Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometimes

Life Spent yesterday in Belfast and actually doing that as a day trip wasn't as daffy an idea as it might sound considering that I was flying there and it's on a different bit of land to Liverpool. I approached the visit in the same way I do a museum or art gallery. I picked a couple of things I knew I wanted to do and stuck to those. That way I wouldn't be disappointed that I hadn't crammed everything in, and I'd have a reason to return because something would be new.

Inevitably that meant my first adventure was the red City Sightseeing bus. Although I know the best way to see any city is grabbing a map from the tourist information centre and walking, when there's only a limited time these are a great way of seeing the great span of the place in a short space of time. This took an hour and a half and featured one of the best live tour guides I've ever heard.

The tour takes in all of the main areas of Belfast and not just the city centre, which means that you get to see and listen to the history as well as the culture. Some of these red bus tours have a recorded guide which is fine, but can't really react to anything which is happening on the day. The live guide usually brings their own personality to the work. In Chester, that leads to a hard line to all of the duff new architecture which is being thrown up. In Belfast, you get politics and religion. Both with capital first letters.

The guide talked about the various political parties, paramilitary organisations and terrorist groups. About how there was a new one called 'I can't believe its not the Eye Are Aye...' As we drive up the Shankhill Road, stopping now and then at the world famous murals, he points out that the KFC have nothing to do with the UDF or any of the others, even though there seems to be a colonel in charge. He brings to our attention the British listening posts and the bullet proof CCtv cameras. On the Falls Road, diatribing about the evil of the wall which seperates the two most volatile groups and areas. About how the country hasn't been run from a parliament for two and a half years. About the infamous bank robbery and who might have been involved. It's a hair-raising time, but as he underlines, as we make a drop off stop on the Shankhill, tourism has replaced terrorism and that we're all sitting on an open top bus.

Belfast city is experiencing a period of investment and growth. The derelict or bombed out buildings are being demolished or refurbished. There is a real buzz about the place, a sense of moving forward, trying to put the past behind. The bus pushed through the shipyards, now piles of rubble or waste ground and I sensed that this must have been what it was like in Cardiff Bay before that was remodelled into the future. There is even a newish ice rink and ice hockey team, called the Belfast Giants. As the guide explained it's a good thing they didn't go with the original choice, the Belfast Bombers (true story).

From there, after a brief stop over at the BBC Shop (who knew they existed?) to buy all of the available Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy radio series on cd at startlingly cheap prices, I visited what seemed to be the next favourite tourist attraction, the City Hall. Almost as though the place had been designed by an idealist playing the Sim City computer game, this is directly in the centre of town, a giant, ornate, white building in Portland Stone. There are free tours of the inside. Having been to Liverpool Town Hall fairly recently, I wasn't shocked to find one Municipal Building looking very much like another. The only difference here is scale. From a giant domed ceiling designed as a homage to the Whispering Gallery at St Paul's Cathedral to a Great Hall were the carpet so large it's easier to cover it with a specially designed dance floor during gatherings than rolling it back up again. Needless to say there is now a photo waiting to be developed of me trying to look authoritative while sitting in the Lord Mayor's chair (look -- I was invited).

After another hour of looking around the used book and record shops, it was time to eat, which is when one of Belfast's really unique features came into play. With all the redevelopment came new shopping outlet and bar opening opportunities. So there are now lots of designer clothes shops and restaurants. These all seem to have names like Still, Hole or Giraffe. They appear proudly on signs hanging off the side of the wall. The only trouble is that with all their curtains and dark windows, its impossible to work out which they'll be until your directly on top of them. So at six o'clock at night when you've an hour in which to eat before going to the bus station to get the coach back to the airport, you find yourself walking half a mile up the road to find that something called East isn't a restaurant at all but a clothes shop which has about three skirts on display. I eventually fall into somewhere called Bourbon (which has a website) were I have the nicest Bangers and Mash I've had in my life. Real pork, real potatoes, real onion gravy. One of those meals you never want to finish.

So it was a massively enjoyable trip really. Even the travel was intoxicating. It's only the second time I've flown anywhere and there was still the giddiness of take off, my only expression to start laughing and become philosophical. As I looked out of the window this time, and watched the clouds drift over the land masses I started feeling disappointed that the great artists, the Turners and the Michaelangelos weren't alive to see what the world was like from above instead of below. I wondered if that was why Leonardo was so comitted to building a flying machine -- so that he could paint the earth as it appears from the heavens. How the history of art might have changed if they'd been able see us the way they must have imagined God saw us. But then coming into land last night, the ground covered in darkness but for a shimmering pattern of oranges and yellows, from street lights, headlights and house lights I also realised that ordinary man really is capable of great incidental beauty when he isn't trying to blow things up.


