Raymond Soltysek's Blog

Beat me on the bottom with four candles: two great BBC documentaries…

Posted in Media review by raymondsoltysek on December 29, 2011
link to iPlayer

Victoria Wood

Christmas TV schedules always include a few retrospectives from the TV archives, and I’ve just watched two that were sublime. First was “Victoria Wood: Seen on TV”, an absolute delight showcasing the career of possibly the most intelligent comedy writer in Britain today.  Easily the best thing ever to come out of “New Faces” (well, Lenny Henry wasn’t bad) she is the unlikeliest comedy hero you could imagine:  dressed like a wee suburban wifey, she has a face that she herself acknowledges you would pass by in the street.  Not me.  I’d rush up and get her to sign anything I had available:  if Fate was good to me, I’d have a copy of the Woman’s Weekly in my pocket.

The programme is full of excellent analysis of just why she is so good:  her ability to create a whole range of totally believable characters, a skill perhaps enhanced by her largely anonymous look working as a blank slate; her observation of the nuances of how people interact with each other blown apart by grotesquery (“Have you seen it on the trolley?”); her difference in coming from a background so unlike the Oxbridge or alternative scenes that held sway at the time of her rise and from the North (“We’d like to apologise to viewers in the North.  It must be awful for them”); and most of all her fabulous writing (who on earth could write a line like “There’s hens in the skirting board”?).  So many gems, like Acorn Antiques and, of course, “The Ballad of  Barry and Frida”, possibly the greatest comic song ever written.  And I looked up the “Two Soups” sketch on You Tube and fell off my chair laughing.  Three times.  A brilliant woman.

link to BBC iPlayer

Ronnie Corbett

And then wee Ronnie Corbett got his own wee show.  “The Two Ronnies” was comedy staple for kids of my generation, along with Python, Morecambe and Wise and Marty Feldman.  A few years ago, I think he was seen as twee and old-fashioned, but his status as a top class comic has been reinvigorated by the number of projects new comics seem to want him to be part of.  Stephen Merchant, David Walliams, Matt Lucas and Catherine Tate all sang his praises, and a host of new talent took part in his recent “The One Ronnie” show  which reprised some of the best ideas of The Two Ronnies, including that wonderful word play that characterised their work (“I caught a child playing football on the pitch the other day.  I had to order him off it.”  / “Audrey Moffat! Now there’s  a name!  Considering all the friends we have in common, we should get together some time.”) and a drag “Songs of Praise” that is inspired.  Every one of them spoke about Corbett’s generosity and willingness to do anything subversive to support fellow comics, including risking his reputation with the blue rinse brigade by snorting coke in a toilet cubicle at the BAFTAs in “Extras” and snuggling Bubbles’ bosoms in “Little Britain”.   Eighty-two years old and the most be-jumpered and twinkly of anarchists.  Super stuff.

“Another Earth”

Posted in film review by raymondsoltysek on December 20, 2011
Another Earth link to imdb

Another Earth

It’s been a year of movies about alternate realities, what with Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” (which I missed in the cinema and must get on DVD!) and the gorgeous “Never Let Me Go”.  This is an end of year offering in the same vein, and it’s quite, quite beautiful,  if just a little bit empty.

You have no idea of the power of that image on the big screen, another luscious Earth hanging in the sky, offering so much but somehow also suggesting the menace of the unknown.  After all, what could be more frightening than knowing that somewhere, another you had got it all right, had made the correct decisions, had achieved all that you had ever wanted to, was more successful and attractive and loved?  Could we cope with a happier us somewhere? That’s the torture offered here to Rhoda (Brit Marling),  a callow, ambitious 17 year old who finds her life changes beyond belief when, drunk and squinting to the night sky to catch a glimpse of the newly discovered planet, she kills a mother and child in a head on collision that puts the father John (William Mapother) in a coma.  After serving 4 years in jail and her place at MIT (used so often as a metaphor for paradise for the new achieving classes) down the tubes, Rhoda takes a dead end janitorial job and, as a result of her own inability to face up to what she has done, finds herself cleaning for John as some kind of atonement.  When she wins a place on a space mission to “Earth 2”, she wonders if, up there, John’s family might still be alive.

