Saturday, January 31, 2015

Review: The 5th Province ... contemporary dance by Dylan Quinn leading to a head full of questions!

A couple of weeks ago I posted an interview with the artistic director of Dylan Quinn Dance Theatre on Slugger O’Toole. It was the blog's first ever post about contemporary dance, and also my first foray into an unknown art form.

Last night I attended the performance of The 5th Province in the MAC. It’s on again in Belfast tonight and will be in the Ardhowen Theatre in Enniskillen on Saturday 7 February. There’s also a open discussion of the piece and the concepts raised by the performance over lunch today (Saturday 31) in the MAC from 1-3pm. Contact the Box Office on (028) 9023 5053 to check if there’s space.

Photo by Ursula Burke
What is the fifth province?
It’s an old Irish mythological term based around the idea of there being five provinces in Ireland … It was a place that the kings would have come together at times of dispute or disagreement, weapons were left outside of this place and they would come in and resolved any issues of conflict that were existing between them all. The idea that when in that place you weren’t controlled by the identities and the status you had outside of it: you were there to resolve conflict.
Even as a newcomer, it’s clear that the five dancers have incredible control over their movement and balance. Slowly emerging from the earth covering the stage over five or ten minutes, five bodies became one fluid flowing life form (a little like a human lava lamp) as Andy Garbi’s string accompaniment hit frequencies that resonated with the equipment above the stage.

The upstairs stage in the MAC was covered in compost. Soon GrĂ¡inne Maher's costumes were covered too! There was a touch of An Enemy of the People about the performance when space-age mirrored snow shovels were used to shift a tonne of two of it about the stage.

Based on last night’s experience, contemporary dance is also incredibly hard work to watch. It’s not always the case, but The 5th Province has an absence of words and commentary. Dylan had explained:
If we have issues and concerns and questions and troubling about a particular subject it doesn’t mean that we all have to explore it through dialogue in a verbal sense. There are other ways of doing that dialogue, whether that be a physical sense or music.
The deliberately abstract nature of the visual narrative – never mind Tim Feehily's careful lighting to disguise the set and only reveal it in phases – raises so many questions in your head as you watch that you’re mentally exhausted trying to figure out what is happening.

You get to make up your own story. Are those bodies coming out of graves? Or was that a creation tale of the provinces of Ireland forming? What looked in the gloom like a flying bed turned out to be four pieces of fractured mirror that gave the audience distorted views of the on-stage performance.

There’s a reminder that five is an awkward number. Two pairs hugging equals one person left out. Or are they just left with a different perspective, able to look on and judge what’s happening? If people aren’t “in the club” do they seek power elsewhere? Is that what the section with the crown was about?

So many questions!

Leading, following, tripping, mirroring, greeting, creating a place of healing with baggage swept to one side, and a middle ground (more accurately a middle mound!), a power-grab and harmony.

Writing this up the morning after the performance, I’m still not sure what to make of the experience. The performers and the creative team who pulled together the show are certainly skilful.

I didn’t find it entertaining in the sense that you leave the building with a glow in your heart. While many films aren’t happy, uplifting stories, they do tend to have a start, a middle and an end, and the film-maker’s perspective is clear, sometimes to the point of becoming a challenge.

Sending 108 MLAs to see a contemporary dance performance might not instantly resolve many of Northern Ireland’s political issues. Since the concepts are drawn out of the performance by each member of the audience, they tend to be – for me at least – relatively simple observations. Maybe it works better at an individual level? Become aware of how you came to have so much baggage and know to set it down and step away. More questions.

In this year of doing new things, first ice hockey, then contemporary dance. What’s next? Opera

Friday, January 30, 2015

Salome: fantastic music, outstanding soloists, the Ulster Orchestra & a story that will knock you for six

Cross posted from Slugger O'Toole ...

Oliver Mears rejects the notion that opera has to seen as elitist, incomprehensible and alienating. NI Opera’s artistic director explained to me that the four-year old company choose “the most dramatic” works to perform to challenge people’s preconceptions and prejudices, and always sing in English.

Their next performance opens in the Grand Opera House on Friday 6 February. [Update - now reviewed.]
Salome is incredibly theatrical. There’s not a dull moment in it. Full of action, some of it quite famous action … Giselle Allen who’s playing the role of Salome was born in Belfast and we’re very, very lucky to work with someone who is local and who is of that international calibre. And it’s a role that’s almost written for her.
The company looks for “resonances with things here” in Northern Ireland.
When we did the Flying Dutchman a couple of years ago – it’s about the sea and ships – and in light of Belfast’s incredible maritime history, we wanted to do a piece that would have that kind of echo.

With Salome one is dealing with lots of contentious subjects, one of which is this collision of religion and sex, and given that Northern Ireland is more religious than many countries in northern Europe, we thought this was an opera that people should see … because it’s never been staged in Northern Ireland before.
The New Testament biblical account that inspired Salome is a mere 12 verses in the Gospel of Matthew and 16 verses in Mark.

Herod imprisoned John the Baptist for pointing out that the king had unlawfully married his brother’s wife, Herodias. Yet Herod was also in awe of John and spared his life; while Herodias nursed an enormous grudge. At Herod’s birthday banquet, Herodias’ daughter Salome came in and danced. Herod was so pleased he promised her whatever she asked for, up to half his kingdom. In a superb piece of positive parenting, her mother seized the opportunity to inculcate revenge and suggested that she request “the head of John the Baptist”. The distressed king’s executioner was dispatched to the prison and soon he returned with a platter bearing the severed head of John which Salome gave to her mother.

