Summer Selection 2017

Here’s a very brief post to list the selection of cultural offerings that the Society will be exploring during the course of Summer 2017. As always there’s a book, an album, a film and an artist.

  • The Book: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • The Album: Nicola Benedetti and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirill Karabits: Shostakovich Violin Concerto No.1; Glazunov Violin Concerto
  • The Film: The Girl On The Train (2016), dir. Tate Taylor
  • The Artist: Grant Wood

 

 

Spring 2017

It’s been a while since a blog post was added to this site. But rest assured – despite the absence of any entries in cyberspace, The Betterment Society as continued to meet. A recent development has been that we’ve dropped the poetry element of the mix. The last poetry contribution came in the previous selection, when YL picked Alice Oswald’s long form poem Dart. In short, it wasn’t to T&B’s tastes. We soon realised our poetry tastes were wide apart. YL appears to prefer contemporary poetry; T&B prefers the classic. YL doesn’t mind if a poem rhymes, whilst T&B insists a poem should rhyme. We could never agree so we’ve abandoned that element.

With the exception of Dart, at the time of writing I’m failing to remember past selections. However, at some stage, I will update this site with this choices. However, as we’ve just reviewed the Spring 2017 choices, let me briefly outline what was under consideration – our first list without a poem or poet.

The Norfolk Mystery by Ian Sansom

Set in the late 1930s, this is a humorous, rip-roaring old-style murder mystery, disguised as travel guide. Swanton Morley, a enormously prodigious journalist cum author, with hundreds, if not thousands of titles to his names is advertising for an assistant for his new project: The County Guides. This ambitious project will see Morley produce a guide for every country across England. Morley recruits Stephen Sefton, a young man freshly returned to London after fighting as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. Sefton responds to an advert and ends up with the job. He is summoned to Norfolk, to Swanton Morley’s home (interestingly Sansom has borrowed the name of the village of Swanton Morley to lend to his lead character, a village that happens to be located in the heart of Norfolk!).

In Morley’s specially adapted Lagonda (he has a special ‘desk’ installed across the rear seat, allowing him to use his typewriter whilst in transit), the pair are driven to the village of Blakeney on the north Norfolk coast by Morley’s daughter, Miriam, to start the research required for their first guide.

Their first visit is to the church of St Mary’s, a church with an unusual slim second tower. Upon arrival they find a commotion in the church yard, and discover, in the vestry, the hanging body of the vicar. Cue the start of a classic murder investigation with amateur sleuths (Morley and Sefton), bungling policemen and a varied cast of local villagers all written with exaggerated characterisation, but still remaining believable.

We both loved this book and are keen to read to others in the series. Despite this book only being published in 2013, there are already three further County Guides: Death In DevonWestmoreland AloneEssex Poison. Plus a fifth is in the offing, provisionally titled The Sussex Murders. In addition, both of us went further. T&B was inspired to delve further into other murder mysteries set in the early 20th century, and has also discovered Robin Stevens’ murder mysteries for children: the Murder Most Unladylike series. Meanwhile YL decided to make a pilgrimage to Norfolk and the village of Blakeney. Fortunately the trip involved nothing grizzly, and the only thing found dead was the excellent dressed crab served for dinner at The Blakeney Hotel (also featured in the book). The visit even involved a visit to St Mary’s Church (pictured at the top of this article) and a climb up the main tower for some stunning views of the village and coast beyond.

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View from the tower of St Mary’s Church, Blakeney, looking out over the village and the salt marshes beyond.

Migration by Bonobo

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Bonobo is the stage name of British DJ, musician and producer Simon Green. Migration is his sixth studio album and was selected by YL. YL has a couple of Bonobo’s previous albums, specifically Days To Come from 2006 and The North Borders from 2013. Migration was released in early 2017.