The movie centres on Marling’s performance.  Marling –  slightly wonky nose, teeth that aren’t quite straight – is a heart-stopping, incredible beauty, and she’s an interesting character.  A whizz-kid economics graduate, she rejected a career shafting the world economy in Goldman Sachs to take up film making.  She stars, co-wrote the script and co-produced the movie.  There’s a prodigious talent there – she’s not yet 30 – but perhaps also a whiff of prodigious privilege?  No matter, her portrayal of Rhoda is exceptional, a blank slate of shock and grief.  Skeletal and grey at the beginning of the film, as she realises redemption may lie either in John’s arms or on Earth 2, she opens up like a flower ever so gradually, always on the brink of closing in again for good.   Given that her own script is so spare – lengthy silences between the occasional moments of luminous beauty – she carries the emotional weight very powerfully indeed.

It’s also beautifully shot.  Beginning with a grainy, shaky, almost out of focus handy cam style, the only pinsharp image is of that glorious orb hanging in the sky.  As warmth returns to Rhoda, though, light and heat invest the film.   Marling loses that flat monochrome, Mapother loses his corpse-like dead sheen and the world they inhabit becomes tentatively alive again.

It’s a relationship, though, that doesn’t quite work for me.  Perhaps it’s the brevity of the script – with so much drama, emotion,  and quantum metaphysics to pack into 1 hour 40 minutes, something has to give – but the enormity of what has happened to Rhoda and John makes their affair just a little on the glib side.  They fall into a  rather chaste version of a steamy sex session after he plays the saw for her (yes, that’s right), and in a minute he’s begging her not to go, and a minute later telling her to get the hell out.  I needed more development of that, and perhaps a more experienced scriptwriter could have done it.  And the end – clever though it is in its dreadful implication that nothing could be better than it is – seemed to spin us out of that emotional core.

It’s an almost excellent production though, and  is a very welcome addition to the downbeat, low-tech sci-fi genre that has become so popular recently with films like “Never Let Me Go” and “Moon”.  It is also, at heart, an apocalyptic movie – in snatches of media coverage, we hear dire warnings of mutually assured destruction, and we know this ain’t going to end well – and takes that wonderful approach of looking at the end of the world from the most human of standpoints.  For that reason, it sits in the same category as my favourite low-tech, sci-fi apocalypse now movie, the blackly comic “Last Night” by another prodigy, Canadian Don McKellar.  From 1998 – McKellar wrote, directed and starred – it tells of ordinary people spending their last day alive as the world ticks closer to an unamed end at midnight.  McKellar and Sandra Oh are totally convincing as two strangers thrown together in amongst the emotional wreckage of a world on its very last legs.  It’s terrific.

The Christmas Cracker, GRCH, 18/12/11

Posted in Music review by raymondsoltysek on December 19, 2011
link to The City of Glasgow Chorus

The City of Glasgow Chorus

Awww.  Just spent a lovely evening at the Christmas performance of the City of Glasgow Chorus (my friend Michael Inglis is a member), accompanied by the Orchestra of Scottish Opera.

Is there anything more evocative than beautiful sopranos soaring their harmonies on the “Fa-la-la-la-la” of “Deck the Halls”?  Choirs are lovely – I don’t see enough of them.

A really fun time.  Even an old cynic like me was singing along to the Mamma Mia medley, and old favourites like “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” evoked quite a few goosebumps.  Many thanks and Merry Christmas to them all!

The end of 2011: best music.

Posted in Gig review, Music review by raymondsoltysek on December 18, 2011

Okay, end of year and nothing planned between now and January, so it’s time for a bit of reflection.  Let’s start with music which, I’m sure you have gathered, is like food and drink to me.

Best concerts?  Well, of course, Mayra Andrade at Ronnie Scott’s would win the top five places in my top five list, but that’s a bit unfair on the others.  Seeing one of the world’s great new stars in such an intimate setting and with such a fabulous band was a highlight of this or any year.  Along with Paul Simon’s “Born at the Right Time” tour  at the SECC in 1991 – a very different proposition – it’s definitely an all time favourite.

