December, as may be surmised from the comparative paucity of blog entries, was not a good month. This should come as no surprise to me as it is, with January, one of the two worst average months. Although this might indicate some form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) this is not so as February is one of the highest months and August the lowest. Rather I think it is connected to the stresses, strains and upheaval represented by Xmas. This is not to say that I do not, when well, enjoy Christmas; my adult Christmases have always been a pleasant contrast to those of my childhood (that’s a long story – in short they were heavy on moral uplift but low on pleasure! the result is that I have, in natural reaction, rather delighted in the sybaritic materialist aspect of the secular Xmas which others decry). However Xmas does represent stress and upheaval and those things are not good for me. Whatever the case, this December I had more than two weeks of illness, though fortunately recovered for the Xmas period itself.
I do have a few things to catch up with however. First a wonderful concert, possibly the best of the year in what has been an excellent year for concerts; Willard White’s Robeson Re-Explored. This took the form of a performance of a number of Paul Robeson’s songs with interspersed explanatory addresses by White himself and his pianist and arranger Neal Thornton. The concert had especial poignancy because it took place in the Town Hall where Robeson himself appeared in 1936, 1949 and 1958. In 1949 he appeared twice, the second appearance being under the auspices of the British Soviet Society – there was a huge demand (put at 5,000) for tickets and only just under half that could be accommodated , but the Council of the day refused permission for an overflow meeting outside on the grounds that no concert had been relayed outside the building before. One of the strengths of the evening and narration was that it did not shy away from or gloss over Robeson’s attraction to the USSR, and indeed provided relevant quotes from the man explaining the difference between his reception when he was briefly passing through Nazi Berlin and in Moscow where he was received and treated as an equal human being (also very different of course to some of his experience in the US). Robeson is one of the great heroes of the 20th Century and the story of his battle with McCarthyite America in the 1950’s (when his passport was confiscated and he was unable to sing other than at in private concerts or at churches) an inspirational one. And on top of this the voice was of course simply extraordinary. White himself is a brilliant baritone and perfectly matched with this endeavour. The programme included a number of wonderful spirituals (with terrific backing from the Town Hall Gospel Choir), some popular numbers (three Gershwin including It Ain’t Necessarily So). The highlights for me however were the Song of the Volga Boatmen (sung in Russian), the Skye Boat Song, Joe Hill (how wonderful that I have heard this song sung live this year by both Joan Baez and Willard White following Robeson – quite different musically but both completely committed and both bringing tears to my eyes) and of course Ol Man River itself – which I felt that I had never heard before so brilliant and inspirational was White’s rendition; the song became not in the least a saccharine celebration of the Mississippi, but on the contrary a great howl of protest against nature’s indifference to human suffering and bondage. This was a musically brilliant, intellectually fascinating and emotionally uplifting event.
In terms of television the month was surprisingly uninteresting given that it was Xmas, traditionally a time of special offerings. There were however two special episodes of Cranford with Dench et al. At times the first episode felt perilously close to self-parody, but was redeemed by the brilliance of Francesca Annis’s death scene – standing in her magnificent Adam hall awaiting the return of her wastrel son before finally collapsing, and the sheer chutzpah and exhilaration of the final scenes where the ladies of Cranford take a railway trip and in another carriage the young couple who were the episode’s romantic interest engage in a cheeky Titanic parody. The second episode was extremely effective as a seasonal offering – warm and comforting, with tears guaranteed by the happy ending in a snowy Cranford in which all discords are erased and every story wrapped up. All this has little to do with Gaskell and is pretty devoid of any serious content but as highly effective and moving seasonal television it could hardly be faulted. Also worth mentioning was a wonderful Met production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut; not an opera I knew, this is wonderful stuff – the power of wealth and status first misleading then crushing and destroying the title character and her lover; interestingly here America proves no paradise but a dreadful wilderness in which they – at usual operatic length – expire. I did try to watch a very well-mounted production of Hamlet with David Tennant in the title role, but as usual my irritation with Shakespeare got the better of me and I fell asleep. I managed to stay awake for a less well-mounted production of The Turn of The Screw : woo-woo (as we call it in the mystery reviewing world) is almost never to my taste. I am not sure as to the faithfulness of this production to the original, but I am aware that there is at least one highly rated adaptation already (not to mention Britten’s opera) so cannot really see the point of this production; it may be however that it was in fact an original interpretation. Even if this is so, as work in its own right it was of little dramatic or visual interest.
