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Nicholas Casley (Plymouth, Devon, UK)

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The Pictish Symbol Stones of Scotland (Rcahms)
The Pictish Symbol Stones of Scotland (Rcahms)
by Iain Fraser
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars A Corpus, Not an Interpretation, 30 July 2014
This book, published in 2008 by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland is in landscape format. This is a review of the fourth “revised and expanded” edition; the book was originally published in 1984. It comprises an eleven-page introduction followed by a catalogue of the stones, listed by local authority area. The map at the end of the introduction makes plain where the foci of their distribution are concentrated. All illustrations of the corpus are monochrome. The bibliography takes up nine pages.

The introduction itself, by Iain Fraser, touches on the problem of interpreting the stones’ symbolism and how some authors have approached it in the past, before then setting out on a history of how the symbol stones have been recorded by antiquaries form the eighteenth century up to today. Fraser writes, “The present volume is designed to offer students a working list and a basic bibliography of sculpture, rock surfaces and portable artefacts bearing Pictish symbols, as well as offering pointers to the broader subject of Pictish sculpture without symbols.”

The book, then, is thus quite exclusive in its task, eschewing for example unornamented crosses that may have been erected by Picts. The volume is a corpus devoid of any detailed interpretation beyond the nomenclature of the symbols depicted. It does not attempt to explain, for example, the double-disc-and-Z-rod or the crescent-and-V-rod. But for this reviewer, it is nevertheless strange how all the zoomorphic beasts can be ‘read’ (even those with no basis in fact, such as centaurs) save for the near-ubiquitous ‘beast’ that is neither horse nor dog, neither dolphin nor cow. If the potential purchaser is seeking the answers to these questions, they will have to look elsewhere.

Boys On Film 1 Hard Love [DVD]
Boys On Film 1 Hard Love [DVD]
Dvd ~ Hong Khaou
Offered by fat_buddha
Price: 4.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The First in the Series, 26 July 2014
The ‘Boys on Film’ DVD series of short gay films has now reached double figures. This was the very first: nine short films ranging between nine and twenty-seven minutes in length, all professionally produced and featuring an age range from teens to hunks. There is no explicit nudity.

The selection of films hail from many corners of the gay world – UK, USA, France, Brazil, and Australia – although it’s fair to point out that four of the nine films feature London. It was interesting to see how different cultures deal with sex and nudity; whilst the American film ‘Gay Zombie’ had its participants wearing shorts in the Jacuzzi, there is no issue with nudity in the subsequent French film ‘Serene Hunter’.

There is a mix of genres too, from ‘straight’-forward drama to comedy to romance to something a little darker to documentary. The latter is an Australian film looking at the allure of Speedos! (How can you talk twenty-four minutes about Speedos?!) My favourite is the longest, a twenty-seven minute exploration of nave and relaxed pure love in Brazil’s Mato Grosso.

Not all the films in this 150-minute collection are worth four stars, there are no duff entries, and the purchaser and viewer is bound to find more than one worthy of additional playbacks. And I was suitably impressed to explore others in the series.

Run Lola Run [DVD] [2000]
Run Lola Run [DVD] [2000]
Dvd ~ Franka Potente
Price: 4.95

4.0 out of 5 stars Turning Cinematic Timescales on Their Head, 23 July 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Run Lola Run [DVD] [2000] (DVD)
The gist of this German film is that Moritz Bleibtreu plays a minor player in a criminal gang who, due to his own incompetence, has to find 100,000DMs in twenty minutes. As one character in the film remarks, “Well, we all have our bad days.”

The film was written and directed (and, as usual, partly scored) by Tom Tykwer (‘Perfume’). My DVD includes a commentary by him in English along with the female lead, Franka Potente. In the commentary, as well as explaining the complex filming techniques employed, he points out how his film turns normal cinematic timescales on their head. Normally a film will take a long period of time and reduce it to ninety minutes, but his takes twenty minutes and expands it.

