Monday, 19 February 2018

'Above all things, avoid vagueness'


William Morris: A Life for our Time by Fiona MacCarthy
(Faber & Faber), Pp. 800

This is a massive book, because Morris was a great man. He has done so many things with his life, being a poet and novelist; print maker; designer; weaver; Socialist; reformer; speaker, and described as ‘the greatest artist-craftsman of his period’. Fiona MacCarthy has a huge job on her hands to capture the vibrancy and energy of the man on paper, and she does it well and thoroughly, as this is researched from letters, diaries and memoirs of Morris himself and those who knew him. Educated at Oxford and destined for the cloth, Morris gave up the priesthood (and, later, architecture) to make and produce things. “To Morris the idea of work became equated with creative vigour and directness: a mental and manual effort resulted in the actual production of a carpet, a story, a translation of The Iliad.”

The Oxford intelligentsia at the time was obsessed with poetry (Tennyson in particular) and the Arthurian cult. Morris and his great companion, Edward Burne-Jones laid their own claims on the Arthurian myth, with Morris writing verses and Burne-Jones dwelling on themes of the San Graal in his paintings and tapestries throughout his life. “Arthurianism, as Burne-Jones and Morris saw it, was not merely an intellectual exercise. They fell upon it as an extension of religion, adopting the chivalric as a rule of life.” Morris loved the idea of a fraternity and felt the importance of the brotherhood; a group of men with chivalric codes. “If Morris had a need for the intimate companion he had an even stronger yearning for the group.”

King Arthur and Sir Lancelot, stained glass panel designed by William Morris 
One of the celebrated members of this group was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who later went on to have an affair with Morris’s wife, Jane (née Burden). MacCarthy doesn’t shy away from the affair, but neither does she dwell upon it in any length. Indeed, the relationship between Jane Morris (or Janey as she was known) and Rossetti seems slightly sordid and not even very interesting; in their correspondence they are “intertwined in illness, in solicitous inquiry, exchanging news of treatments: theirs was hypochondriac passion, taken to extremes.” Janey was a constant invalid, as Victorian women often seem to have been. Morris, although clearly uncomfortable with the arrangement, never sued for divorce which suggests sensitivity to Janey and their children rather than any wilful ignorance.

“It was while he was at Oxford that Morris’s wild temper began to take on the quality of legend. In these rages he was accredited with superhuman strength.” He used to head-butt walls, bite through window frames, lift up heavy weights in his teeth and beat himself about the head in fits of masochism. He became the butt of jokes; the comic character; the basis of a legend. He was mocked for his size and appearance, his rages, and his wild hair and beard – the rest of the group nicknamed him Topsy. Burne-Jones and Rossetti drew caricatures of him, which are partly affectionate, but they are also a little cruel. Morris payed along with the joke, “But it would be difficult for somebody as sensitive as Morris to withstand unscathed such a long barrage of ridicule. It must to some extent have damaged his self-confidence, especially with women, and intensified his feeling that he was the outcast, even in his own close group.”

The M's at Ems by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Although he is now remembered more for his manual creativity, he was a prolific novelist and poet. He wrote The Earthly Paradise as his homage to Chaucer and the English tradition of ceremonial story-telling. This is the “vast narrative that was to make him, for a decade, the most popular poet of his period and eventually put him in the running for Poet Laureate in succession to Tennyson.” The women in Morris’s novels are strong characters who are guided by their own sense of value and self-determination. He writes of utopian themes where people live together without false hierarchies and are fully committed to the work they do. He enjoyed the minutiae of life and believed more care should be taken over individual duties.

Perhaps his most influential stamp upon the world, however, was his approach to craftsmanship, visible in his designs for everything from tapestries and textiles to wallpaper and bookplates. The earliest of his wallpaper designs are of fruits and flowers with a fluid sense of movement. “They are gentle flowing patterns which show Morris’s belief in the purpose of pattern to impose a rhythm, to soothe and civilize.” Designs such as ‘Rose and Thistle’, ‘Bird and Anemone’, and ‘Brother Rabbit’ are complex, finely detailed and confident designs. They are “very English in their range of reference, their observation of the life of the hedgerows, their fondness for the sleek, evasive creatures of the woodlands, but also clearly influenced by Morris’s study of historical textiles.”

