Watching - October 2021

Schumacher (2021)
Schumacher's dominance coincided with the period when I was most avidly following F1, and unlike some people, I didn't find this unappealing. To see an athlete at the top of his game - and, let's be clear, Schumacher was the best of his generation, by quite a margin - was a wonderful thing to watch. Obviously, in F1, it's not just about the driver and Ferrari used everything they could to get and maintain their advantage, but that doesn't take away from the man's brilliance. Oddly, the film doesn't emphasise this as much as I'd expected, although there's plenty about his driving. Instead, it tries to balance this with more about the man and his family. Given the extensive involvement of his wife and friends, this is perhaps unsurprising. And in fairness, it doesn't shy away from addressing some of his more notorious controversies, giving time to Damon Hill to say that he thinks Schumacher deliberately turned into him during the 1994 Japanese GP, and showing that just about everyone thinks he did the same to Jacques Villeneuve in 1997. An interesting film, but as an F1 fan I could have done with more driving and less schmaltzy background music. 
North by Northwest (1959)
I watched this after seeing Mark Kermode's Secrets of Cinema episode about spies. I can't remember the last time I saw it, although the iconic scenes are very familiar of course. It's surprisingly long at over two hours, and the romantic elements are about as believable as Dick Van Dyke's accent in Mary Poppins, but it's a great plot and a classic film of course. The train going into the tunnel at the end made me laugh - I can't believe that symbolism was ever actually used, but there it is!
Free Guy (2021)
For the last few months, YouTube, that reliable barometer of public opinion and taste (ahem) has been pushing Ryan Reynolds videos at me, specifically ones where he is being sarcastic on chat shows - which he is very good at. So I was primed for this I guess, and it popped up on Disney+ so it was a good one to watch with Z. I really liked it: a kind of cross between Ready Player One and The Lego Movie, with ideas not too dissimilar to Christopher Brookmyre's Bedlam. In fact, so good I watched it twice.
Soul (2020)
We watched this when it came available on Disney+ but the rest of the family seemed to be underwhelmed. I really liked it and rewatching it didn't change my opinion. I think there's a message there but I can't decide if it's "make the most of your life" or "play more music".
No Strings Attached (2011)
Oddly, this and Friends With Benefits came out at almost exactly the same time, with pretty much the same plot idea. This is the lesser of the two though, as Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher just don't go well together, and when you start comparing them with the sassiness of Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake ... well, there's a reason I only remembered that I'd actually seen this before when I was about half-way through. Still, ticks most of the right romcom boxes.
Friends With Benefits (2011)
And just to remind myself - I have seen it before, several times - I watched this again. Sure, you can quibble with a couple of bits and pieces but the whole thing just bursts with life.
Summer of Soul (2021)
Fascinating documentary about the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 - something broadly concurrent with Woodstock, but not celebrated for some reason. Lots of great footage: Stevie Wonder about to enter his goldern period; Nina Simone on imperious form and introducing "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" for the first time ever; Sly and the Family Stone, probably the only act to play both this and Woodstock and as awesome as always. Mixed in with all of this is background and context footage, topped of with some very touching interviews with people who were there but haven't seen it for fifty years. Essential viewing.
Martha - Meet Frank, Daniel & Laurence (1998)
Comfort viewing.
Pretty Woman (1990)
It's a classic, but I wonder how many people watching it really think about the realities of Vivian's life? The film attempts to deal with it, but overall it seems very much of its time. There's something very 80s about the way it glosses over the sordid realities of prostitution and presents it as just another lifestyle choice. Would the story have been any less enjoyable - or successful - if Vivian had been working any other low-rent job? Or was the frisson of illegality and sex required? If you can ignore these aspects of the film then it's a nice story.
Black Widow (2021)
Fairly standard MCU fare. If you strip out the fight scenes, there'd be about twenty minutes of actual plot, and I can't say I followed it that closely anyway. One for the fans, I think (who, as I understand it, had been asking for the Black Widow back-story for a long time).

