Posts Tagged John Akomfrah

2012 – the best bits

2012, for me, has been the year of the blog.  The year that through this medium I found a creative outlet, met some fascinating people and discovered some wonderful writers, engaged in some stimulating and unexpected discussions, and generally had my optimism about the internet reinforced.  I’ve been uplifted, fascinated and inspired on a regular basis by bloggers such as Diana J Hale, Vertigo, The Fife Psychogeographic Collective, That’s how the light gets in, Weaver’s Journal, Steve Sarson and Decayetude.  And my blog on the US election led to a mutually respectful encounter with Rick from Billerica, with whom I would disagree about pretty much everything, except the principle of mutually respectful encounters with those who hold different views.    On the Our Island Stories blog, set up in the aftermath of  the Olympics to talk about questions of national identity, we’ve had contributions from some of the above, and also from Kate Elmer, Mike Press, Emily Wilkinson and  Diane Magras.  To all of those people, and so many others, thanks!

The internet comes in for some harsh criticism – and I read ‘below the line’ often enough to be brought almost to despair at the bigotry, the hatred, the cruelty that’s out there, only needing the anonymity of an internet forum to come spewing out.   But my own experience has been entirely positive.  Through blogging, through Facebook and Twitter, I’ve made friends, had fascinating conversations, shared enthusiasms, learned stuff.  I’ve connected with people I would never have encountered at all  otherwise, and connected in unexpected ways with people I already knew.  This obviously doesn’t invalidate the experiences of those who’ve been subjected to the viciousness of trolls and the deceit of sock-puppets – but it needs saying, that it can be, and often is, an enormous force for good , and that connections made via the net are not intrinsically less ‘real’, less worthwhile than those made by other means.

So, looking back at 2012, these have been some of the best bits, culturally speaking:

  • John Akomfrah‘s extraordinary The Nine Muses
  • Watching the ever elusive and enigmatic  Last Year at Marienbad twice – to be the subject of a later blog.
  • TV : Homeland –  plot holes wide enough to swallow up the odd aircraft carrier, but the degree of ambiguity in all of the main characters has been wonderfully sustained, and the denoument was unforeseen.   Line of Duty and Good Cop shared the best of those characteristics.  Misfits and Being Human somehow survived a brutal cull of main characters to emerge still witty and surprising.  The Walking Dead kept us on the edge of our seats, where we must remain until February, and anxiously awaiting news of Daryl’s fate (and the others, obv, but hey, Daryl!).  Oh, and Dr Who continued to be marvellous, moving and magical.
  • I’ve been reading Proust.  A statement which will probably feature in my summaries for 2013, 2014 and possibly beyond.   I’ve been fascinated by two particular elements recently – the constant referencing of the Dreyfus Affair, and the theme of sexual ‘inversion’ – and rather less fascinated by some of the aristocratic dinner parties that one has to endure almost in real time, such is the detail with which they are described.   There have been moments when I’ve wished Robespierre had been a little more thorough.  I’m about at the halfway point in the whole A la Recherche project.
  • New great stuff from Stephen King (11.22.63), Hilary Mantel (Bring up the Bodies) and Jon McGregor (Even the Dogs)
  • First encounters with writers I should have read before and will read more of  – Hans Fallada, Alexander BaronHaruki Murakami  and Wilkie Collins.
  • Lynn Shepherd’s Tom-All-Alone’s – I approached with caution knowing that she was riffing on my favourite novel of all time, Bleak  House, but I need not have worried.   Indeed, I went straight from Tom to her earlier novel (Murder at Mansfield Park), and have her next on pre-order – and she led me to The Woman in White as well.
  • Theatre –  Geoffrey Streatfeild in both  Macbeth at the Crucible and Copenhagen at the Lyceum, Betrayal (lovely John Simm) at the Crucible
  • Tramlines festival – Screaming Maldini and Early Cartographers in Weston Park, The Third Half at the City Hall, Soukous Revelation in the Peace Gardens, Jim Ghedi & Neal Hepplestone at the Cathedral, and Frankie & the Heartstrings, Field Music and We are Scientists on Devonshire Green.   Three days of music spilling out of every bar and coffee shop, of sunshine and people dancing in the streets – literally – and generally being nice to each other.
  • Music in the Round – a fabulous Quartet for the End of Time, an introduction to Louise Farrenc, and the early polyphony of Pérotin and the Notre Dame composers in Sheffield Cathedral.

2012 has been the year that the Hillsborough families were vindicated, utterly and unconditionally.  The year that the truth was not so much revealed – it had been in plain view all the time – as spotlit, so that there were no shadows in which the lies could continue to lurk.  And that justice seems finally to be within reach now.  Massive respect to all of those who fought this battle when it must have seemed hopeless, when everything and everyone seemed to be against them.

And it’s been the year of Inspiration for Life.  The year a dear friend and colleague, Tim Richardson,  was diagnosed with a terminal cancer, and a whole community came together to support him, and to help him set up a charity to do the things he believes in – supporting living, giving and learning.  We’ve been both devastated and uplifted.

So – onward to 2013.

