World Press Photo 2012

I found out about this from a friend and went to see it, spread out on opposite sides of the Royal Festival Hall’s enormous ground floor.

The contest, I learnt, is in it’s 55th year.  101,254 images were submitted by 5,247 photographers from 124 different countries and 169 of the photographs are on display.

What a year they covered, the Arab Spring sweeping through Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and beyond, the devastation of nature in the Japanese earthquake and Tsunami to the more human devastation of the Utoya Island massacre in Norway.  The winning photograph was by Samuel Aranda of Spain, showing a Yemeni woman cradling her son who was suffering from the effects of teargas.

There were warnings that images may not be suitable for minors, indeed for all the images of the volatile Arab Spring there were some gruesome scenes from elsewhere, dismembered bodies in Mexico, hanging criminals in Iran and a bloodied Rhino whose horn had been removed by a vet before poachers shot it four times and ripped out the stump (Brent Stirton), were just a few that captivated me in horrific incomprehension.
However, perhaps worse were those that weren’t physically jarring, but whose subject matter told a much darker story.  The brightly dressed Child Brides of Stephanie Sinclair cast a distubring scene, and Afrikaner Blood by Ilvy Njiokiktjien, in which a scene from a bootcamp run by ‘Colonel’ Franz Jooste for young white teenagers is depicted.  Jooste teaches them how to deal with a perceived black enemy for a civil war he believes is approaching.  Shark fin by Paul Hilton and evicted by John Moore drive you deeper into despair, the constant background hub-bub of the hall seemingly fades to a low murmur as you move round wondering how on earth we believe we are civilised when we are capable of such barbarianism.

The most powerful images for me came from different photographers.  One from the Battle of Libya series, by the late Remi Ochlik, shows rebels who have captured an alleged mercenary.  One soldier has a hand on his shorts/jeans while another, who you has a large almost jolly looking face, has a fistful of his t-shirt in one hand, and a pistol pointed at his temple with the other, as they march him off.  The alleged mercenary looks down, contemplating the paths that have led him to the wrong side, almost accepting the inevitable.
Denis Rouvre‘s photograph of Toku Konno, a tsunami survivor from Sendai in Japan is a beautiful portrait that seems to encapsulate both tragic loss and a quiet determination at the same time.

But Never Let You Go by Alejandro Kirchuk engaged me more than any of the others.  A set depicting Marcos and Monica, who were married for 65 years, spending much of their life in the same apartment in Buenos Aires.  When Monica was diagnosed with Alzhiemers in 2007, Marcos looked after her himself, and the photos show  Monica and Marcos during this time and after, including a poignant shot of Marcos leading Monica out of a room, their hands held almost seemingly for support, comfort and appreciation.  Even during the last year of her life, when she barely recognised him he continued to care for her.
“Tell me where she is going to be better than here” he said “I treat her like a princess, here she has everything”

I finished the exhibition with a lump in my throat, but Marcos’s love and devotion gave me some hope that as a species we still posses compassion amongst the barbarity.

The Battle for Libya by Remi Ochlik

I did wonder whether to put the photographer links in or not, but in the end wanted to put them in so people could easily find out about who is in the exhibition.  I have obtained them from the world press photo 2012 official site, here

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Pure [Andrew Miller]

“At what point do you think they started to outnumber us?”
“Who, my lord?”
“The Dead.”
“I don’t know, my lord”
“Early, I think. Early” 
The minister finishes his macaroon.

Les Innocents, the biggest and oldest cemetery in Paris is to be removed.  Jean-Baptiste Baratte, an idealistic, modern young engineer, trained by the famous Maitre Perronet no less, is given the job of clearing it out, moving the bones on and tearing down the church.

In front of the bench, a dozen sparrows have gathered, their feathers puffed against the cold.  He watches them, their ragged hopping over the stones … In their feeding, the little birds appear to dance between his feet.

Baratte, hoping to become a modern man in Paris (and who doesn’t) visits the cemetery and falls in with the mischievous church organist Armand and the young innocent Jeannie, daughter of the Sexton.
Pure is a whirlwind, galloping along without so much as a glance at it’s periphery as Baratte brings his old friend Lecoeur and a band of men from the mines at Valenciennes to clear the mass grave pits and bring down the church, while he obtains his supplies from the fantastically named Louis Horatio Boyer-Duboisson.

The work does not go entirely smoothly thought, Baratte himself is a victim of a crime, which prompts him to declare himself to his love interest, the Austrian, Heloise, known in the area as a whore.

Miller evokes Paris beautifully, the bustle of the streets surrounding the cemetery and the local markets, the washer women and traders. And despite the gigantic presence of the dead, there is a rich vein of humour throughout the book, whether from the characters or Miller’s intriguing turn of phrase.