Brother Rabbit design by William Morris
Morris’s attitude to manufacture and design is what really sets him apart from his fellow craftsmen. He famously said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” and this was an adage he brought to his work and artefacts. Steadfastly against art only for the few, Morris maintained that all could be taught the ethics and the practice. In his first public speech, The Decorative Arts: Their Relation to Modern Life and Progress (1877) he proclaimed, “I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few or freedom for a few.”

He visited Iceland on a number of occasions and kept detailed diaries, which MacCarthy mines for clues as to his future Socialism. She believes the trips had a profound effect on his art and politics, and he declared, “That the most grinding poverty is a trifling evil compared with the inequality of classes.” It seems inevitable that Morris should have been drawn into politics, and he embraced Socialism and toured the country speaking at rallies and promoting the cause. He revelled in being given a task and an active purpose. He kept a diary of his findings and experiences, and never became hardened or inured to the inequality, appreciating that it was his only good luck which made him born prosperous. Reminiscent of George Orwell, “He travels around England with such great reserves of stamina, watchful and concerned, but never sentimental, recording the depressing details of the scene.”

William Morris (right) with Edward Burne-Jones
William Morris was not optimistic about the future of culture which he felt was being destroyed by rampant consumerism and global greed. He wanted to “transform the world with beauty” and felt that if he succeeded in “some small way, in only one small corner of the world” he would count himself blessed. His enduring influence must be taken as a measure of his success, but as he said himself, “the work goes on”. It does, indeed.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Beers of the Year

Tomorrow the GABS Hottest 100 Australian craft beers is announced. This is based on public votes from a list of beers the breweries have entered. It is basically a popularity contest and comes down to who has the best marketing. I will be following the countdown with both personal and professional interest. In the meantime, I have complied a list of my own favourites from last year. The only proviso is that I had to drink them last year.

Australia




3 Ravens Juicy IPA (6.5%) - With every man and his dog making a New England IPA, there have been some good ones and some bad ones on the market. This is one of the best. The 'guidelines' claim that New England IPAs are characterised by the choice of yeast (which gives a 'turgid' appearance - many prefer the terms cloudy or milkshake) and a rigorous, late dry-hopping regime, in which the hops are celebrated for flavour and aroma rather than bitterness. This does exactly what it says on the tin.

Barossa Valley Brewing Chocolate Coffee Stout (5.8%) - Flavoured with Peruvian cocoa nibs and Barossa roasted coffee, the English ale yeast adds a berry fruitiness. I drank this on a cold winter's day and loved its sweet, rich flavours and strong stoutness.

Batch Brewing Company Island Style Coconut IPA (7.2%) - Cascade and Mosaic hops (for fruity pineapple flavours) added to pale, wheat malts, toasted coconut and lactose make this a perfect getaway beer. It's like a tropical holiday - mellow, balanced, laid-back and totally relaxing.



Moon Dog Bad Boy Bubbly (13.1%) - If you've got champagne tastes but a beer budget, this is perfect. It's a sensationally smooth barley wine made with very pale malt, champagne yeast and Nelson Sauvin hops. It has the fine bead and intensity of a champagne but a beautiful beery malt, and is aged in new Hungarian oak to give it a little lactic kick. We had this on New Year's Eve, and it was a great way to usher in 2018.

Stockade Brew Co Mysterio IIPA (9%) - I first had this at the Beer Day Out beer festival in 2016. It was big and fruity and zesty like a tangerine dream and I loved it. Biscuity notes arrive from the malt with an almost gingerbread breath; it is quite sweet but beautifully balanced with the hop profile. The marketing says it is packed full of hops but doesn't reveal which ones - hence the mystery. I'd guess some sort of combination of Amarillo, Cascade, Galaxy, Simcoe? I could be totally wrong, of course.



Stockade Brew Co Old Money Barrel-Aged Bourbon Imperial Stout 2017 (12.5%) - Rich and big and boozy and beautiful, with chocolate notes and barrel-aged bourbon. Stockade took some of their World Beer Cup Trophy-winning Russian Imperial Stout and aged it in Woodford Reserve Kentucky bourbon bourbon barrels for six months. It has picked up some rich spicy depth and dried fruit sweetness. It's far outstripping inflation: superb.

Thirsty Crow Brewing Co Vanilla Milk Stout 5.2% - This is the best (some might say only) reason to visit Wagga Wagga. The beers are not distributed beyond the brewpub, but you can take away 750ml cans of rich creamy goodness. The damn fine milk stout is sweet and rich; thick and dark with a tan head, full mouthfeel, dark chocolate and coffee flavours, and a slightly bitter finish. The addition of vanilla from Madagascar lifts it to even higher levels.

Two Birds Brewing Knock on Wood (7.1%) - This barrel-aged Belgian blonde works so much better than it has any right to. The beer was released for the brewery's sixth birthday in June 2017 (because wood is a traditional sixth anniversary gift) and incorporates Belgian yeast esters of bubblegum and peach with plenty of oak and vanilla. It's a seriously good blend of the sweetness of a blonde with the tart, funky edge of barrel aging.

Wignall Brewery Belco Boyz (5.2%) - I'm a little bit biased because I love this style of beer (English Pale Ale) and it's made by Him Outdoors. It's clean and crisp with earthy floral hops, sweet malt and fruity esters.



New Zealand


8 Wired Bumaye (16%) - Insanely good imperial stout mellowed in pinot noir barrels for a year; raisins and rich fruit and a port-like consistency. Sensational.
8 Wired Wild Feijoa (2016) (6.7%) - Sour ale brewed with feijoas and aged in wine barrels. I don't really like feijoas, but this is the best use I've ever found for them. 
Behemoth Brave Bikkie Brown Ale (6%) - a brown ale brewed with cocoa nibs and coconut; like an ANZAC biscuit. Delicious.
Emerson's Brewing Company Barrel Proof Imperial Stout (10.5%) - Decadent stout aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels, with big boozy flavours and a fantastic balance of malts; this was my beer of show at Beervana 2017.


Renaissance Tribute Barley Wine (11.8%) - Like a boozy Christmas pudding; tasting of sherry, dried fruits and treacle - sensationally rich!
Te Aro Flanders Red Ale (7.6%) - Oak-aged funk with strong base malts.
Yeastie Boys Rex Attitude (7%) - 100% smoked peat malt makes this exceeding smoky and remarkably smooth - this was the sixth bottle ever produced. 
Yeastie Boys Royal Taninbomb (8%) - There are so many coffee beers that there should definitely be more tea beers - especially if they taste this good. It's an extra pale double Earl Grey IPA bursting with citrus and floral notes from the dry leafing with Earl Grey Blue Flower. Two of my favourite things (tea and beer) made by my second favourite brewer.



Rest of the World


Black Sheep Black Sheep Ale (4.4%) - An old favourite; the nutty, toffee, malty, hoppy characters are superlative; especially with Sunday lunch at the brewery.
Brakspear Brewing Company Bitter (3.4%) - I think this is my favourite ever beer. That is all.



Coniston Brewing Company No. 9 Barley Wine (8.5%) - Beer fresh from the source is always excellent, and this from the Black Bull in Coniston is seriously good stuff; rich, spicy, warming, fruity, everything...
Loose Cannon Brewery Gyle 1000 (7.5%) - Excellent imperial/ double IPA which is deep, rich and flavourful - caramel malt and sweet orange hop characters.
Russian River Brewing Company Supplication (7.75%) - Holy Russian River, Batman! This is awesome! Fruity aroma with high acetic acid; mouth-puckering sour fruit flavours with a woody edge.


Friday, 12 January 2018

Friday Five: Favourite Films of 2017


As always with this post there are caveats: I have to have seen the film; It has to have been released in 2017 in the country in which I was living; the films are listed in alphabetical order; I can have more than five if I want to; there will be honourable mentions.



