Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

2018 foursomes

December 31, 2018

If you are reading this, you have successfully staved off death again, as have I. Let’s raise a glass to keeping on doing that in 2019.

Top 4 books
It’s been a year of classics. I spent most of the first half of the year reading Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, and an engrossing, exhilarating, boring experience it was too. Delighted to have done it, though. Emily Wilson’s vibrant new translation of Homer’s Odyssey brought Greek mythology to life in a way I have never experienced before. Joyce’s Ulysses was my single reading highlight of the year, the book that contains all of human life. I can’t omit these three masterpieces from a top four, but there are many contenders for the fourth place: Ann Quin? Nicholson Baker? Denis Mackail? Barbara Pym? (New discoveries all.) I think it has to be Doreen by Barbara Noble, an unheralded, Persephone-published classic about a girl evacuated from London during the Blitz. More books imminently: watch this space.

Top 4 new films
No surprises here, with three of my favourites nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and the other the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this summer. Best of all, I thought on first acquaintance, was Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, full of tenderness and delightfully light comedy. Saiorse Ronan’s one of those actresses you’d watch doing anything, isn’t she. Martin McDonagh’s gratuitous use of slurs rankles with me somewhat in both his plays and his films, and that was also the case with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but its stark brilliance was a compensatory factor. I drowsed through Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread at the cinema, but a second viewing over Christmas confirmed its quality. I can’t resist its elusive romanticism, or Vicky Krieps. And lastly Shoplifters by Hirokazu Kore-eda, a director with a hit rate so high it’s indecent. I’ve been warmed by his films before, but never so pained as I was by the final act of this one. Another paean to family life, and a fitting memorial to Kirin Kiki, whose radiance has illuminated many films I have loved in recent years.

Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, which I saw at the Cambridge Film Festival, is my tip for 2019.

Top 4 old films
Not that old, some of these. Anyway, the standout film of the year, the one that I think back on and marvel at, is Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross, which tells the story of a teenage girl in a fanatically religious family in fourteen static (or mostly static) tableaux. It’s beautifully bleak, the bleakness going so far that it almost verges into black comedy territory, and one of the most arresting films about religion and the perversion of religion that I’ve seen. Also sometimes bleak but mainly life-affirming was Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, a document of New York’s ball culture in the 1980s. Impossible not to be heartened by the warmth of the community created by its personnel, and by the brightness of the trails they blazed – in many cases all too brief. That it exists at all is a cause for rejoicing. Italian cinema tends to be a blind spot for me, but even I responded to La dolce vita – to its spectacle and its style and its episodic nature, to the glorious lightness of that café scene with Perez Prado on the jukebox, to the enigmatic conclusion. And lastly, let’s go for Tom Browne’s family drama Radiator, a film that slipped under the radar a few years ago. With beautiful performances from Daniel Cerqueira, Richard Johnson and Gemma Jones, it’s a resolutely unsentimental but achingly tender film, and very wise about the frustrations and joys of family life, and about our relationship with the past. I loved it. Missing out but also worthy of inclusion: Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, The Lost Weekend, Brooklyn, Boyz n the Hood, The Sessions, The Swimmer, and doubtless many others.

Top 4 student
Another good year for student theatre in Cambridge, with my highlights coming early on. The Marlowe Society’s Arts Theatre takeover in January is invariably excellent, and their Romeo and Juliet was the best production of the play I’ve seen, with Harry Redding and Matilda Wickham both excellent as the lovers (it occurred to me that a small bet on Wickham to win an acting Oscar by, say, 2030 would be a smart investment), and John Tothill a marvellously bland and placatory Capulet. I kept thinking of West Side Story – the sweetness of the central relationship, particularly in the balcony scene, the ‘America’ rhythm, even the Doc-like stressed-outness of Adam Mirsky’s chain-smoking Friar Laurence. Beautifully spoken throughout by the whole cast. The ADC Theatre closed for refurbishment in the spring, and I salute whoever came up with the masterstroke of putting on Hamlet in the Round Church. Some smashing performances in the candlelight, and Polonius nearly caught fire at one point. Some great musicals from CUMTS this year, my favourites being firstly a really exciting and imaginative Assassins, with James Daly’s Balladeer, Robin Franklin’s Booth and Tom Baarda’s manic Guiteau among the high points; and The Producers, with Meg Coslett and Conor Dumbrell a perfectly matched Bialystock and Bloom, and Leo Reich breathtakingly good as Roger De Bris, his every camp movement a joy. (Amaya Holman made a big impression as Bloom’s boss Mr Marks, as she did in everything I saw her in this year, most of all in the brilliant ADC/Footlights panto. She’ll be a star.)

