Friday, 12 November 2010

Two Decades On - Nothing Has Changed

Ever since the coalition government announced the removal of the cap on tuition fees which could see them increase to three times their current rate, one thought has been riding through my mind amplified by Wednesday's student demonstration. It is a thought that I have expressed on Twitter and to my colleagues at work.

Twenty years ago I went along with a few thousand other idealistic young students to march on the capital and protest a Conservative government's plans to introduce the dreaded student loan. It was a fight to protect the notion that education was a fundamental right for all and not for a privileged few. Two decades later and it seems the battle is lost as we have students demonstrating against a Conservative government's plan to allow for the significant rise in tuition fees.

If there is one interesting aspect to note about the change in the country's attitude it is that ever since the coalition government took control there has been a sense of accepted elitism. The left wing press have stated numerous times (and they are right) that David Cameron and his stalwarts simply do not understand the people they purport to represent, as evident from this quote by the so-called schools minister Nick Gibb:
"I'd rather see an Oxbridge graduate with no PGCE teaching physics than a qualified teacher with a degree from a 'rubbish university"
Furthermore it seems that this exclusionary view of the right on access to education has become a war cry for the very people that this government has in fact alienated with its highly unpopular cuts and policies. It doesn't help of course when those whom I tenuously label celebrity go on national television and push for even further exclusions such as one time  Apprentice contestant Katie Hopkins who whilst on BBC's Question Time in June called for universities to be kept private and elitist. Easy for her to say.

I remember when in 2003 the Labour government  brought in top up loans to cover tuition fees for higher education. The media at the time whipped the public into a frenzy over peoples' rights to education.Suddenly everybody was championing the plight of the struggling student who may even have to sell their virginity to escape the clutches and burdens of student debt. Now it seems that the old rhetoric of undeserving students who do nothing but engage in drug fuelled and alcohol binged debauchery, is back with a vengeance judging by the numerous hateful remarks on various forums and social network sites, even from people I know.

This negative discourse of contempt towards students is fuelled further by Cameron describing Wednesday's demonstrations as "brainless" student protests. He is even content to allow The Daily Mail and The Times to basically tar the majority of peaceful demonstrators with the same brush as the small group of neanderthals who turned the protest in a riotous free for all. It has been argued that Wednesday's riots may even weaken the case against tuition fees as any "sympathy for impoverished students will be undermined if it turns out they can afford to take time out from their studies to travel to London, attack policemen and destroy property" according to Benedict Brogan of the Telegraph.

Yes twenty years on and not only is the country back where we started in fighting for the right to education, but it seems that the movement has lost an ally. When I attended the demonstration in Hyde Park London, students had the backing of Labour (naturally) but also the fledgling third alternative, the Liberal Democrats, with support spearheaded by Simon Hughes MP.

The Lib Dems however through their leader Nick Clegg whose political life force is seeping from his battered pride, have turned their backs on the students who vehemently supported them. The Deputy PM in a head rush inducing about turn, expressed regret at signing the anti-tuition fees pledge. The virtual loss of an ally, an increasing apathetic public and a vigorously determined Conservative led government, the students battle against the tuition fees just got harder.

The Images are the property of the author and subject to copyright protection. No unauthorised use or reproduction is permitted.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Cable vs Murdoch Go to War. Surely Not?

I was surprised to read in the New Statesman that Business Secretary Vince Cable had referred the Murdoch owned News Corp's £8 billion bid for control over BSkyB to media regulators Ofcom. For a brief a moment I felt a measure of respect for a man who, along with his own party, pretty much alienated much of their voter base and showed themselves to be the treacherous power hungry turncoats we often expect politicians to be. Talk about resorting to cliches.

However as I read more and more, and thought long and hard about this decision I returned to my original thoughts (the treacherous turncoat ones) and asked why this sudden turnaround?  I can only assume it is to present an appearance of Lib Dem independence from their right wing cohorts who would happily allow Murdoch to own 50% of this country's media outlets. I shall touch briefly on why this is a bad thing shortly. Consider the Lib Dems' position in terms of popularity. Reuters reported that opinion polls gave them 33% approval rating, dropping to 23% following the election and more recently according to a YouGov poll, as low as 10% rating. The Lib Dems are, in political terms pretty much dead in the water, treading out in the open sea until they die of the cold or they are consumed by the very beast they aligned themselves with, chewed up and the remains spat out.

Bearing this in mind the Lib Dems have to, like a blowfish, puff themselves up to seem more aggressive then they really are, although they would do better to tackle an issue that more people either pay proper attention to,or care about (or even both). Still the issue of the likelihood of plurailty in the face of Murdoch's successful hostile take over of BSkyB is an important one as it represents the possibility of Murdoch's corporate message machine dominating the media outlets in this country, even possibly owning more coverage than the BBC. Those who have read my previous Murdoch efforts will know that he has opposed the licence fee, calling it "State-funded media" as if they were the UK's equivalent of Granma.