It’s well-constructed but ultimately a silly but brilliant conceit: of course, if Franka Potente’s character can reverse time, why does she not reverse it to the point where her moped is stolen and thus preventing the whole ensuing enterprise? Still, the seventy-seven minutes the film lasts are entertaining enough.

Museum Without Walls
Museum Without Walls
by Jonathan Meades
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Serendipitous Conjunctions and Grotesque Collisions", 18 July 2014
This review is from: Museum Without Walls (Paperback)
Jonathan Meades’s book comprises fifty-four essays, selected and edited by his wife, of varying length and arranged within seven thematic sections. There are also six scripts of episodes from Meades’s television series. The title, of course, refers to the built environment in the great outdoors. In his introduction, Meades succinctly sums up its contents: “This book is the product of an obsessive preoccupation with places … Much of it evidently concerns buildings, the gaps between them, their serendipitous conjunctions and grotesque collisions.”

Yet it’s not all architecture and topography: Meades also writes affectively of his childhood – “The Boy’s First Pint was about as close as middle-class, middle-century, middle England got to the bar mitzvah” (a different kind of bar) – as well as of food and drink – “a country in which beer has primacy is bound to suffer culinary impoverishment.”

Some idea of Meades’s writing style and the breadth – and depth – of his knowledge and interests can be gleaned from the book’s first essay. Here, amidst his “expressions of an incurable topophilia” (I now know of what I too ‘suffer’: later he confesses to being a “topophiliac pervert”), he deals with chalk and cheese (literally), buzzards, combine harvesters, David Beckham, and football teams 36.5% ginger or 81% Steve – all contained in just seven paragraphs. In the first four pages I laughed out loud twice: the first time about rabbits, the second about the implications of Tony Blair’s London home having a basement.

One might disagree with much of what he says – I disagreed a lot – but one can only marvel at the ingenuity of the attack. It often comes out of nowhere, heavily fortified with a compelling and heady mixture of verbosity and humour. Assuredly, he will make you think and scramble for counter-arguments. Certainly, some observations are just plain rants – such as his rage against “vehicular correctness” in ‘London Transport’ – but I can forgive anyone who can write a sentence like “Gosport twinkles enticingly” and mean it.

But my advice is not to read too many chapters in one go, as this induces a headache. Moreover, whilst not as ‘bad’ as Will Self, the presence of a dictionary close at hand is advised for looking up the occasional term that is not paramartially a neologism.

Samuel Barber: Orchestral Works, Vol.1 / Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2
Samuel Barber: Orchestral Works, Vol.1 / Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2
Price: 6.01

4.0 out of 5 stars American Self-Assurance, 16 July 2014
Marin Alsop recorded these two symphonies with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in 1998. This is the first time I have heard the symphonies; I have no other versions in my collection with which I can make a direct comparison.

Barber’s first symphony (1937) possesses an American self-assurance that fails to dispel profound doubts about the troublesome times in which it was written. Its one movement lasts twenty minutes, but any listener will clearly sense its division into three sections. A contemporary comparison would be Walton’s first symphony in feeling if not in format.

Symphony No. 2 (1943-4) is in three movements and lasts thirty minutes. It is a darker work than its predecessor. The first movement has a nervous energy, a restless questioning; the second possesses a sense of bewilderment; whilst the third sees the nervous energy return in an angrier mood, but this is resolved into resignation at the symphony’s end. One senses a few bad notes here and there, but otherwise this is a good performance with good (but not very good) sound quality.

The other items on this disc are Barber’s ‘School for Scandal’ overture, which brought Barber to notice and was written when he was twenty-three, and his ‘First Essay for Orchestra’. The first is full of the wit and good humour of Sheridan’s original play, and musically is a cross between Strauss’s ‘Till Eulenspiegel’ and Holst’s ‘Beni Mora’. The second is darker and deeper but still communicates with ease.