There are a mixture of sounds on this album, but all involved sampling and electronica in one form or another. One track is inspired by folk music, another by African dance music. However, overall, there is a strong ambient thread running through the tracks on this album, despite the presence at times of some harder dance drumbeats. It’s a joy to listen to though, for its minimal vocals, and its overall melodic, almost symphonic sound. The album was a hit for both of us, and in particular surprised T&B.

Artist: Wyndham Lewis

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Wyndham Lewis was an author and artist who co-founded the Vorticist movement. We were just concerned with his paintings. His more mainstream works are associated with his time as a war artist during World War One. T&B had picked a book that specifically was focused on his period as a war artist. Overall, our shared view was that we liked and enjoyed some of his works, but not everything. There were two many dark and brooding pictures, which whilst telling powerful stories, were often too overpowering.

Film: Suffragette (2015)

dir. Sarah Gavron

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Our film choice was Suffragette, a portrayal of the fight for women’s suffrage in Britain at the start of the 20th century. The cast is a roll-call of the finest in female acting talent in the UK and beyond. Carey Milligan play Maud Watts, a young mother working in a laundry in East London. By chance she spots one of her colleagues, Violet Miller (played by Anne-Marie Duff) taking part in a women’s suffrage protest in the West End and is subsequently persuaded to begin attending meetings of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Maud is primarily used as a means to explore more deeply the story of the suffragettes. She eventually gets to meet Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep in very much a cameo-like role). Her presence is very brief, despite being one of the three women on the film poster. We also, along the way, see some of the pivotal moments in the campaign, that have gone down in history, in particular the protest at the 1913 Epsom Derby by Emily Davidson (portrayed the remarkable character actress Natalie Press). We both felt this was a very good and worthwhile film, but were left a little underwhelmed. T&B, in particular, was not convinced by the rapid advancement of working class Maud through the ranks of the suffragette movement.

Betjeman at the BBC

One our current selections is the poetry of John Betjeman. Not only was he a much loved poet, with a very distinctive style, he was also a consummate broadcaster. In the 1960s and 1970s he put together numerous documentaries at the BBC. It was by chance I recently discovered a selection of these programmes are now available, free to view, on the BBC iPlayer. A wonderful resource to explore as a side project. I just wonder what Betjeman would have made of the iPlayer and in the internet?

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The Wolf of Wall Street

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This was my colleagues’ choice and so I have no responsibility for it! That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the film, so much as to say that I wouldn’t watch it again, as it’s that type of film that only needs to be viewed once, though you do need to pay good attention – this movie moves fast. Brash, bombastic and brutal, this film is not for the faint hearted, or the easily shocked. There’s plenty of explicit sex, hard drug use and lots of swearing. It’s a depiction of a morally bankrupt, over-monied microcosm of society that will blast your senses and make you balk at the way human nature can be tainted by a little bit of money and power.

Leonardo DiCaprio is Jordan Belfort, the Wolf of Wall Street himself, and what a perfect casting for the role. DiCaprio is such a skilled actor that he can turn his hand to almost anything, but he’s particularly good in the role of a philandering, womanising, drug addled executive trading in dodgy stocks. A film like this could sound a little like a teen riot but the film gained not only box-office success but critical acclaim and several Oscar nominations in 2014. I can see why – it is beautifully photographed, acted and directed and it is a strong cautionary tale of how greed can corrupt entirely.

I would score the film a seven out of ten, but like I said, I shan’t be revisiting it again in the near future.

The Winter Selection

TBS Winter

Having now digested our Autumn selection (although there may well be more to come on that selection on this blog), it was time to pick five more cultural offerings for exploration over what’s left of the year. This group of five will be up for discussion in about three months’ time – around the end of January 2015.

First the artist, and after Caravagio and Whistler we move forward, firmly into the 20th Century with the work of English artist Eric Ravilious, known for his landscapes of the South Downs, but also an important war artist.

For the book the choice is The Visitors, a new novel by Simon Sylvester, which won The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize for 2014. It’s a crime novel set on a fictitious Scottish island.

