Friday 31 January 2014

Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame, 2007 Dir. Hana Makhmalbaf

Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame 

(Buda as sharm foru rikht)


Director: Hana Makhmalbaf

This is the first feature film from the then 19 year old daughter of the renowned Iranian film-maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf and wow what an opener.

The story is set in the town of Bamian in Afghanistan where the Taliban demolished two 100 foot high, 2000 year old statues of Buddha carved into the cliff face in a wonton act of historical and cultural destruction.

It tells of the perils one little girl has to face in her attempt to get to school because she wants to “learn funny stories” and her letters like Abbas, the boy next door does. Her determination in the face of everything thrown at her see her overcome poverty, indifference and violence. It is particular galling to watch how the young boys bully her, making her take part in their war games, as they mimic first the Taliban and then the Americans, ripping out pages of her notebook to make paper planes, digging her grave, putting a paper bag on her head, and taking her hostage to lure Abbas into a muddy hole.

The dialog is simple and straightforward and the youngster who plays Baktay is very engaging. The viewer really empathises with her: first as she struggles to sell her eggs in order to buy the required notebook, as she ingeniously uses her mother’s lipstick when she cannot afford a pencil and how these two items get her into trouble. The perilous nature of the landscape of her walk to the market, the inherent difficulties of crossing the river to the girls’ school on the other bank are subtly handled by the young director.

Although I couldn’t help but smile as Baktay played hopscotch in the circles of gravel the boys drawn round her to imprison her in, the childhood terror of bullying and her tearful not wanting to play their war game brings home to the viewer just how cruel children can be and how much they mimic what they see in adult behaviour such as the restrictions on education for girls, the horror of stoning as punishment, the destruction and violence of war. This film is a moving, symbolic portrayal of the problems of poverty, illiteracy and social reconstruction faced by a post Taliban Afghanistan

ashramblings verdict 4* : Amazing debut, watch for this directors subsequent movies

Tuesday 28 January 2014

White Castle by Orhan Pamuk

White Castle




Orhan Pamuk


A young Italian sailing from Venice is taken prisoner by the Turks and sold into slavery in Istanbul . His master, the scholar, Hoja, is his double. Realising the new slave has some intelligence Hoja wants to know everything his slave knows, everything about Western science, technologies and medicine. But the slave’s knowledge on such matters come only from books and is soon exhausted, and Hoja’s quest for knowledge turns philosophical as he wants to understand why they are the people they are.

Over the years, the relationship  between the two men changes, from master and slave, to teacher and pupil, to comrades, through a sadistic mix of love, admiration and hate. Pamuk charts this complex relationship as it undulates through its highs and lows like any marriage or partnership, undergoing periods of dominance by one followed by periods of superiority of the other. Some times his writing achieves this better than others, at least for this reader as some parts flowed better whilst others were very dense, heavy going and oftimes boring. But it is an ambitious work to map the intricacies of changing personas of Hoja and the young Italian, through their swings and roundabouts as they court the young sultan and become powerful players in his entourage. Over the years Hoja and the young Italian in turn provide the educational and guiding influence that the young ruler needs as he ages and grows into his rule.  To aid him in his war they develop a weapon to end all weapons, which fatally proves a real failure in actual battle, literally getting stuck in the mud as the sultan’s forces try to take the White Castle. It is their undoing. With growing scepticism and hatred for the role of the Italian in this defeat, Hoja and the Italian, swap lives and Hoja heads back to Italy, ostensibly as the now freed Italian, who remains in Istanbul as the aging Hoja.

In an interview  Pamuk has said that the relationship between the young Italian and Hoja is based upon his relationship with his own brother - a competitive, complex relationship, in which his brother represented for the young Pamuk authority. He has translated that into a depiction of the issues of identify which can be seen to mirror the split persona of Istanbul – part European, part Asian, part Western, part Eastern, part Christian, part Islamic. In the interview Pamuk says, “On the other hand, this theme of impersonation is reflected in the fragility Turkey feels when faced with Western culture. After writing The White Castle, I realized that this jealousy—the anxiety about being influenced by someone else—resembles Turkey’s position when it looks west. You know, aspiring to become Westernized and then being accused of not being authentic enough. Trying to grab the spirit of Europe and then feeling guilty about the imitative drive. The ups and downs of this mood are reminiscent of the relationship between competitive brothers”.

