Culture Corner: Episode Five

Welcome to the fifth instalment in our new series, Culture Corner, sharing ideas for cultural activities during these challenging times; from great reads to gripping TV, binge-worthy boxed-sets to stream and ideas for listening (from music you might know to music you might not and some Slow Radio), aiming to keep you engaged, entertained and maybe even amused whether you’re isolating, in lockdown, or looking for ways to keep occupied.

Front cover depicting a large, creepy=looking mansion seen through a wrought-iron gate
Time for something entrancing…

Recent Reads: for admirers of Mervyn Peake’s timeless Gormenghast trilogy, a similar spirit haunts the pages of The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times, Xan Brooks’ debut dreamlike novel, published in 2017. It’s not a charming tale, perhaps – one of the threads running through it is definitely not that at all… – but it’s wonderfully atmospheric, and its mythical, at times surreal, depiction of an England just emerging from the First World War is evocatively drawn, with a cast of memorable characters as quirky, vicious and eccentric as Peake’s enduring panoply of creations.

Winning Watchables: we can all, I’m sure, identify with Zoom fatigue and the tiring nature of communicating via screens; this sense is distilled to wonderful perfection in Staged, the second series of which came to iPlayer recently (the first series is also available on Netflix). Charting the highs and (mostly) lows of two actors trying to rehearse over Zoom, under a hapless director, David Tennant and Michael Sheen (or should that be Michael Sheen and David Tennant ?) bicker, argue, reconcile, shout, plot, play games, laugh and generally do everything but rehearse online, aided by their long-suffering (real-life) partners. The first series, which aired last year, was both inspired by and created during lockdown, and brilliantly reflects the mood-swings to which we’re all accustomed by now; one of the few great things to come out of the current crisis, Staged captures the zeitgeist and holds it up for us to recognise ourselves, our situation and the fact that we’re not alone in what we’re experiencing and how we’re coping…

Available to watch on iPlayer here.

Our new Lockdown Listening is the fiercely creative Time is of the Essence by the late, great saxophonist, Michael Brecker. Backed by a band of musical luminaries including Pat Metheny, Elvin Jones and Bill Stewart, amongst others, and released on the cusp of the Millennium in 1999, it ranges from the punchy syncopation of ‘Sound Off’ to the ambling ‘Timeline,’ the lyrical melancholy of ‘As I Am’ and the busy agility of ‘Dr Slate.’ Featuring Brecker’s inimitable improvisatory style matched by Metheney’s trademark guitar sound, there’s much to relish about this perhaps slightly under-rated album. Listen to how ‘Renaissance Man’ ticks in, already eager with barely-suppressed energy, before the band kicks into an unstoppable groove.

Visionary post-war England; bickering over Zoom; unstoppable jazz grooves; hope you’ve found something new this week…

Culture Corner: Episode Four

Welcome to the fourth instalment in our new series, Culture Corner, sharing ideas for cultural activities during these challenging times; from great reads to gripping TV, binge-worthy boxed-sets to stream and ideas for listening (from music you might know to music you might not and some Slow Radio), aiming to keep you engaged, entertained and maybe even amused whether you’re isolating, in lockdown, or looking for ways to keep occupied.

Front cover depicting a large, creepy=looking mansion seen through a wrought-iron gate
This might cast a spell over you…

Recent Reads: a thumping good read for fans of the epic fantasy genre, Peter Brett’s The Painted Man is the first in a mighty sequence of novels charting the rise of one man from humble villager to be a being of awesome power in mankind’s battle against demonkind. If you enjoy the usual tropes of the genre, you’ll find them all here in this eminently-readable series, in which, each nightfall, demons rise from the earth to plague humanity, and Arlen Bales discovers a lost means of combating this enduring threat.

Winning Watchables: there’s a lovely, gentle atmosphere to Winter Walks, a series of rambles through scenic routes in Yorkshire and Cumbria by well-known faces including Reverend Richard Coles, Selina Scott, Lemn Sissay and Simon Armitage. Armed with only a self-operated selfie-stick and a determination to explore, each episode takes the viewer on a walk through some epic landscapes, accompanied by the presenter’s amiable monologue along the way. Simon Armitage’s walk from Ravenscar to Robin Hood’s Bay is an especial treat, with dramatic coastal views, crumbling cliffs, and jigsaw-puzzle views of the hotch-potch jumble of the town of Robin Hood’s Bay winding and clinging its way down the cliffside. Available to watch on iPlayer here.

Our new Lockdown Listening recommendation is something slightly different, and a welcome respite from the hectic demands of our current lives. The Slow Radio series on BBC Radio 3 offers an opportunity to escape into a variety of sonic landscapes, and the Sounds of the Earth selections gives us the chance to listen to birdsong, rivers and streams and other sounds of the natural world – all without leaving the comfort of your home. Wildlife sound recorder Chris Watson’s recordings capture the seasons, different landscapes and more in a wonderful treasure-trove for the ears. Explore the archive online here.