Film In 1999 when I left our local multiplex having seen Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, I felt ellated. Not betrayed. No disappointed. Ellated. The rest of the day there was a smile on my face. In 2003, after watching Attack of the Clones, I called my friend Chris from outside the cinema, and jabbered down the phone at him at how good it had all been. I did the same this afternoon, although I was on the train home this time. During all of those moments, those Star Wars films are the best films ever made.

I've said before, there is always something slightly disappointing when you sit down to watch a film, the 20th Century Fox logo appears and it isn't followed by the one for Lucasfilm, because you whatever you are going to watch isn't Star Wars. That doesn't happen with New Line, who distributed The Lord of the Rings, or Eon who offer us a James Bond now and then.

There isn't a definable reason for this, although I know that there's some nostalgia involved. Being a child at school, the day when I think the teachers were on strike and all of the children, some four hundred of us, sat on the wooden floor of the main hall watching a 20 inch tv show a ropey vhs copy of the first Star Wars taped from Granada TV (possibly edited for violence). It's our chance return to those moments, to throw away the years of life which have crept up and ruined us, for just a few hours.

Which is why Revenge of the Sith is the best film ever, at least this evening. For that two hours twenty minutes, I no longer had to be the cynical sausage I've become, and I could just let the adventure wash over me, the ten year old version of me (sneaking into a 12a certificate movie) getting to see were Darth Vader, Luke and Leia came from and were the Jedi went.

In the days and weeks which follow, the cynicism will return and I'll start picking flaws, re-adjusting my appreciation. I'll notice the leaps in logic, the odd poor performance and clunky bits of dialogue. I'll wonder why Lucas didn't leave all this stuff to our collective imaginations which told the story the best way, our way. But until then, all I can say is go and see it, because it really is the best film ever.

Wada Na Tod

Elsewhere Just because I wasn't writing here, doesn't mean I didn't cause mayhem elsewhere. This post at Metafilter led to the busiest non-Galloway thread of the day, and even spawned its own Metatalk thread which threatens to be as long. I really didn't think it would hit such a raw nerve -- as I said somewhere in there I wouldn't have gone there if I'd known. Still, he came, he saw, he caused infighting, he walked away again.

It's The Sun

Life I don't know if this is an addiction, or whether I just feel the need for instant communication, but not posting anything has been extremely difficult. I haven't got my mojo back (wherever that came from or has gone) so expect mediocrity interspersed with the usual stupidity. Having thought about it though I think my problem was over extending and padding. Meandering around a point rather than punching straight through it -- so I'm going to be trying the approach of shorter posts, or hopefully quality over quantity, and see how that works out.


Life I've been finding it extraordinarily difficult to write lately. It's been torture. I've been lacking an inspiration and an affinity for it which was there before. I feel as though the vocabulary has dropped out of my brain, the ability to construct decent sentences and even worse to have a valid original thought and be able to communicate it. Moments have been happening which I've wanted to write about and once it gets to the point when I want to tell you about it, I've been unable to find the words. I just feel deeply inarticulate, as though there's a wall stopping the idea becoming a interesting piece of writing. I look at some of the recent work I've posted and here are some recent examples. Each seems to begin well, then lose its way then end abruptly. But I'm not sure what else I can do. This has been neglected as well. I've been in a slump before (see late 2003) but this seems more -- sustained.

So I'm going to take a break from the blog for a few days to see if I can get my mojo back and sort some other things out ...

Light & Day

Elsewhere I just posted about Ethan Hawke's stab at Hamlet here.

04 Ethan Hawke

Hamlet played by Ethan Hawke
Directed by Michael Almereyda

When this version of the play was announced in the late nineties there was total apathy, especially from me. What was the point in revisiting the work so close in time to Branagh's definitive version? The answer was fairly obvious -- this was in the middle of the sudden craze for adaptations of Shakespeare plays for young people, sparked by Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet through Ten Things I Hate About You ending with O. When I heard it was to be set in the millenial New York I was vaguely interested in what would be done with it. Especially since the play is set in Denmark. When I read the cast list and was very excited. Not quite as remarkable as Branagh's but one name jumped out at me.

Polonius ..... Bill Murray

What? Bill Murray doing Shakespeare? Peter Venkman? Phil Connors? Playing Polonius? Genius. What was he going to do with the role?

I'm first in line the day the film opened and the only person in the auditorium for that showing. The reviews had been mixed. This wasn't going to be a massive opening in the UK. The film opens unconventionally with some title cards getting the audience up to speed about the death of Hamlet Sr, establishing shot of Hamlet entering Hotel Elsinore, then scraps of the big speeches played out in the screen of a portable video player ('What a piece of work is a man...'). Title card. Then a press conference in which the King talks on the marriage to his sister-in-law and the takeover plans of the Denmark Corporation by one Fortinbras.