Back to why Cable is allowing Ofcom to investigate the News Corp bid, and I cannot help but feel that this move has put the media regulators in a difficult position. It's no secret that Murdoch's backing of the Conservative Party was a quid pro quo excercise. He backs David Cameron and the Conservative's during the election campaign and they in turn scrap Ofcom, in particular the rules that currently prevent Murdoch from setting up the UK's equivalent to Fox News. Imagine that, a British version of Glen Beck polluting our screens Amongst the list of quangos published by the Chancellor's office from 21st October 2010, Ofcom were listed as one that would be greatly affected. Should Ofcom tread carefully for fear that they might see their future quickly dissipate? Cable is trying to puff up his stomach to show that his party are still independent or draw fire away fromt he very unpopular cuts that he and the Lib Dems have helped implement buy causing a stir for Cameron's media buddy. Could Cable have deliberately put Ofcom in between the devil and the deep blue sea on purpose?

Of course this is all just speculation and in fact by referring the bid to Ofcom, Cable has slapped a bullseye on his bown back to which Murdoch will surely hone his aim. It is a brave move indeed, since Murdoch's media machine are not averse to stretching the truth like an elastic band in order to smear any political opponent. It will be interesting to witness the lengths Sky News, The Sun, etc will venture to discredit Ofcom and the Monopolies Commission should the decision not stear in Murdoch's favour.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Cafe Oophaga - Bristol's Rustic Modern Coffee House

After a little stint shopping for Halloween costumes and masks at the Christmas Steps Costume and Joke shop, my partner and I made our way back to the car park in Trenchard Street via the back of the Colston Hall. Feeling a little peckish and the need for something warm to scare away the chills of a cold Saturday morning, we happened to come across the Cafe Oophaga just on the corner of Lodge and Trenchard Street. It was quiet and empty, normally two warning signs to go somewhere else. Yet there was something charming about the place, not to mention the smell of cooked bacon emanating from inside and so without hesitation we went in.

The first thing you notice when you step in is the decor. The floors may be modern laminated pine but the seating area just to the left as you enter and the breakfast bar on the right are proper wood. The warm feeling we felt as stepping in wasn't just due to the heat from the kitchen but the warm colours on the walls and the welcoming smile from the owner.

Looking up slightly to the right on a cream coloured section of the wall is a handwritten tale of the origins of the coffee bean. The modern rustic decor of the shop makes it inviting enough to whet the appetite as the eyes pour over the chalkboard menu siting high above the serving counter.

Oophaga Drinks

The place offers a typical yet inviting selection cold drinks and warm beverages and after scrolling down the chalkboard drinks list for me it had to be a large black Americano. I was sufficiently caffeine deprived to need a hit of Java nectar but not enough to brave the espresso that was on offer, so the Americano it was. At £1.90 for a large cup I would say that is excellent value. OK so the cup is nowhere near the size you would find in Starbucks, but it is about the same as Cafe Nero or Costa.

Served in a plain white thick rimmed and curvy mug around which the palm of your hand snugly fits, the coffee had a very nice mild flavour, perfectly prepared the way good coffee should be, through an espresso machine.  If you're watching the caffeine levels or prefer something more indulgent try the hot chocolate. It may seem a bit steep to pay £2.00 for a drink you can make at home but Oophaga's dreamy beverage features quality drinking chocolate with milk made hot by the power of steam. Tasty and indulgent, not a bad way to warm the cockles on a cold morning.

Breakfast at Oophaga

The food menu boards had just as much variety as the drinks, featuring an assortment of paninis, cold and warm sandwiches, soups, and jacket potatoes but it was still breakfast time. Luckily there was a menu just for breakfast featuring a varied selection consisting of hot porridge, egg and toast, and a smoked bacon ciabatta. Of course we both opted for the latter, a snip at £2.95 each. At first glance when presented with the finished dish the initial reaction may be "is that it?" but trust me when I say there was nothing disappointing about this posh take on a classic bacon buttie.

The ciabatta was of a decent size (almost doorstop) but had a light and fluffy feel with a hint of warmth where it had been very lightly toasted. Inside was about three to four rashers of perfectly grilled smoked back bacon, minus that horrible white stuff that can sometimes pour out of the meat during cooking. The bacon was so juicy it was absorbed into the bread amplifying the taste, and as for the bacon itself, nothing could be more perfect than the salty smoked taste setting the palate alight.

Simple Yet Nice

At the end of the day it was just coffee and a bacon sarnie but the quality of both made for an enjoyable visit to what I feel is Bristol's semi-best kept secret. The service from the owner was pleasant and he explained to me that the shop had been open since January. Despite its perceived concealed location, he felt the cafe was perfectly placed as he enjoyed respectable trade from happy audiences leaving the Colston Hall, local workers, people coming to and from the car park and more recently students.

Cafe Oophaga delivers on service and quality of the food and drink on offer. It also has a character of its own  with its combination of modern blended with rustic decor, and there is a definite sense of health and new age about the place. The writing on the window advertises food that is fresh, healthy, and catering for vegetarians, and inside there are some posters advertising meditation and yoga workshops.

The atmosphere is pleasant, with soothing chill out ambient music, and for those who take their laptops everywhere or have to be permanently plugged into their smartphones, free wifi is also available. All in all a pleasant stop over, great atmosphere and service highlighted with quality tasty food and equally pleasant hot beverages. Definitely worth a visit.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Encounters International Film Festival Kicks Off

Bristol has always been considered a nexus for pulling in from around the world creators of some of the most groundbreaking and astounding works of art, film etc closely followed by a sea of connoisseurs looking for their fix of innovative storytelling, and stunning visuals. Adding to Bristol’s cultural wealth will be the Encounters International Film Festival’s 16th annual event due to be held for six days from 16th – 21st November 2010, and featuring some of the finest filmmaking talent from all over the world. As usual the events will be held at The Arnolfini, @Bristol, Watershed, and The Cube Cinema.