Top 4 Edinburgh
I had intended to see Natalie Palamides’s Nate but chickened out at the prospect of being made to strip off against my will and went to see Gyles Brandreth instead. A middlebrow Fringe for me, then, but with some transcendent moments. Seeing Sheeps for the first time in several years in their new show Live and Loud Selfie Sex Harry Potter was an unexpectedly emotional experience for me. They’re as good as ever. Better than ever was Kieran Hodgson, his ’75 perhaps the pinnacle of his stand-up career so far, buzzing with ideas and impressions, and beyond exhilarating. The Lowry production of Nigel Slater’s Toast at the Traverse was a treat from start to finish. The mini lemon meringue pies and chocolate (not walnut) whips passed around the audience were appreciated, but the coup de théâtre was saved for the end. I don’t know if you’ve ever smelt onions being cooked in a theatre auditorium, but it is unspeakably exciting. And just before leaving I managed to catch John Tothill and Eve Delaney’s character sketch show Big Shop. What chemistry they have, and what impeccable performers they are individually. Love them.

Top 4 theatre
The year began with a very fine Sweeney Todd at the Arts Theatre by the Cambridge Operatic Society. Am-dram groups always seem to rise to the occasion for the more challenging shows in the repertoire, and this was no exception, with Matt Wilkinson as Todd and 13-year-old Ben Lewis as Toby the standouts. Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, at the Gielgud Theatre, turned out to be deserving of its critical superlatives, an overwhelming experience, gloriously busy and full of life. The gender-switched Company, also at the Gielgud, was great fun, primarily for the experience of seeing Patti LuPone up close, her every facial and vocal gesture witheringly hilarious. I also loved Gavin Spokes as Harry, and Daisy Maywood’s priestly cameo in a thrillingly staged ‘Getting Married Today’. Best of all was Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance at the Noël Coward Theatre. It’s not perfect, and the inevitable comparisons with Angels in America are mostly to its detriment, but its virtues are so many, and it made me so excited about … well, about life, I suppose. About being alive, about making a difference to things. You fall in love with its characters. Catch it while you can!

Top 4 classical
Bernstein’s MASS at the Royal Festival Hall in April was the highlight of the Bernstein centenary year, the most immersive and invigorating performance imaginable of this wacky and moving piece, not that you’d expect anything less from Marin Alsop. Paulo Szot was a super celebrant, and my brother (being in the choir) managed to sneak me into the after-show party where Bernstein’s daughter Nina addressed the performers. Special to have been there. The latest Barbican recital by Yuja Wang was another treat, especially in the suite of Rachmaninov pieces she’d assembled, and Prokofiev’s sublime 8th sonata. The encores were predictably incandescent. Would she – could she – play Bach or Schubert? I’d love to hear her do a proper Scarlatti recital. I saw her in more Prokofiev at the Proms in September with the Berlin Philharmonic and Kirill Petrenko, whose performance of the Franz Schmidt fourth symphony was transcendent, a piece I feared I might never get to hear in concert. I’m so pleased people are finally getting the point of Schmidt. And last but not least, Verdi’s Falstaff at the Royal Opera House in July. I bought a ticket in the stalls for the first time ever, an extravagance but worth every penny. An opera I am coming to love very dearly, and a vibrant cast including Bryn Terfel, Ana María Martínez and the divine Anna Prohaska. I’m thinking of returning there for Billy Budd next year.