For the poet, the choice is Sir John Betjeman, champion of architecture and well known rail enthusiast. But also a talented poet.

The album of choice is also a product of Scotland and a product of 2014. It’s the new album from Kenny Anderson a.k.a. King Creosote. The album, written as a soundtrack to a film about the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow is entitled To Scotland With Love.

Finally the film is Brief Encounter, the British classic from 1945 starring Trevor Howard, Celia Johnson and Carnforth railway station.

Autumn Selection: The Result

The Betterment Society have now met to discuss our autumn choice of film, book, poet, artist and album. Undoubtedly, the choice on this occasion was more balanced, but we both agreed that the choice included items which neither of us would have approached given a free choice.

John Abbott McNeill Whister
YL had remembered seeing some of Whistler’s cityscapes of London at a 2005 Tate Britain exhibition and was struck by the modern simplicity of some pictures such as Nocturne In Blue and Silver (1871). But early on in our discussion we discovered that our views on Whistler’s work had been governed by the quality of the reproduction of his paintings in different books. T&B was using a late 1970s monograph, with quite poor colour reproductions – they looked dirty. Pictures we found online, were much more vibrant, with the Phaidon monograph acquired by YL falling somewhere in between. Nevertheless, looking at other images did allow us to reconsider Whistler from our immediate reactions, with T&B won round a little to pictures such as Symphony in White No.1: The White Girl (1862) and At the Piano (1858/59). YL, in contrast, was fonder of the historic images of London, and it’s industrial brutality though pictures such as Nocturne: Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge (1972/73) and The Thames in Ice (1860).

T&B: 6  YL:7  Total: 13

London Grammar: If You Wait
For T&B this album was excellent, an album which deserved to be played from beginning to end with no interruptions and where no individual track could be regarded as filler. For YL the album was too reminiscent of The xx – whilst there were some very good and memorable tracks on the album, there was too much that was forgettable. For YL the final five tracks in particular blurred into one another and were something of a morose dirge. There’s no doubt this a melancholic album, but the Society was in full agreement that songs such as Wasting My Young Years and Strong were the stand out tracks. For YL the opener, Hey Now, also fell into that category. There was also no doubt the the vocals of Hannah Reid were exceptional, reminiscent of Florence Welch or even Beth Gibbons.

T&B: 8  YL: 6  Total: 14

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
The Society was generally in full agreement of the film choice. We both felt it was a strong work and well dramatised version of the early life of Jordan Belfort and was, without doubt, a work by Martin Scorsese. Indeed T&B, more acquainted with the Scorsese oeuvre than YL, felt there were many similarities to his earlier film Goodfellas (1990). Perhaps this was deliberate – comparing the Mafia with the greed of 1980s Wall Street. For T&B, Leonardo DiCaprio is one of our greatest living actors, so can do no wrong. Indeed we both felt that his performance in this film was exceptional. It drew you into a world that was unfamiliar and kept you entranced. To a degree, because we both also felt the film was a little on the long side, and could easily have had 45 minutes shaved from it without spoiling the plot.

T&B: 7  YL:7  Total 14

How To Build A Girl by Caitlin Moran
The choice of T&B, a fan of Moran’s earlier book How To Be A Woman, as well as her journalism. For YL, his only memory of Moran was from Channel 4’s Naked City in the early 1990s. For both of us the book was a quick and easy read. The book was praised for it’s portrayal of the sexuality of teenage girls, a subject simply absent from a great deal of fiction (here is Moran talking out this on Newsnight). YL compared the book to much earlier coming of age novels, many set in northern or Midland’s towns, books such as Billy Liar and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. However, in both cases the protagonists are male. How To Build A Girl  brought that up-to-date, by not only portraying a female coming of age story. But like those stories from the past, this features a lead character trying to better themselves, to rise above the poverty they grew up amongst, and trying to find their place in the world, when they have often felt left out.