The event is the largest of its kind in the UK, bringing together some of the finest movie making talents in an internationally acclaimed celebration of the art of short filmmaking and animation, submitting their work into the festivals recently re-launched and revamped competitive strands; Animated Encounters and Brief Encounters. As well as screenings of works by future Coppoloas, Scorseses and Lucas’ looking to win the much coveted awards and prizes, there an assortment of guest appearances and workshops to enthral and engage film lovers and makers alike.

The programme for the event was launched on 23rd September 2010 with a promise by its organisers to be the biggest one yet even though admissions to the individual activities and screenings are subject to the venues' capacity limits. The interest generated however could see thousands flocking to Bristol for an opportunity to participate in this incredible event, giving it even more international attention.

Festival Highlights

Highlights for Animation Encounters feature a look at the crossover of graffiti (urban or street) art with animation in a session entitled Canimation. This features an assortment of time lapse recordings of some adventurous graffiti applications. It is also rumoured that the identity of the legendary urban artist Banksy may be revealed in some as yet unseen footage. If graffiti art fails to capture your imagination then you can participate in a stop motion 3D master class or see how Irish animators are mounting up their own collection of awards in a showcase entitled Irish Beauty.

The feature that will no doubt generate the most excitement is the appearance of comedian, actor, composer, and songwriter Tim Minchin in the Desert Island Flicks segment. Fans of Minchin familiar with his poem Storm will be excited to learn that his words have been translated to film which will receive a premier screening at the festival.

Brief Encounters promises events and appearances as equally packed and enthralling as its  counterpart. If you fancy getting your hands dirty why not take part in Unravel: The Longest Hand Painted Film in Britain. Keeping in with the celebrity factor the BAFTA hosted A Brief Encounter with... features Andy Serkis whose motion capture performance as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy followed by King Kong has made him a household name although more recently he garnered critical acclaim and a BAFTA nomination for his performance as Ian Dury in the biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock &Roll. You can also listen to Irish director Ken Wardrop talking about his experiences in making the award winning His and Hers.

Let Battle Commence

The festival also  provides the battle ground for a friendly yet hard fought competition to win awards that are internationally recognised and boast respectable cash prizes as well as mentoring and other lucrative opportunities. I was privileged to meet some of the filmmakers whose work will be featured in this year’s event.

Animator William Garratt talked to me about his entry in the DepicT segment of the competition. For those unaware the gauntlet laid down before filmmakers is to produce a film with a running time of no more than 90 seconds. William’s submission is an amusing 2D animated feature entitled Le Tuff Talk in which two old misers hurl insults at one another for no other reason than mutual loathing. Having viewed this on William’s website I can honestly say the result was pleasantly unexpected and entertaining.

William is an animator who during our conversation seemed very much to champion the art of 2D animation in particular the likes of the Warner Brothers cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny and Road Runner et al, which for years has faced stiff competition with the increasing investment in CG and other digital productions. He cites Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, as well as our own Nick Park and the madcap bunch at Aardman Animation as his influences, which is evident in much of his work. A view of his other works display a range of creativity humour and resourcefulness given that like many other artists, maintains a full time job leaving his spare time devoted primarily to his family and his real work.

Hailing from Cornwall, Henry Darke however is a very different kind of filmmaker. A graduate from the London Film School he hopes to touch audiences’ emotions with Big Mouth, which has already been selected for screening at the BFI London Film Festival. It tells the story of two friends, both profoundly deaf, whose friendship is tested when one of them leaves for University, leaving the other alone and facing the harsh reality of having to stand up for himself.

Henry expressed confidence that he has created a piece (based in part on a true story) that everyone can relate to, a sort of rite of passage that nearly everybody has experienced at same stage in their lives. Henry gave me the impression in no uncertain terms of being an ambitious filmmaker, citing Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen as his influences. His aim is to make films in the same vein as these legends, with content which Henry describes as more visceral than cerebral.

Both William and Henry are perfect examples of the quality of work and passion befitting all the competitors taking part in the festival. With high levels of both, audience and juries will certainly have their work cut out for them trying to decide to whom they should bestow their most sought after awards.

Further Reading

Visit the Encounters Film Festival website for more details, and also click here to read my review of two of the entrants submitted for competition.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Jamie's Italian Milsom Place Bath - Italian Food in Ye Olde Roman Town

Whilst on a day trip to the glorious city of Bath, home of the Bath Spa and Johnny Depp amongst other things, my better half and I were intrigued at the prospect of visiting a Jamie Oliver restaurant, especially the Italian. Since we are both fans and I have managed to follow his Italian recipes churning out some truly tantalising food (not so much a testament to my cooking abilities but to the recipes themselves) it seemed inevitable that even a glimpse at the place was needed. Thanks to a lovely local lady who gave us some helpful directions (without whom we would never have found the place), we made our way to Milsom Place, a very plush and intricately laid out shopping centre thankfully devoid of any high street chains that seemed to have graced the Southgate Shopping Centre.