Top 4 albums
Since you ask me for an eclectic selection of albums… I had a lovely bunch of CDs for Christmas last year, the pick of which was the Wiener Phil and Semyon Bychkov’s recording of Schmidt’s Symphony No. 2, a delightful piece I’ve enjoyed getting to know. I can’t account for why I hadn’t noticed its existence until now, but Einar Steen-Nøkleberg’s recording of Grieg’s Slåtter interspersed with the original Hardanger fiddle tunes played by Knut Buen is a joy from start to finish. The best things Grieg wrote, perhaps. Two things have taken me back to my childhood: the BnF, qu’elle soit bénie, has digitised a number of recordings of Rondes (children’s songs) recorded by Jacques Jouineau and the Maîtrise de l’O.R.T.F. in (I guess) the 1960s, that I have been enjoying to an indecent extent. And I’ve rediscovered the original London cast recording of Godspell. Has Jeremy Irons done anything better in the past 45 years than the patter section of ‘All for the Best’? Probably not.

Top 4 comedy
Mixed media, as the artists would have it. I made a pilgrimage to Norwich to see Count Arthur Strong, and for sheer fun it couldn’t be beaten. What a virtuoso he is, a genius of the wrong-word school of comedy. I’ve come rather late to the party, and hope it won’t be the last time I see him live. The comedy podcast of the year, among stiff competition, is Julia Davis and Vicki Pepperdine’s gleefully obscene Dear Joan and Jericha, for a second series of which next year I am keeping my fingers firmly crossed. I never write about TV in these posts, but there were two series on Channel 4 that I fell in love with: Jamie Demetriou and Robert Popper’s Stath Lets Flats, a slow but sure burner, which I would love to see return; and the second series of Will Sharpe’s Flowers, desperately sad and beautiful. He does things with comedy I haven’t seen people do before.

See ya round.

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Beach Boys / birds / boundaries / Barnaby

October 27, 2018

23 March
You’d think a Cambridge student writing a graffito on a library sign would be able to spell masturbation correctly; but as I always say, you don’t have to be able to spell it to enjoy it.

***

1 April
I wish I were a blackbird. I aspire to the blamelessness of birds.

***

5 April
My latest thing is deliberately hearing ‘bald’ as ‘balled’ for comic purposes, i.e. ‘I hear he’s completely bald.’ ‘Yes, he has the full complement of two.’ That sort of thing. Other people don’t seem to find it as hilarious as I do.

***

19 May
Rude awakening this morning to the Beach Boys’ ‘When I Grow Up To Be A Man’, which seemed to be mocking me somehow, though I don’t know why.

***

2 July
I remain amused by the fact that J and I concluded that people called Barnaby were respectively dickheads and absolutely fine on the basis of having met the same Barnaby several years apart.

***

19 July
Memory: Aged about nine or ten, I wrote a story called ‘The Shit Family Robinson’, but I can’t remember anything about it. My best title, though.

***

16 August
On the train down, a toddler walking up the aisle ran his hand over my knee to support himself. Even at an early age I think I had an innate feeling of respect for boundaries, and would never have touched anyone else without permission; but perhaps I did this and now have no memory of it.

***

20 September
Hospital appointment on Monday. Granny: ‘It’ll be the Somerset water, I expect.’ I haven’t lived in Somerset since 2002.

***

3 October
I boarded the train last night at Hitchin and immediately spotted a pair of suit trousers wrapped in clear plastic in the overhead luggage rack. Some poor man’s lost his trousers, I thought. This kind of thing I always find unbearably poignant, despite the smallness of the loss. Picturing the man’s realisation of his mistake. And that man dropping his programme in the Albert Hall urinal, sad because of the pathetic fate of the programme and because of its being so recently bought. Four pounds down the drain; two bunches of violets trod in the mud. The recentness may be key. Mr Bean at New Year, hearing ‘Three cheers for Rupert and Hubert’ from across the hall, and realising he’s just missed celebrating midnight by a matter of seconds due to the cruelty of his supposed friends. His pain at this is the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever seen on television. Small disappointments can be great.

***

9 November
Quite a treat this lunchtime: Poached Chicken Supreme and Herb Velouté. The best jazz duo this side of New Orleans.

2017 foursomes

December 31, 2017

In which I celebrate another year of having successfully cheated death by looking back at my cultural highlights of the past twelve months.