I suspect the ending of the book is open to a number of interpretations as regards the ultimate fate of the two men, who is where, who is who . How much this is intended by Pamuk I can only guess but judging from his interview comments I would say that any confusion about who is where living which life mirrors much of the duality that is Istanbul still today.

ashramblings verdict 3* : a intricate conversation about the complexities of identity and the power plays between participants in a relationship or personas within one individual.


Monday 27 January 2014

Rock and Roll Salvation

Rock and Roll Suicide – David Bowie, from the Ziggy Stardust Album, 1972.© EMI Music Publishing
“Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth
You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette
The wall-to-wall is calling, it lingers, then you forget
Ohhh how how how, you're a rock n roll suicide”
Inspired from memories of seeing the scene from the excellent Cracked Actor Documentary, made by Alen Yentob, © BBC 1975 in which David Bowie describes the cut-up technique he used for writing some of his lyrics.
image imageimageimage
He sits crossed legged, gaunt and drawn as thin as a Belsen survivor, his clothes draped over clothes hanger wire shoulders. Scissors in hand, he cuts up the phrases and sentences. Surrounding, on the wall to wall, the paper birds shout and cry out to his spirit waiting in the wings. He scrambles them and listens for that newly created, free based, wellspring of juxtapositions. Some linger, some are forgotten. His hands holds his cigarette; he breathes in its smoke and exhales the poetry of his cracked mind, perhaps saving himself from being another rock and roll suicide.

Thursday 23 January 2014

The Spider’s House by Paul Bowles

The Spider’s House


Paul Bowles


Bowles spent much of his life in Morocco and wrote his fiction there. This familiarity is immediately visible in his writing in this book set in the city of Fez. 

The first and second parts of the book are about Amar, a 15 year old Arab boy, who has dropped out of school unable to read, working in several jobs placed by his father and one with a potter which he finds himself. We see Amar negotiate both the city physically and culturally. Although he is anti-French, his upbringing has been orthodox Islam and so he is not attuned either to the ways of the nationalists, the Istigal. He fails, for example, to understand that there will be no sheep for the Eid slaughter because of the undercurrent of rumoured uprising against the French who have deposed the Sultan and installed a puppet regime.

In the third part of the book, we meet the hotel living foreigners, the main one, Stenham, an American who was introduced very briefly in the opening prologue, has lived there for many years and naively wishes for what he sees as the traditional Morocco to live on, detesting French colonialism and Moroccan Nationalism equally. We see a slow build up of behind the scenes tension as the political situation in the country begins to simmer towards an ignition point around the forthcoming Eid celebrations. The foreigners are aware that something is up, but not in the same way that Moroccans are aware. This different perspective is seen throughout  with respect to religion, life and death, woman, fatality, social customs and ritual. As the climate of unrests heightens, the lives of Stenham and Amar are brought together in the fourth part of the book when the hotels are forced to close and they flee Fez and attend a festival in the mountains.

In the final fourth part of the book, Amar leaves the mountains and ends up back at the country house hideaway of Moulay Ali, a mysterious figure he first encountered in the first part of the book. Moulay Ali  tricks Amar into taking over from him the playing a song on his lirah, so ensuring that he and his Istigal followers can escape the encroaching police.

There are some delightful moments in this book, for example, his descriptions of the town and people – I loved the vision he paints of the bus load of people returning from the mountains, swaying and zigzagging down the mountain roads,  singing to seem like pilgrims in order to escape being stopped by the authorities. I feel it would benefit from several close readings to understand better the nuances of how Bowles portrays the problems of (mis) understanding between the cultures. As for the flimsy plot, for me it gets completely lost in the third section, when Amar’s story is totally overcome by the focus on Stenham.

ashramblings verdict 3* A good book which sadly goes slightly too far off track in the middle, unsure as to who is its main character.

Monday 20 January 2014

No, not ordinary

The winter frost snow caps the cars

Dark puddles litter the car park potholes

Last year’s Harmattan seems a world away.


M&S dressed ladies meet for tea and scones

Mothers wheel their kids for pizza and Big Macs

Last year’s suya fires my taste buds.


Pedestrians stroll safely in the Thoroughfare to shop

Streaming from politely parked cars siphoned from bypassing traffic

Last year’s ocados still squirm between my legs.


Blue jeans, black coat, head bowed she trudges off to the Co-op

Blue jeans, black jacket, head bowed he heads off to the pub

Last year’s proud, flaming scarlet abaya still floats with effortless elegance across the Ahmadu Bello Highway .


Last year’s Afrobeat has hip hopped to minimalist Glass

Hot coal grilled Croacker has mueted to deep fried Haddock and chips

Last year’s Oyibo’s tan has faded, paled without whiteners

Shaping up the chrysalis of next year’s me.