Reading - October 2021

Going Home by Stacy Finz (2014)
I chose this in our online library because I quite liked the cover and it's the first of a series that has about over ten books in it, so if I liked this then I knew I'd have more books to read. It's a pleasant enough romance, clearly intended as the first in a series as it introduces way too many characters and I often found it hard to remember who was who. The plot was involved enough to keep me reading but it resolved too quickly at the end. I'll probably try a couple of the others.
Finding Hope by Stacy Finz (2015)
When I'm not feeling well, I tend to retreat to the literary equivalents of comfort foods. Often this means books I am familiar with, but this time I'm happy reading books that I know will end well. This is a somewhat more complex modern romance novel than your classic Silhouette/Harlequin/M&B romance; there's multiple story-lines and subplots, all of which keep the interest well and in fact got me wondering whether at least one of them will be explored in more detail later. The characters are all a bit too good to be true but nevertheless Finz keeps you caring about them enough to want to know what's going to happen.
Second Chances by Stacy Finz (2015)
Judging by the publication dates, Ms. Finz has been cranking these out at a pretty impressive rate - something like two or three a year. Still, not as impressive as the rate I'm reading them at, eh? These books are a complete fantasy. The town - "Nugget", really? - is small but perfectly formed where no-one is really bad; all the heroines are kind, loving, forgiving, intelligent and of course drop-dead gorgeous; and all the heroes all have rockin' hot bods, along with important manly traits like the ability to arrest criminals, run farms, work with their hands and yet have a sensitive side (although not too much because that wouldn't be manly). Despite this, I have found them engaging and there's enough going on to give them more depth than a standard romance. The ending here was a bit abrupt: suddenly the hero conquers his fears and declares his love in a public place (very Richard Curtis) and they get engaged, all in the space of the last half a dozen pages. But I've already reserved the next one at the library!
The Plus-One Agreement by Charlotte Phillips (2014)
He's a playboy, afraid of commitment; she thinks she's dowdy and unworthy of love, but actually she's gorgeous. Remind you of anything? Only a million of these books. Killed time, but nicely.
Feels so Right by Isabel Sharpe (2012)
He's so focussed on his own problems that he doesn't realise he's missing out on life; she thinks she's dowdy and unworthy of love, but actually she's gorgeous. Wanna guess the ending? Actually this one is nicely judged and even though we all know how it's going to end, it doesn't feel like a given. Very easy to read.
All Over You by Sarah Mayberry (2009)
Despite being about the same length as the previous book (these things are not exactly formulaic, but they do have a pretty strict set of guidelines), this manages to fit a lot of character development and plot into the same space. I could have done with less emphasis on the heroine's "magnificent bust", so I can only imagine that some female readers might be very annoyed by this, but still, I enjoyed it. The book that is, not the bust.
Hot For Him by Sarah Mayberry (2009)
This is the last in a three-story arc, of which the previous book (All Over You) is the second. Nice to have the same characters, but I didn't get the same sense of development over the course of the book, just some slightly implausible changes and situations. I still wanted to know how it all sorted itself out though!
My Daring Seduction by Isabel Sharpe (2013)
The titles of these books are often so generic that they could probably be switched around randomly without any effect, but this one is just misplaced. The plot itself kind of has a brief, attempted seduction, but actually there's a more interesting thriller element involving blackmail. Also interesting to encounter a heroine who has a definite murky past, which makes her more interesting.
Guitar Magazine (Nov 2021 / Issue 398)
The usual array of interviews and reviews. Disappointed to see that the outdated, inept and meaningless (in the UK) music journalism cliché "sophomore album" has still not been excised, and saddened to see the naff industry jargon/marketroid speak "colourways" has started creeping in. What's wrong with saying "colours" or "finishes"? Or "second album", for that matter?
Feels Like the First Time by Tawny Weber (2011)
And so to the last of my self-isolation romance novels - at least, the last that has been deliberately chosen to be as easy to read as possible, while my brain was mush (thanks Covid). High school reunion with the person you always secretly - possibly even a secret to yourself - loved? Nice. Not sure about the smattering of bondage but that's a personal taste thing. And now my brain can deal with something a bit more substantial!
How to Write One Song by Jeff Tweedy (2020)