After forty years of regular attendance, I can’t remember ever hearing a sermon preached on this text in church. Somehow the Bible’s more gruesome and horrific accounts are apparently better suited to artistic endeavour.

Many new characters and twists and turns have been added. Gustave Flaubert turned it into a short story; Oscar Wilde elaborated and wrote a play (in French), adding The Dance of the Seven Veils; and Richard Strauss created an opera that was first performed in December 1905.

The opera narrative includes attraction, lust, prophecy, suicide, spilt blood, the preaching of salvation, rejection, an alluring and captivating dance, and finally a spot of (oddly unnoticed) necrophilia.

A few weeks ago there were reports on Radio Ulster’s The Arts Show that Belfast City Council had received a complaint about the upcoming performance of Salome.

Oliver recounts that when the Dance of the Seven Veils was originally performed it initiated the craze of Salomania when female dancers “interpreted it with less and less states of undress”, including Marie Ewing who famously performed it at Covent Garden in 1980s and was completely nude by the end of the dance.
She was one of the first singers to do that. Maybe it’s that mix of religion with a Bible story and sex which people find troublesome.
While Oliver insists his performance won’t be “gratuitous”, he is clear that complaints should not influence artistic direction.
Our responsibility is to ensure what goes on stage is truthful to the opera that we’re producing and isn’t dictated by other considerations. I said recently in an article in the Belfast Telegraph that I remain surprised that people are so much more offended by sexual content or nudity than they are by the most horrific kinds of violence that one sees on television bang on nine o’clock. To me it doesn’t make any sense. Nevertheless, our priority is to make sure that whatever is produced has integrity and has truth in terms of the opera.
If the company was to change its plans for the production due to the complaint being made, Oliver said they’d “be on a slippery slope in terms of depiction”
… we’ve seen it very recently in France where some people get offended by a word of artistic depiction. Should people be cowed by that? Should people stop depicting that? I don’t believe so. I think it’s important that people are given the opportunity to have an opinion and they can only have that by seeing it.

I think it’s very, very important that at these turbulent times, what’s on stage, or what’s in a book, or what’s in a cartoon is not dictated by people’s religions sensibilities.
NI Opera are following the traditional route of splitting the role of Salome. Its talented soprano will step aside to allow a professional dancer to perform the intense ten minute choreographed dance.
Giselle has got so much on her plate already with these thousands and thousands of notes that she learns. She has to concentrate on that. The Dance of the Seven Veils and our interpretation is very, very psychological and requires the skills of a professional dancer to manifest that. It’s still fairly rare that a soprano will do the Dance of the Seven Veils.

Update - Monday 2 February - NI Opera have informed ticket holders:
Over recent weeks the dancer and Movement Director have been rehearsing in London and as a result, the content of the Dance of the Seven Veils has been enhanced. The dancer playing Salome will now appear nude for the last ten seconds of the Dance. This change represents Salome in an image of stark vulnerability. We believe it adds significantly to the artistic value of the performance.

Other than snippets of opera at the Out to Lunch Festival, the only opera I’ve ever been to was the Jerry Springer Opera in London, a few months before the controversy around the BBC’s decision to screen it on BBC Two.

So what should first time opera goers be looking for if they come along to the Grand Opera House next weekend?
Wagner called opera “the total art form” … It offers spectacular sets and scenery. It offers fantastic music: some of the greatest music that’s ever been written. It offers drama, theatre. It offers poetry.

It offers a 75 piece orchestra, and nearly 15 singers all in one condensed, compact, inspiring evening. And it’s all live of course.
Immediately prior to the interview, Oliver had been at a read through with the Ulster Orchestra. He said that Salome’s score “bring shivers down your spine”.
Our mission is to do things in English so there are no barriers … so that people can immediately understand what is being said. Of course when things are sung not every word gets across, but in this case we’re printing the libretto in our programme so that people can follow it if they need to. Performing opera in its original language is preferable for reasons of musicality but in terms of immediacy I always think its good to perform things in English.
On the subject of budget cuts, Oliver Mears said that what was most worrying was “what it demonstrated about political will”. He argues:
… the arts aren’t just important for themselves but they’re also important in terms of the economy, tourism, in terms of well-being [and people’s health] and it is alarming that whenever there are cuts – in whatever country – it’s always the arts which suffer and which are at the absolute bottom of the priority list. I think that’s a shame … but then I would say that!
And his elevator pitch for why anyone should go out and buy a ticket for Salome?
It’s fantastic music performed by outstanding soloists, with the Ulster Orchestra, and a story that will knock you for six.
NI Opera’s Salome runs in the Grand Opera House on Friday 6 at 8pm and Sunday 8 at 2pm.

Update - Director Oliver Mears and Father Eugene O'Hagan - one third of The Priests - discussed Salome on Sunday Sequence last weekend (starts 1hr22m30s into the programme). Father Eugene has his ticket and is heading along to make his own judgement on Friday night.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Susan Picken explains ... Conversations about Cinema: Impact on Conflict season at Queens Film Theatre

Queens Film Theatre is curating a season of films under the banner of Conversations about Cinema: Impact on Conflict.

Earlier today, Head of QFT Susan Picken told me about the collaboration with other independent cinemas like Bristol Watershed and Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff.
The original inspiration was that the Great War was meant to be the war that ended all wars and very clearly it hasn’t. So we started thinking about how conflict had been represented in the interim in the history of film.

