Out Of Place, Out Of Time: Snippets And Reviews. September 2010

I have been pondering what to put up on my website for the next installment, thinking that I did not have much to say. I was wrong, with the reviews, this turns out not to be the case, although it will, perhaps, be a bit disjointed.

I went to the ‘last ever’ gathering of the Durban folk club on Saturday, held at the Center for Contemporary Jazz at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The audience was almost entirely white, elderly, and hairy (both the men and the women, but in different ways), with some impressive beer bellies. The music was mixed, good and bad sets. A folk club of this type really does seem out of place in tropical Durban. On the other hand, I admire people so taken with an area of interest that they gather to share it with similar and likeminded souls. I have noticed this in all the things I have dabbled in over the past five years: from flying to ballroom dancing to surfing. Each has their own set of aficionados, who are ardent in the extreme. Perhaps this is what it means to be social, find an area and get totally involved. Perhaps this is why people are lonely, because they have not found their niche and without one it is hard to link.

I went onto the little veranda outside, the Jazz Center, the place where people go to smoke. Looking inland there was a crescent new moon, with the star Venus shining brightly below. The juxtaposition was, of course, the sign of the Muslim festival of Eid, but I have never seen it so clearly. We had just had rain in Durban, as a cold front swept up from the Cape, and this washed the dust and pollution out of the atmosphere. It sparkled.

Rowan is working part time at Waterstone’s bookshop in Norwich. She was pleased to get the position as it puts her in proximity to books.

She sent me a text to say, “I sold someone your book today!”.

She then followed up with a second text: “he chose it all own :-) you should be pleased. XXX”.

I guess it closes a circle. To have your daughter working in a bookshop selling books that you have written is a good feeling. I just wish I could write the best seller, preferably fiction.

When I started this website it was to let people know what I was doing and thinking. I also hoped it would be a way of keeping in touch with friends: they know where to find my thoughts, pictures, and schedule. Of course Facebook and other social networking sites also do this. The advantage of the website is one can put longer items here.

Indeed, as it is my site, I can do what I want with it. On this theme I was looking through my desk the other day and came across two poems I wrote some years ago. One has been aired in public, the other has not. I am going to put the first on the site.

I need to give some of the back story. We, (Tony Barnett and I), were running a training workshop in Durban and ran out of things to do, as sometimes happens. This requires quick thinking and it usually points to the participants being asked to do group work, a chance for the facilitator to gather their thoughts. As I recollect, we asked them to put on a short play or skit, to illustrate something they had learnt. One group acted out a poignant little story; a man and woman, sick unto death in two different countries. The poem tries to convey the scene.


Their eyes meet across the crowded hall
He winks, she smiles
That night, beer fueled, again the fall,
Sweaty bodies, fevered love

Later asked, “Were condoms your defense?”
She simpers, he grins.
“No need, this was our fourth conference.”
Sexy bodies, alive in sin.

Eight years later, miles apart
He groans, she writhes
Sickness, pain and still the heart
Sweaty bodies, fevers grip.


Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage By Elizabeth Gilbert 285 pp. Viking, New York January 2010.

A few years ago the book ‘Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia’, was a publishing sensation. The author, Elizabeth Gilbert, documented the collapse of her unhappy marriage, and described her year in search of herself and of ‘meaning’. This included time in Italy learning about good food; months of prayer and meditation in India; and ended with a sojourn in Bali, where she fell in love. Published in 2006, it was an instant hit.

‘Committed’, tells the story of what happened afterwards. She and her boyfriend/lover move to the USA and set up home together. He, Brazilian by birth, but with an Australian passport, travelled in and out of the United States on three month visitor’s visas. Eventually he was denied entry by the Department of Homeland Security. The officer who did this suggested that the best way forward, indeed the only way, if they wished to live in the USA, was to get married.

As Gilbert says she was really skeptical of getting married. This book tracks her progress towards accepting that being married is okay! In it she looks at marriage through the centuries, what it means to women, and how it fits in with broader society. It also tells the story of wandering around South East Asia while unable to return to the US, and waiting for the paperwork to allow them to get married.

This is an honest account of building a relationship, and what it means for these individuals and for society. It is not a comfortable book; it vacillates between being a travelogue, biography, and historical/sociological assessment of marriage and its meanings. It is, however, well written, thought provoking and worth reading. I think it is a better book than ‘Eat, Love, Pray’. It won’t be as popular, but is a truer account.

Weekend by William McIlvanney, Hodder & Stoughton, 2006 260 pages London.

I generally review books I have enjoyed and that I can recommend. This is the exception. Douglas and I went to the library as there is a new series of Sherlock Holmes on television, and he was eager to get copies of books by Conan Doyle. I looked for something to read and came across this. The quote on the front cover, from the Daily Telegraph, says: “The finest Scottish writer of our time”.

The story is of a group of students and lecturers who go to a Scottish island for a literature study weekend. They all bring personal and psychological baggage. The author describes what goes on before they arrive; the events during their stay; and some of the consequences. It is a plot line that has great promise. I found it far too complicated, with too many characters and over written. Among the plots was one of interest: the tale of a writer who ‘showed great promise in his early years’. He walks out of the flat to travel to the event, carrying three unopened letters. About halfway through weekend he finally opens them. All three are rejections of his work. I may look for other books by this author, but am not enthusiastic.

The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty, Time Warner, London 2005 406 pages.

This book was a complete surprise. I would have expected it to have found it on the stands in airports and railway stations. It is exactly the sort of well-written book that should take the market by storm. It was published in 2005, so unless the author writes a new book that hits the bestseller list, I fear it will remain a little-known story. It deserves better.