The first thing that strikes you when you are greeted at the entrance of Jamie's Italian is the decor which is an interesting blend of rustic wooden floor and wall panels combined with chrome and white metallic furniture. The shelves and window ledges of the building are strewn with all sorts of Jamie related memorabilia in particular of course his library of books but also that of his Italian father Gennaro Contaldo. The main level has a bar and also a Deli counter with an assortment of breads and cold meats hanging over the counter, which will no doubt have to be sampled on the next visit.

There is indoor seating available on two levels and of course there is the open rooftop for alfresco dining on a dry bright spring or summer's day making for a pleasant dining experience accompanied by views of Bath’s historic and modern buildings. However it is recommended that if you do make it to the rooftop be sure you are armed with hats and sun cream as the location is a veritable sun trap which coupled with the rays reflected off the white metallic tables  may leave one vulnerable to getting sunburned.

To Kick Things Off

Whilst there is an assortment of tempting starters there was only one that caught our eye: the Season Meat Antipasti Plank priced at £6.65 per head. This consists of a selection of prosciutto ham, salami assortment, mortodela ham, and pecorino cheese with a dollop of chilli jam sitting on top of some crispy flat bread. Accompanying the meat are some pickled green chillies, a sprinkle of fresh olives (not marinade or pickled) and two small terracotta dishes, one containing shredded fennel, carrot and red cabbage in an olive and mint dressing, and the other, two small mozzarella balls coated in herbs. All of these are presented on a long wooden board (antipasti is traditionally served on wood) resting on a tin of tomato puree on either side.There is no questioning the quality of the food or its presentation.

The meat is tasty and full of flavour although the slices are very thin so they almost seem to evaporate in your mouth. However with the accompaniments, this makes for a truly delightful start to the meal and beautifully presented. The shredded root vegetables with the oil and mint are the perfect summer appetiser, fresh and invigorating. Given the variety of items on the board there is something there for every one (and even a Vegetarian Antipasti). The price may seem a little steep given the quantity of food presented, however this is more than made up in quality, especially the meats which have a far superior taste than the plastic slabs you might find in your local supermarket.

The Main Event

Seafood lovers looking for extravagance should try the Shell Roasted Brixham Scallops. Basically you are presented with four grilled king scallops wrapped in crispy pancetta, and a crunchy fennel and lemon salad with salsa rosso crudo. With a price at £15.25 this might seem steep but this is about the same price you would expect to pay for a scallop dish in any sea food outlet. Each scallop is presented in its shell, all lying on a bed of salt presented on a white oblong dish. The scallops are tasty and packed with flavour but seem overpowered by the chilli contained within the dish, leaving nothing but heat lingering on the palate. However by disassembling the scallops from the rest of the dish, and eating the components separately this allows one to enjoy the sweetness of the scallops and the salty chilli heated pancetta without one overpowering the other. If you prefer something simple and more conventionally Italian then Jamie’s Italian Spaghetti Bolognese is the one for you.

This may seem a little simplistic and unimaginative however rest assured this Italian classic is several dimensions removed from the perceived image of the British “Spag – Bol” and you can have a small serving for £6.45 or the larger dish for £9.95. Jamie’s Bolognese consists of ground pork and beef (not mince), cooked in a herby ragu sauce with breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese and chianti wine all mixed in with a generous helping of perfectly cooked al dente spaghetti. The ragu sauce is rich and tasty. The blend of tomato and herbs with the saltiness of the parmesan and fruity undertones of the wine makes it a simply divine dish. The serving is not skimpy on the meat which is tasty and tender and of course the spaghetti pasta completes the dish. This is as authentic an Italian taste as you are likely to get outside of Italy (or a top Italian restaurant). So while your accompanying guests may mock your boring choice, the flavour will remain long after the plate is empty.

A Sweet Finish

If after all that indulgent dining you feel the irresistible call of your sweet tooth then by all means tuck into what the menu describes as “Our Special Tiramisu”. There is a distinct absence of the booze one would expect from this classic Italian dessert but it is the only disappointment as all the other flavours are there, chocolate, coffee and creamy mascarpone. Although lacking a moorish element one might expect from such a decadent dessert, it is delicious in a dreamy way and one in which you are happy to take your time devouring. The Tiramisu rounds off any meal perfectly and at £4.95 is a reasonably priced dessert. Also highly recommended are the fruity house Sorbets which come in three flavours: apple, lemon, and orange.

Again this may seem like another dull and unimaginative choice but considering it was a hot day proved to be a very wise selection. Perhaps the most disappointing of the trio was the orange simply because it lacked the strong fruit taste the other two possessed in droves. A taste of the lemon flavour and the palate is instantly awash with an ice cold sea of sharp and sweet, whilst the apple is sweet and refreshing. However when you combine the tri-colour of flavours it’s as if there is an apple orchard and citrus grove having a party in your mouth. The crisp fruity flavours combined with the ice cold not only cleanse the palate but also leave those pleasure centres of the brain well and truly satisfied, a bargain delight at only £3.95 for three scoops.

The Culinary Conclusion

The service at Jamie’s Italian is very friendly, and the waiting staff very knowledgeable about the food they serve which is to be expected. There was a notable lack of efficiency however as the wait between courses simply seemed a little too long given that the place was not overrun with customers. This would have aggravated any visitor on a strict timetable for which waiting would simply have not been an option. Yet all in all it was enjoyable with a return visit most definitely on the cards. It all made for a memorable experience with some delightful food overall and two sunburned faces.