Really we’re exploring different manifestations of conflict through film. How different filmmakers have approached it. How the theme has been discussed in different ways, and not just in a Northern Ireland context but around the world.

Expect to see films looking at the aftermath of conflicts in Syria, Palestine, Rwanda and Bosnia over coming months.

I was taken aback by the story of Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth, the film which opened the Impact of Conflict season a couple of weeks ago. A story of a woman who experienced war first from the perspective of young friends joining up, before serving as a nurse, suffering the loss of her friends and brother before the end of the war and becoming pacifist.
Rather than telling stories about wars, we’re also interested in exploring how conflict has impacted on displaced people, refugees, women, those who are left behind and the soldiers as well … We’re trying to broaden it out from a purely historical perspective into something that is a little bit more about the actual people and feelings and how it has impacted on people’s real lives.

Four films are programmed in February looking at different creative approaches used by filmmakers to explore conflict, locally and internationally.

Bernadette – Monday 2 February at 6.30pm – a documentary by Turner Prize winner Duncan Campbell on Bernadette Devlin described as “a very creative interpretation on the documentary form”. Followed by a panel discussion.

The Act of Killing – Tuesday 3 February at 8.50pm – first screening of Joshua Oppenheimer’s director’s cut in Northern Ireland which explores the impact of guerrilla warfare and mass extermination and how the perpetrators come to terms with their actions.

Restrepo – Wednesday 4 February at 6.15pm – Tim Hetherington offers a glimpse into the war in Afghanistan from his perspective embedded with the Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airbourne Brigade for fifteen months. A Skype Q&A with Iraq war veteran Raymond Ranger follows the screening.

Waltz With Bashir – Thursday 5 February at 6.30pm – An animated documentary exploring the trauma of war and human right violations as Israeli director Ari Folman reconstructs his own memories of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon through interviews with fellow veterans and the massacres at the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut.

It’s not all about archive; new films will be screened and tie in with the conflict strand too.

Selma – Friday 6 to Thursday 19 February – Ava DuVernay’s poignant and passionate chronicle of a tumultuous three months in 1965 including Dr martin Luther King Jr’s campaign to secure equal voting rights and the epic march from Selma to Montgomery which culminated in President Johnston signing the Voting Rights Act, a significant victory for the civil rights movement.

Huge budget cuts faced independent film organisations before Christmas. The new Stormont Budget has been agreed and while the final figures have not trickled down from departments to arms length bodies and organisations like the film festivals and Queens Film Theatre, the signs are that while there will still be a cut to funding but “it’s looking a lot more positive” and won’t be quite so severe.
But anything is an improvement on 50% of your budget being taken away. What was phenomenal and was really encouraging was the amount of response that we got and how people cam out to the consultation and supported everybody in the sector. I think it really shows that people do care.

Why support independent film and the wider range of cinema that independent cinemas like Queens Film Theatre and film festivals screen?
There’s a lot that people can experience and enjoy and learn from and be inspired by. There’s a whole world of film out there that you just don’t get access to … One of the joys of cinema is that it’s a communal experience and being with other people and it’s a shame that people can’t have that experience more often – which is what the Film Hub for Northern Ireland is trying to do – to broaden that experience out.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Film Devour Short Film Festival - humorous, sinister, compelling storytelling in less than 15 minutes ... with popcorn!

Films under 15 minutes in length. Ireland-based in theme or production. And with picture and sound of a quality to be screened.

Those are the criteria that the eighteen short films had to meet in order to be screened last night in the Black Box on Hill Street. Wails of laughter erupted as the capacity crowd caught the twist in the first film of the evening, James and Stephen Downey’s A Christmas Snooze.

It’s a “gig night for films”, with the stage occupied by a screen with just a few seconds in-between one film ending and the next beginning. A very mixed audience (age and gender) leant against the bar and sat around tables, munching on popcorn. Many of the films’ crew and cast gathered to enjoy their screening and soak up the audience reaction.

Aaron Butler’s Cub Dryes (allegedly a young cousin of Bear Grylls) proved just how dangerous your back garden could be and was typical of the tiny budget creations that were laced with humour, some slow reveals, surprises and compelling storytelling.

Amongst the laughter and the surreal stories were some darker, more sinister shorts like Robert Kelly’s Bulldog Girl which explores what happens when a well-groomed “dog breeder meets the mechanic from hell”. A couple of last night’s shorts picked up the theme of the First World War.

The audience voted for their favourites on the back of their programmes, with Campbell Millar’s Christmas 1944 German vignette Respite at Christmas coming top, and mock documentary The Realm of Error by David Shaw & Wes Lowry in second place.

My favourite from the first half was the dead pan Barty Carty which won the separate directors’ vote. Directed by John McGovern, Carty is a school principal and chess fanatic. His over-the-top recollections of glorious victories and a particular chess tournament “massacre” overwhelm the young pupils trying out for the new school chess team. Intense, well shot, good sound and not too long.

Congratulations to all eighteen film-makers, and to all the other people in the room who are currently writing, directing and producing low budget films. They make up an enormously talented, creative and largely hidden community.

If you’ve a notion to make a small film, then there are plenty of networking opportunities and people with varying degrees of experience at Film Devour. Details about how to make submissions along are on the festival website. Keep an eye on the Film Devour Facebook page and @FilmDevourSFF Twitter feed for details of the next short film festival evening on 20 April.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Church in the Public Square - Living and Dying Well - three reflections on assisted dying from PCI conference

There is increasing debate in legislatures and civil society around end-of-life issues, terminal illness and euthanasia. While Northern Ireland is behind the curve in discussing the issues, moves in Edinburgh and Westminster are likely to eventually stimulate local debate.