The central character in ‘Memory of Running’, Smithson Ide is 43, overweight, living alone, working in a dead-end job, and drinking too much. His sister, Bethany, suffered from mental illness, a type of schizophrenia and disappeared some 20 years before. The story begins when his mother and father are killed in a motor accident. He is going through his father’s mail and it includes a letter informing the parents that his sister’s body has been identified and is in a mortuary in California.

He gets on his bicycle and cycles across America to bury his sister. In the course of this journey he loses weight, gains respect, and makes a connection with Norma, a woman in a wheelchair, who lives next to his parents. It is a touching story of a quest for meaning and for one’s self; believable and well-written. I am surprised that it is not a better known novel and would recommend it. There are some issues with the book, the alternating chapters between the present and the past do not always work. Smithson is depicted sympathetically, but comes across as risk-averse prude who should have taken control of his life sooner. It is not clear why he is such a wimp, and this is not explored.

The Game by Neil Strauss, Cannongate Books, Edinburgh. 2005. 452 pages.

This book is about picking up women, the story of a journalist who writes for Rolling Stone, and who enters “seduction community” to become a “pick-up artist”. I found it a troubling book, the story of people who lack confidence and are actually sad. Strauss explains anyone can become “pick-up artists” by learning, by rote, a set of methods and tools and basic psychology. Of course the story of the successes is written not the ones of the failures. It depicts men as the predators and women as the prey with little agency or control. I am glad I read it, but be came away feeling disheartened by the fact this behavior can be learned and it makes men poorer as a result. It tells an awful lot about human interactions or the lack thereof. It is a poorly written book considering the author is a journalist.

Brightsided: how positive thinking is undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich, 2010 Picador in the USA and Granta in the UK. 256 pages

Interestingly this book is called ‘Smile or die’ for the non-US market. It is a fascinating read, confirming the view that pessimism is an attribute which we should not ignore. In this excellent and thought provoking publication Ehrenreich describes how the middle classes are constantly being fooled into believing life must be become better and better, and, if it does not, it is somehow their fault. It looks at Christian organizations, positive thinking and a range of other things. It is initially quite hard reading but once you are into it, it is well worth it. There are eight chapters. The first is probably the most poignant which is “Smile or die, the bright side of cancer”. She goes on to look at the reasons why we are required to be optimistic and the issues around positive psychology. Her penultimate chapter is on how positive thinking destroyed the American economy. The book was conceived of when Ehrenreich became ill with breast cancer and found herself ‘surrounded by pink ribbons, bunnies and smiles’.


There is an amazing amount going on in Norwich. In addition to the theatres, there is the excellent Norwich Arts Centre. We went to listen to music by Leddra Chapman, who is described as young singer-songwriter ‘with a quintessentially English voice which is both pure and unique’. The supporting act was a Welsh singer Alun Lewis who sang with Sarah Howells. The supporting act was at least as good as the main one. I suspect that this was because Chapman had not played with this band before and as a result the sound mix was a bit overwhelming. Alun, on the other hand, played his guitar softly for accompaniment.

I first went to the arts centre with Rowan to listen to an unusual group called the ‘Hot Club of Cow Town’, a band who began in New York’s East Village. They combine jazz and Western swing. We bought the CD and it has been listened to on numerous occasions. One of the real pleasures of Norwich is having this range of entertainment, live music, and events going on. We do not make enough use of the resources available, even if in Durban it (was) the folk club.


Y tu mamá también

The film is directed by Alfonso Cuaron and is set in Mexico. At one level it simple. It tells of two boys, just starting university who meet an older women, Luisa, (a cousin by marriage) at a wedding. They invite her to go to a wonderful beach with them. Following the wedding she receives news of test results at the doctor and a drunken phone call from her husband to say he has cheated on her. She decides to go the beach and the boys, who were making this all up, drive, hopefully, with her, to the sea.

The drive is through poor, rural Mexico and they spend two nights on the road, the second within a few hundred metres of the beach. It is in part a classic road movie.

There is a great deal of sexuality but little sex in the film. It opens with the boys making love to their girlfriends who are leaving for the ‘European tour’. Both have sex with Luisa during the course of the journey, which creates its own tensions. At the end there is a scene in which they are dancing together, go to the room, and all begin to undress. She sits in front of them and they turn to each other and begin kissing. The scene then switches to the next morning when the boys wake up naked with each other. They are shocked and return home leaving Luisa behind. The final scene is the boys having a cup of coffee much later and one informs the other that Luisa died of cancer a month after their trip; she knew she was ill while they were together. The narrator tells us they never saw each other again.

The film combines straightforward storytelling with periodic interruptions of the soundtrack, during which the action continues, but a narrator provides additional out-of-context information about the characters, events, or setting depicted. In addition to expanding on the narrative, these “footnotes” sometimes draw attention to economic/political issues in Mexico, especially the situation of the poor in rural areas of the country.

It was telling about attitudes of boys to girls; girls to boys; to sex and sexuality. It is the type of film best seen and then discussed.

The Messenger

This was my plane movie. It is about a US Army Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, who is injured in Iraq. Back in the States while convalescing he has a sexual relationship with long time girlfriend Kelly, despite the fact that she is now engaged. The army assigns him to the Casualty Notification Team in his area and he is partnered with a career soldier, Captain Tony Stone, played by Woody Harrelson, who teaches Will the protocols involved in the job and they are bleak!

Will falls in love with one of the widows he has to tell of her husband’s death, while Tony battles with alcohol problems. An interesting film, that raises some real issues, but not as deeply as it could.