With Armand, the engineer spends an hour searching for Les Innocents most celebrated relic, the stylite’s toe bone in it’s box of iron, but there is no sign of it, and something, some pantomime quality in his friends searching, prompts Jean-Baptiste to ask him if he has in fact stolen it.
Armand agrees that he has, “It was to raise funds for the hospital” he says.
Is that true?” Asks Jean-Baptiste
Armand shrugs

The enigmatic Lafosse, the miner with the violet eyes, even Armand or the real life Dr Guillotin could have had bigger plots in the novel if Miller had wished to flesh it out, but he distils it down to the narrative of the Baratte, and the end of Les Innocents.  The characters are seen through the prism of the cemetery, as if it is the cemetery that gives them life.
When the cemetery is gone, so to are the miners, Lafosse, even the minister.  Jean-Baptiste moves on with Heloise after a year unlike any other he has lived.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman [Murakami]

‘What I’m trying to tell you is this.’ She said more softly, scratching an earlobe.  It was a beautifully shaped earlobe.
No matter what they wish for, no matter far they go, people can never be anything but themselves.  That’s all.’ 
(Birthday Girl)

I climbed through the trapdoor into the world of Murakami, the weird and wonderful world that never fails to entice and intrigue me.
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a collection of short stories where even the mundane is rarely ever just that.   His characters are always just outside normal, like they’ve walked through a door and found that you can only open it from the other side, and they are shut out.  I always wonder if this is what Murakami thinks of people generally, or of the Japanese, or even himself, or whether he just has an incredible imagination containing an almost limitless supply of outside-normal characters.  They are all here, the students, the Jazz Heads, the happily married and the cheaters, the lonely and the spaghetti lovers.

For some reason, while I enjoy reading about the minutiae of everyday life in a novel, I always expect the weird and wonderful in short stories, the lack of a proper ending, or conclusion, the lack of expanse producing combustible results as the characters are forced to jump into the situation without hesitation, and so really, Murakami is a great fit.

I enjoyed the light hearted fairytale of Birthday Girl, while Hunting Knife for me had a brooding menace about it, which was possibly completely in my head. Late-Stage Capitalism explores how two people realise they can never go back, even by going forward.

That was the only way we could grasp what we were supposed to understand at that time.  If this had been long ago, that wouldn’t have been the case – we would have had sex, and grown even closer.  We might have ended up happy.  But we’d already passed that point.  That possibility was sealed up, frozen solid.  And it would never open up again. (Late-Stage Capitalism – A folklore for my generation)

If you have read Norwegian Wood you will recognise Firefly, where the novel germinated from, and man eating cats was blown up into Sputnik Sweetheart, as Murakami explains in his introduction.
Of course there are dollops of the unreal in the collection.  The short Dabchick, A ‘Poor Aunt’ story, the despairing Ice Man and the brilliantly named Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes (look out for the Sharpie Crows), the latter Murakami’s swipe at the Japanese Literary establishment, something he himself has always sat just outside of.

One of my favourites of the collection, The Seventh Man is a look at the effect fear and grief can have on a life

The Seventh man fell silent and turned his gaze upon each of the others.  No one spoke or moved or even seemed to breathe.  All were waiting for the rest of his story.  Outside, the wind had fallen, and nothing stirred.  The Seventh Man brought his hand to his collar once again, as if in search of words. (The Seventh Man)

Another favourite is the poignant Chance Traveller, in which Murakami considers the strange coincidences and the surprising impact they can have on your life, based on personal experience.  The story is from a friend of his, and Murakami bookends it with his own thoughts.
The collection ends with the wonderful The Shinagawa Monkey, featuring the ingenius Mrs Sakaki and a talking monkey.

I always never plan to buy Murakami when I shop for books, and I always come home with one, but next time I’m out I will be on the hunt for the Elephant Vanishes, his other collection published in English

Was the god of Jazz hovering in the sky above Boston, giving me a wink and a smile and saying, ‘Yo, you dig it?’ (Chance Traveller)

M83 at Brixton Academy

I’d never heard of M83 until a couple of weeks ago, “I’ve got a couple of tickets if you want to go and see them at Brixton, check out Midnight city and let me know” said the text from my mate, who is like a personal ticketmaster (with taste).

I did, and I did.  Midnight city is an awesome song, a bit like MGMT.  But better.  And the video was fantastic, I loved it and the follow up video for Reunion.  The video for Steve McQueen was not quite as good, but the song was.  I downloaded the album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming and watched the two videos non-stop up until the gig, last Thursday.  Heading out of Brixton tube I at least seemed to know more than one of the touts, “tickets for M82 buyorsell” he touted, before someone pointed out he’d lost a number somewhere.

Inside Brixton we had a beer, then a Jungfrau bomb, the barmaid battering me down on my insistence for a Jaegar Bomb (less to drink and less chance of needing a Jimmy Riddle half way through) as it was cheaper.  We headed down the right hand side (for some reason it’s always clear my mate advised, and he was right) to fairly near the front and settled down amongst the fans.
The show was brilliant, I couldn’t tell you many of the songs, barring the three I mentioned above, I recognised some off the album, including Intro and the epic Wait (a favourite of the guy in front of us who went crazy through every song, he must be their number one fan).  The energised and uplifting Reunion was about the 3rd one in and they finished with Midnight City, which got the biggest response of the night before a pumping encore ended two years of touring for a superb band.  If you like a bit of electro pop (and French at that, No one does electro or disco like the French) then I highly recommend them.