Top 4 theatre
My two best shows of the year, towering above the rest, were Angels in America and Follies, both at the National Theatre, sublime and superlative achievements, thrillingly staged and acted. I’d like to list the entire casts of both, really, but the performances that have stayed most in my memory are those of Andrew Garfield, Denise Gough, Aidan McArdle and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett from Angels, and Tracie Bennett, Di Botcher, and the central quartet from Follies, perhaps especially Imelda Staunton, desperately vulnerable as Sally. I saw excellent productions of Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus at Stratford, but my Shakespeare highlight of the year was Twelfth Night, again at the National, with Tamsin Greig imperious as Malvolia, Tim McMullan swaggering all over the place as Belch, Daniel Rigby as good a communicator of Aguecheek’s damagedness as I’ve seen (the man bun clearly a cry for help), and Tamara Lawrance a touching Viola. (Also, anything with Oliver Chris in it ticks my box.) And She Loves Me at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which I saw in January as a post-Christmas treat, a twinkly production of the most chocolate-boxy of musicals. I’d gone expressly to see Mark Umbers as Georg, but in the event his understudy Peter Dukes proved excellent. The decision to use British accents worked a treat, with ‘A Trip to the Library’ in Katherine Kingsley’s broad Cockney the high point.

Top 4 student theatre
It’s been a very good year at the ADC in Cambridge, starting with my first García Lorca, The House of Bernarda Alba, done by an extraordinarily strong cast of future stars (the performances of Xanthe Burdett, Daisy Jones and Emma Corrin among the standouts) in Jo Clifford’s translation. Alecky Blythe’s London Road received probably the finest student production I’ve seen of anything ever, an exacting musical done brilliant justice by a cast and band who clearly knew it inside out (Footlight Orlando Gibbs, playing one of the press photographers, even managed some improvised business when the lens fell off his camera). Its composer Adam Cork saw the production, and I can only imagine he was thrilled. Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce is a bit dated now, but still very amusing, and was fortunate to have some of the funniest people in Cambridge in its cast, most notably Colin Rothwell, having a ball as the perpetually whinging Nick, and John Tothill, who must surely be recognised before too long as one of the great character comedians of his generation. And recently, Gypsy, a show I begin to see the point of. Ashleigh Weir (Rose) is one to watch, but everyone in Cambridge knows that by now.

Top 4 Edinburgh
Although I didn’t have the energy to blog about it here at the time, I had a good few days at the Fringe this August, the highlights being as follows: Colin Hoult as Anna Mann (‘Oh, fuck off!’) in How We Stop the Fascists, fabulously warm and witty, the funniest part for me being the point at which Mann asked the audience what we thought a fascist looked like, then slyly produced a mirror for us to look at and pass around, concluding with ‘Anyway, you get the point – fascists look like mirrors!’ (Maybe you had to be there.) Joseph Morpurgo’s Hammerhead, the discussion following his nine-hour one-man performance of Frankenstein, was a tour de force. Then there was Ivo Graham’s fun and exciting Educated Guess, a stand-up show with a difference, the difference being a quiz in which Graham’s encyclopaedic knowledge of MPs and their constituencies was put to the test. The night I saw it he fell down tragically on Jeremy Wright (Con, Kenilworth and Southam), but the video at the end helped to soothe the pain. And lastly but mostly, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, the worthiest winner of the Edinburgh Comedy Award, though as she says it’s not really comedy, it’s very dark and very important. She made me feel worthless, and somehow in a good way.

Top 4 live music
I’m surprised at how few concerts I’ve attended in 2017. Theatre seems to be usurping music in that respect. But it was special to see Joshua Bell and Dénes Várjon in Edinburgh playing, among other things, the Brahms G major violin sonata, which almost moved me to tears, an effect music almost never has on me. Brahms has not shifted from his place at the top of my personal pantheon, and seeing the Endellion Quartet and Barry Douglas play the G minor piano quartet in October was exciting, especially that furious Hungarian finale. I saw Mitsuko Uchida twice, playing two different Schubert programmes, the better of which was the one at Peterhouse in Cambridge, where the ‘Con moto’ movement of the D.850 sonata was particularly divine. And it was great to see Max Raabe and Christoph Israel at the Wigmore Hall, where Raabe sang a lot of unfamiliar songs by the likes of Walter Jurmann. Especially lovely was Jurmann’s ‘Tomorrow is Another Day’, complete with whistling duet.