Image Credits Really Short

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Terry Jones in Bristol at Special Python Screening

Commemorating the 35th Anniversary of the comedy classic Monty Python and The Holy Grail, by showing it on the big screen may not seem such a big deal. The fact that it was to be shown at the Arnolfini Cinema in Broad Quay, Bristol as part of the a 10 year celebration of the founding of Bristol Silents (an organisation dedicated to promote and celebrate silent cinema) may seem even less of an event.

The Arnolfini is not a popcorn and coke serving multiplex cinema and probably very few people have heard of Bristol Silents (although after this blog hopefully many more will have). What made this double celebration a wholesome trio is the introduction to the screening and a Q and A afterwards, featuring the film's co-director and veritable real life comedic python, Mr Terry Jones, hence that whiff of celebrity that graced the air on Sunday 13th June.

Holy Grail Celebrates Essence of Silent

Before delving into the great man's musings over the film he described as a "nightmare to make", a brief explanation is in order as to why Bristol Silents featured a talky in their celebration of silent cinema. Co-founder Chris Daniels explained that the film had all the virtues of a silent movie in particular its use of slapstick and visual humour which would have made it an ideal silent comedy. This seemed a tenuous inclusion of a talking picture amongst a myriad of silent features and Daniels' explanation doesn't necessarily wash, however the sentiment is there and appreciated.

Mr Jones Steps Up

The floor was thrown over to Mr Jones who strode up to the specially prepared podium, dressed all in black (jacket, open neck shirt, trousers and loafers) to a thundering applause. Considering the man is 68 years old he looked well, a little grey and filled out but healthy and bubbling with energy, which was evident when he addressed the audience. At this point I should point out that there was a sense of genuine thrill in being in the presence of this man that was felt throughout the auditorium, and must confess to having felt a little star struck myself.

Jones kicked things off by regaling the audience with on set tales of the first day of shooting. He referred to the shared directing responsibilities with fellow Python Terry Gilliam as "tag team directing" since they would take turns directing on alternate days. Apparently the first scene to be filmed was the infamous (and my personal favourite) bridge of death scene. Incidents included a leading actor shaking from a bad case of gin withdrawal resulting in Delirium Tremens (or a touch of the DTs as Jones put it), and the gears and guts of the camera falling out after filming the scene. None of this bade well when standing on the mountain side.

Such tales were met with a mixture of laughter and intrigue but not for too long as the lights dimmed, the curtains, complete with unintentional comic squeaking, opened up and the film commenced. It may seem pointless and a waste of £12 to watch a film that as a DVD graces the shelves of shops everywhere, or our plasma/LCD screens through repeated broadcasts, however there is something truly dramatic about reliving a classic on the big screen. Scenes are more poignant, and the general atmosphere cannot be recreated in the living room.

Post Screening Q and A

The lack of formality in introducing the session was a welcome relief, particularly as less than hour had been allotted for this once in a lifetime opportunity to pose questions. Which meant that after a brief chat the proverbially inquisitive door was thrown open through which the audience entered with glee. The questions asked were surprisingly varied and interesting. We learned, for example, that for Jones, The Holy Grail is by far the least of his favourite films, frequently referring to it as a nightmare.

The film was notorious for its problems in addition to the ones already stated. Problems included costume problems, especially with chain mail made from wool (only Graham Chapman donned the genuine article) and location problems. Filming permissions in the Scottish castles were withdrawn by the Scottish Department of the Environment after seeing the script and felt the team would disrespect and degrade the essence of the castles. Jones pointed to the irony of this decision with some amusement when you consider the acts of human degradation and torture previously committed within those walls. Thankfully a couple of generous benefactors who just happened to own a castle each, charged in on their virtual horses saving the day, and allowed filming to take place at their privately owned stone fortresses.

Embarrassing Moments

As an avid historian (he also hosted the BBC produced Medieval Lives in 2004) Jones wanted the film to represent the age in which it was set as accurately as possible. For authenticity Jones insisted that much of the peasant cast have their teeth blackened. However he was stunned to learn that when the Mary Rose was raised from the depths of the Portsmouth Sound in 1982, the remains of the crew were examined and found to have near perfect teeth, thereby disproving Jones' view of Medieval dentures. After much reflection he concluded that a Medieval population probably had better teeth than most people today, and that the decline in our dental health may have been brought about by the sugar trade.

Jones also talked about how the success and his experience working on the project inspired him and the team to spearhead their next project, Life of Brian. Jones talked to some extent about filming this controversial classic, particularly with regards to casting the lead, in which he championed Graham Chapman over the John Cleese. The story that came as the most surprising (and embarrassing) concerned the film's budget.

It is well known that the late Beatle George Harrison put up funds that saved the production from collapsing. Jones recalled that his only goal at the time was to finish the project regardless of its commercial success and giving no consideration to the risk undertaken by the film's investors. Ten years later Jones shared an interview chair with Harrison in which Jones learned he had in fact put up his house as collateral against the sum loaned to Python, hence feelings of guilt washed over him. Luckily of course that film was a huge success and Harrison went on to form Handmade Films the company behind such classics as Time Bandits and Bob Hoskins starrer Mona Lisa to name a few.

