Wenlock Poetry Festival

Two years ago, I had an amazing three days as poet in Residence at the Wenlock Poetry Festival. There hasn't been one since, and a lot of us have missed it, so this year's one-day event was very definitely the next best thing. As usual, the WPF inspires small numbers of saints into huge amounts of work to contrive memorable events. Liz Lefroy has always been the presiding spirit of the busk, intelligent, witty and welcoming, tactfully steering huge numbers of performers through a series of five minute slots. This one went on for three hours, had little tastes of music in between, and featured a mouth-watering succession of performers, all of whom kept to time. Just amazing. Plus, it was at Priory Hall, next to the Church Green, with all doors open on a gorgeous summer afternoon. Carol Ann Duffy's gorgeous, corny line about "Wenlock is the perfect place for poetry" has never been more true.     

The End of an Era

So it's not going to happen. Arsene Wenger will not end his managerial career by lifting the Europa Cup. sad, but fairly predictable, given the way things have gone this season. They actually didn't play too badly, pressed atletico into mistakes, created some fluent passing moves, and had more possession than the home team. But they didn't really penetrate, didn't take any of the half-chances that came their way, and they contrived to produce a defensive blunder that undermined all their good work. Again.

Watching Martin Keown analyse Arsena's defensive lapses has become a kind of regular penance, the price faithful Gooners must pay for following this elusive Grail.  Patiently he goes through what they did, what they should have done, and you wonder - why isn't he there at training, showing them how not to give goals away. Steve Bold is there, hads a similar defesnive background, but somehow the Wenger gospel of beautiful creation doesn't extend to keeping a clean sheet. So it's been an eventful ride, and excitingly successful in the early years, but - although Arsene clearly doesn't agree - it's definitely time for a change. 

Alfie Evans

Generally, I plan to keep up with the news, but there are some stories i just can't bear to follow. The current one is Alfie Evans, the terminally ill baby whose parents are desperate to keep him alive, against the considered opinion of medical professionals. It's a desperate situation for everyone, but what makes it unbearable is the hysteria of those who seek to exploit it. the Christian missionary Christine Broesamle, for instance, proudly proclaims that "Alder Hey hospital really hates me because I've worked so hard for Alfie's defence." Presumably she thinks that they haven't, that the hospital is part of the attack on Alfie, so the more anger and rage that can be generated against hospital workers, the better it is for Alfie's side. It's so blinkered, intolerant and sure of its own rectitude. I don't know what should happen. But I do know that it's complicated and good people are working hard to try to resolve it. Pretending that it's a kind of Star Wars battle between good and evil isn't any kind of answer. 

Stephen Lawrence

Amazing how some names retain their potency for years. just those two words, and the images flood back - five stroppy youths, looking for a fight with an angry crowd. the three part TV series did a good job of tracking over the ground, and incidentally threw up a wonderful contrast in police attitudes. the hardened professional, who'd worked in the Met for over twenty years, and just knew it wasn't racist - so all that evidence, analysis, and thought just wasted. throw it down the drain. But then there was the real hero of the piece, a slightly fussy, very old-fashioned guy who didn't seem to be anything special but actually made all the difference, by a meticulous search for and analysis of the evidence that the earlier inquiry had so blatantly mishandled. some things do get better, if only a bit at a time. 

The perils of a three-goal lead

Phew! three wonderful nights of football. Liverpool, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Arsenal all go into their respective games with a three-goal lead. So they think it's all over? Hardly.

Man City totally dominate Liverpool, score an early goal, and then have another wrongly disallowed. You can feel the air oozing out of their ballloon. So I cleverly switch channels, in time to catch Roma conjuring the impossible escape, scoring three goals against Barcelona without reply, so that the magic away goal they scored in losing at Barcelona the previous week becomes the magic key to the semi-finals. On Wednesday it's deja vu all over again, as another cocky favourite, Real Madrid, gradually concede three goals without managing one of their own. they do eventually get a dramatic last-minute penalty, the legendary Buffon is sent off for harassing the ref, and Ronaldo preictably puts the penalty away - but it was close. So what chance Arsenal, my beloved, heart-breaking team, doing things the easy way? Not a hope. They defend disastroulsy, give the ball away, lose endless 50:50 clashes, and only escape by the skin of their teeth. Football can be an amazing game, the away goal rule does have an uncanny kind of magic, and I'm so relieved that I signed up to BT Sport. (Yes, guys. You may use that in the adverts.)  