I've been trudging my way through Jimmy Webb's Tunesmith, his epic and definitive (apparently) guide to songwriting, for several months, possibly years. As you can probably gather, it's not engaging me. This, on the other hand, is a much more lightweight prospect, and deliberately so, I hope (or at least I hope Tweedy wouldn't be offended by the comparison). It's a simple book with some simple suggestions about how to approach song-writing and the central idea that you only have to write one song at a time, and it doesn't have to be good - you just need to have done it. He doesn't say anything as clichéd as "every journey starts with a single step" but that's kind of the idea. Interesting, easy to read and (as a side effect) has propelled me to Wilco's music.
The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson (2015)
A sequel to the wonderful Notes from a Small Island, and as readable as Bryson ever is, but possibly a little same-y. There seems to be more grumbling about the idiocies of people and government - although in fairness, the grumbles seem entirely justified to me. Amused to note that since the Brysons now live in "rural Hampshire", they can't be too far from me, and in fact he did his UK citizenship in Eastleigh (which gets a very unflattering write up).
Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (1913)
I was surprised how short this is, and how much isn't shown in the play. Maybe I'm remembering My Fair Lady, and of course it's a play so it's written to be performed, not read. I read the original version, which is the one on Project Gutenberg, which apparently is missing a number of well-known, later revisions. What strikes me is the lack of character development on the page: obviously, it's in the hands of the actors to achieve. I guess I don't read plays much!
Nick Drake by Patrick Humphries (1997)
Nick Drake is well-known now but I am quite proud to date my fandom back to the late eighties, probably during my first year at university. My friends were going on about Roy Harper, but I think we know who won that particular discussion in the end. Despite having loved Drake's music for decades now, I've never been inclined to learn more about his life before, and this book illustrates why: there's not much to say. Drake's story is brief and sad, and he produced three short, nearly perfectly-formed albums, but if you strip out the myth and hyperbole, what's left is a gifted young man who made superb music but suffered from depression and died, probably accidentally, from an overdose of prescription medication. As a result, this book has a lot of repetition but no real insight into where the music came from, and I can't say it really adds anything to my understanding or enjoyment of the music. If you've not heard Nick Drake, just go and find the albums - now!
Come Again by Robert Webb (2020)
I wasn't quite sure what to expect of this, but I was concerned it would be "literature" which usually (in my experience) means depressing stories and a vague, or depressing ending. Thankfully, this is none of those things. Instead, it's a joyful and incredibly readable mash-up of time travel fantasy and (for the last few chapters) improbable thriller. The time travel aspect is about as well-thought-through as Richard Curtis's About Time (for clarity: not much) but it matters not a jot because it's a feel-good story and ending. Did I mention I like happy endings?
Starting Over by Stacy Finz (2015)
Book four of the Nugget series is still a good read, but the romance isn't developed very consistently. I like how it involves characters that were introduced in the previous book - and the way this one introduces more who will later have their own story - but the man and woman at the centre of this story dance around each other and their own assumptions for ages before suddenly jumping into bed and deciding they love each other. Obviously the ending was never in doubt but I found myself becoming a little impatient with the blocks in the way.
Getting Lucky by Stacy Finz (2015)
On the other hand, this is a much better balance. There's a thriller aspect to the plot, a definite villain and a femme fatale, and the way the romance develops feels a lot more realistic. That said, this is a variant on a classic romance plot: man and woman have a brief affair, split up, leaving woman pregnant but man doesn't know, then they meet again years later and man discovers he has a child. It's not my favourite type - it seems a bit icky. But this is handled well and, once again, is an absorbing read.
Playing Doctor by Kate Allure (2015)
Although classified as romance by the library, I think this would more properly be classed as "erotica". Unlike romances, here it's all about the sex and of the three short stories here, only one has the traditional arc of a romance with a long-term relationship as a likely end. It's quite hot in places and one of the stories involves a threesome, which is a bit different, but ultimately the stories are a bit one-dimensional. Not quite what I expected but an interesting diversion!
Zippy and Me by Ronnie Le Drew with Duncan Barret & Nuala Calvi (2019)
One More Kiss by Samantha Chase (2017)
An excellent, gentle romance, with a lot of emphasis on the characters, which have a lot more depth than usual, yet all fitted into the normal sort of length of these books. Not much sex, which I have to be honest and say I was a little disappointed about, but not disappointed enough to stop me enjoying the book. And that rounds out an epic month for reading! I feel my brain needs something a little more substantial than romance novels for a while though.