Union Theological College, in co-operation with The Church and Society Committee of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland along with Union Theological College hosted the third of their series of Church in the Public Square conferences.

On Thursday 22 January the topic was Living and Dying Well.
Does medically-assisted death have a place within healthcare? Is medically-assisted death just another end-of-life choice that some people have to make? Would a change in the current legislation put pressure on vulnerable people to consider assisted dying because they were making demands on their carers?
Stafford Carson, principal of the college introduced the event and suggested that the agenda “raised major theological and ethical issues which cause much concern for individuals who are directly affected, as well as for legislators and those in the legal, medical and caring professions”.

You can listen back to the three guest speakers ...

Robert Preston is director of the Living and Dying Well think-tank having worked in Whitehall for 30 years and served as clerk the House of Lords select committee which examined Lord Joffe’s Private Member's Bill “Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill” back in 2004/5.

He asked whether we would “seriously consider licensing other criminal acts for certain groups of people and in specified circumstances?”

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Dying Well and is a professor of palliative medicine at Cardiff University and currently President of the British Medical Association.

She made the distinction between “withdrawing treatment when death is inevitable” and “foreshortening life”.

John Wyatt is Emeritus Professor of Ethics and Perinatology at University College London a specialist in the medical care of newborn infants for more than 20 years, and author of Matters of Life and Death: Human dilemmas in the light of the Christian faith.

He disagreed with recent statements of support from prominent Christian leaders that “assistance of suicide can be an expression of compassion” and suggested that society’s trend towards “robust individualism needs to be balanced by a recognition of our mutual dependence and inter-relatedness”.

Three complementary yet distinctive contributions which were significantly more nuanced that some attendees expected and which may be of interest to readers.

Photo credit: Jamie Trimble

Friday, January 16, 2015

Alan's 16-point newbie guide to the Belfast Giants

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. But unintentionally, I find myself half way through January 2015 and a theme of “trying new things” is developing without much effort on my part.

Tuesday week ago I found myself at a Belfast Giants ice hockey match for the first time. It was the first leg of two against the Cardiff Devils.

1. Wear a jumper. The Odyssey Arena is a huge venue, and together with the freezing lump of ice in the middle and the not quite packed stands, you’ll feel a chill for the first hour or so. This is obviously why so many spectators wear Belfast Giant’s replica shirts sweaters over their clothes in the arena. (If you want your shirt signed, head up to the bar afterwards and many of the Belfast Giants team and coaching staff will appear dressed in their natty suits.)

2. If you have a ticket, you’ll have a block and a door, row and seat number. There is no reason to turn up early. The evening we attended, doors opened at 6pm for a 7pm start. The match – and the entertainment bits in-between the three 20 minute periods of ice-hockey – will stretch out until at least half past nine. Some other newbies at the match were expecting a fourth period ... clues about the rules are few and far between!

3. There’s no perfect seat to get a close-up view of the ice or a good overview of the action. But there are worse seats. At the east end of the Odyssey arena, round towards Door 3, there’s a small elevated platform with four comfy seats on it all on their own: fonacab’s Front Row Seats. The ‘winners’ may look lonely, and slightly uncomfortable with the Subway mascot sits on their knees.

4. You can easily eat your ticket price in food during the evening. You’ve two and a half hours to fill. Some types of food will be exhausted and run out before the evening is over (for instance, no more cheese for the nachos, no more sausages for the hotdogs). That fact shouldn’t encourage you to over-eat too early in proceedings, since you’ll only get hungry again and buy more. Don’t you’re your food down: you’ll sit a long time with your indigestion. But eating is one of the few comforts possible during the moments of tedium while items of food from Subway, Boojum and Pizza hut are thrown at the crowd. Your chances of catching food are increased by sitting near the front and having a small cute child on your shoulders.

5. The music before the game starts will be deafening. A rule forbids music while the game is in progress so you will get some relief … until the referee spots something and stops play. Then the music will crank back up and it feels like the referee waits until the sting finishes before starting play again. At times it will feel like there’s a tune for every kind of foul.

6. If the Belfast Giants score a goal there will be a blast of Belle of Belfast City fiddledeedee music and the crowd will go wild. If the opposition score, the electronic scoreboard will silently increment their goal count and the game will continue without any ceremony. It’s quite possible to miss the opposition scoring a goal: it looks and sounds just like normal play. The Giants’ supporters don’t even boo. How can there be sport without booing?

7. There are drums: it is Northern Ireland after all. You can take the sectarianism out of one local sport, but you can’t get rid of the drums. Thump. Thump. Thump. Go Gi-ants. If the drums are to stay, a bigger repertoire of chants and rhythms are needed. At least reintroduce 2 4 6 8 Who Do We Appreciate? [insert name of sponsor]

8. Irritatingly, while the PA system in the Odyssey Arena seems perfectly tuned for music and adverts, the occasional announcement to tell you that “player mumble has been fowled by mumble and there will now be mumble” are very indistinct. Yet these are the bits of audio newbies desperately want to hear.