So if I am giving other places out, second goes to Ane Brun at King Tut’s, one of my discoveries of the year.  A fantastic night of gorgeous songs and transcendent sounds, it was gob-smacking in its emotional power.  Third is Love and Money at the Queen’s Hall, purely for nostalgic reasons.  Impeccable funk and charisma personified from James Grant, it was a wonderful reminder of a band I constantly return to on the CD player.  Fourth – Yasmin Levy at the GRCH in January: a  fantastic voice, beautiful Sephardic songs and a warmth of spirit that was captivating.

So many others: Lau’s set at the O2 ABC in January; Grethcen Parlato’s cool at the Tron; Imelda May’s raucous sexiness at the O2 Academy. But fifth spot in the top five goes to Catfish Keith at The Ferry in October.  A brilliant, brilliant guitarist, a growling voice and a genuinely nice guy; a perfect  blues night.

As for the albums that I’ve been playing a lot, I’ve been part of the so-called “vinyl revival” that never really went away.   On a good deck LPs still sound as good as any digital source, and on top of that, there’s the aesthetic of watching a record spin.  I’ve always felt turntables are as much musical instruments as anything else.  Mine, a thirty year old Alphason Sonata with MC-100s pure copper rewired tonearm, Atlas power supply, Dynavector Karat cartridge and Trichord Dino and Dino+ headamp,  is my pride and joy.

So what’s been spinning? Ane Brun’s “It All Starts With One” has been almost worn out.  “Undertow” fills the room, the flat, the whole fucking building with its huge sound (really, it does – ask my neighbours), and the last three “bonus” tracks – “One Last Try”, “Du gråter så store tåra”, “I Would Hurt a Fly” – are astonishing.  Album of the year for me…

Except I love Paul Simon’s “So Beautiful or So What”.  Simon’s inventiveness at 70 is incredible.  He’s always reinvented himself, done something new, refused to trade on past glories.  His latest is a huge return to form (I wasn’t too impressed with “Surprise” or “You’re The One” when compared with his legendary albums like “Graceland” or “Still Crazy…”) and is outstandingly produced.  His voice sounds just as gorgeous as it did when he was twenty.  Incredible.

Bought late in 2010 but worked hard this year was James McMurtry’s “Live in Europe”, an artist who may well be, after Simon, the greatest living US songwriter.  Recorded on the tour I saw him on, it contains some classic protest songs of blue collar America, including “Hurricane Party”.  It also contains one of the saddest, angriest, most beautiful love stories ever recorded: “Ruby and Carlos”.  If it doesn’t make you weep, you’re a robot.

Sevara Nazarkhan’s “Tortadur” is only available digitally, unfortunately, but it’s beautiful.  Her 2007 album “Sen” was phenomenal in it’s cool, Uzbek take on trip-hop – I heartily recommend the cool, cool, cool live recording of “Erkalab” on You Tube – and she then diverted into cheesy pop for a while.  “Tortadur” is a return to Uzbek folk roots, and its slow-burning gorgeousness is fantastic.  I’m hoping for a tour on the back of the album, though it’ll probably mean a trip to London.  Damn…

The Civil Wars “Barton Hollow” made a big impression too. Grounded in folk rock of the Sixties and a traditional bluegrass aesthetic, the duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White produce some of the most convincing harmonies since Simon and Garfunkel.  It may be gentle music – perhaps even at times twee – but it’s never less than utterly listenable because of the perfection of its pitch.

Other ear-grabbers included Vintage Trouble’s “The Bomb Shelter Sessions”, the seriously deranged My Brightest Diamond’s “All Things Will Unwind” and, a personal favourite and a lovely discovery from Poland, Mikromusic’s “Sova”.

I’ve missed out so much, but next year starts in just a fortnight.  Six gigs booked in January – methinks I’ll be busy!

Grrr! Don’t English football commentators make you spit…

Posted in Football, Media review by raymondsoltysek on December 7, 2011

Ahh, diddums… Manchester, red and blue, is out of the Champion’s League.

Okay, I apologise, but I’m going to rant.  I’m sort of sorry to see United go because I like their football and they have lots of Scottish connections.  But, then again, we Scottish love underdogs because we identify so well with them,  so I couldn’t help roaring my approval at Basel’s second goal.  City:  I used to like them when I was a wee boy and Frannie Lee played for them, but nobody likes a team that buys its way to success, especially if you’re a St Mirren supporter.  It’s why I dislike Chelsea too, but adore the Arsenal philosophy.