Litvinenko moment

A nasty little nugget, retrieved from the acres of Skripal coverage. when Litvinenko was murdered in London, his dad Walter was in Italy, furious at the Putin regime which had ordered the killing. But years later Walter's back in Russia, sitting on a sofa in a TV studio with Lugovoi, one of the men responsible. they're chatting amiably, and shaking hands, so that the Russian viewers can clearly see that the whole thing was a nasty plot, made up by the West to smear the motherland. (Remind you of any recent coverage?). So what exactly went on to persuade Walter to change his mind? We may never know, but all the guesses are deeply unpleasant. There are no restrictions or limits to get in the way of the main objective - making Putin look good. 

Feel Free

Just at the moment, waking up in the morning is a supreme pleasure. I get up, go downstairs, make a cup of tea, and settle back into Zadie Smith's latest collection of prose pieces - "Feel Free." It doesn't matter what she's writing about - dancing, hip hop, movies, book reviews, her own novels. Whatever the subject matter, the approach is lively, intelligent and honest, down to earth but never stupid, and often hilarious. She feels and sounds like a warm human being, but there's always something to set you thinking, a fresh insight that hadn't occurred to you before she actually put it into words. This book isn't going to last for ever, but I'm going to miss it when I actually get to the end.  

The Joy of Teaching

No, not a phrase you hear a lot. I've just caught up with a long interview from Saturday's Guardian, in which Andria Zafirakou talks about her work as an art teacher in a Brent community secondary school. the kids are diverse and challenging - speak 35 languages, and many of them come from seriously deprived homes. But that's part of the attraction - she likes learning bits of their languages, trying to get them motivated, helping them overcome the obstacles they face. Great stuff, and familiar - I knew lots of teachers like that. She's not into lecturing them about their deficiencies - build up their confidence, make them feel some pride and enthusiasm, and then they'll be ready to learn. 

And why is she in the news? Oh yes. She's just won an international award for Teacher of the Year. These are the attitudes, the approaches, that people all over the world value in their teachers. Theresa May and government ministers have of course but running to congratulate her, despite the fact that she's the direct opposite of the kind of teaching that they encourage. It would be nice to think that her example might change their minds, but don't hold your breath.  

Quality football

Nothing special about that, except that it's the England team I'm talking about, and that hasn't been true for a while. so much thoughtful stroking the ball about at the back, from side to side unless somebody approaches, when we send it back to the goalkeeper, who boots it upfield to the opposition...so now we have john Stones sliding through precision passes which get movement going; Harry Maguire not seeing an opening for a good pass, so advancing with an intelligent, threatening, controlled dribble...Not to mention Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who seems to have had a really good reason for leaving Arsenal to go to Liverpool. As an Arsenal fan it hurts to say this, but within months he's a different player.

So, yes, England are in the process of transfrmation. All credit to Gareth Southgate for having a plan, and for picking young players skilful and brave enough to carry it out. OK, so the Netherlands were pretty poor, and other teams will provide a tougher test, but this was still a more enjoyable England game to watch than any I can remember for quite a while. 

Early Man

So I wanted to see the latest nick Park, but because it's animation they have it down as a kids' film, and aren't showing it in the evening. I dutifully turn up at 3.30 on a Thursday afternoon at the Bridgnorth cinema - and i'm the onl person there. OK by me. i'm used to watching films on my own, and though there are very few films with as many laughs to the minute as this one, I'm quite content to chuckle in solitude. It's a weird sort of mixture of Brexit politics and old-style English affection, with some shrewd satirical nudges for football aficionados along the way (just as Chicken Run drew powerfully on all those war movies we watched as kids). Oh yes, and there's a light dash of feminist assertion, but the whole thing is just a glorious celebrations of daftness fused with intelligence. Not to mention wonderful cast, with Rob Brydon talking to himself as two football pundits. I came out feeling much better about the state of the world, and not many movies do that.  

Loveless

There's a ton of good films around at the moment, and it was a buzz following the Oscar chat thinking "yup, seen that...and that..and that." But then along comes Loveless, and it's a completely different game. This is Russian in every sense - bleak, uncompromising, wintry settings and lives under pressure. It's a portrait of a couple splitting up, the separate affairs that they have, their spite towards each other and their son, who literally gets lost between them - wanders off, and isn't found. It sounds grim, and it is, but it's beautifully done, with a series of stunning still shots that are like a sequence of Breughels. It helps that we don't know the actors, we just think that they "are" these people, but they are totally convincing, both in their passionate love affairs and in their grubby little arguments. Oh yes, things can be this bad. Not a feelgood movie, and i know a lot of people who wouldn't and shouldn't go near it - but in a year rich with films this was a special, different experience. 