9. It’s not obvious which team is which. Take the night – my first time – I was there. The four Cardiff Devil fans sat in their own half of a stand wearing red team shirts. There was a red-shirted team on the ice. (And as the players hunch over with their sticks you can’t see the logo on the front of their shirts.) The local fans – boosted by blow-ins from sponsors and youth organisations offered several hundred freebie tickets – wore shirts (see above) with a white background. And there was a team wearing a white background shirt on the ice. Fooled you. The Belfast Giants were wearing red; the Cardiff Devils white. Go figure.

10. The puck is small and moves fast. You may not see it. The players probably don’t see it a lot of the time either. The puck is either hidden behind the legs and sticks of the biggest bunch of players on the ice, or that is where it used to be.

11. If a local breakfast radio presenter like Citybeat’s Stephen Clements comes onto the ice at half time during one of the intervals and asks spectators to throw their pucks into the centre of the ice, don’t throw a real one in case he hasn’t heeded the warnings on every wall and noticeboard in the Odyssey Arena that “it’s your responsibility to watch out for flying pucks”. He’s only expecting the numbered foam ones that have been handed out, not the odd real one that’s lying under your seat.

12. A blue semicircle sits in front of the goal net. I’m told it’s called the “goal crease”. The goalkeeper often stands in it. But not always. It’s not clear whether the blue semicircle is intended to keep the goalkeeper in, or other players out. It’ll not be the only mystery.

13. Players enjoy a bit of rough and tumble. Not quite full Saturday afternoon wrestling play acting, but not far off at time. Sometimes one of the referees will decide to take action. Often they don’t. If the spectators had voting buttons they could bet on whether particular incidents would be spotted by referees.

14. Despite being played on ice, the players stay upright for a surprising amount of the time. However, they could learn a thing or two about speed from figure skaters. If any camogie or hurling players could adapt to the ice they would speed the game up and give the Canadians a run for their money.

15. Sadly Google Glass has been shelved (in its current incarnation). Apart from the risk of being smashed by an incoming puck that’s flown over the Perspex safety barrier, an augmented reality app to tell you which player is which (you can’t read the back of the shirts at a distance), who’s on the subs bench and random factoids would be incredibly useful. In the meantime, bring an ice hockey nerd with you to the match, or adopt one nearby in the stadium.

16. It was a really friendly experience. The EventSec guys who show you to your seat were a delight and full of information. Long time fans were happy to answer ignorant questions and fill in gaps in our knowledge. The atmosphere was good. The cheering wasn’t that feverish, and the mid-week sides seemed to be playing at less than full power. The score was 4-3 to the Devils, but that’s nearly immaterial.

So how was my first Belfast Giants game?

It’s sport. And quite like the last sporting event I attended, which was a Warriors NBA match in Oakland, San Francisco about eight years ago. [My memories are of foul tasting cheese in the hot dogs, 45 minutes play spread over 3 hours, and a very poor shot-to-basket ratio that amazed me given my notion that they’d be like the Harlem Globetrotters.]

So despite very low expectations, I enjoyed the Giants more than I thought I would.

I think I’d go back – occasionally – armed with a jumper, a printout of the rules, and a flask of hot milky tea. Perhaps even a flask of sausages: you could make a killing selling black market hot dogs when the concession stands run out!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Fathomless Riches - a very public confession from Rev Richard Coles

Fathomless Riches (Or How I Went From Pop To Pulpit) is Rev Richard Coles’ no holds barred public confession. From the early pages through to the end, it’s a shocking book as Coles candidly reveals the hedonistic behaviour and lifestyle that dominated his late teens, twenties and thirties.

Now a parish priest and radio presenter, Coles documents his upbringing and gravely disappointing O-level results at a fee-paying school before transferring to drama school and finding a growing confidence in his sexual identity as well as his first steps in a lasting relationship with drugs.

His musical talent with saxophone and keyboards led to his involvement with band Bronski Beat before forming The Communards with Jimmy Sommerville in 1984, achieving chart success with Don’t Leave Me This Way, touring, partying, arguing and beginning the long slide towards the band’s split in 1988.

While not conscious of it at the time, Coles was often surfing the cultural zeitgeist and throughout the book there are references to familiar events and people. The film Pride and play Pits and Perverts reminded 2014 audiences about the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners movement formed during the Miners’ Strike which left a lasting legacy within the TUC and Labour Party of treating lesbian and gay rights as equality issues. Bronski Beat played a benefit concert for LGSM. Later in the book there’s a photo of Coles staying over at Hillsborough Castle as the guest of Secretary of State Mo Mowlan. A few years later he conducted her funeral.

Amongst the music and partying, about a third of the way through the book a terrible sadness descends as Auntie Ada came to visit and AIDS killed many of Coles friends and acquaintances. The sense of loss, and hopelessness is overwhelming. Chapter after chapter, close friends are infected with HIV and die.
This was to be a common experience over the next few years, meeting in a dead man’s flat for the distribution of their effects, or the concealment of things which needed to be concealed from their families, and sometimes, most awkwardly, negotiating funeral arrangements with a middle–aged couple who had only just learned that their son was gay in time for him to die.

The Communards’ success with their first album was not easily replicated and Coles admits to being jealous that “Jimmy got more attention than me, more credit than me”. Despite staying in larger and larger hotel suites and travelling with an expansive entourage, Coles “sulked about being ignored in interviews” and “hated it that when I was signing an autograph the fan would see [Jimmy Sommerville] and pull their book from my hands leaving a zigzag of biro where my name should be”. Sickness caused Coles to worry about his own health.
… I got a message to call the doctor. ‘Good news,’ he said, ‘I have your test results. They came back negative.’ And that is how I became the only person ever to be disappointed to hear he was not HIV positive.