And there he is. Bill. Grinning on the front row, oblivious of mischief making between Ophelia and Hamlet. He gives an entirely uncharacteristic woop and then grins right through into the next scene. He looks, uncomfortable. He looks much like I do in a suit. This next scene in which Laertes offers his intention to leave, Bill gets to use some words and it just sounds wrong. Distracted. Given that all he's saying is that his son wants to leave the country he's about as convincing as I am when I say I'm happy.

When I saw this, I just started laughing. I couldn't help myself. It was more from shock than anything else. Here was one of my favourite actors giving one of the itchiest, gottlestopped performances I'd ever seen, jumping headlong into the hands of writers who say (wrongly) that Americans can't do Shakespeare. So it continues through scene after scene, at no point does he look like he could be Ophelia's dad. There's just no chemistry. Man can act with an elephant, gets acted off the screen by Julia Styles. I actually missed his death scene on that first screening because I went to the toilet to get away from him (which meant the film at that point was playing to no one -- which has the philosophical ring of trees falling in woods making sounds). It clouded my entire impression of the whole film - I just wanted to go home.

Which is a shame, because watching again tonight there is so much else to enjoy. The length, for example. This is a very lean Hamlet, just 106 mins including credits. It replaces much of the verbal poetry with imagery, scenes reduced to the most important, minimalist characters such as Osric lost, replaced by props such as fax machines and mobile phones. Considering the chopping about of the text, the story doesn't lose any clarity, and in fact it gives characters very clear motivations -- Gertrude takes the poison at the end in a vain attempt to save her son's life, rather than as an accident. I don't remember seeing that before. It's also free and easy with the iconic scenes -- we see the grave digger singing 'There must be some kind of way out of here...' but don't stop off for any skullplay.

Which is one of the jarring elements of the film. Shakespearean language intermingles with a modern English of song and advert and iconography. In the silliest of moments, Hamlet and 'friends' jump in the back of a taxi to be met by the voice of Eartha Kitt purringly asking them put on their seat belt. I suppose the intention was to do the opposite of Baz, but it has the effect of making the viewer wonder how the characters communicate with people who aren't characters in the play...

"Hello Domino Pizza?"
"I have a task which I must entrust you to execute with great speed."
"Err ... OK ... "
"Upon this application I do note an elixir of such sweetness that twixt my lips ... "
"Excuse me sir, did you wanna order a pizza?"
"One moment. I must call up my faculties before I ..."

That said it is amusing to see Claudius leaving a limo and stepping towards a theatre playing the stage version of The Lion King, and Hamlet watching the classic Gielgud, interpretation of the role from when he must have been Hawke's age.

Which is a good time to jump in and talk about Ethan Hawke. The choice here seems to be angsty twenty-something (which is about were Hawke at the time). He spends much of the film in introspection, talking to himself or his camcorder. He's entirely misunderstood, and far from being mad, he's a man with a plan. It's actually, for me, cleverly understated, about the anger which bubbles underneath after the death of a relative. He's more of a straight up hero, even after he kills Bill. Sorry Polonius. But all of the performances run against the typical grain of their characters, although as I said before, given the cuts, the real credit is were a mark is made given the fewest of scenes, so hats off to Liev Schrieber. Worth mentioning too is Steve Zahn's Rosencrantz -- talk about creating a character from nothing.

What's most interesting is that after a choppy beginning, once the film settles into a rhythm of playing out whole chunks of the play, in order, it really begins to engross. It does that almost impossible things of being emotional and engrossing even to someone who is becoming increasingly familiar with the work. Considering that setting, it's a surprise that the Ghost of Hamlet Sr (played touchingly by Sam Shepherd) is here at all and not replaced by a VHS from beyond the grave -- but there he is in all his spectral glory. The action of the end of the play is rewritten to amazing and shocking effect, entirely in-keeping with the setting of this version and just as experimental as the rest of it. I'm increasingly seeing how flexible this work is.

I watched the dvd of this film on the 16th May 2005.

The Road To Beijing: Michelle Dillon

The Road To Beijing In the event, Michelle Dillon was fifth in Japan, two and a bit minutes off the race winner. It sounds as though her race was quite similar to what we saw in The Athens Olympics. "Once on the run, Harrop's energy faded, as her win on the difficult Mooloolaba World Cup course 2 weeks ago started to take its toll. Hackett and Bennett made little impact on Harrop?s lead through the first lap of the 3 lap run, but the great runners in the event such as Great Britain?s Michelle Dillon and Japan's Akiko Sekine and Kiyomi Niwata started to move through the field, making up for many lost moments during the swim and bike." [about]