No resolutions as such.  But anticipations and aspirations –

  • Graduating (again), and planning the next stage of my lifelong learning, and publishing (if I can, in real, proper, academic journals) some of my work on Michel Butor
  • Fundraising for Refugee Action – having hung up my trainers, I’m not sure yet how I can best do this, but their work is vitally important and I want to do what I can
  • Reading Proust, and lots of other stuff.  Lots and lots.
  • Enjoying to the full Sheffield’s rich cultural life – theatre, arthouse cinema, Music in the Round, Tramlines, Festival of the Mind, Arts-Science Encounters, Site and S1 and Bloc, and more
  • Blogging, about Butor, Sebald, French cinema, refugees, Dr Who, national identity, and whatever else is buzzing around in my mind at any given moment
  • Enjoying working with physicists, astronomers and other scientists, and facilitating what they do, through what I do
  • Continuing to be an utter geek
  • Listening to as much music as possible,  with as eclectic a range as possible
  • Getting Inspiration for Life going – with the 24-hour Inspire at the end of Feb (24 hours of lectures, activities and entertainments), the publication of Tim’s diary, and the art exhibition in May, funds from which will go to local cancer charities (Weston Park Cancer Hospital Charity, St Luke’s Hospice and Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice).
  • Going on about stuff that matters – refugees, environmental issues, injustice, inequality, that sort of thing.  Going on and on.
  • Doing all the above whilst being a good-enough parent, partner and friend

Phew!  No pressure then.

Thanks to all who’ve enriched my life  in 2012, and with whom I’ve shared the best bits.   Here’s wishing you all good things in 2013.


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Musing on The Nine Muses: some first thoughts on John Akomfrah’s film

It will take more than one viewing to do justice to John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses, time to mull over the images, the words, the sounds.  But some preliminary thoughts are in order.

I first heard about this film when it featured in Sheffield’s DocFest programme last year, but didn’t manage to see it, and have been looking out for it ever since.  So much about that brief blurb rang bells for me. John Akomfrah himself is a Ghanaian, born in 1957, so the same age as Ghana (and as me).   The theme, migration, is one that fascinates me, and in particular the response of my home country to the people who’ve arrived on its doorstep from all over the world, those who’ve been invited, those who’ve come here in hope, those who’ve come here in desperation.   And I love the idea of exploring this through words, sounds and images drawn from sources as diverse as those people.

John Akomfrah's The Nine Muses

The images are powerful and beautiful, whether they are of wintry Alaskan landscapes (‘a cold coming they had of it’) or of Ugandan Asians stepping off the plane, of solitary anonymous figures dressed in primary colours against the whites and greys of winter, or in black against the urban industrial or dockland settings.  The words, though often familiar (from Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible, Homer) are thrown into an unfamiliar light by being set against these images, and against the soundtrack which blends industrial sounds with music from Purcell to Part to Bollywood soundtracks.  This intertextuality and interweaving creates ambiguities, jarring juxtapositions and unexpected contextualisations.   As the Guardian review commented,

it suggests that stories normally seen through the lens of postcolonialism could just as easily be seen in existential or mythic terms. In doing so, it invites viewers to reflect on the labels by which history – especially diasporic history – is framed and categorised.”It’s important to read images in the archive for their ambiguity and open-endedness,” Akomfrah argues.

John Akomfrah

John Akomfrah says (in an interview with Sound and Music):

I am obsessed with archival material: those ghostly traces of lived moments, those pariah images and sounds that now occupy a unique space somewhere between history and myth… How does one begin to say something new about a story everyone claims to know? … what considerations should govern how one constructs a “historical fiction” about events and lives that have been profoundly shaped by what the St Lucian poet Derek Walcott called, “the absence of ruins”? Lives without monuments, without the ‘official’ signature of recognition and interest.  This film is my attempt to suggest what some of those “ruins” might look like, a desire to look into that dark mirror of one’s own past in search of images, ideas, writers and music with which to construct such a monument.

I thought often whilst watching the shots from the 60s of an earlier migrant, Horace Buck, from Michel Butor’s Passing Time.  Horace is an African in Bleston (Manchester) in the early 50s, isolated from what would seem to be his fellows because they are mostly from Sierra Leone, and he is not (we do not find out where, his story starts as he arrives in England, just as that of his French counterpart does).  Horace and Jacques are drawn together because both are isolated exiles, and Horace’s bitter, sardonic, smoky laugh punctuates the narrative, as he introduces Jacques to the bars and arcades that he frequents, where his money is welcome but he is not.   He is a generous man, insistent on offering Jacques his hospitality, and even securing lodgings for him, but his generosity and dignity are constantly met with rebuffs.  The landlady he finds for Jacques can’t know that he was involved as she regards all of his kind as ‘black devils’.  Jacques’ friends are at best uneasy and at worst openly horrified at their association.   Horace finds solace in the arms of a succession of English girls and in the music of his harmonica, and, possibly, revenge in minor acts of arson.   There’s no polemic here, no overt social commentary (less so than in Butor’s later work on the USA, Mobile, where he uses the texts of treaties with the Native Americans, amongst other found sources, or in his collaboration with composer Henri Pousseur, which uses protest songs).  Here too, as in Akomfrah’s film, the story of this exile trudging the streets of a dismal city, is intercut with mythic narratives, of Theseus and the Minotaur, of Cain and his brother, of Oedipus and his father.

So many of Akomfrah’s images are in my mind now.  The empty icy landscapes and the faces, hopeful, anxious, resigned.  The voices too – patrician tones reciting Shakespeare – ‘this sceptred isle’ – Leontyne Price and Paul Robeson, a West Indian migrant speaking of the gulf between the paradise he hoped for and the reality he encountered.  Polyphony.

Trailer here:

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