Watching - August 2021

Paddington 2 (2017)
The best thing about this hugely enjoyable film is Hugh Grant's gloriously over-the-top luvvie villain, but even without that it's a very funny film. Brought in the whole family.
Apollo 11 (2019)
The NASA footage is amazing, not least because it reminds you how incredibly complex the whole undertaking was. Seeing the shots of the rows and rows of people at consoles at Launch Control in Florida really brought that home to me, and of course that was merely the tip of the iceberg. However, it's a big of a slog as a documentary, and the dramatic music is a bit intrusive (all a bit too Truman Show for me) but well worth seeing.
Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)
Very amusing. I watched this because Mark Kermode said it was one of Hugh Grant's best roles, and he's good, but it's Meryl Streep who stands out.
A Very English Scandal (2018)
I knew very little about the Jeremy Thorpe scandal before this. It was a good watch, but would have been better as a 1½-2 hour film rather than three hours, even when watched with breaks. Hugh Grant is very good but still obviously Hugh Grant (maybe I just know his films too well), and so was Ben Wilshaw, but together they made an odd casting decision - and not just because it's hard to forget that Wilshaw also plays Paddington. The events depicted cover almost twenty years, but Grant always looks to be in his fifties while Wilshaw in his twenties. In real life they were about eleven years apart and Thorpe was always considered young and active for a politician. Still, you can't fault the effort put into the production and I enjoyed it.
Music and Lyrics (2007)
I'll watch Drew Barrymore in most things, but here I think she and Hugh Grant (yes, August has become a bit of a Grant-fest, I'm afraid) make a good and believable couple - and certainly he is preferable to Adam Sandler. The film is sweet, light and fluffy, like a good cake - not exactly good for you, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Yesterday (2019)
An intriguing concept turned into Curtis-by-numbers. Very much like About Time, it takes a really great premise and then squashes it under a conventional romcom, while abandoning any internal consistency when it becomes inconvenient. I enjoyed it and there were plenty of laugh-out-loud jokes, but the original concept, of a man who can't find success despite having all these astonishing songs, would have been more believable and interesting, and knowing that Curtis ripped off someone else's story leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth.
Blinded by the Light (2019)
Oddly, 2019 saw two British films featuring pop music and Asian lead characters (although in Yesterday, this isn't a plot point), so I thought I'd watch this one too. On the surface, it has less appeal for me, as Springsteen - whose music is the inspiration for the story - has never really done it for me. Mostly this is because lyrics don't matter much to me, and so it's only Springsteen's most musical - dare I say, poppiest - moments that I enjoy. But by linking the words to the events, the film gave me a better appreciation for them and for what Bruce means to people. The film itself is moving and well-made coming-of-age story, and of the two films, this is the better. 
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Ron Howard's award-winning film illustrates the dilemma of making movies based on a real lives: what do you change in the name of dramatisation? John Nash, the Nobel laureate mathematician at the centre of the story, was still alive when this was released, and it must have been odd for him knowing that this version of events would become what he'd be known for in the popular imagination. I can understand why the changes (and simplifications) were made: they increase the drama and make the narrative more understandable, while still being true to the spirit of his life, and as a standalone film it works very well. However, I was disappointed to find out after I'd watched it how much it differs from Nash's real life.
The Imitation Game (2014)
Also full of "dramatic licence", as the fantastic visualisation and analysis at Information Is Beautiful makes clear - somewhere between 17% and 42% accurate, depending on how strict you want to be. Of course, some simplification is necessary in order to tell the story in two hours. But there are dozens of unnecessary changes that feel like they've been made in order to fit the pre-existing Hollywood template of "lone genius saves the world". So although the film was well-made, I knew enough of the subject to know that it was highly inaccurate while I was watching it and this spoiled it for me. Cumberbatch was good though.

Reading - August 2021

Death Comes To Pemberley by P.D. James (2011)
I moved from an unsuccessful Austen pastiche (The Duke & I) to arguably one of the best, and best known. I've not read any of James's books before but given that she has made her name with murder mysteries I suspect that the overall structure of the plot here is similar to her others. What distinguishes this novel is the superb evocation of the period, the use of language and occasional subtle but amusing references to the modern day. She even manages to tie in Austen characters from other books (such as "Mr & Mrs Knightley of Donwell"). Very enjoyable and essential for any Austen fan.
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (2003)
I find it hard to understand why so many people are quite so scathing about The Da Vinci Code. It's a good thriller, with an interesting plot that keeps you reading through the twists and turns to find out how it's all going to end. Sure, the writing is a little clunky in places, but no more so than, say, John Grisham or other similar writers. Yet somehow it's become the apotheosis of low-brow fiction. I think it's just snobbery. And anything that so comprehensively got up the noses of religious zealots can't be all bad.
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton (2009)
The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge by Harry Harrison (1970)
The next instalment, read again to Z. Harrison is getting more into the swing of things here.
Nemesis by Agatha Christie (1971)
I probably first read this when I was in my teens, at which time the book was probably less than fifteen years old, yet it feels like it belongs to another world. Quite how murder mysteries became suitable reading for minors and maiden aunts, I don't know, but the gentle pace of this, like all of Christie's books, belies the inherent violence of murder. Still, the story is well-told and carries you with it. Easy reading.
A Very English Scandal by John Preston (2016)
The book that was adapted for the drama is a compelling read, and it's an astonishing story of deeply flawed characters that makes you think about the kind of people who choose to get involved in politics. What grates is that there is no citations of evidence. I think it's probably fairly accurate, but how would we know this?
Murder At The Vicarage by Agatha Christie (1930)
Read while waiting for C to complete a hospital appointment (routine check-up, nothing to worry about). This was Miss Marple's first appearance in a novel and she was already an old woman. How long did she actually live?


The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Alain de Botton


I've been pondering recently about how I feel about work. What I do is largely pointless, in the grand (or even not-so-grand) scheme of things, and although I will miss some aspects of it when I stop doing it - primarily the social ones - I find myself thinking about retirement more often, even though it's still probably nearly ten years away. So in the meantime, how do I stop myself becoming overly cynical about it?

I picked up this book again, not just because I enjoy de Botton's elegant style and ability to articulate the private thoughts we've all had, but because maybe it could provide some insight. Indeed, the blurb on the back poses the questions:

Why do so many of us love or hate our work?
How has it come to dominate our lives?
And what should we do about it?

Judged solely by its response to these, the book is a failure. It's not a sociological history concerning the development of the idea of "jobs" or "work" since the Industrial Revolution, nor is it a self-help manual claiming to change all or part of your life. It touches on these things, yes, but fundamentally de Botton is a philosopher, looking to inspire thought and discussion, not provide answers. 

But really, this is just a failure of the back page's hyperbole rather than the book itself. This is one of his lighter books and the tone is gently humourous, as he travels to different countries, chats to people about what they do and points up the more amusing oddities about what we choose to fill our lives with. You could make a case that it's a small step away from observational comedy (Kate Fox makes the same point about herself, in typically self-deprecating style, in Watching The English) but it's a good read and provokes some thought.

So what are my conclusions? I think we all need to find meaning in our work somehow, because otherwise it's hard to keep going. That meaning could be attached to what you achieve for others or for yourself. In my case, I try to take pride in what I do, help my colleagues and pass on some of what I know to those just starting out. And hope I keep being paid for it for another ten years!