Archive for the ‘Film reviews’ category

Alan Bennett on Private Education

July 1, 2014

The London Review of Books has published what Alan Bennett describes as a ‘sermon before the University, Kings College, Cambridge’. It’s available here both in text form and as a podcast. His point is quite plain, even if he takes a somewhat rambling and entertaining journey to get to it. ‘My objection to private education,’ he says, ‘is simply put. It is not fair.’


He’s writing about Britain, of course, and so he’s also talking about deeply ingrained traditions of class and privilege, but what he says of that country could equally be said of education in Australia. He continues: ‘… to say that nothing is fair is not an answer. Governments, even this one, exist to make the nation’s circumstances more fair, but no government, whatever its complexion, has dared to tackle private education … I am not altogether sure why … [one] reason why there is a lack of will and a reluctance to meddle – a reluctance, one has to say, that does not protect the state sector, where scarcely a week passes without some new initiative being announced – is that private education is seemingly not to be touched. This I think is because the division between state and private education is now taken for granted. Which doesn’t mean that it is thought to be fair, only that there is nothing that can or should be done about it.

But if, unlike the Daily Mail, one believes that the nation is still generous, magnanimous and above all fair it is hard not to think that we all know that to educate not according to ability but according to the social situation of the parents is both wrong and a waste. Private education is not fair. Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it. Those who have to sacrifice in order to purchase it know it. And those who receive it know it, or should. And if their education ends without it dawning on them then that education has been wasted.’

Exactly. But this is the point. For unexplained reasons we keep harping on the idea that a private school education has advantages over a public one. Be it smaller class sizes, better teachers, more resources, or possibly the social network which is, literally, bought into, which pays off throughout life. But an education is something much more complicated than any of these things. When I was at a British boarding school in the 1960s, one of the elite schools of Scotland, they kept telling us that the subject matter we were studying, be it Latin, History, English, Maths, Biology, Physics, while important, was not the essential thing; that what they were trying to instil in us was a way of thinking, of looking at the world and being able to question it in an intelligent way.

That’s as maybe, except that this ability to question also came with its own severe restrictions. Not only did our teaching, as Mr Bennett says above, fail to awaken in us the idea that a privileged education ‘based not according to ability but according to the social situation of the parents is both wrong and a waste,’ it almost demanded we believe the opposite of that, while at the same time imposing structures of thought which led those of us unfortunate enough to be subject to their ministrations to conclude through the very way that they made us live and taught us that it was more than okay to live a life without love; that, amongst other travesties, women belonged firmly to the second sex and that to express support for any of their concerns was to show weakness.

If the western world has found itself in trouble over the last few decades it is, primarily, because it has insisted on taking its leaders from this stock, believing them suited to the task of ruling despite having been ruthlessly cut off from their feelings as small children. An education which does not include an understanding of what it means to be human is not an education.

richard griffiths








Alan Bennett is, of course, primarily a playwright. Just last week, however, I had the opportunity to rewatch a copy of his wonderful film, ‘The History Boys,’ starring the extraordinary and now late-lamented Richard Griffiths. A film so rich in both anecdote and in its own delight in language and learning (and their eventual incapacity to ever really help us to understand what we’re doing here), that I wanted to start watching it again as soon as it finished. Treat yourself to the article or the podcast; here is someone with the capacity to say what needs to be said in words that are hard to argue with.



June 24, 2013

Over the last year this blog has slipped into somnolence, pushed aside by family (two grandchildren, a daughter’s wedding), other sorts of writing (a new novel in first draft), politics and conservation (two big tree plants and much lobbying), outspoken (Bill Gammage in July) and now … building.

In an attempt to rationalise this house we’re adding an extension and replacing the deck. If I’m not too tired at night I will try to make this build, its design, its philosophical and physical implications, the subject of the blog. As well as the occasional photo.

Before we begin

Before we begin

coming apart

coming apart







The author at work

The author at work








rammed earth

rammed earth

rain on the new deck

rain on the new deck

Best fiction, non-fiction and television for 2011

January 4, 2012

I’m going to do my best ofs in two parts, the first, this one, is about books and television, the second one, which will, in the strange world of blogs, be above this one, discusses several posts I’ve come across during the year that have fired up my mind.

Best novel: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. No competition. It’s a novel told in, if I recall correctly, twenty-three parts, each of which functions as a short story, each one told from a different perspective, jumping forwards and backwards through time, creating, piece by piece, a world that is larger than its parts. I don’t normally like this sort of thing. The change in perspective, I find, has a tendency to rob the reader of their ability to connect with any given character, but Egan does something (I’m not sure what, but I want to find out) so that, rather than getting a fragmented collection of stories, we get an overlap that pierces to the core of both the characters’, and our own, lives. An exceeding beautiful book.

A safe choice you might say, in that it won the Pulitzer, but sometimes the prize givers get it right, as they did, I believe, with Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. I was reading some quite heavy non-fiction and came to this slim novel as a palate cleanser. What a delight it proved to be, the narrator winding us back down through the past, finding different meanings and interpretations with each turn of the staircase. It seems barely possible to have squeezed so much into so few words and yet have it feel clear and concise.