Top 4 albums
Of this year’s releases, up with which I have very much not kept, Nelson Freire’s Brahms recital has been on repeat – I hadn’t known the third piano sonata, but it’s beautiful; the shorter pieces are exquisite, and exquisitely performed. My great discovery early in the year was the fourth symphony of Franz Schmidt, in the recording by the London Philharmonic and Franz Welser-Möst, a masterpiece whose organicism excites and entrances. I’m pacing myself, but want to get to know the other three (and got the Bychkov recording of the second for Christmas). The NT production sent me back to the 2011 Broadway recording of Follies, admirably exhaustive and addictive. And lastly, loads more Prefab Sprout. Why has it taken until my thirties for me to become properly obsessed with this band I have known from my teens? Maybe they’re too good for the young. I’ve listened to their 1985 album Steve McQueen constantly, as literate and elusive and romantic a collection of songs as anyone could wish to hear.

Top 4 old films
Don’t judge me, but I’d never seen Ninotchka before. Actually I’m not sure I’d ever seen a Greta Garbo film before. But I love Ernst Lubitsch, and it has his usual gemütlich charm and cosiness in spades, while at the same time, like his To Be or Not to Be, commenting smartly on the politics of its time. Garbo is fabulous, especially in her stone-faced incarnation, and Melvyn Douglas is a pleasing foil, but Felix Bressart steals every scene as usual. Is there any film actor pre-1950 I love more? Sidney Lumet’s bleak masterpiece Fail-Safe, a sort of Dr. Strangelove without jokes, left me deeply discomfited, a chilling film to watch at a time when the threat of nuclear war seems greater than ever before during my life. And two Japanese films: Juzo Itami’s ‘ramen western’ Tampopo, playful, erotic and hilarious from start to finish; and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister, a straightforward drama of human relationships made with such delicacy and acuity that it’s exhilarating to watch. Kore-eda has an amazing hit rate in recent years, and this film is up there with I Wish and Still Walking. It’s been a very good year. Films that narrowly failed to make the cut: Ikiru, Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Nobody Knows (more Kore-eda), Girlhood, Love is Strange, Holy Motors, In the House.

Top 4 new films
It’s been a great year at the cinema too. Most of all, Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuous Call Me by Your Name, one of those films I felt might have been made just for me. Given the novel is a favourite book of mine, the film had a lot to live up to, but it succeeded in almost every particular, a sensual, slowly intoxicating adaptation, sensitively scored, gorgeously performed, delicately devastating. Earlier in the year, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight had a similar effect on me, brutal and tender, poetic and pulsating. (I know, I’m overdosing on adjectives again.) Toni Erdmann was an unexpected delight, a film about an eccentric man’s dysfunctional relationship with his daughter. Sandra Hüller is tremendous as the daughter Ines, but my favourite moments were those where I suddenly became aware of Peter Simonischek’s Toni in the background, half Clouseau hunchback, half Les Patterson, simply being funny. It has its melancholic side too, but there’s a lot to be said for fun and funniness. And of course, Paddington 2, supremely entertaining. Not only are Paddington and the Browns lovable (hardly a given, considering how few film families one would wish to spend time with), the supporting cast is stunning. Tom Conti and his various physical indignities, randy Simon Farnaby, forgetful Sanjeev Bhaskar, and Hugh Grant giving the performance of his career (and even starring in a ‘Prisoners-of-Love’-style rendition of a number from Follies that was the cherry on the cake). Irresistible. Honourable mentions for The Big Sick, The Florida Project, and My Life as a Courgette.

Top 4 books
In a pretty good reading year there are a handful of books that stand out above the rest, among them Andrew Hankinson’s gripping You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat], Maggie Nelson’s audacious The Argonauts, Peter De Vries’s heartbreaking The Blood of the Lamb, and Muriel Spark’s wicked Symposium. But if I had to pick four, I’d choose three of my Grand Tour reads – Erich Kästner’s The Flying Classroom, the perfect book to read this Christmas (though you may have left it a little late); Margarita Karapanou’s darkly beautiful Kassandra and the Wolf; and of course Tony Parker’s housing estate compendium The People of Providence – and for a fourth, probably Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow’s mesmeric tapestry of early 20th-century America. I also loved his The Book of Daniel.

More of this stuff in a year, if we all make it.

Grand Tour #27 – United Kingdom. The People of Providence / Tony Parker

December 2, 2017

About half of the books I read must be by British authors, so it was never going to be a struggle to find a book for the UK, but I did want to find something in the spirit of this project, a book with Britishness as its subject somehow. After much deliberation, it came to me suddenly: Tony Parker’s 1983 book The People of Providence: A Housing Estate and Some of Its Inhabitants, which I bought in 2011 after hearing a radio documentary about the author. Tony Parker (1923-1996) was one of the great oral historians of the last century, and his work focused above all on the voices of marginalised people. His book Life After Life, a collection of interviews with convicted murderers, made a great impact on me a few years ago, and The People of Providence promised much.

Parker spent a good chunk of the early 1980s interviewing various residents of and visitors to the estate he calls Providence (in fact the Brandon Estate in Southwark, built in 1958 and by the 1980s beginning to be somewhat dilapidated), meeting each interviewee several times. This book consists of 49 of these interviews condensed into monologues, each lasting about six pages in total, the interviewees’ identities tactfully disguised. At the start a passer-by, asked to sum up Providence in a single word, offers the word ‘mixed’. That is indisputably the case: it’s mixed in terms of accommodation (20-storey tower blocks, low-rise flats, prefabs, squats), and in terms of its residents, who are racially diverse, come from all sorts of backgrounds (though predominantly middle- and working-class), and range in age from babies to pensioners. The People of Providence, then, is a study of a place that itself can be viewed as a microcosm of Britain at a particular time.

As a chronicle of social attitudes, it’s fascinating. At the forefront, perhaps unsurprisingly, is race, and it’s interesting that racial prejudice doesn’t seem to be divided broadly along age or class lines. You might expect opposing attitudes from the likes of 12-year-old Ian (‘There are five black boys in our class: they’re just the same as the rest of us, nobody cares if they’re coloured or not, it’s no different from anyone else.’) and 61-year-old Frank (‘Old Enoch was right, you know, when he said we should send them all back home … The thing is that their ways aren’t our ways: they never will be, we’re two completely different sorts of people.’), but more striking are those who buck the trend, such as Trevor, the young father of a baby boy:

‘If he ever came home with a coloured girl and said she was his girlfriend, I wouldn’t let him in the house … I’m not racially prejudiced, but to me it’s downright unnatural for races to mix themselves up, the whole idea’s unnatural. Know what I mean? [Later] In the last couple of weeks when you’ve come round and we’ve been talking, I expect I might have given you the impression I was a bit anti-black. But I don’t hold with the National Front … I don’t mind blacks living here so long as they behave themselves.’

Or ‘senior unretired citizen’ Percy, whose greatest pleasure is going to the cricket at Lord’s with his great-grandson, and is himself a staunch defender of immigrants:

‘There’s still hardly more than a handful of black people in top jobs anywhere in the country: not only them but their children have been exploited and taken advantage of. And this is after twenty-five to thirty years of them being here. I think it’s disgraceful what’s been done to them, I lose my temper.’

The non-white residents tend not to make a fuss about racism. One, Camilla, says she has hardly ever suffered racist abuse, though she thinks it’s a shame that Prince Charles hasn’t taken the opportunity of marrying a black woman rather than Princess Diana: after all, half of his future subjects will be black, and it would have sent out a very positive message that we are all the same. (I hope she’s still alive today.) Her modest dream is that her husband will take her to a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, perhaps as a Christmas present.

Most of the people of Providence don’t give too much thought to the Royal Family. One teacher calls them parasites and is disappointed that the children in her class don’t feel as strongly as she does; Joan, by contrast, is a devout monarchist:

‘I think the Queen is a really lovely person; I don’t care how much money she’s got, she earns every penny of it. But it never changes her, deep down she’ll always be an ordinary everyday person with a house to run and a family to bring up. You can tell that from her face, when you see her among people; she’s right close to them, and she really cares for her people and what happens to them. I’m sure in elections and things she votes Labour like all the rest of us ordinary people do.’