Overall, then, this is a good set of pieces with a good set of performances. There no doubt are better ones out there, but I was satisfied with Alsop’s work here.

Malcolm in the Middle: The Complete Second Season [DVD]
Malcolm in the Middle: The Complete Second Season [DVD]
Dvd ~ Frankie Muniz
Price: 23.45

4.0 out of 5 stars "The tape is WRONG!", said Lois., 9 July 2014
Season two of MITM sees no great changes in the line-up (both before and behind the cameras), nor in the substance of the family setting. Although there is a marked reduction in scenes set at school, Malcolm's `schoolmates' still appear in out-of-school activities.

We also meet Malcolm's grandparents on his mother's side for the first time, especially the redoubtable grandmother played by Cloris Leachman (a regular in the movies by Mel Brooks). In one episode (`New Neighbours') we also see a young Dakota Fanning.

There are a number of adult jokes that will pass over the heads of the kids - such as the character called Regina Tucker in the episode `Hal Quits'. However, the level of writing is not as good as the original with more episodes (but by no means the majority) worthy of only three as opposed to four stars.

Favourite episode? Although the opener `Traffic Jam' shines brightly, my choice has got to be `Traffic Ticket' where Lois asserts against all the evidence that "The tape is wrong." But since she's always right, ...

Beyond a stills gallery, there are no extras.

Il Divo [DVD]
Il Divo [DVD]
Dvd ~ Toni Servillo
Offered by FILMNIGHT
Price: 4.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Aesthetically Remarkable, 9 July 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Il Divo [DVD] (DVD)
Ordinarily, a film of part of the life of Giulio Andreotti – the great survivor of Italian politics of the late twentieth century – will not in itself attract worldwide plaudits. Rather, it is the spectacular and innovative way in which director Paolo Sorrentino tells the story that makes this film a joy to watch. Deft handling of film speed, colouring, framing, movement and focussing, married to superb editing and judicious use of silence and music makes this film a veritable tour de force. Every frame of every scene is superbly styled. Add in Andreotti’s dark humour and dry wit, the result is a film that never tires, never bores. If only ‘The Iron Lady’ was technically as bold and politically as ambiguous.

The music stretches from Trio’s 1982 hit ‘Da Da Da’ to Renato Zero singing ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’, via Faure’s ‘Pavane’ and much orchestral excerpts of Sibelius, that Nordic giant whose sparse music surprisingly matches Andreotti’s icy reserve. Equally surprising is that there is little or no opera, yet like a grand opera plot, murder and farce go hand in hand in Sorrentino’s staging. For instance, what the viewer first thinks are people queuing for the bathroom at a party, is in fact (once we turn the corner) people waiting for an audience with Andreotti.

Strictly, to enjoy the show, you do not have to know who is who and what is what, though knowledge of Italian politics and the times of the Red Brigade certainly heighten the pleasure. And for all the showmanship, the film has a deadly serious philosophical aspect: was Andreotti “perpetrating evil to guarantee good”? As one journalist puts to him, was he the greatest criminal in modern Italian history, or the most persecuted?

In Andreotti’s obituary in ‘The Guardian’, Donald Sassoon reported that Andreotti lost his temper momentarily when he saw Sorrentino’s film, but “then admitted that the film was aesthetically remarkable.” How apt!

Extras on my DVD include a ‘Making of’, combining contributions from the director, producers, actors, and crew with behind-the-scenes filming. There are also twelve minutes of deleted scenes, a seven-minute special effects featurette, and two interviews with Sorrentino that total thirty minutes.

The First Eden: The Mediterranean World and Man - Complete Series [DVD]
The First Eden: The Mediterranean World and Man - Complete Series [DVD]
Dvd ~ David Attenborough
Offered by HarriBella.UK.Ltd
Price: 18.19

4.0 out of 5 stars Eden Despoiled, 5 July 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I am not that big an Attenborough fan, but in this series from 1987 he does more than remark on natural history, but expands his insight and commentary to include man. There are four 55-minute episodes presented in their original 4:3 ratio.