7 Favourite Films of 2017:
  1. Dunkirk – A highly emotional triptych war film (directed by Christopher Nolan), which deliberately sections the action into land, sea and air. The set piece action shots are of a high calibre, the acting is superb (as one would expect from Kenneth Brannagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, and – perhaps more surprisingly –  Harry Styles), and the narrative presents well-known facts in a fresh and involving way; stirring and memorable but without being mawkish.
  2. Get Out – When a film addresses as many genres as this, it had better be good. Fortunately, due to sharp writing and tight direction by Jordan Peele, this is clear and conceivable, even when events take a turn for the weird and the film becomes unclassifiable – is it a social exposé, a hard-hitting satire, a supernatural thriller, a family drama, or an out-and-out horror? Despite some baroque developments the acting remains solid and controlled, with stellar performances from leads Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams, and the entire ensemble.
  3. Goodbye Christopher Robin – Having read Christopher Milne’s biographies and knowing the outcome of his experiences, I was still spellbound by the dramatic tension. Both actors playing the boy with the bear (Will Tilston and Alex Lawther) are brilliant, and Domhnall Gleeson convincingly portrays the anguish and dilemma of a man simultaneously trying to be a good author and father as A.A. Milne. Margot Robbie is the weakest link as the wife and mother, but Vikki Pepperdine provides an acting masterclass as the steadfast nanny, Betty.
  4. Loving Vincent Wow, this first ever fully-painted feature-length film is simply stunning. The artwork is incredible, although the pulsating swirly stuff, in the style of the great artist, gave me a headache. Part of the pleasure is the combination of Van Gogh’s art with the physical characteristics of the actors (Chris O’Dowd; Saoirse Ronan; Aidan Turner; Helen McCrory; John Sessions), which brings life to the animation. Structured along cold-case-crime lines with a postal worker’s son investigating the death of Vincent Van Gogh, the narrative is largely unimportant – as one of the characters says, ‘You want to know so much about his death, but what do you know of his life?’ This film practically throbs with vitality; the only wrong note being the use of someone else (Lianne Le Havas, apparently) mangling Don McLean’s perfectly decent Starry Starry Night over the credits. Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman have achieved something truly spectacular and decidedly different.
  5. My Cousin Rachel – The energy Rachel Weisz saves in not having to remember a stage name goes into a consummate performance – is she a scheming and manipulative killer, or just misunderstood? The film, directed by Roger Michell is suffused with gothic overtones and mysterious motives, leading to a lack of conclusion which is as stylistically satisfying as it was in the novel.
  6. Ôtez-moi d’un Doute (Just to Be Sure) – When the French do charming, they do it really well. This gentle comedy, directed by Carine Tardieu, examines the relationship between fathers and sons, and fatherless sons. With peerless acting on a refreshingly natural level (François Damiens; Cécile de France; Guy Marchand; André Wilms), it is a beautiful blend of comic moments and home truths. It asks the question, ‘Who’s your daddy?’ with more subtly than ribaldry and a touch of romance and pathos thrown in for good measure.
  7. T2 Trainspotting The gang are (sort of) back together as they are now middle-aged men who have either succeeded or not, much as you would expect from when we left them in a hotel in London (or walking off to flee the country in the case of Renton). The original film came at such a pivotal time in my life and carried so much influence, that all I really wanted was for this not to be shit. I needn’t have been so anxious. Thanks, Danny Boyle; you looked after my memories with just the right blend of new story and nostalgia. And Edinburgh still looks great.

Honourable Mentions:

Lady Macbeth – Never underestimate the passion of the mid-nineteenth-century wife. Director William Oldroyd ratchets up the atmospheric tension and takes full advantage of the value of silence as Florence Pugh demonstrates the dangers of repression. She is as mesmerising as she is manipulating in this very dark version of the Lady Chatterley role.

Passengers – There was much critical debate about the moral integrity of this film, but it was certainly entertaining. When a bloke (Chris Pratt) wakes up early on his intergalactic travel to a new planet, he awakes the best looking woman he can find (Jennifer Lawrence) to be his companion – although he knows they will never reach their destination. Of course things begin to malfunction with some great special effects (including a spectacular scene in a swimming pool). The only other character is a robotic barman (played with unctuous malignancy by Michael Sheen) and even when our main couple stop speaking to each other, the film remains engaging.

Swallows and Amazons – Those looking for a nostalgia trip to a childhood they never quite had could do a lot worse. Glorious scenery forms a backdrop to kids at play: sailing boats; camping on islands; inventing stories etc in more innocent times when the only people hanging out in the woods were decent charcoal burners. The children are all charmingly polite and well-behaved (as they apparently were in Olden Times) and the adults provide charismatic cameos.

Their Finest – Films about making films can be a little self-referential, but this take on trying to make a propaganda piece during the WWI evacuation of troops from Dunkirk is poignant and amusing. Bill Nighy is a fading lothario who can’t accept the fact that he is more ‘character actor’ than ‘leading man’, and Gemma Arterton is the young writer trying to break through into an industry where women’s dialogue is called ‘the slop’. Despite the superb attention to detail and the feeling that this is very much set in the 1940s, director Lone Scherfig suggests that gender boundaries are still much in evidence.