Zippy and Me

Ronnie Le Drew (with Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi)


I once met Zippy - sort of, anyway. It was about 1987 or 1988 and Rainbow was touring theatres with their Rainbow Roadshow, a kind of simple pantomime for the young kids who were their normal audience on the telly. As wacky students, we thought it would be highly amusing to attend when it came to Manchester. We did things properly: we booked a box for the three of us, dressed up in black tie for the occasion and had a couple of drinks in the theatre bar before the afternoon performance.

We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, participating noisily during the sections that invited it - enough at one stage to warrant Geoffrey to ask the audience something like "Where are the sweets, boys and girls?" and then immediately point to us and say "Not you!" I hope we were just enthusiastic and boisterous rather than boorish: we weren't trying to spoil the show, we genuinely loved Rainbow as we had been kids ourselves during its 70s heyday.

Naturally, after the show we raced straight round to the stage door to wait for our heroes to sign our programme. Of course Geoffrey Hayes recognised us and gave us a signature, although declined our offer of a pint later ("Sorry boys, had a bit of a late one last night"). Bungle also appeared, without his costume of course - probably Malcolm Lord, as far as I can tell. And then a man came out and signed for both Zippy and George, and we were very impressed that the same man did both. Of course, we didn't realise at the time that he only did the voices, and the puppets were operated separately by other people. Based on what the book says, this must have been Roy Skelton, who did the original Zippy voice for years and years.

So sadly, I can't say I met Ronnie Le Drew, who says he refused to have anything to do with the roadshow but otherwise is known for operating Zippy for decades, it turns out. What I can say is that we were ahead of our time, as Ronnie says in the book that it wasn't until almost a decade later that the Rainbow characters starting taking advantage of their retro popularity and appearing on adult shows and touring universities and the like.

A puppeteer, however well-known in the industry he may be - and Ronnie Le Drew is obviously one of the legends - is always going to be pretty anonymous and I had never heard of him before I read this book. However, his autobiography is entertaining and engaging and worth a read. Operating puppets is clearly a vocation for him. It's never going to make you rich (well, unless your surname is Henson) and Le Drew has had his ups and downs like anyone, but he seems happy to have been able to make his passion his work too, and that comes across very well. He's self-effacing and amusing about his brushes with fame - getting star-struck  and tongue-tied when coming across David Bowie on the set of Labyrinth for example - and interesting enough for me to want to know about his life.


First Impressions 4: The View From Halfway Down

 Andy Bell (2020)

[First impressions of albums bought in my September 2021 spree]

With a title that reminds me of Kermit's nephew, I wasn't sure what to expect from this. Andy Bell has had a varied career, starting in teenage shoegaze sensations Ride, via underrated Britpop also-rans Hurricane #1 and then to a surprisingly long stint with obscure pub rockers Oasis. His stint in Hurricane #1 in particular showed what an inventive musician he is - just have a listen to "Remote Control" or the single of "Rising Sign" (the album version is the annoying MBV remix, for some reason).

What we get is has obvious similarities with Ride, but a bit less intense, instead being more relaxed and laid back. The whole thing has a late sixties/early seventies feel, with the most obvious influence being Neu, whose "Hallogallo" groove crops up a few times, mixed with the psychedelia of early Floyd and Traffic.

Stand out tracks for me are the first track, "Love Comes In Waves", which has very Ride-esque harmonies over a motorik groove and reverb-drenched guitars, and the last track, "Heat Haze on Weyland Road", which caught my ear with its Kraftwerk-ian retro electronica. In between these two are some nice sounds, like the great backwards guitar work on "Aubrey Drylands Gladwell" and the acoustic Neu-ness of "Skywalker". There's a few too many instrumentals and occasional nothingy noodliness that I could do without, but overall it's a good album that doesn't outstay its welcome at eight tracks - an album I'm pleased to have found entirely by accident and will be listening to again.