It is a shame that only five minutes is spent of the opening episode in explaining the geological creation of the Mediterranean. But Attenborough’s coverage of its flora and fauna covers virtually every part: from Morocco in the west to Turkey in the east; from Egypt in the south to France in the north; and many of the islands inbetween. All countries with a shoreline feature except three: Algeria, Lebanon, and Albania.

Mammals, reptiles, birds, fish (indigenous and migratory) all feature, along with many examples of the Mediterranean’s flora. Each is of interest in their own right, but there is often a lack of cohesion as we move from one to another, especially in the opening episode, ‘The Making of the Garden’.

Early man appears on the scene towards the end of this first episode. In episode two – ‘The Gods Enslaved’ – Attenborough muses on man’s husbanding of animal resources ten thousand years ago along with the subsequent rise of the first civilisations and their worship of the tamed bull. The cultivation of olives and wine and the harvesting of fish are also featured, but it is the cult of the bull that is predominant, remaining a feature of human life up to and beyond the arrival of Christianity. But where nature was once seen as divine, now it is man; and the natural world suffered.

If the bull dominates episode two, it is the horse in the next, titled ‘The Wastes of War’, when the Mediterranean almost became an Islamic lake. This was a time when horsemanship was supreme, peacocks paraded in gardens, and pigeons were bred for food. But the wastes of war also witnessed the denudation of forests and woods by man in order to construct navies.

The final episode is depressing. ‘Strangers in the Garden’ at first looks at new species introduced to the sea and its littoral, but the real pest is man. Not just the depredations of modern tourism – and Attenborough is here rightly scathing of the ludicrous forms modern tourism takes – but also the problems of overfishing, and of the pollution in myriad forms. Have things got better over the last twenty to thirty years? Alas, there are no extras on this DVD set to tell us.

Britten: Death in Venice
Britten: Death in Venice
Price: 21.72

5.0 out of 5 stars "No one should be smiled at like that", 2 July 2014
This recording was made in 2004 with Brian Couzens in the producer’s chair, so we have the clear Chandos sound of old, resulting in a sound quality full of immediacy, with well-handled dynamics, and good use made of the sound-spectrum balance on stage.

What Britten’s ‘Death in Venice’ lacks in melody – the orchestral score is often driven by percussion – it gains in atmosphere from the very first notes. It is a masterful score with Britten arguably at the height of his powers. There are many riches in the sparse orchestration to discover by repeated listenings.

Philip Langridge as Aschenbach is very good indeed, his crisp but natural enunciation meaning reference to the printed libretto that comes with this two-disc presentation being rare. Alas, the same cannot be said of Alan Opie. For example, his ‘delectable scent, sir’ sounds like ‘delectable censer’. But both Langridge and Opie certainly invest much feeling into their respective performances, and this minor gripe about Opie does not really dent the awarding of what is a five-star interpretation under the baton of the late Richard Hickox.

Face of Britain: How Our Genes Reveal the History of Britain
Face of Britain: How Our Genes Reveal the History of Britain
by Robin McKie
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Milk-Drinking Adults with Red Flaming Hair, 2 July 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Written by Robin McKie, science editor of ‘The Observer’, this is the book of the TV series, and yet not the book of the TV series. Whilst relying on the results of the scientific programme covered in the series, the book’s arrangement of eight chapters and an epilogue takes a different and more involved route to reach the same destination. (I wondered if it would have been better if the series had followed McKie’s approach.) But Neil Oliver, who presented the series, contributes a foreword in which he expresses the excitement of discovering the extent of the genetic traces of Britain’s earliest post-Ice Age population, and Walter Bodmer provides an introduction emphasising the medical gains to be made in correlating genetic markers in different ancestries with those genes that cause illness.