Monday, 8 January 2018

...And Bright! Beer Advent Calendar 2017 Part Two

Beer 13: Hargreaves Hill Apricot Sour (7.2%)
Very fruity but also very sour: sharp, tart and zingy like a sorbet - 4/5
Beer 14: Peroni Gran Riserva Doppio Malto (6.6%)
Crisp malt with sweetness but no depth - 3.25/5

Beer 15: Feral F15 Bourbon-Barrel_aged Imperial Brown Ale (9%)
There's a sweetness and a spice to this that is quite delightful - rich and malty and truly engaging - 4.5/5
Beer 16: Exit Brewing #016 Scotch Ale (7.5%)
Rich and smoky. Certain guidelines say peated malt doesn't work in Scotch Ales, but I say slainte! - 4/5
Beer 17: Mountain Goat Cross Breed Back to the Brewer Double Steam Ale (7.3%)
Sensational beer with a smooth and juicy taste, and well-balanced bitterness. Nice one! 4.5/5
Beer 18: The Wild Beer Co. Smoke 'n' Barrels - Autumn (6%)
As it says on the label: bonfires + apples + toffee: a good brown ale base infused with sweet apple wood smoke: there is some toffee apple sweetness but it's flat - could be a bad bottle - 3.5/5
Beer 19: Stockade Le Brat Imperial Blonde 7%
Caramel bubblegum sweetness with pear esters, spicy yeast and alcohol warmth; very nice - 4/5
Beer 20: St Bernadus Brouwerij Abt 12 (10%)
I've said it before and I'll say it again: it tastes like Christmas should - 4.75/5 
Beer 21: Stone & Wood Forefathers Blair Hayden English Pale Ale (5.6%)
Far too citrusy for an English Pale without any earthy hop character; apparently there is bergamot from the tea, but there is no bitterness - 2.75/5
Beer 22: Big Shed & Dr's Orders Dr Shedlove 2017 Imperial Carrot Stout (9.4%)
Wow, chocolate and vegemite flavours actually work really well together; who knew? These guys, obviously - 4.25/5
Beer 23: Moa Brewing Co. Five Hop English IPA (6.2%) 
Great Toffee Malt and a bittering hop at the finish; tasty and very drinkable - 4/5
Beer 24: La Sirene Cuvee de Bois (6.2%)
Now that's what I call sour: overwhelming flavours of stone fruit and citrus with a tart astringency and funky oak: really tasty stuff - 4.5/5

Friday, 5 January 2018

May Your Days Be Merry... Advent Beer Calendar 2017 Part One

Here is the annual tradition of our Advent Beer Calendar - getting though the month leading up to Christmas one day (beer) at a time. He buys me the even numbers and I buy Him Outdoors the odd ones - make of that what you will...

 
Beer 1: Prickly Moses Saboteur IIPA (10.4%) 
A touch grainy with strong citrus hop - 3.75/5
Beer 2: Brew by Numbers 03 Porter Traditional (6.6%)
A lot of roasty coffee flavours but not enough richness or chocolate for me - 3.75/5
Beer 3: Haand Bryggeriet Framboos (8%)
More sour than I was expecting - great fruit flavours and tart funk - 4.25/5
Beer 4: Prickly Moses The Raconteur (6.4%)
Full of hops and malty goodness: a very tasty brew - 4.25/5

Beer 5: Ganstaller Brau Affumicator Smoked Dopplebock (9.6%)
Smoke and dark malt and smoke and leafy freshness and smoke. And did I mention the smoke?

Beer 6: Bacchus India Milk Stout (5%)
Perfect contrast of milky sweetness with hoppy bitterness - 4.5/5

Beer 7: Buxton Brewery Guatemalan Coffee Extra Porter (7.4%)

Very bitter coffee taste from the roasted barley, almost tipping the scales towards astringency; some chocolate comes through as it opens out - 3.5/5
Beer 8: Brouwerij De Molen Amarillo Imperial IPA-ish (9.3%)


Sweetness from alcohol strength and caramel malt with piney earthy hop flavours and a crisp bitter finish - 4.25/5
Beer 9: Temple Brewing Co. Okinawa Sour (4%)
Lemony with sharp citrus zest and a strange aftertaste, which is possibly the top-billed Shikuwasa fruit, but I wouldn't know - 3.5/5
Beer 10: Venom Brewing Black IPA 6%


Tasty, malty and much softer than most black IPAs; I like it - 4/5
Beer 11: Hairyman Brewery Salt Dog Leipzig Gose (4.6%)
It's got more body that I would expect from a gose; more like a salty golden ale - 3.25/5
Beer 12: Brouwerij Emelisse Vanille Ice Cream Stout (5.5%)
Tried it again and I like it more now: there's a decent mouthfeel and well-rounded taste - 3.75/5