T&B: 7  YL: 6  Total 13

Simon Armitage
This choice led to the largest division of opinion across the five choices at this meeting. For YL the poems of Armitage resonated with the North of England and the place he grew up. For YL Armitage doesn’t shy away from the realities of life, even if they are not particularly glamorous. YL’s affection of Amitage’s poetry has led to the acquisition of a number of his volumes of poems. For T&B, a southerner by upbringing, a lot of the meaning was lost. T&B described it as reading a in-joke, without being in on what was supposed to be funny. YL will go on to explore more of Armitage’s work.

T&B: 4  YL: 8  Total: 12

Autumn Selection

Autumn selection

Time for a second selection of cultural offerings to be explored over the next three months and to be discussed in October (scarily it will be autumn by then!). As before we have chosen a book, a film, an album, an artist and a poet. And as before it’s a varied choice. With the exception of the artist all are contemporary choices with a book, album and film all released within the last twelve months.  Given the huge scope possible when looking at the works of a poet, we have decided to only consider some specific works, in order to focus in the final discussion and conversation.

So this quarter’s choices are:

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese

How To Build A Girl by Caitlin Moran

If You Wait by London Grammar

Poetry by Simon Armitage (poems to be decided)

The art of James McNeill Whistler

Summer Selection: The Result

The Betterment Society met yesterday to discuss the summer selection of book, film, album, poet and artist. The result were mixed, with some choices splitting opinions and others universally loved. I will attempt to sum up some of the views.

Psycho (1960)
Remarkably, YL had never seen Psycho before, although was familiar with the visual imagery of the shower scene, and the Bernard Herrmann soundtrack of shrieking violins. T&B had seen it, but not for some time. Both enjoyed the film and noted the visual and aural tension that built throughout the film, and the clues about what was to come and the multitude of visual references. Beautifully shot with a plot that drew you in as a viewer, despite it’s screwed up nature.

T&B: 8   YL: 8   Total: 16

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
A book that generated a discussion about what individual seek out in a good book, and how this can reflect personal circumstances and mood. YL managed to finish the book, but it was as much of a physical trudge as the story that is portrayed in the novel. T&B didn’t even get a third of the way through.  Both recognised that portrayal of bleak oblivion was done exceptionally well. However, is this a book to take pleasure from? Definitely not. Is this a book to pack in order to enhance your summer holiday? Again definitely not.

T&B: 3   YL: 6   Total: 9

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
A reversal of past experience of Coleridge compared to Psycho.  YL had studied some Coleridge at school, in particular Kubla Khan. T&B had never experience Coleridge, but had seen him as part of the romantic poets that may be worth exploring.  Neither had much chance to fully explore Coleridge’s work (which will lead to a small change of approach to future poets) by both agreed that The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was not easy to grasp given it’s archaic language. YL still held a soft spot Kubla Khan, but had not had a chance to explore some of the other work. Noted the interest in the natural work, weather patterns and the like that perpetuate his poetry.

T&B: 5   YL: 6   Total: 11

Caravaggio
With the help a compendium published by Taschen the works of Caravaggio were explored. This was an artist that T&B already loved and compared their use of light to that of Edward Hopper. The rebellious nature of Caravaggio was clear in many of his work, together with the often highly unconventional was in which subjects were portrayed. Favourite works? T&B: St Jerome Writing. YL: a choice between Martha and Mary Magdalene and the unusual Medusa painted on a shield.

T&B: 9   YL: 7   Total: 16

Elbow: The Take Off And Landing Of Everything
Hands down the favourite of this selection. Indeed for T&B it has been an ongoing soundtrack to car journeys. Less so for YL but by far some of the best music to be released so far this year. The deep rich sounds that Elbow develop, with clever use of wider orchestration, such as the brass on My Sad Captains.  Each song is carefully crafted and distinct from each other at at time symphonic. T&B was going to give this a 10 out of 10, but knocked a point off because the opening track, This Blue World, was not quite up to scratch.

T&B: 9   YL: 9   Total: 18