Having jumped the gun and told colleagues and friends that he was HIV positive, Coles lived with the lie. “I was treated more considerately than I had been and it did mean I now had a leading role in the drama.” Years later he swallowed his pride and made humiliating confessions.

Drug abuse and his ability to fund it took over Coles’ life, while presenting on Radio 3 and some musical commissions kept him in work.

Choral Evensong in Edinburgh and a visit to York Minster (in which he “went in a tourist but came out a participant”) reignited his childhood Anglican experiences and led to a serious flirtation with becoming a monk and a wobbly walk along the Anglo-Catholic tightrope in which he signed up for a theology degree from Kings College London, crossed over to Catholicism, before returning to train for ordained ministry at the Anglican College of the Resurrection at Mirfield in West Yorkshire.

Coles reserves his harshest judgements for himself. While many friends and co-conspirators are named throughout the book, some blushes are spared with enough anonymity granted to shield identities. His honesty and frankness extends to his feelings for the college at Mirfield, calling out the bullying from the year above and his disappointment at the behaviour he and other students experienced.
I don't think I really believed in evil until I went to Mirfield.

Ouch! While his entry into ministry has been unconventional, the emotions, experiences and talents that he brings to his calling are clearly usable by the church.

Romantically, Coles suffered from sustained sadness with his interest and lustful notions not being consistently returned by many of the people he longed for. That frustration extends to institutions as well as people.
I love the BBC. I love the Church of England. But it is not wise to love organisations because they do not love you back. They do what organisations do, sometimes close ranks, lie, betray, disappoint, take you out at dawn and shoot you. All institutions are demonic, a cleric once observed, but the ones that have the clearest sense of their own high calling are most vulnerable to demonic activity. I support it is because where aspirations are high and reach is limited there’s plenty of room of disappointment and frustration to play out and that can curdle one’s feelings for a place.

Coles enjoys the fine things of life. His stint in The Communards has left him with a ‘pension’ that allows him to book into the best hotels, enjoy fine food, wine and clothes. While he has the capacity to appreciate what he can afford, and while he’s happy in the company of those who don’t share his tastes, some of the later anecdotes in the book left this reader with the hope that he discovers freedom in reining in some of these excesses and rediscovers a little of his monastic leanings.

Fathomless Riches was a great Christmas present. Its author’s honesty and ability to shock and sadden makes it an engrossing read. Throughout the darkness there is thread of hope; hope imbued with faith that ultimately ends with Coles’ sense of peace in his new vocation.

Ultimately I hope that Coles will write a follow-up memoir, starting off with settling into parish life of Finedon in Northamptonshire and carrying on to document his journey through ministry, civil partnership and beyond. While he knows “second albums are notoriously difficult”, his capacity to tell a story deserves another outing.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

At times unbearable, yet a truly unmissable film - Testament of Youth - Vera Brittain's war in QFT (16-29 Jan)

Over on Slugger I posted a review of a superb film Testament of Youth that is showing in the Queens Film Theatre between Friday 16 and Thursday 29 January. You should plan to go and see it. (Though bring tissues.)

Unlike most war films that focus on the lives of those who join up, Testament Of Youth's lead is the intelligent, boundary-pushing Vera Brittain (played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander) whose early dreams of becoming a writer were shattered by the chaos of World War One.

The film quite brilliantly captures her fighting with her father (Dominic West) in 1914 to be allowed to sit the Oxford Common Entrance Exam. By 1918 her life had been turned upside down and she was struggling to cope with the grief and gaping void left in her heart by the loss of so many close friends and family in the First World War.

This independent film is based on a memoir by Vera Brittain which recounts her wartime experiences. Until Monday night I’d never heard of Vera Brittain or her renowned book. Why given their fascination with Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est did no English teacher at school point us to her work?

While Vera went up to Somerville College in Oxford, her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and his friend Roland (Kit Harington) joined up. Another friend Victor (played by Northern Ireland actor Colin Morgan) had poor eyesight which hindered his military ambitions.

For Vera, the early nineteen hundreds became a world of chaperones, poetry, and hopes that the war would be over before the new recruits’ training completed. Corresponding with her brother and the dashing Roland – whose mother (Anna Chancellor) was a great role model as a suffragette-supporting writer – Vera reached a point where she could no longer stand back while her friends fought and she postponed her studies to volunteer as an auxiliary nurse, first in England and later behind the bloody battlelines in France.

Eventually assigned to tend to captured Germans – or “filthy Huns” as other British medical staff caustically referred to them – Vera’s language abilities allowed her to comfort the dying. Witnessing the impact on all sides of the conflict as well as families at home, Vera turned towards pacifism. (Is this why her 1933 memoir is ignored by the establishment?)
Mothers, sisters, women: we send our men to war. I fought my father to allow my brother to go because we all think it is the right thing, the honourable thing. But I ask you, is it?
Testament of Youth is not sentimental or jingoistic. It doesn’t hide death or suffering. It doesn’t disguise the masks that young men wore when they returned from the front with inner selves destroyed. At key moments in the film the dialogue simply stops and instead the deportment of the characters set against the often rugged scenery amply portrays the emotion and moves the story on.