Word of explanation:

Harmattan  - seasonal cold, dry, dusty West African trade wind blowing from the Sahara to the Gulf of Guinea between November and March

Suya – street food, somewhat like a kebab, flattened meat on a skewer, well seasons with chilli

Ocado – a motor cycle taxi

Abaya – a woman’s full length gown in Saudi Arabia, but here used with some poetic license applied to a full length, but more fitted but still loose and flowing Kaftan-like ladies riga or gown

Ahmadu Bello Way – a busy major road in Abuja, Nigeria

Croacker    - Pseudotolithus senegalensis (Cassava croaker) is a white sea fish commonly grilled over open fires with hot spices all over Nigeria and much of West Africa.

Oyibo – Non-derogatory, Nigerian slang for a white person

Friday 10 January 2014

Lasting Damage by Sophie Hannah

Lasting Damage
Sophie Hannah
I read this one because I am new to my in person book club and this was what they had decided to read.  I didn’t know anything about the author or even heard of her before.
My first impressions were that it probably wasn’t the sort of book I’d normally pick up: for the first few chapters I thought it was over written, that the author needed a better editor to help condense the text. However, as I read on the plot began to really grasp me and my criticism of the style slipped. I couldn’t work out weather there had been a murder or not, or whether I was reading a murder mystery or a physiological thriller. In the end, for me, the plot worked but the story took too long to tell.
Connie sees a dead woman whist viewing a video tour of a house on a Property web site. By the time she wakes her husband, Kit,  to see it there is no trace of the dead woman and no sign’s or anything untoward in the house. Will anyone believe her? We follow her attempts to get to the bottom of this. The chapters are interspersed with Police Exhibit records, and the book starts with a short chapter indicating that she is going to die because of the Gilpatricks, people she doesn’t know. So as readers we are being conditioned into thinking that there is a death and that perhaps it is her own. One thing I do think is clever is this pre suggestion by the author onto the reader, a technique which she has one of the characters use to great effect in a police interview. 
The explanation of the plot comes all at the end, climaxing in a repetition of the opening chapter to complete the loop.  On the front of my copy of the paperback there is a quote from a review written in The Independent ‘Hannah takes domestic scenarios, adds disquieting touches and turns up suspense until you’re checking under the bed for murders’. Do I agree with this? Somewhat. Yes, the domestic scenes in the book provide the root of the story, and to some extent I did feel the suspense as I clearly kept reading the book. I concluded that it would make a better serialised TV thriller – for me there was much more detail of Connie’s family than was required for their part in the story – we have to understand her family ties to buy into Kit’s greater plan – but it is overdone, a TV version could show this much more succinctly without detracting from the dramatic ending.
For me the ending was almost in two parts and I question the need for the final one –  I can see that it is meant to provide the trigger for the behaviour  which plays out in the story, but I can’t help but wonder whether it would have worked just as well without it.
ashramblings verdict 3*: a satisfying thriller in need of a trim.

Wednesday 8 January 2014

False tree

Lying spent after the event
impervious to wind and rain
inedible to bugs and grubs
discarded to the kerbside.

Tattered, ripped wrappings
unlooked at, unloved
crumpled into balls
discarded into waste bins.

Awaiting removal
the remnants of a Christmas Past.

Tuesday 7 January 2014


Red hat, blue hat, green hat. Felt hats, fur hats, wedding hats. Mad hatter hats – that’s actually a place called that near where I used to stay. No Red Queen, but down a leafy lane and, yes, you could probably see a March hare there if you were paying attention.
I never used to like hats. Why? Because when I was young I was made to wear one to church every Sunday. Those days of white gloves. Trouble was they always fell off my head – was it the shape? of the hat? and /or of my head? I reckon it was because my hair was so fine and everything slid off it – bows, ribbons, hair clips. Result, my mum fixed elastic to the hat to try and keep it on and I hated that elastic. It cut into my throat from ear to ear. As soon as I could I always took the hat off.
It wasn’t until I was on a winter’s holiday in a very frozen Hamburg that I bought another hat, sometime in my thirties. One third of your heat is lost through your head. Lately its been more of a case of keeping the heat off my head. But I still prefer to ‘let the wind blow back my hair’. My love hate relationship with hats.

Monday 6 January 2014

Braving the new world

Isn’t it nice when things start to fall into place like when you are first getting to know new people?