Unpredictable Trump

What will he come up with next? There just is no telling, not even in the White House. From the sound of it, nobody was expecting the latest bombshell - cosy talks between Donald and Kim, nestling up together, all thoughts of "rocket man" insults cheerily discarded for the sake of a headline - and the shock value of catching everyone on the hop.

By next day, of course, the tweets head in a different direction, and there's all sorts of assurances that of course no talks will take place without North Korea solemnly committing themselves to...who knows? It's certainly not diplomacy as we know it, and even if it achieved some kind of temporary truce, who knows how long that will last? volatile is the name of the game, and it'll stay that way for as long as Trump lasts.

Russians Again

Pesky lot, the Russians. Just as you're starting to feel some sympathy, they kick you in the teeth. A TV documentary on Putin the other night featured a contrite Jack Straw, saying that the West had misread the risings in Georgia and Ukraine, and contributed to Putin's paranoia by trying to hijack local resistance into an East/West split. Absolutely right, and you can see the defensive "us against the world" syndrome clicking in all the time. On the other hand, the doping stuff is totally unacceptable, and has to be fought every inch of the way. ditto Litvinenko. And ditto - it seems very likely - Sunday's nerve agent attack on Skripal and his daughter. Easy to predict the rhetoric and the outrage. Much harder to say what we'll actually do. Having a few officials not turn up to the world Cup won't make a blind bit of difference. boycotting it - and getting other European nations to do the same - would seriously injure Russian prestige, but it's not going to happen.  

I, Tonya

It's a good time for movies. A few really good ones - like The Shape of Water - but also some weird surprises, of things that might have been tacky but weren't. film Stars don't Die in Liverpool, The Battle of the Sexes, and now I Tonya, the potentially depressing story of a tough, working class kid who happened to be brilliant at skating - despite failing to fit into the prescribed categories for girl skaters - petite, demure, styling and obedient. In one sense it doesn't help that her mum is a ruthless tyrant, though her mum - a brilliant Alison Janney - might well argue that it's that that got her through. early family life is bad, marriage is eventually much worse, and the trail of misfortune, from her no-good husband to his deluded friend, who hires incompetent hitmen to break the leg of Tonya's biggest rival...If anything could go wrong, it did. But the film is a marvel of honesty and commitment - good actors making tough choices and completely convincing me, at any rate, of the reality of what I'm watching. Margot Robbie probably won't get an Oscar, but I'd be delighted to be proved wrong.     

Making the Case

Sir Martin Donnelly, once Liam Fox's chief civil servant, has described leaving the EU as "like swapping a three-course meal for crisps." Fox is not impressed, dismissing Donnelly for sticking to the patterns of the past. and what does the future look like, in Fox's view? "Confidence, optimism and vision will always deliver more than pessimism or self-doubt." Whether or not that's true, Fox would have benefitted from attending an Arvon writing course, which would have taught him that a snappy concerete image will always beat a string of abstract nouns. 

Russian doping

Well, why not? Might as well call a spade a spade. I'd had a sense of Russia getting away with stuff on the doping front, slightly reinforced by odd asides as part of the Winter Olympics coverage. But now the scales have fallen from my eyes, and the whole picture is dazzlingly clear.

And what makes the difference? Watching the Netflix documentary Icarus, that's what. It's one of those quirky autobiographical documentaries which starts as as something completely different, but then becomes rivetting as a whole new story unravels before your disbelieving eyes. Ryan Gilbey is a keen amateur cyclist and film-maker, who gets intrigued by the possibility of training himself in the illegal use of drugs to improve his performance - if he can do it, starting from scratch, then surely anyone can. First he gets an American expert to help him, who then gets second thoughts, because this might harm his professional profile, but as a parting gift he puts Ryan in touch with Grigory Rodchenko...

Who just happens to be the mastermind behind Russian Olympic doping. They develop an odd kind of jokey friendship, until things start to unravel. WADA is looking into doping, and seriously investigating what the Russians do. Rodchenko is under pressure, but also scared that he may get ditched as a scapegoat (it has happened before. He got locked up in an asylum, and was only released because Putin's mate needed him to come out and run the programmme. So maybe it's safer to go to the Us...but should he help prosecute the Russians, or try to protect himself by going to the press? It's confused, fascinating and scary, but on the way it provides absolutely total proof that this was a watertight, state-approved programme of deceit, on a massive scale. anyone who thinks that the Russians are the victims of political pressure, or have suddenly cleaned up their act with miraculous precision, is kidding themselves.    