Epic fantasy; scenic rambles; sounds of the natural world; hope you’ve found something new this week…

Culture Corner: Episode Three

Welcome to the third in our new series, Culture Corner, sharing ideas for cultural activities during these challenging times; from great reads to gripping TV, binge-worthy boxed-sets to stream and ideas for listening (from music you might know to music you might not and some Slow Radio), aiming to keep you engaged, entertained and maybe even amused whether you’re isolating, in lockdown, or looking for ways to keep occupied.

Front cover depicting a large, creepy=looking mansion seen through a wrought-iron gate
All good clean fun until someone loses an eye…

Recent Reads: for a dark, modern take on the campus novel, or even just a noirish thriller, Black Chalk offers a fascinating tale of what happens when a game gets out of control and the impact on friendship. As the book unfolds, what initially began as a game of ‘dare’ between six university friends spirals gradually out of control as the forfeits become progressively more harsh; told in flashback, the novel builds inexorably towards the conclusion as, fourteen years later, the two remaining players must meet to bring the grim game to a conclusion. Gripping and well-constructed, open the book and join the game for yourself…

Winning Watchables: for some neat bubble-gum crime watching, Criminal Minds on Amazon Prime is highly watchable. Each episode covers the solving of a case by Jason Gideon and his team of FBI agents, who use behavioural profiling techniques to capture criminals. The team’s unusual technique of building a profile based on the criminal’s psychology and predicted behaviour is usually met with bucketloads of contempt by local law enforcement, which is then won over at the denouement when Gideon’s methods prove successful. Not half as macabre as Hannibal, there’s always a sense of satisfaction as each episode nearly wraps up another baffling serial spree…

Our third Lockdown Listening recommendation steps into the strange, hypnotic, cinematic, sometimes otherworldy, sometimes meditative world of the American composer/performer Meredith Monk; one of the major figures on the American compositional landscape since the 1960s, Monk has been fiercely creative as a composer, singer, choreographer, filmmaker, writing music that sometimes defies neat categorisation. Her album Impermanence from 2008 moves from the opening fragility of Last Song through the vocal tapestries of Passage and the quirky, hopping Particular Dance. Start with that track and see what you think…

Meredith Monk: Impermanence

Chilling games, satisfying crime-solving, unclassifiable music; happy New Year, stay tuned for the next in the series; hope you’ve found something new.

Culture Corner: Episode Two

Welcome to a wintry second episode of our new feature, Culture Corner, sharing ideas for cultural activities during these challenging times; from great reads to gripping TV, binge-worthy boxed-sets to stream and ideas for listening (from music you might know to music you might not and some Slow Radio), aiming to keep you engaged, entertained and maybe even amused whether you’re isolating, in lockdown, or simply looking for ways to keep occupied.

Front cover depicting a large, creepy=looking mansion seen through a wrought-iron gate
The Mist in the Mirror: dare you take a look…

Recent Reads: winter is a great time to read a ghost story or two; when the nights are dark and cold and the past seems to rise to the surface and be within touching-distance, somehow a ghost story fits the season – perhaps as an antidote to all the jollity and over-indulgence of Christmas… Two short novellas by Susan Hill, The Mist in the Mirror and The Man in the Picture fit perfectly into winter-night reading, written by the author of The Woman in Black. Hill’s stories sit firmly within the tradition of the great MR James, suitably atmospheric and told at one remove to create a sense of I-heard-it-from-someone-who-heard-it-from. She writes evocatively – fog-shrouded Gothic houses, menacing Viennese carnival – although, for me, there was something slightly underwhelming about the ending to each story, a sort of ‘Wait, was that IT ?’ that left me somewhat confused, as though I’d misread them. But that might just be me; and the atmosphere permeating each book is worth the read alone.

Top TV: not for Dickens purists, and even though Christmas is over (or if you don’t want to let it go quite yet…), take a walk through the dark Victorian streets of the 2019 BBC three-part adaptation of another ghost story, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Made by the creator of Peaky Blinders (which may or may not put you off…), it’s a darkly fascinating take on the classic seasonal tale starring Guy Pearce as the curmudgeonly Scrooge, and includes Andy Serkis as a truly menacing Ghost of Christmas Past. There’s a lot of back-story building explaining how Scrooge and Marley made their fortune at the expense of others, and an interesting shift where (without giving too much away), women have a critical, more powerful role than in the book; but there are some fabulous conceits, and the image of a terrifying Ghost of Christmas Part burning all the Christmas trees, decorations and toys of previous years in a huge bonfire in a a desolate, wintry landscape is magical. Not for those who prefer faithful adaptations of Dickens’ masterpiece, but for an engaging re-imagining, this is worth watching – on iPlayer for the next few weeks.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/m000csdp/a-christmas-carol

Our second Lockdown Listening recommendation is a late period Chet Baker album, No Problem, a mellow, relaxed, middle-of-the-road disc featuring the great Danish bassist, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, with all the tracks written by pianist Duke Jordan.