Happy in Reflection

Jones had felt that he balanced the dual roles of actor and director effortlessly since he did not consider himself a serious actor but just a comic who uttered his lines in a silly voice before heading back behind the camera.  The shooting had been a nightmare experience for the novice director and it didn't necessarily end there. Post production work also proved tiring as did test screenings in which the overlain soundtrack and music score made the film unpopular, resulting in a return trip to the editing suite.

Despite having moved on to different projects, Jones maintains that Python is still very much a part of his life, as the team collectively own the rights to much of their own work, in particular the Flying Circus television show currently enjoying syndicated repeats and respectable DVD sales. "It is still very much a business" said Jones and in order to maintain the business all the Python team maintain regular and sometime hearty contact, even with John Cleese residing in sunny California.

All said and done however, Jones expressed renewed appreciation whenever he viewed the finished Monty Python and The Holy Grail with an audience. Their laughter and general enjoyment of the film, for Jones made it all worthwhile, and his appreciation seemed to be even greater with an audience still laughing heartily at the on screen antics 35 years later. As a member of the audience I felt the combination of an enjoyable comedic romp through Arthurian England (or Albion) and the genuine thrill of sitting a mere 20 feet away from one of the Python team made for a sensational evening, a £12 ticket price happily parted with.

Big thank you to the Arnolfini for staging this amazing event.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Otto Zitko and Louise Bourgeois –The Ultimate Duo of Abstract

If the purpose of abstract art is to create a composition that exists with a degree of independence from visual references in the world, then Viennese king of abstract Otto Zitko, has achieved that in droves.

His work is unique and epitomises the very essence of abstract in that they principally consist of lines travelling in all directions be it horizontal, vertical or circular and of varied density, seemingly in a random pattern. The truly unique feature however is that the canvas is the walls and ceilings of the buildings in which his work is housed. Bristol’s very own Arnolfini down on Narrow Quay is the latest to have Gallery 1 as well as its halls decked with the great man’s free handed improvised visual scribbles.

                                    Otto Zitko Gets Abstract at The Arnolfini
It is however more than just a few randomly scrawled lines up and down walls. They form part of an exhibition entitled “Me Myself and I” an exploration of the individual’s relations to the world testing the boundaries of our psyche. In contrast, there is also a display of work by the late Louise Bourgeois, who through her own abstract style explored the deeply complicated nature of personal relationships.

Lines and Boundaries – Otto Zitko

Staring intently at the stand white canvas with a random scribbling of blue and black lines I did question myself “What is it I am supposed to see?” The more intensely I gazed however I soon realised that there was more to this than just random lines. The varied shade and thickness of the lines are drawn in such a way that it brings the stark white of the canvas they are composed on, to the fore. This effect can be further felt as you follow his work through the halls and stairways of the building.

As your eye gently follows the lines, you might find yourself mentally untangling them like you would your Christmas lights that have been languishing in storage. It is human nature to unravel things that are seemingly tangled in amongst which an image formulates. In this regard Zitko has succeeded, as I found myself not just viewing his work but interacting with it. Even from a purely aesthetic view, the vibrant blue against the stark white is pleasing to the eye, and adds real decorative character to the building. I am still unsure as to how this defines my relationship with the world.

Complex Relations – Louise Bourgeois

This half of the exhibition is made up of sixty drawings entitled Je T’Aime and focuses on the centrality of relationships and what it is to be human. It is difficult to detail the specifics of these works without giving away the exhibition’s content. There is however one piece featured, a drawing from 1946 which depicts one person being consumed by a much larger person. The plethora of metaphors on the nature of relationships can be quite staggering and there is much to be sought from this work alone.

The other sixty pieces seem to follow the path of human relations, but whether this is a chronological journey leading to an inevitable end, or a multitude of possible outcomes, I guess is down to the viewer. Je T’Aime is quintessential Abstract in how it manages to challenge perceptions.

Me Myself and I will be on show at the Arnolfini until Sunday 4th July.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Four Dead in Ohio – Forty Years On

What started out as a student protest turned into the infamous Kent State Massacre on 4th May 1970. The protest actually proceeded then US President Richard “I am not a crook” Nixon confirming the incursion into Cambodia by American armed forces. This was the straw that broke the camel's back with the raging war in Vietnam having already killed hundreds of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Vietnamese men, women and children not to mention countless numbers of serious injuries resulting from Napalm Bombings and the spread of Agent Orange throughout various settlements. At the height of the war, which by now had also spread to Laos, mass demonstrations took place all over America especially on numerous university campuses

Enemies Foreign and Domestic

The protests at the Kent State University in Ohio began the day after Nixon’s announcement with over 500 students attending a rally on their campus. The protests were relatively peaceful during the day but erupted into a mini – riot at around midnight resulting in some buildings and vehicles set ablaze. On the request of Kent’s Mayor Leroy Satrom, Ohio States Governor James Rhodes dispatched the State National Guard to maintain order.