Darkest Hour

The cinema was packed. "Oh, you'll love it," a friend confidently assured me. And the friend I was with did love it. So maybe I'm just eccentric, but I thought Darkest Hour was terrible. Gary Oldman's terrific, ditto Kristin Scott Thomas, but the basic idea, the shoddy superficiality of the script, just appalled me. If I were feeling really gloomy I'd say it was a hymn to Brexit, a celebration of the people's vote which sets us free. Quirky, lovable Winston Churchill, uncertain under the pressure of smooth appeaseniks like Lord Halifax, isn't sure whether to sticj to hios comabtive guns. so he goes down into the underground, for the first time in his life, talks to randon strangers, and then comes back to the surface to rouse the houses of Parliament by quoting the sage advice of his new-found friends. Just like Ed Miliband on a bad day. The German ambassador got it exactly right. A country which takes comfort in wtaching such films id deeply delusional about his history, its identity and its future chances of survival.  

Edge of Empire

Oh, the pleasure of reading a well-written book. I'd ordered Maya Jasanoff's well-reviewed book about Conrad, but then saw that the library had another book of hers sitting on the shelves, with no need to work through a waiting list. So why not start with that while I'm waiting? It's a weird, original take. Study empire through the collections and the collectors who were involved in it. She moves from India to Egypt, all the time laying out a detailed, vivid account of lives and movements, changes in atmosphere and long-term developments. It's tiny print, which is something I normally can't stand, and 300 densely packed pages, but it's a sheer joy, because it's patient, intelligent and beautifully organised. there's none of the posturing and wielding of cartoon simplifications that you get with the noisier debaters of empire, pro and con. It's complex reality, enthusiastically researched, in a way that comes vividly to life.

Hard Sun hubris

Yes, it's official. As a TV viewer I am hard to please. Starting off with a clutch of half a dozen drama series that looked promising, I've watched almost all of them come apart. This weekend I thought I'd do my duty and finish off watching Hard sun, although I had serious misgivings. It started off - promisingly - being about the end of the world. then it diverted onto much more predictable serial killer territory, and then in the final episode it did a sudden sharp turn towards assisted suicide and weird transformation of victims who seem to have been lobotomised.

Through it all our intrepid central pair of sexy pin-ups charge remorseless, apparently unfettered by any connection with the organisation for whom they work, and immune from the threatening secret services they've openly defied. And then there's their private lives. She has a psychotic son who wants to kill er, and several episodes ago was about to have sex with a reporter, but she's completely forgotten about all that. He's a loving, kind, obsessive parent - except he isn't, and has been cheating on his wife with the widow of the colleague he killed way back when.     

It's a mess. entirely unconvincing, and streets behind series like Spiral or Before We Die, which aren't models of plausibility but do have some kind of integral consistency, their own heightened world we can sort of believe in. But Neil Cross, apparently, not waiting to see how the customers react, is planning to write another four series of this stuff. Isn't it time for somebody, somewhere, to "take back control"?   

Kiri

A few weeks back, I was raving about the dramatic increase in the quality of TV drama. Oh dear. One by one, they disappoint me, settle for the easy cops and robbers route, simplify the issues, let characters lose all consistency and the plot lose plausibility - so long as it makes a good Tv moment. Cos we're peasants, and we'll settle for anything, right?

The saddest betray of all was Kiri, which in moments was a stunning look at what social workers do and what they have to put up with. But the denouement was all over the place. (SPOILER ALERT: if you haven't watched it but plan to, look away here.)

Kiri has been illegally taken off by her biological father, from whom she then got separated, and killed by persons unknown. In the last episode, it turns out she was killed by her adopted dad, who couldn't bear that she was going off with her biological dad after all they'd done for her. Only snag is, biological dad knows nothing about this. He told the police that he and his daughter got separated, and he was looking for her all over. If they'd agreed to go off together, surely he'd be sitting outside her house, engine running, waiting for her to skip into the car.

If I pick this up on one viewing, surely they could afford to have somebody (unpaid amateur playwright like me, for instance) to go through the script looking for implausibilities, before they spend thousands on spurious political demonstrations that they don't need?