Gumshoe (1971)

Dir Stephen Frears, with Albert Finney and Billie Whitelaw (DVD)

Set in Liverpool, this film is the lovechild of The Maltese Falcon out of Billy Liar. Finney is Eddie Ginley, a bingo-caller with a penchant for imitating Humphrey Bogart. He gets caught up in a preposterous plot involving hitmen, a Sidney Greenstreet character, gun-running and an occult bookshop. All the clichés put in an appearance: telling women to take their glasses off, trench coats, mean streets. I thoroughly enjoyed it – in particular its undercutting of film noir with prosaic Britishness:

“Fix me a drink.”

“Milk and sugar?”

It was more than an excellent pastiche, though. There was a sense of melancholy about lost hopes and unfulfilled dreams – kept at bay with wit and imagination, whether Ginley’s one-liners, or the club owner’s fake photographs on his office walls of himself with stars.

It’s salutary watching a British film from a time you remember; there’s both a feeling of nostalgia and a wince at how things were.

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Long-tailed tits

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A little gang of long-tailed tits suddenly appeared on the feeder. The robin soon saw them off, but they were delightful while they stayed.

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By the river

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Shelducks

The compensation for such a wet, cold winter like this one is that I am moved to make the most of any bright day. Yesterday I got my wellington boots from the garden shed and headed down to the river.

The sun was bright enough to bring out the colours in the shelducks and redshanks. I saw hundreds of lapwings, several curlews and a large flock of pink-footed geese. So nothing special but everything enjoyable.

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London belongs to me by Norman Collins (1945)

The problem with a Kindle is that all books appear wafer-thin. (I miss the physical aspect of real books: their weight, the way you can fan through paperbacks, make later-incomprehensible notes in the margins, remember which bookshop you bought it in, and try to recall how much 2/6 was.)  I had no idea when I began “London belongs to me” that it was such a doorstopper! Fortunately it’s also a real page-turner – a soap opera of a novel that is humorous and warm-hearted.

It covers two years – 1939 and 1940 – in London, mostly in and around 10 Dulcimer Road, Kennington, a lodging house that is the perfect authorial device for shuffling a pack of largely working-class characters. It’s not Dickens – Collins has something of the range but not the depth – but it is richly descriptive. You become intimately acquainted with the characters’ lives: you can feel the movement of the tram, smell the cigarette smoke, taste the tinned salmon and sweet tea.

I was reminded of how important respectability used to be to those with little – but just enough – money. At first I was puzzled by the neighbours’ sympathy shown to Percy – a weak-minded car mechanic who could have been a case study for Orwell’s “The Decline of the English Murder” – when he is tried for the murder of a woman. Then I realised that it wasn’t his undoubted guilt that they were concerned about so much as the likelihood that he would be hanged and the effect it would have on his mother.

As well as respectability, money is – naturally – important. Some characters, like Connie and Mr Squales, are nearly destitute and rely on their wits to supplement their income. Mr Puddy is not quite that desperate; he always manages to find another job, but it’s touch and go:

. . . in the really bad periods, Mr Puddy, a man who liked his chop or steak and his boiled suet roll or treacle pudding, was sometimes reduced to several thick slices of bread and butter – packed face to face, so when he separated them they came apart with the sound of a long sticky kiss – and a piece of soapy yellow cheese.

For Mrs Vizzard, the landlady in the front basement, the greatest sin is living on capital.

It happened sometimes to the most respectable people. It was like secret drinking. Homes were broken up, lives ruined, neighbourhoods mystified – and all because of living on capital.

It’s an amusing read, too. I did enjoy the description of Connie at the outbreak of war, going to Waterloo to watch the evacuation of children.

Children . . . brought out the best in her. Not that there was anything unusual in that. She was always having her best brought out. Holiday-makers drowned while bathing, brides killed in motor-smashes, sea-birds with oil on their wings, fathers of families getting caught up,in machines, cats marooned on church steeples – she rarely got through the daily paper dry-eyed.

And then there’s Spiritualism, a Nazi spy, the South London Parliament, Dunkirk, a flatshare that goes wrong, and much more. An evocative, entertaining door-stopper.

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Un Ballo in Maschera

Back in Leeds for another Opera North production. The Guardian critic thought rather poorly of it; he obviously knows far more than me, but that’s to my advantage here because I loved it and was ignorant of its flaws.

The subject is the assassination of King Gustav of Sweden in 1792, but it was played in mid-twentieth-century lounge suits with some Nazi/Fascist/Stasi overtones (military caps and tubular steel chairs with handcuffs), which initially jarred with the intermittently jaunty music (cue Oscar). On reflection, I thought that captured the ambiguity of Gustavo: the enlightened despot loved by his subjects but with blood on his hands from wars and suppression. It also reminds us that this is a world where it’s OK to kill your wife because you think she’s unfaithful. The world in the opera is definitely not a Safe Space.

Poor Amelia suffered throughout while singing heart-rendingly. Oscar was like a sprite – s/he was of a different world entirely.

  • Gustavo – Rafael Rojas
  • Amelia – Adrienn Miksch
  • Anckarström – Phillip Rhodes
  • Oscar – Tereza Gevorgyan
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Leighton Moss

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Little egret

Unfortunately Northern Rail don’t run Starling Specials, so I had to leave a quarter of an hour before the starling murmurations were likely to start. But it was a lovely afternoon anyway.

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Shelducks in Southport

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Pink-footed geese with Blackpool Tower in the background

Despite yesterday’s snow and last night’s freezing temperatures, today was pleasant enough to tempt me to Southport. My destination was the small RSPB reserve at Marshside, north of the town.

On the train from Wigan to Southport I noticed large flocks of swans in some of the fields – probably whoopers, but I couldn’t tell for sure. (No chance to check on the way back; I had found a nice restaurant, so I wasn’t in any hurry to get home before dark.)

I ignored Southport’s attractions and headed straight for the sea. As I walked along the busy coastal road I could see plenty of shelducks on the foreshore. Nothing but shelducks for some way. Further along however I began to see scores of pink-footed geese . . . and wondered how I had ever confused them with greylag geese.

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Greylag geese last summer

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Pink-footed geese this morning

At the reserve itself there were enormous flocks of “the usual suspects”: teal, pintails, tufted ducks, godwits and wigeon foraging on land, shovelers, lapwings. You could hear the light tinkling of the ice breaking as they moved.

All this was within spitting distance of the busy coastal road and housing estates. On my walk back to Southport on an inland embankment I passed a school playing field with curlews on the pitch

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while Canada geese strolled across the golf course:

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