A young talented cast portray young people whose potential was tragically cut short by WW1. At times, the cumulative loss made Testament of Youth almost unbearable to watch. More than a day later I’m still haunted by the sound of an off-screen father breaking down at the bad news contained in a telegram.
Why was I ever disappointed you weren’t a boy?
Testament Of Youth isn’t perfect. The nods towards the build-up to the war are delivered via none-to-subtle newspaper headlines referring to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. The screenplay sometimes contrives overly dramatic moments and rather too conveniently brings Vera and brother Edward back together at a crucial point. And I doubt 1914 make-up was so waterproof that coming out of a swim in a lake it would still be flawlessly applied. But these blemishes shrivel away against the formidable and persuasive account of love and loss, conflict and remembrance. And it's a great example of independent cinema, free of the shackles of big studios and backed by a patchwork of bodies and funders.

Given my ignorance of history, this is usefully the first part of a series of film screenings and events that the QFT will be hosting in its Conversations about Cinema: Impact of Conflict strand exploring the repercussions of conflict and the many ways this has been presented in film. Keep an eye on the QFT website for more details when the programme is announced.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Robin Ince with tales of the jelly-stirring Richard Feynman and other scientific marvels to be curious about

Robin Ince is “not a scientist, just interested in science” but that doesn’t limit his ability to hold an audience’s attention for more than an hour as he flits from subject to subject. It’s like watching a science factoid version of Inception, without the time to dream.

Ince is an exponent of the wonder and beauty of science, and a role model for being curious about it. He’s excited by scientists, dead and alive. He has neither time for those who misuse science – other than explaining the error of their ways in his one man show – nor litigious libertarians who try to limit what he can say about science … and them.

This Friday Salon performance was part of the Out to Lunch Festival and a foretaste of the NI Science Festival that runs from 19 February until 1 March. [Some events already announced; full programme to be launched very soon.]

The sold out Friday lunchtime audience chomped pasta while their ears and brains considered anthropomorphised sub-atomic particles and the parallels with children misbehaving unseen in their bedrooms doing “everything” yet collapsing into a single well-behaved static state when their parents walk in on them.

Inquisitive theoretical physicist and jelly-stirrer Richard Feynman is a hero of Ince, along with Darwin who once noted in his diary that “the mind is a chaos of delight, out of which a world of future and more quiet pleasure will arise”.

The Black Box audience walked away with a smattering of experiments we could try at home with worms, marigold gloves and a mirror (though not all at once).

Robin Ince joked that his show once stretched to three and a half hours, so any Friday punters feeling short-changed and longing for more mind-expanding ideas should check out his appearances on The Infinite Monkey Cage on Radio 4 (with 56 episodes available on iPlayer and in the podcast archive).

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Love and Anger at Cutting Off Kate Bush (Lucy Benson-Brown) - Out to Lunch Festival 2015 #otl15

Cathy is 27 and 'shares' her birthday with Kate Bush, a singer she associates with personal disasters and childhood tragedy.

Vulnerable and living alone surrounded by memories from her mother, Cathy records and uploads a series of videos to YouTube expressing her misery through words, high-pitched singing and dance.

Cutting Off Kate Bush is a dark one-woman show, performed by the talented Lucy Benson-Brown. As the show progresses, the audiences hear voicemails and see comments being left under her videos, and a screen gives us a soft-focus glimpse into Cathy's happier childhood memories.

Manically told anecdotes melt into songs which pepper an hour-long show that is full of surprises: bangs, cartwheels and a neat on-stage wind effect. The audience experience discomfort too as they find themselves laughing out loud at inappropriate deadly situations.

Ultimately, success cannot be measured and happiness cannot be derived from hits on YouTube videos. The ambiguous ending leaves the audience to decide whether Cathy will turn into her mother, or set herself free. Pre-production funded via Kickstarter, this is a novel and well-produced show worth catching.

One helium balloon is sacrificed in the making of this show. And the use of stereo and glitter is to be commended.

There's another chance to see Cutting Off Kate Bush tonight at 8pm in The Black Box as part of the Out To lunch festival. Tickets £9.

And finally a special mention for the fine turkey, pasta and bread lunch that came as part of lunchtime's ticket price, a delicious addition to the January menu.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Autographer: serendipitous photographs of variable quality with buggy software (PS: not waterproof)

Despite the occasional inane tweet may appear on my timeline to suggest otherwise, I’m not really into life-blogging (or lifelogging). But I was curious about the Autographer wearable 5 Megapixel camera, which clips to your clothes or hangs round your neck and takes photographs at a predefined rate without intervention.

A black box 9cm tall x 3.5cm wide x 1cm thick and weighing only 58g, there are sensors at the top left to defect changes in lighting and colour, and others inside to detect shifts in movement, direction and temperature. GPS coordinates are stored for each photograph if the device is outside and can pick up a fix from the satellites above.

The top left has a simple display hidden behind the casing to guide you through the configuration menu, and two buttons to switch the device on and off (and trigger a sequence of nine photographs in a row if you think something noteworthy is about to happen).

The bottom third of the device houses the 136° wide angle lens in behind a rotating lens cover that can be quickly spun to guarantee privacy. With 8MB of memory the Autographer’s capable of storing 27,000 images internally, and the internal battery lasts for 3-10 hours depending on the frequency of shots, though that capacity is greatly reduced if you switch on Bluetooth to connect to an iOS or Android device.

Mac and Windows software is provided and hooking the device up using a USB cable allows you to import your photographs, tag them, and create stop-go films and animated GIFs. I found the Mac version of the software very unintuitive and avoided it at all costs. (Due to the folder hierarchy on the device – a deliberate design decision – the Autographer isn’t detected as a camera when you plug it into a Mac/PC and your favourite photo programme won’t automatically import all the images.)