Admittedly, the album doesn’t push any boundaries or take any great risks – it’s more of a ‘comfortable’ listen, with all the players well inside their comfort-zones. Chet is by now over his brash, vigorous post-bop days – perhaps he never really recovered after his teeth were knocked out in a brawl in the mid-60s – and is into the last stage of his career (he would die nine years later, in 1988.) The opening track mixes Latin and swing; Sultry Eve is a gentle ballad, Chet blowing in a fragile state through a harmon mute; Glad I Met Pat is a graceful jazz waltz; The Fuzz is a gentle nod to the post-Bop era; and the final track features Chet’s inimtable, love-it-or-hate-it scat singing. If you’re looking for a jazz album that’s a classic masterpiece, you won’t find it here; but if you are looking for a comfortable, easy listen, you can’t go far wrong with this one.

No problem listening to this one…

Wintry words, a chilling retake on a classic tale, relaxed swing; happy New Year, stay tuned for the next in the series; hope you’ve found something new.

Culture Corner: Episode One

Welcome to the first episode of our new feature, Culture Corner, sharing ideas for cultural activities during these challenging times; from great reads to gripping TV, binge-worthy boxed-sets to stream and ideas for listening (from music you might know to music you might not and some Slow Radio), hopefully there’ll be something for everyone as the series unfolds, to keep you engaged, entertained and maybe even amused whether you’re isolating, in lockdown, or looking for ways to keep occupied.

The City of Mirrors bring the trilogy to an enthralling conclusion

Recent Reads: maybe a little too close to the mark at the moment, but for a riveting post-apocalyptic read, Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy is an enthralling , sweeping sequence charting the story of a virus accidentally unleashed across the world (sounds familiar at the moment!), and one man’s desperate bid to find a cure as the world is overrun by vampires. Unfolding across three sprawling novels, the secret heart of the whole sequence unfurls in the third book, The City of Mirrors, with a love-story reminiscent of the campus-drenched setting of Brideshead Revisited.

Top TV: if apocalyptic vampire tales aren’t for you, try the festive mirth of the Goes Wrong Show; the series following the accident-ridden mock amateur theatrical productions has been a big hit, and all seven episodes are currently available on iPlayer. Last Christmas’ The Spirit of Christmas, including a drunken Santa, an elf stuck in a chimney and a snowman almost engulfed by a present-making machine, is still there to watch, and this season’s disaster-laden retelling of The Nativity is also jolly entertaining. All available here:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/m000csgs/the-goes-wrong-show

If you still have room for festive cheer, our Lockdown Listening recommendation evokes the spirit of the Golden Age of Big Bands with the swinging jollity of Jamie Cullum’s The Pianoman at Christmas. In the spirit of the Good Old Days of big band swing and the classic crooning of Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin, Cullum’s seasonal offering ranges from the bold swagger of So Many Santas and Hang Your Lights to the surprisingly intimate title-track and How Do You Fly. If you’re looking for a suitably seasonal album to play as the soundtrack to your stay-at-home New Year’s Eve party tonight, this might just be the thing…

Jamie Cullum: The Pianoman at Christmas

And if you haven’t found something this time, don’t worry, tune in for the second episode coming soon for non-seasonal suggestions. Stay safe and well…

The smell of a Whitstable summer: The Whitstable Pearl Mystery by Julie Wassmer

Julie Wassmer’s big-hearted crime novel, The Whitstable Pearl Mystery, reads like a love-letter to the seaside town of Whitstable, infused as it it with deft touches of local colour that can only be painted by someone who knows the area intimately. The very sea-air permeates the novel, bestrewn with vivid depictions of seaside beach-huts, thronging Oyster Festival hordes, and an empathy with the rise and fall of the tide, that breathes in time with the town itself.

Anyone looking for the gritty melodrama of Wassmer’s time as a screenwriter for EastEnders might be disappointed, for this novel is infinitely warmer, more generously-spirited than the television series. If the novel has any flaw, it’s that it perhaps relies so much on attention to geographical detail to give it sense of place, with roads, streets, shops, landmarks, dropped so often that it starts to feel as though the exactitude of the local geography is something of a crusade for verisimilitude. But perhaps this is only evident to those who know the terrain, and it is a meagre thing when measured against the vividness with which local colour is evoked.

The gentle denouement works well, and draws to a close with a pleasing knotting-up of loose ends. There are nods to Seasalter’s people-smuggling past (a key factor also in James McGee’s period thriller, Rapscallion, too), the history of the Red Sands Forts, and plenty of tourist-thronging scenes to ground the novel in a firm sense of the region’s history and its bustling present. Read the novel and inhale the warm breeze of a Whitstable summer.