Several other books deserve mention. Organising and interviewing for Outspoken I have to read a lot of books during the year in a way that I have not been accustomed to, sometimes three or four novels by one person (previously I’ve allowed books to come to me, as it were, now I have lists). I particularly enjoyed Ann Patchett’s Run. In this novel, Patchett stays with an event for a remarkable amount of time, she uses a single incident to introduce and develop a rich cast of characters, promiscuously shifting perspective between them, and yet, like Egan above, giving them all lives I found myself caring about. Patchett was, by the way, one of the most engaging speakers I’ve ever encountered, never mind having the pleasure of sharing a stage with. I also read a lot of Alex Miller and can recommend Journey to the Stone Country and Autumn Laing, his new novel. Further afield I loved Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petersen, set in the mountains on the border between Norway and Sweden, as well as Mortals, by Norman Rush. Talk about richness and density of prose and staying in a scene, milking every last drop from it. A remarkable novel indeed, set in Africa.

Non-fiction: I can’t really separate out one and say it’s the best. I’ve recently read the first two volumes of Thomas Keneally’s The Australians, a very different way of relating history. I’ve heard it said that it’s a novelist’s view and this might be the case but many historians try to weave a narrative through the events they describe. Keneally spends time with individuals, not necessarily the Great Men, and through their stories hopes to illustrate the development of the nation. I found it fascinating, but the two books together, at 967 pages, are a big read and they’re heavy, too, to hold up in bed at night. A good argument for the ebook, although the hardbacks are very handsome. I was very taken by The Philosopher and the Wolf, by Mark Rowlands, and the last book from Tony Judt, that great historian of our time, Ill Fares the Land. Somewhere in there I managed Life by Keith Richards and friend, which also presents a stark picture of our time, or his time in the early years of the Rolling Stones. Beside my bed right now are two other non-fiction works, impatiently waiting for me to finish Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm (struggling a bit here Patrick, sorry, these long diversions into punctuation-less prose make me drop off to sleep): How to Live, about the life of Montaigne, by Sarah Bakewell and The Better Angels of our Nature, by Steven Pinker, in which he discusses how and why violence has declined. I’ll drink to that.

Television series also deserve a mention. The longer series give writers and directors an opportunity to develop character in a way that is novelistic, but also its own form. I watched several this year: Forbrydelsen, or The Killing, (Peter Brandt Nielsen) that dark tale from Copenhagen with the wonderful Sofie Grabol as the detective lead, although surely almost equally important was Bjarne Hendriksen as the brooding father.

Taken with the female detective lead and wanting to practice my French I also went over to look Engrenages, or Spiral, (Guy-Patrick Sainderichin and Alexandra Clert) but while loving Caroline Proust’s fiery detective I was put off by the crimes on which it focused. The French seem to love the gritty reality of violence, they relish bringing the camera in close on the dismembered bodies. Across the Atlantic there were two very different shows: Treme, Series Two, from David Simon, which I think was better than series one. One of the things I love about this drama is that it’s not interested in violence as a plot driver, the concern is music in its many and varied forms. Lastly can I recommend Community Series One and Two, (Dan Harmon). Fifty half hour sit-com shows of tremendous energy and humour starring Joel McHale and Danny Pudi. I came to these full of cynicism about American humour and found myself laughing out loud, delighting in the freshness of their approach. I particularly recommend the episodes about playing pool and the first series paintball.

Bright Star, a film by Jane Campion

December 29, 2009

Let me begin by saying that Ben Whishaw makes an excellent Keats. There is a nervous frailty to him, a boy-in-the-man intensity which is ideal for the part. Abbie Cornish, too, is wonderfully cast as Fanny Brawne  – although it needs to be said that I know nothing of this girl, Fanny – but Cornish is so beautiful, in a classical reflective manner, that the screen cannot have enough of her. For much of the film she has her hair pinned tightly back from her forehead with a perfect straight part which adds to the mask-like perfection of her features, the combination of her boldness and her uncertainty. Surely the camera loves her; it lingers on her face, on the pinched porcelain of her upper lip, it returns again and again to her as an object of desire, not simply for Keats, but for all of us.

In the meantime Whishaw, as Keats, scribbles poetry both in the company of his garrulous Scots friend Brown, and in various more romantic locations. There are occasional snippets recited for us. Christopher Ricks in the New York Review of Books complained that Campion had felt it necessary to addend the words with pictures, so that if Keats was describing, in a poem, snow, so we had to see it, or if a nightingale, we had to hear it, and as a result of his comments I was on the watch for this but found it to be unfair, the poems themselves were understated and deftly placed – the only situation where I found myself in agreement with Mr Ricks was for the final reading, a complete rendition of Ode to a Nightingale, recited by Whishaw while the credits rolled.

Here was an interesting phenomena: (more…)


December 22, 2009

a film directed by Isobel Coixet.

Few films I have seen recently have achieved so well, so elegantly, a portrait of the complexity of modern life. Ben Kingsley with his powerful nose and his blunt skull is a wonderful canvas on which to paint the feelings of this older man, Kapesh, as he, in turn, meets, becomes involved with, jealous of, and eventually obsessed by Consuela, played by the exquisite, extraordinary Penelope Cruz. Few films have managed better that difficult task of transferring a novel into film (although it needs to be said that there have been several successes in this field recently: Revolutionary Road and The Reader, but two examples).

With Elegy, however, even more than these other two, perhaps because it is such a reflective film, a film which centres its attention on the inner person, a film which succeeds so well at mood and moment through the depiction of simple scenes – a man alone in an apartment without the lights on, a squash ball rolling against the court wall – the rather odd, even mean, question comes to mind: why bother?


%d bloggers like this: