearing surgical gloves; they spread their legs and arms and told us to help ourselves. Once I had got over my squeamishness I began to enjoy it; the conversations, the jokes, the camaraderie. Sentimental Truism #1: Beneath the layers of rags, a homeless person is a human being. So shoot me.

    The day passed in a strange blur of heartbreak and hilarity. I will remember some of the faces forever. The toothless ancient warlock who pinned me to the spot with his dragon’s breath of pure vodka and a terrifying stare, then told me I reminded him of a character in The Railway Children. The two ghost-white boys in Polish army combats, one sobbing, the other delivering a ceaseless comforting whisper in his ear as he led him by the hand around the centre. The gigantic Geordie in the green sequinned cowboy hat who hung out with us all day delivering tea and sardonic witticisms, only his thousand-yard stare and the scars on his arms giving him away as a guest rather than a volunteer. The dreadlocked tramp, who, on entering and being asked the ritual; ‘Do you have any drugs or alcohol?’ replied politely, ‘No, sorry.’ The seventy-five year old cockney who had walked from Victoria to be there and did press-ups in the common room before an admiring audience. The elderly West Indian who proudly showed me the new outfit he’d been given at the donated clothing depot: torn sheepskin jacket, Gap woollen tanktop, Puma trainers – ‘Them stylish clothes. Me got all the latest fashions now,’ he said, and then did a little jig for joy. The ex-professor with the scholar’s shining bald pate and the briefcase that I was obliged to search for alcohol, who told me primly, ‘I only carry literature’ (he was right, it was stuffed with books and spare socks). Sentimental Truism #2: Everyone wants to tell their story – only not everybody has somebody to listen.

    I will also remember the sadness of misshapen faces and bodies, hollow cheeks, pinhole pupils, toothless mouths, hands like lumps of raw liver. The parceling of possessions, the unwrappings and rewrappings, the shifting of items from pocket to bag to boots, the layers of plastic and tissue and newspaper, the endless unholy procession from floor to floor as the guests went questing; for aspirin, for a place to shoot up, for a medic, for someone to watch their possessions while they ate or washed or had a free haircut. The whole place reeked of booze and tobacco and residual filth, a smell that clung to my clothes and hair. Later I went on shower duty, handing out towels and toiletries to men who queued patiently with their belongings, listening to the moans of ecstasy (or was it pain?) from within the cubicles as they stripped off their many layers and stood under hot water for the first time in weeks. The guests formed two broad categories – the alcoholics and drug-addicts who were constantly going outside to smoke, fight, sing and sometimes weep together in their odd little cliques, and the ones who drifted around alone like lost spirits, faces closed, eyes dead. I found myself thinking that if it came to it, I’d probably find myself in the former category. It’s harder to be a ghost as part of a crowd – once you’re one of many untouchables, you become merely repellent, not invisible to ‘ordinary’ eyes. Sentimental Truism #3: There but for the grace of God go I. Would I have the sheer human tenacity to keep going in a sub-human lifestyle? Or would I go under? As I ate my Christmas dinner (a cheese sandwich past its sell-by-date from the local Texaco), I thought about my large, complicated (loving, supportive) family having dinner together miles away and realized I was one lucky fool.

    Earlier this year I read a great article by writer John Irving about how much Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is seen to embody all the best qualities of the Christmas spirit that we are happy adopt for the season – hope, generosity, forgiveness – but how once it’s over, we hold them (and the book) in scorn; sentimental, slushy things that they are. During my day in the shelter I saw many examples of hope, generosity and forgiveness, not only from the volunteers, but from the guests, who looked out for each other, and us. I also witnessed violence, ungratefulness, shameless lies and acts of drug and alcohol-related depravity that were even worse than the ones that took place in my front room on New Year’s Eve. The difference is, I suppose, the guests can’t give their lifestyle back after Christmas in the same way that us volunteers can hang up our surgical gloves and dispense with festive goodwill for another year – they are in it for the long haul. But I am slightly changed in one respect; I think Irving is right, and we are stupid to be so afraid of our more sentimental leanings. I experienced many moments this year that were funny, heartening or profound, and which might end up in a piece of writing one day, but the hours I spent at the shelter are the ones that I will remember most. That stream of human flotsam and jetsam that I searched, served, and tried to understand is the tide that has carried me over into 2008, and which, for some reason, made me feel most glad to be alive, with my sentimental faculties fully intact. Sentimental Truism #4: The ability to empathise is one of the things that keeps us human. If a homeless man who’s just has his last bottle of vodka confiscated can smile as sweetly as he did, then so can I.

    Favourite books 2007.

    collection of essays written for "Waterlog" magazine.

  • medlar press

  • Coch-Y-Bonddu bookshop
  • Wednesday, 2 January 2008

    Tuesday, 1 January 2008

    Happy New Year.

    all the best to everyone.

    Andrew, Jeff & Robin.