Moving to a new town means braving the world. One of my strategies for this is to join a book group. As I read a lot anyway it seems an obvious thing to do but also it tends to attract interesting people. It has proved a useful way to open doors in the past. So of course I did that here. I have so far been to just one meeting just before Xmas. A sizeable group bigger than ones I have been to in the past and luckily I had been able to read the book they were discussing. As they also talked about other things they were reading and films they were watching it proved an excellent intro to some new faces. Inevitably some folks stand out: either physically, culturally, ethnically or because of some common ground or life experience which immediately becomes apparent – in this case travel.

This morning I went off to be another one of my opening doors activities, namely attending a Writing Group. I’ve  never done any creative writing before but I thought it might be a good way to stretch the brain and exercise the imagination. There was only one person there when I arrived and I recognised her from the book group. Reintroductions as we’d both forgotten names, followed by a bit of chit chat about the book the group is reading for this month’s meeting, about the writing group was followed by a slow realisation that no one else had turned up. One phone call and it was established we’d both got the starting week wrong and there wasn’t one for another 2 weeks.

Undeterred we continued chatting. I asked about how the group worked, members etc. In the end we did two writing exercises of our own devices each choosing a subject. Quite illuminating to see our different approaches and styles and to contemplate my own first output from the exercise. We then migrated to the local cafe for a cuppa, my new friend then showed me her home. An exchange of telephone numbers later and I find myself walking home an unbelievable 3 hours later. The world felt good.

Wednesday 1 January 2014

Strange Meeting by Susan Hill

Strange Meeting
Susan Hill
In her Afterword to this book, Susan Hill says that it owes nothing more than its title to Wilfred Owen’s poem of the same name, She acknowledges the coincidence thread which led her to write this novel as a means of putting to bed, of exorcising her ghosts, as regards WW1. As a child she had learnt that her own grandmother’s only brother, Sidney Owen, killed at the Battle of the Somme; his name provided the link to the famous but unrelated poet; and later she was to discover Benjamin Britten’s work and Owen Wyngrave the hero of the Henry James short story about whom he wrote his opera. This Owen – Wyngrave circle was furthered when she sat down in Aldeburgh to write this novel, during a winter in which writing was broken up by “walks on the marshes and shingle in the bitter cold, breathing in the inspiration of Britten with the north wind”.
Once again, my reading has taken me to a book where the plot is subservient to emotional and physical landscape and character. Certainly the landscape plays a part in her novel, she describes the devastation and horrors of the trenches, of trench life, of non man’s land, but the core of the book is the relationship between two officers – David Barton and John Hilliard. Flung together as room mates in the small loft of the farmhouse serving as Battalion HQ when John returns to France after a spell at home, the two men are very different. Hilliard is reserved, introverted, from a family where show is everything; Barton is not only talkative but open and sharing of his thoughts and feelings, able to get on with everyone. Through David’s letters to and from his family, John begins to see a whole new world and way of life.
There are some strange memorable moments in the story: for example the tale of how the men in the trenches adopted, cared for, and turned on the hedgehog; how Barton madly rushed out into no man’s land to retrieve it but could not assist and left his fellow comrade to die in the field; the moment when their CO, having sealed the end to his career by speaking out against the continued orders from on high for reconnaissance raids  which he thinks “are pointless in terms of strategy and a criminal waste of men”  address his officers for the last time – a turning point for him, for them, their lives and for their war.
It is not only David’s letters which are interspersed through the novel – Hill says she read a great many memoirs, diaries and letters as part of her research – but also the arrival of Hilliard's parcels from home. Whereas David’s letters are like him, open, honest, truthful and has family’s letters similarly full of feeling, love and warmth, John’s letters, when they do come, are formal, fuelled by the false ideas circulating at home about how well the war is going and the parcels, inevitably from Fortnum’s are packed full of luxurious goods, glazed cherries and chestnuts, which again serve to show up the contrast between the apparent progression of the war and the actuality on the ground – another reminder of how the military hierarchy were struggling to deal with the anarchic novelty of trench warfare compared to the previously usual, structured, decisive cavalry type battles.
As the anniversary of The Great War approaches as I write this on January 1st 2014, I am moved to remember that in 100 years we have still not changed, we still send off our young to fight in battles on distant shores, and to lay down their lives to different weapons, used in different styles of conflict, but all with a similarity of aim, in pursuit of what we see as freedom.
ashramblings verdict: 4* There’s no dark or ghostly episode in this novel, just the all pervasive background gloom, but Hill’s writing pulls these two men from the page and this reader became utterly engrossed in them and how friendship is sewn in the most unlikeliest of places between such opposites.