The next day, during a press conference, Governor Rhodes declared that the protestors were group of un-American revolutionaries determined to disrupt the education system of Ohio. He declared them as worse than Nazis (quite ironic) or Communists, describing them as the strongest most well trained revolutionary group ever assembled in the US. After his over the top ranting in which he was heard pounding his fists on the podium, Governor Rhodes barked his intention to obtain a court order declaring a state of emergency in Ohio, banning further demonstrations and gatherings of student groups. Despite this however, another campus rally was held on the evening of May 3rd, in protest of the Governor's actions. The National Guard announced that a curfew was in effect and forced the students back to their dormitories. Some of the students reported injuries resulting from having been bayoneted by some of the guards.

That Fateful Day

On Monday, May 4, a protest was scheduled for 12 noon, which University officials attempted to prevent by handing out leaflets announcing it had been cancelled. However, an estimated 2,000 people gathered on the university's Commons near Taylor Hall. The campus' iron Victory Bell (used to signal victories in football games) was rung to mark the beginning of the rally, and the first protester addressed the crowd. The National Guard moved toward the crowd first reading an order to disperse or face arrest. The protesters responded by throwing rocks, at the oncoming onslaught. Some guardsmen and campus patrolmen were struck but not seriously injured.

Tear gas was thrown at the students however due to the direction of the wind, the gas had little effect. Students began throwing rocks as well as the tear gas canisters originally intended for them. With Bayonets fixed, a group of guardsmen advanced upon the protesters who retreated up and over Blanket Hill. The groups of protesters then scattered with the guardsmen in pursuit. Shots were fired by one of the guardsmen with a .45 pistol into a crowd of students. A group of guardsmen followed suit and fired their rifles into the crowd. The shots lasted 13 seconds and a total number of 67 bullets were discharged.

The shootings resulted in the killing of four students Allison Krause and Jeffrey Miller, protesters fleeing the guardsmen, and Sandra Scheuer and William Knox Schroeder who were en route to their next class. The guardsmen all claimed they were responding to sniper fire but this was never proven, and many guards testified that they feared for their lives. It remains one of America’s darkest days, and despite numerous hearings and testimonies, there have been no arrests made, charges filed, nor any convictions.

The Downward Slide

The shootings were reported in every newspaper and television station around the country, igniting a national student strike that forced the closure of many universities and colleges. It was also speculated by many (including Nixon’s top aide H.R. Haldeman) that the Ohio shootings marked a downward slide that led to the fall of the Nixon Administration, sealed by Watergate. Many writings continued the speculation on how such a senseless and unnecessary event occurred. The shootings were also the subject of a protest song by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young entitled Four Dead in Ohio. To this day the shootings are still being investigated.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Remembering The Poll Tax Riots

On March 31st 1990 over 100,000 people converged on the nation's capital to deliver a message to their government, a message of discontent over the imposition of the Poll Tax. What started out as one of the biggest rallies the city had seen since the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) marches of the early eighties, escalated into violence. By the time it was over London bore some resemblance to war torn cities like Beirut with burned out buildings and overturned cars bearing the scorch marks of raging fires and explosions. The number of those detained and charged with Public Order offences were so many it took days to process them.

I was there in the middle of the carnage, having travelled by coach with friends and other students, not only as a young idealist adding my voice of dissent to thousands of others but also to report for the student magazine BACUS. Armed with my father's Cannon 35mm camera together with a full set of lenses, fresh batteries in the speed winder and my Dictaphone with an endless supply of tapes, I wanted to capture the events as they unfolded. I never had an inkling that I was to get a much bigger story than first anticipated. The march had started peacefully enough from Kennington Park and unlike previous demonstrations I had attended, consisted of a more diverse cross section of people aside from the student crowd I had grown accustomed to. Families had come far and wide, with kids and prams in tow (which in hindsight must have seemed ill conceived) along with union groups, and even pensioners (see picture above left).

There were delays as so many people had converged in one area the police took steps to prevent a potential stampede. Aside from some minor disturbances and a sit down protest near Downing Street, the march continued towards Trafalgar Square. Along the way I noticed police on horseback waiting in the wings and it was then I realised that this was going to be unlike any demonstration I had ever attended. Approximately half of the total procession of demonstrators were able to converge into Trafalgar Square to hear speeches from members of the Anti-Poll Tax Federation, and politicians speak out against the tax and promise big changes to prevent its implementation.

When the posturing and speeches had finished the procession was to retread its steps back towards Kennington Park where their carrages home awaited. That was when the trouble started. Even I was not sure how, but I do recall it started with the sound of smashing glass hitting the road followed by agonising screams. My friend, Gregg and I felt the whoosh of objects brushing over our heads followed by a loud crash behind. It wasn't until the horses came charging did we then push past other fleeing (and some fighting) protesters onto the pavement to watch the unfolding carnage. As Gregg provided unfolding commentary of the events into the Dictaphone, I ran back into the crowd, camera in hand and began taking photographs, even stopping to change film midway and just missed getting caught up in a charge by a group of youths towards the police who were able to hold their line against the ensuing chargers. I zig zagged in and out of different tussling and scrapping groups, trying to avoid getting bludgeoned or arrested, taking a dozen or so more photos before retreating back to where Gregg had been standing, in supposed safety.