I’ve no problem with English clubs being successful in Europe, except… jings, those commentators just drive you into the arms of the opposition.  In the closing stages of the match, as United huffed and puffed at two goals down, the commentator made an outrageous claim.  Well, he said, Arsenal and Chelsea have absolutely nothing to fear from Basel.

Really?  Let’s see.  United drew with Basel at home thanks to a 90th minute equaliser, and they lost to them tonight.  So the tiny Swiss minnows remain undefeated by the Premier League champions, taking 4 points out of a possible 6, and were seconds away from taking a maximum haul.

What about Chelsea’s record against the Red Devils this season?  One game.  Lost by three goals to one.  And Arsenal?  Well, United spanked them for eight goals.  Eight.

But, simply by virtue of the fact that Arsenal and Chelsea are English sides, they of course have nothing to fear, have they?

It reminded me – as most English commentaries do – of the 1997 Juventus – Borussia Dortmund Champions League  Final, dear to the heart because local legend Paul Lambert won his winner’s medal.  Lambert was a true Scottish hero: like Dennis Law, he achieved success at the very top of the sophisticated European elite rather than the goldfish pond of the Old Firm. In addition, he came from Linwood, where I taught at the time, and was a former St Mirren player.  So I was cheering for him and his German team mates.

In the middle of the match, during an understandably nervous spell when passes were going astray, the commentator said something along the lines of – well, you’d have to think that Manchester United would do a lot better against these teams if they were here.

Well, actually, they wouldn’t have done that well.  In the groups stages, Juventus beat United at home and away 1-0.  Nul points, United, two defeats.

But what if they’d come up against Dortmund?  Surely they’d trounce the dastardly Germans?

Nope.  In the semi-finals, Dortmund beat United 1-0 in Germany.  And then came to England, and beat them 1-0 again.  Nul points once more.

So, basically, United would have done absolutely shite against the two finalists: but no patriotic commentator was going to let logic get in the way of a good dig at Johnny Foreigner.

Look, I know Brazilian and Spanish and Italian commentators are just the same: but I don’t have to listen to them and don’t understand them.  And Scottish commentators stopped that rubbish years ago with the end of the careers of Arthur Montford and Archie Macpherson; nowadays, a Scottish win is greeted by sighs of relief or, if it’s against somebody who should have trounced us (remember France!), perplexed delight at the sheer bloody luck of it all.

So – English commentators: please, stop the arrogant assumption that the world cowers in fear whenever you say “Premier League”: it doesn’t.  Then, you might actually enjoy it when your teams win.

And don’t get me started on the national team.  Wayne Rooney?  World class?  How I enjoyed the way in which the wonderful, sublime Diego Forlan showed him how the game should be played in South Africa…

Scottish Review: “Why I went on strike last week. And why I’m on a loser.”

Posted in Politics, Publications, Social justice by raymondsoltysek on December 7, 2011

A version of “The anger behind the public sector pension strikes” has appeared in today’s Scottish Review under the title, “Why I went on strike last week. And why I’m on a loser.”

Find it here:  SCOTTISH REVIEW

The anger behind the public sector pension strikes.

Posted in Politics, Social justice by raymondsoltysek on December 1, 2011

A nice wee joke is doing the rounds on Facebook. A banker, a Daily Mail reader, a Tory MP and a teacher are sitting around a table on which there is a plate with ten biscuits. The banker scoffs nine of the biscuits and the Tory MP leans over and whispers in the ear of the Daily Mail reader “watch out, that teacher is after your biscuit.”

Yes, it’s a joke: but it sums up the appalling way ordinary people in this country are being treated, and why, along with millions of others yesterday, I went on strike. Unfortunately, though, I doubt anyone will listen.

Over the last two weeks, there has been a slew of government announcements and news items that have confirmed my belief that nobody in power gives a damn about people’s distrust of banks, or their sense of unfairness expressed through the summer riots and the Occupy movement, or their deep depression about their future prospects which, for the vast majority of the population, stare over the precipice at increasing relative poverty (in real terms, average Joes will be worse off in 2014 than they were in 2001).