The iOS app promised everything you’d need to manage the Autographer device. You could preview the pictures, favourite the good ones, delete bad ones, select multiple ones and transfer them into your photostream, as well as create the short film clips.

Vine and Autographer seemed great companions. Up to 50 images could be exported into a short film, 48 at 8 frames a second (24 at 4fps; 12 at 2fps) matches the 6 second Vine limit. Although the app allowed an audio/music track to be added underneath the footage – the Autographer has no mic – I never got round to finding a way to record a short clip on the iPod Touch I used and get it into the music library so that the Autographer app could access it.

Taping the Autographer to a speaker stand at the side of the TEDxStormont stage captured images of the speakers throughout the day. Stick it to the window of a train and you can compress the ride from Lisburn station up to Central in six seconds. Clip it to your car’s sun visor and it records the journey into work.

However Autographer was let down by few things. Firstly as a camera it didn’t consistently capture very good images. Photography's an art and requires practice. But pointing and clicking your smart phone with no thought would often generate better pictures.

The colours and exposure were awful. Everything became blurry in dark or artificial light (ie, everything inside, early morning or in the evening). Wear it inside St George’s Market and one in ten shots might be usable. Here's the best three from the market a couple of days before Christmas and one from Divis mountain last week.

Secondly, Autographer was let down by its Bluetooth. Connectivity would frequently be lost while browsing through captured images or while exporting them to the iPod Touch to make a clip. You’d lose 1 minute or two turning Bluetooth back on on the Autographer, allowing it to reconnect, then manually selecting the photos you wanted to export again.

The Autographer was also let down by the firmware/iOS software. My mode of working managed the device from the iOS app alone. Photos could be marked for deletion through the app and when Bluetooth next disconnected, the Autographer would process the delete requests. However, while the images were deleted from the device, the record of the images was left in the index file. So next time I reconnected it to the iPod Touch, there would be lots of greyed out photos displayed and OMGDeviceErrorFileSystem error messages if I tried to click on them.

A bug that was reproducible and should have been fixable.

Three days into ownership (6 September 2014) I reported this to Autographer Customer Support and we conversed fairly regularly for the next four weeks, supplying screenshots on request. The most helpful suggestion back from Autographer was an auto.ini file that I could copy from the Mac onto the Autographer that would trigger it to reset and reformat itself, removing all images and removing all ghost images too. But if a new picture was deleted, the problem would reoccur.

The last communication from Autographer Customer Support on 30 September said:
Thanks for that information and feedback. I’ve passed this information on to our developers. As soon as we get a response from them, we’ll be in touch.
They never got back in touch, not even when I chased them. New versions of the app didn’t fix the problem; neither was there a firmware upgrade to address it.

Autographer is a great idea, though its maker OMG/Oxford Metrics Group seem to have had a change of heart, or at least a change of direction away from consumers. Half way through this post the tense switched from present to past as I stumbled on the notice on Autographer’s website.
Autographer has been pioneering the wearable camera market since the launch of the world’s first wearable camera in 2012. As a result of the rich user feedback from our community we’ve been rapidly evolving the functionality, product design and applications that are required to bring the benefits of companion cameras to the wider global market. Our dual focus on solving the underlying technical challenges of the category whilst also developing the market and our commercial operations have been gaining strong traction but stretching our resources. Based on our learnings from the last few years we believe we can achieve more for the market by focussing our efforts on creating the enabling technologies for the category and working through large global brand partners to bring future devices and functionality to the market.

This means that we will no longer be manufacturing and selling the Autographer device in its current guise. We remain committed to support our existing Autographer users and collaborators and are very proud of what we have achieved together so far. You’ll see less of us on our social channels for now but rest assured we’re busy acting on all your feedback to enable the next generation of companion devices and services.

Simon Randall, Managing Director
It’s a shame, as capturing serendipitous photographs could be a great application, particularly when out for a long walk where Autographer tended to get its best shots. Or when a rogue firework went horizontally into a tree during a local Halloween display!

But perhaps it’s no real surprise that Autographer have abandoned their current consumer wearable camera form factor and software. Despite good reviews from tech journalists who trialled the camera for an hour or two in London Zoo at its launch, the reality of using it in the wild generated photographs of variable quality and it was a hassle to manage the device.

Autographer’s main competitor was Memoto, renamed Narrative which takes a different approach. Their smaller lighter device with a tiny lens clips onto your clothes and takes a photo ever 30 seconds (or immediately if you tap it twice) but you need a Mac/PC to extract the photos, upload them to Narrative’s cloud, and sync them over the web to your mobile App. All this requires an annual subscription. Their second generation device – Narrative Clip 2 – will launch in 2015 and offers a 86° wider-angle lens with a 8 megapixel sensor, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity and a range of mounting options.

My Autographer days seem to be over.

It was sitting on my knee last night while I used the iPod Touch looked at photographs it had captured while out for walks over Christmas – keeping the two devices as close together as possible to prevent the Bluetooth timeout – and the shiny slid off my knee and plopped head first into the cup of tea sitting beside me. Despite the lens and USB socket not being submerged and despite being fished out within half a second and dried out, I can confirm that while the Autographer is splashproof, liquid obviously leaks in via the buttons and top sensor and it’s not wanting to switch back on or recharge.

Which explains what would have happened if I'd attached it to hang under the dog's collar and it drank from a puddle ...