I thought the TV series of sufficient interest to buy the DVD (see separate review), but the series was geographically specific whereas I wondered what a fuller national picture might tell. This book did not provide the answers, since it quickly became aware that Bodmer’s tests were themselves concentrated only in those localities featured on screen, although it is noted that his is only a pilot study: “further locations are scheduled to be added in future years.” So, alas, we have no samples from mainland Scotland, only one area in Wales, and a whole swathe of midland England is missing. But this does not mean that this book does not merit a wide readership. It certainly answered some of my questions, if not all.

In the first chapter, which is really a preface, McKie points out that “medicine was the prime motivating factor for the setting up of the project,” history and archaeology being beneficiaries riding piggyback. He says his book “is not an account of the intricacies of human genetics … Equally, this is not a history book.” Rather, it looks at the influences that created the genetic make-up of the British population, including “one of the most striking discoveries to have been made in the field in the past few years: that most of the genes of the British people today can be traced to the very first people who settled on the land more than 12,000 years ago. We may have some Viking blood or Anglo-Saxon genes or hail from a Norman family, but, deep under our skin, the majority of the British population are really Stone Age hunter-gatherers.”

Chapter two, elegantly written, takes us into Bodmer’s laboratory and describes the processes involved. McKie cleverly uses the gene for red-headedness as an entry point into considering the earliest inhabitants of Britain, from which he then considers the vexed question of ‘the Celts’. (Note, if the gene is missing from Cumbria, does this mean they are not Cymri after all?)

McKie’s journalistic style does not mean a sensationalist approach: he takes us by the hand and communicates well both the essence and much of the detail of the subject at hand. He is a science editor, after all, and his perceptive observations – and jokes – pepper the text, such as the origins of Britain’s disposable society (prehistoric hand axes) or that the tag ‘Made in Britain’ can be traced to Norfolk 60,000 years ago. If I have a grudge concerning his style, it is the use of ‘He says’ rather than footnotes.

The remainder of the book is often a whistle-stop tour of Britain’s genetic and cultural history. For instance, chapter four starts with the introduction of farming in the Neolithic and ends thousands of years later with the end of Roman Britain. But genetically, there was little apparent change over this period apart from the rise of lactose tolerance in adults. McKie posits the introduction of farming from France into Kent, but new evidence also points towards Ireland being another (and earlier?) point of entry from Iberia and the Pyrenees.

But this points – for me – to one of the book’s prime failings. If genetics has determined that the descendants of the original post-Ice Age settlers in Britain stayed and form the bulk of today’s population, what were the genetic contrasts with contemporaries on the European continent? In other words, how exclusive was/is British genetics, and to what extent was/is it shared with our neighbours in different parts of the continent?

It is also unfortunate that the way McKie has presented Bodmer’s methodology allows for elementary questions to be raised of its essential first-principals. These appear based on immense assumptions. For example, why does Bodmer rate the Cornish as genetically the most ancient of the Britons? We are told this is “because this is where these people are most likely to have ended up.”

With regard to the old chestnut about the extent and content of the Anglo-Saxon invasions, the jury is still out, McKie introducing us to results of other research. (Alas, he does not explore the obvious correlation of the Franks invading France but then speaking the native Latin-based French instead of German.) But there are some definite surprises where the Vikings are concerned – in Orkney, Dublin, and Cumbria – but the greatest surprise of all is in Iceland!

The book ends with two chapters on facial reconstructions and the links between DNA and surnames. McKie makes the valid point that the Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA (on which all this research is based) trace only two of the myriad lineages of each person. Even going back only to our grandparents, half of our DNA is ignored in these kind of studies. That increases to three-quarters by the time of our great-grandparents and increases exponentially the further back one goes. So to talk of the genetic origins of individuals is really a misnomer when only the Y-chromosome and mDNA is explored.

Still, McKie’s book is a good place to start on this important and potentially tendentious subject. Who knows what advances will be made in the years to come – or, indeed, have already been made. It seems a subject rich for further revelations and readers of this review might also want to check out the books by Stephen Oppenheimer and Bryan Sykes.

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