Last week, the government announced a scheme by which they will underwrite part of the mortgages of first time buyers. But what exactly is this “concession”? It is, in fact, a subsidy to the banks. The promise is not that young people can buy their homes, but a promise to banks that they won’t lose out if they lend to those young people. Those buyers who lose their jobs will still lose their homes: unable to pay the mortgage, the fuel bills, the council tax, they will have to sell up anyway.  All the government underwrites is the debt they already incurred to manage a deposit. Tom and Sheila will still be homeless, while HBOS gets a bung and a repossessed property into the bargain.

This does not make homes “affordable”, it does not reduce the cost of owning a home: it actually props up scandalously high house prices which have been driven upwards by bank lending to the point where home ownership largely depends on two incomes (so much for a family values government) and where the average age of the first time buyer is set to rise to 43.

Mucking about with homes was, of course, the original New Right Thatcher spearhead campaign to change our society beyond recognition and beyond repair. By forcing councils to sell their homes to tenants, Thatcher ensured that, in the long term, a whole swathe of people who were happy in secure rented accommodation would become serfs to the banks, and all that public property would become private, not owned by the people living in those homes but, at the top of the food chain, by the mortgage lenders.

The way to reduce house prices is to build social housing to provide a viable market competitor, and to return to a time when living in a council home was an absolutely acceptable alternative to owing tens of thousands to a bank. We talk of the population taking on debt beyond its means, and we usually mean credit and store cards: but the main driver of that debt rise has been the loss of a social housing stock that forces people to buy their own homes and to take out the largest debt they will ever have – a mortgage. Buying a house is the only game in town thanks to the prevalent economic winds since the mid-70s.

This policy of subsidising the failed economic system that has brought us to this crisis is absolutely apparent in other government initiatives. At the beginning of this week, Osborne an co. announced a scheme to improve UK infrastructure by investing £50billion in rail links, broadband networks and roads. Where was this money to come from? Well, it was suggested, UK pension funds could be encouraged to invest.

Excuse me? I’m striking because the conditions of my pension have been changed largely unilaterally by my employers. Why? Well, they say, there isn’t enough in the pension fund to pay for all the demands the retired will make in the future. I need to pay more, accept less and wait longer for it.

And, I am told, I enjoy a much more favourable position than people in the private sector. The real issue is not why public pensions are so generous, but why private pensions are so scandalously miserly. However, that’s not quite the case. The median annual private sector pension, at £5860, is actually a couple of hundred pounds more than a public sector pension. The problem is that very few private employers (12%) pay into any sort of final salary scheme, and that private sector pensions are therefore individual gambles on markets and investments. So private pensions are, once more, a subsidy to the failed economic system, and the government would love to divest itself of any schemes that do what they should – provide a decent standard of living for people in their old age – in favour of pensions that funnel money into the financial services sector for profit, regardless of risk.

I listened to a few commentators on these infrastructure plans, and not one asked the obvious question: if pension funds are inadequate to look after our elderly population, and if people are taking strike action because they are being forced to pay more, accept less and wait longer for a living pension, how on earth can these pension funds then afford to build roads and rail links, enterprises that are notoriously slow at providing a return?

Why, indeed, are those infrastructure improvements not funded through taxation on those who have seen mammoth improvement in their living standards during this halcyon period for financial speculation? We all know the figures: last year, UK CEO pay rose by 32% at a time when pay freezes and cuts were foisted on workers on the basis that the companies those same CEOs lead are performing poorly. CEO pay has risen by 4000% in the last 30 years; we are told pension enitlements which rise at 4% per year are unsustainable, but, apparently, wage rises of 1,333% are just fine. These are, in the glib platitudes of the politicians, the people with the “broadest shoulders”, and yet Osborne’s ambition is to cut the upper tax rate from 50% to 40%. Meanwhile, he tinkers with tax credits and 3p fuel revenues and believes he can pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.

And, in truth, he’ll probably get away with it, just as all previous Chancellors have – including Brown and Darling who had no appetite for the fight – since the sea change of the Thatcher years, when we were convinced that we would all be better off if we believed that the public sector was the enemy.

Perhaps, indeed, the fight is already lost.