Oooooh-oooh-oooh-ooooooh (That was me singing the riff to Midnight city, it sounded better, although my voice may have been a little too high).

Website here

The Honorary Consul [Graham Greene]

Nicholas Shakespeare recalls, in his introduction, a conversation he had with Graham Greene where Greene said that the Heart of the Matter was his best book (although he hated the hero), and that The Honorary Consul was his favourite.
Shakespeare also reveals that the Honorary Consul was his first Greene novel, and it is also mine.

I fell into it from the opening lines and emerged just over a week later.  Thanks to a bout of man-flu I had a couple of days in bed where I savoured Greene’s brilliant story telling as Doctor Eduardo Plarr tries to save the honorary Consul Charley Fortnum from being killed after he was mistakenly kidnapped in place of the Ambassador.

I wish we had a simpler flag than the Union Jack.  I hung it upside down once on the Queens birthday.  I could see nothing wrong with the bloody thing, but Humphries was angry – he said he was going to write to the Ambassador

Both Plarr and Fortnum are intriguing characters. Plarr’s father hangs over him throughout the novel while his mum sits in Buenos Aires eating cakes, while Fortnums love of ‘just the right measure’ and his role as honorary consul cause embarrassment to everyone but himself.  But Plarr becomes much darker as the novel winds it’s way to the end, his secret becomes more and more open to everyone as the novel goes on, while Fortnum slowly crawls his way out of his life of intoxication as he contemplates not living to see his child grow.

From the bungling kidnappers to the General who will not interrupt his fishing trip to deal with the demands, the weight of machismo on the Latin American character is poked at by Greene, sometimes with humour and sometimes with frustration.

‘Or machismo,’ the doctor said, venturing to tease him.
Oh, everything here is machismo,’ Perez said … ‘Here machismo is only another word for living.  A word for the air that we breathe.  When there is no machismo a man is dead’

The unnamed town is largely thought to be based on Corrientes, and Greene explores the life of it’s inhabitants and the seemingly muted life of the expat in a far flung border town, where  an engaging story line is played out by extremely real characters who all seem to want to do better, but who all mostly fail to achieve their aim.

He wondered what kind of bitter and reproachful prayers she had muttered that morning at Father Galvao’s mass.  Father Galvao was a Portuguese Jesuit who for some reason had been transferred from Rio de Janeiro.  He was very popular with women – perhaps they were more ready to confide in him because he had come from a long way off.

Blossoms and Shadows [Lian Hearn]

“There is some bond between them as if they were lovers in a former life.  Over the days he recovers his spirits; they talk about politics and poetry, they exchange verses.  Often she feels his eyes on her face as if he finds her beautiful.  Even an old woman can feel the Spring, she writes.”

After reluctantly floating out of Dejima at the end of the Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet I managed to sneak back into Japan forty years later, following Tsuru in her quest to become a doctor, and find love at a time when the old and new were clashing together, with life changing consequences.

LIan Hearn has put down the tales of the Otori to give us an excellent novel of the Meiji restoration, as Tsuru’s life becomes intertwined with the revoltionaires from her domain of Choshu as they seek to restore power from the fading Shogunate to the Emperor. At the same time America has demanded Japan ends it’s isolation and the British, French and Dutch are all scheming to get a foot on the Japanese soil. As the domains take sides, strive for power while at the same time trying to prevent their rivals from gaining power, a driven few will see that enemies must unite, and that change must come, whatever the cost.  There are plans and schemes, battles and pilgrmages as Japan is dragged into a new future.  One of the domains older warriors accuses the younger ones of thinking too much about the future, rather than how to achieve it, but as Tsuru struggles to see chances for herself in the old world or the new, she wonders if they think about it enough.

These aren’t the only problems Tsuru faces, there is also a relentless number of names thrown at her throughout the book. I read on and eventually managed to remember about four characters, only for them to die or change their names completely. Naturally Tsuru had no such problems, and she didn’t even have the guide at the beginning of the book detailing all the characters, which I decided not to use as it would have taken me years to cross check every time I was confused, which was often.  I’m currently listening to a Short History of Japan podcast (here if you’re interested) and they haven’t quite reached this period, so as usual, not only did I bring my own Japanese naming inadequacies to the book, I had no idea what was what and what happened at the end, still it’s always a lot more interesting if you don’t know the end no?

But names aside I loved this book, Lian Hearn has crafted a deep and rich painting of 19th Century Japan, and you can almost feel her passion for the country and this particular period in the narrative, which sees Tsuru have an incredible life that is buffeted by great sadness but which sees power restored to the Emperor and the birth of modern Japan.