One film which I did not manage to get into the December Movies entry was This Is England (2006) written and directed by the highly rated Shane Meadows. It so happens that this was the first Meadows film I have seen, so was interested to see something by someone so highly rated in British critical circles. The film, which is apparently partly auto-biographical, tells the story of a troubled 12-year old, Shaun, growing up in 1983; his father has died in the Falklands War and he lives with his mother on a Council estate. He is adopted by a group of skinheads led by the generous and kind Woody. However Woody’s gang is disrupted and rent apart when the racist and psychotically violent Combo comes out of prison; some stay with Woody, others, including Shaun, go with Combo. He takes them to a National Front meeting, intimidates Asian youths, robs an Asian shop-keeper and finally viciously assaults a black member of Woody’s gang, at which point Shaun realises how wrong he has been in his choice. The film, which is set against and framed by footage of events of the time (Greenham, the Falklands etc.), moves from the comic and pleasurable to the horrible and chilling as Woody is replaced as Shaun’s substitute father by Combo. This is a film about men and masculinity. That is not to say there are no women in it – there is Shaun’s mum doing her best to raise him; Lol, Woody’s girl-friend who once – to her great shame – slept with Combo, and Smell who adopts Shaun and becomes his ‘girl-friend’ – although she is twice his height! (scenes between Smell and Shaun which should not work are actually absurdly charming). Shaun’s mum is a sensible woman doing her best – although she berates Lol for giving him his skinhead haircut (and Lol politely apologizes) she recognises Woody as a potential excellent influence. But for all this the film is about men and masculinity and women are peripheral. It is a battle for masculine identity – the style and panache and goodness of Woody against the violence and power and evil of Combo: who will gain the main influence over Shaun? All this is quite effective and certainly an area and subject which stands out thematically these days. However there is a considerable political problem with the film’s other project – namely an examination of the National Front (the NF – fascists) of the 1980’s (or by implication their successors the British National Party – BNP). While we are given doses of NF rhetoric by both Combo and the NF leader who addresses a meeting he takes them to – jobs and houses being given to immigrants, the Falklands being an absurd waste of white lives which should be spent defending the Fatherland etc.. – the central suggestion as far as Combo is concerned is that he is an extremely disturbed individual. He almost breaks down when pleading with Lol, whom he claims to love, to come back to him; his final horrific act of violence is precipitated by Milky (the black guy he attacks) describing his own happy family background – the implication being that Combo himself comes from an extremely dysfunctional home. Now while this may make Combo more interesting, the implication that Fascism and fascists are just the products of unstable childhoods or psychotic personalities is worrying and misleading: no doubt some fascists have unhappy childhoods as do some socialists and some Tories (dysfunctional families are one thing not limited or distributed by class); however it was not because millions of Germans had unhappy childhoods that Fascism triumphed in Germany in the 1930’s. The reasons and solutions are to be sought in socio-economic factors and those being taken advantage of and played on by ruthless political power-seekers with very clear agendas and methods. As an explanation of the nature of the NF in the 1980’s I would say the film is only partially successful. Visually it would perhaps be a little unfair to say that Meadows is wholly constricted by the British realist tradition; there are some effective uses of music, and some montages which are pleasing. But he rarely strays far outside that tradition. Of course it could be argued that this would be inappropriate given his subject matter – the run-down estates and public spaces of the deliberately unspecified city in which the film is set (I say deliberately because while shot in Nottingham the film is set in a town near the seaside – I think Meadows intends to say this could have been any provincial city in 1983). However it would be hard on this evidence to make any high claims for Meadows as a cinematic stylist or visionary. This is not to say that This is England, for all these reservations, is not a powerful and interesting film, covering a subject and area which gets little attention these days.
During the period I was ill I switched video games from Fallout3 to GTAIV (Grand Theft Auto). The big problem with GTAIV is that it has no cheat which enables slow motion (unlike all previous GTA games); in addition the rewards for completing various non-story missions (eg: the fire, ambulance, balloon etc. missions, some of which do not even feature at all here) are minimal. You cannot generate stocks of armour and weapons at your safe house. The only way round this for a wholly inadequate player like me is to use some of the array of other cheats, in particular that generating a full set of weapons, and that restoring full health and armour. This makes the game somewhat less satisfying though its scope and story are as well-imagined and sizeable as ever. Visually my preference will always be for the lurid colouring of Vice City, but this Liberty City certainly has a noir quality of its own, especially in the expertly rendered rain.
It is also worth commemorating the fact that this month saw the most remarkable run of results for Birmingham City in my lifetime (or indeed of anyone born after the First World War!). Although I no longer go to matches this has certainly been a source of delight.