Other social attitudes: the North-South divide is occasionally mentioned, particularly by Northerners who have moved South and find Londoners unfriendly. The only interviewee who talks about homosexuality is gay man Paul, whose attitude is depressingly typical of the time, progressive up to a point but damning of flamboyant gays and cross-dressers, the ‘freaks’ who by their refusal to assimilate stop straight-acting people like him from being accepted. He’s a relic, but not as much as reactionary Stanley, who talks unironically of ‘dear old England’ and reels off a list of his accomplishments (JP, local councillor, British Rail, ‘well known and respected in the Conservative party in this area’, Masonic Lodge), concluding, ‘There’s surely nothing else that a man could want.’ He was the only person in the book for whom I couldn’t muster up any empathy.

Most of the interviewees confront the question sooner or later of whether they are happy living in Providence, indeed, whether they are happy generally. Many feel settled there and praise the GLC for having given them a home, while some view Providence as a stepping stone to somewhere else, and a few are frankly desperate. One young mother living on the sixteenth floor says she sometimes consoles herself with the thought that if she ever wants to end it all she can simply go out on the balcony and jump off: ‘When I was a kid I used to read in books hell was down under the earth somewhere; but it’s not, it’s up here in the sky.’ The final interview is incomplete, for reasons I won’t go into here, and is one of the most guttingly sad things I’ve ever read. I had to read it twice, and the second time it read completely differently from the first.

In a book this rich it’s hard to choose a favourite character: 12-year-old Ian, perhaps, who’s a bit of a hellraiser, dropping milk bottles and light bulbs off the top of the high-rise flats, but also does odd jobs for the elderly; or kindly teenager Anne Knowles (‘I hope I’ve been a bit of help’); or benevolent sponger Mr Cross, who goes around the houses of old people to keep them company and eat their food; or Arthur Davidson, the community copper of everyone’s dreams; or Mrs Bedford, who wants to be buried with a box of her beloved peppermint creams in case she wakes up and feels lonely. But the one story that touched me most was that of 78-year-old Mr Elliott: ‘Did you say this is all confidential with no way anyone could tell who I was? All right then, I’ll tell you: I vote Conservative. No one else in the world knows that.’ As the interview progresses, it turns out he has a secret deeper even than that:

‘If I could go back and start again and have an education, with my education that I had I’d like to have been a ballet dancer. I never told anyone about it when I was a boy because it’s not the sort of thing you could tell anyone in those days … I’ve never seen a ballet in a theatre, but whenever there’s music from the ballet on the radio I make sure I listen to it. The one I like best is called Sylvia Deeds or some name like that. The music for that one is very beautiful. I don’t know who wrote it or who the story is by – I believe Sylvia Deeds was a lady, perhaps even a princess. She must have been very beautiful for someone to write beautiful music like that about her. When I think about it I’ve got an idea that she was Polish, a Polish lady or something, but I can’t be sure.’

I take ‘Sylvia Deeds’ to be Les Sylphides, though at a push it could be Sylvia by Delibes. Without, I hope, being patronising, I find the innocence of Mr Elliott’s fantasy enormously poignant. He says he’s asked in record shops about getting the music on tape, but no one has been able to help him. (As it is, he has the largest collection of Mario Lanza cassettes in existence.) I wonder if Tony Parker might have been able to track it down for him, given more time. Later he talks of his unsuccessful marriage, many decades earlier. He can’t now remember his wife’s name, but it may have been Cora or Connie. A distillation of the small but precious life of an ordinary person – perhaps one of those who, in George Eliot’s words, rest in unvisited tombs.

It feels a great privilege to be allowed into these people’s lives and homes, and prompts contemplation of the tremendous diversity of humanity, of how little we may know about the lives of those who surround us. A book as engrossing could have been written about any block of flats in the world, only it needed a Tony Parker to do it, someone with the knack of getting people to open up. I don’t imagine a filmed documentary would have been as effective, because the interviewees would have felt inhibited by the camera. As it is, their voices are disarmingly direct. One young married couple thanks Parker at their final appointment, telling him that they will miss him, that talking out loud about things has helped them to get to know one another better, and that it’s something they may carry on doing after he’s gone, making a weekly appointment to talk to each other. I don’t make a habit of forcing books on people, but I do urge you to consider this one.