We continued watching the violence escalate, when Gregg suddenly yelped, seemingly in agony. A flying piece of wood had caught him on the back of his head sending him reeling. I asked him if he was okay and should we rendezvous with our coach. Gregg, a real trooper wanted to carry on reporting and continued his commentary into the Dictaphone. He began pointing towards another scuffle thinking I might have want to take more pictures and just checked the back of his head where he had been hit. Gregg drew his hand back and we both looked on in horror as it was covered in blood. No time for arguments we headed into the crowd towards a station of waiting ambulances. The flood of bottles, broken bits of wood and other unidentifiable missiles continued flying past our heads. In the distant we heard an explosion. At this point fear jumped in and I was convinced we were either going to get beaten up or arrested but thankfully we made it through.

Luckily the leader of our travelling party, Andy had the foresight ( and courage) to come and find us. Gregg was taken to hospital accompanied by Andy who brought him home by train later that evening. By then the police had everything under control and the crowds were dispersed. People, began moving away from the trouble sites and I began the long walk back to my coach and informed our party of the whereabouts of Gregg and Andy.

On the journey home, as others slept or stared fleetingly out the window, I began looking back at the day's events trying to make some sense of why something that started out so positive ended in violence. Then under the dim glow of the coach's overhead light I began penning my article which BACUS published along with my two photographs featured above. To this day it remains my biggest most important piece.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Artistic Oppression Alive and Well in Zimbabwe

I am sick of so – called artists, particularly Tracey Emin who drone on about how their “art” isn’t appreciated in this country. Ms Emin has often repeatedly threatened to leave UK shores for France where she feels her artistic merit would be far more valued. Apparently British people do not appreciate the statement she has made with classics such as “My Bed” or “Everyone I have Ever Slept With 1963-1995”. Ms Emin should really consider the situation of the recent arrest of Zimbabwean artist Owen Maseko and Voti Thebe, manager of the Bulawayo National Arts Gallery on three charges under the Public Order and Security Act (POSA).

The gallery had just opened an exhibition marking the 27th anniversary of the masscare of the Ndbele people by Robert Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade.Click on this link for further information and view his visually provocative and stunning work, to see what all the fuss is about.

Mr Maseko has been considered a “person of interest” by the Mugabe Government for quite some time, due to the controversial nature of his past work. He must have known that he would face some sort of backlash from the authorities and those who actually take the time to follow the news are no doubt aware of how brutally and unashamedly Mugabe deals with individuals who so much as even throw him the slightest critical glance. I have no doubt that Mr Thebe also considered the possibility of catching the president’s maniacal gaze and end up residing inside a prison cell within a day of the exhibition opening. Yet the exhibition went ahead in the face of this threat.

When pondering the notion of what is art, the likes of Owen Moseko, and even Banksy who risk more than just a reputation in the pursuit of true unleashed self-expression and political statements should be the first names to leap into our minds and pass our lips. Let Ms Emin swan off to another country where should she be better appreciated then the best of luck to her.

Lets not forget however that in these so-called modern civilised times artists in some nations are being censured, imprisoned, and even murdered for daring to speak out through their form.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Make This A Better Ride

Anybody who will remember the late great Bill Hicks will recall that not only was he a very controverisal and funny comedian but was a philosopher and social commentator. In his tour entitled "Revelations" Hicks, answers the question "What is the Point to Life?". Click on the link below for his answer and oddly enough it make sense. The world we live in whilst seemingly very real is in fact an illusion, but really he is not talking about the actual physicallity of existence but about the conceptual world we live in.

Confused yet? Basically we have been fed an assortment of confusing messages from the moment we emerged from the womb and learned to communicate. Human beings can affect change (and if you don't believe that just look at some of the greater aspects of our history) and make this world better than what it is at the moment. Yet the message from others blur our ability to see this. Many of the powers that be have too much invested in the way the world is today, rife with poverty and fractured by political, territorial, and religious divisions, dependent on commerce, which have been the cause of much violence in the word.

This is not a history lesson folks but a musing which has resurfaced in the dark recesses of my so called mind after the Haiti disaster, and Hicks' parting words in the clip below echo louder than ever. I think about this particularly when I hear and read on the news about Simon Cowell's plans to release a single to raise money for the earthquake victims or George Clooney gathering the rockstars of the world for a Live Aid style concert for the same purpose. All this is comendable as it gives ordinary people an alternative means to make a donation which put together would actually amount to seriously life changing sums of money. Yet I can't seem to shake Bill Hicks's words and it has led me to a variation on his thought:

"If every individual throughout the world who is a multi-million pound earner whether they be entertainers, entrepreneurs, or even old money noblemen/women, just put 5% of their net worth into a pot they could feed, cloathe and educate the poor of the world, without leaving a single human being out many times over".

Forbes magazine reported that there are over 700 billionaires in the world at present (although this figure is purported to have decreased by 23% due to the recession) - Imagine 700 donations of 5% of one billion pounds, earmarked for people in Haiti, or the victims of the Tsunami, drought and starvation in Africa and Asia and the list goes on. How much better would that ride now be for those people today thanks to those measly donations?

I could get trantirc here (you know go on and on and on and on...................) but it illustrates what Bill Hicks meant when referred to those who have too much invested in the ride. So much power is in the hands of so few to change this world and make it a better ride. Still the Cowell stable single, Clooney's concert and charitable organisations put some power in our hands, yes us ordinary folks, to have a positive influence on people's lives and whenever we are presented with that opportunity we should grab it with both hands. Why? Because one day the ride for us will become all too real and not so much fun so we will need someone to help us back on track.