Friday, 18 December 2009

'All values are obliterated'

Whilst Half Man Half Biscuit's christmas song would clearly be a subtler rebuff to this man and his stranglehood over the 'xmas market', that is obviously not going to happen.* However, the rage of so many is understandable; particularly in the context of the self-important BBC interview Cowell made - pushing his future political prospects - and this:

The prospect is raised of a Cameron-Cowell Britain; unsurprising, terrifying, ideologically wedded in their non-ideology. Would it really surprise anyone if a potential PM Cameron asked Cowell to be a sort of minister without portfolio (or indeed democratic mandate beyond his TV audience)? A ghastly scenario, but clearly in keeping with Cameron's Carlton Man status.

* RATM as choice for this campaign; a bandwagon misguided in its 'real music' rhetoric, its lack of interest in positively reclaiming pop from Cowell and the carefully overlooked fact that 'Killing in the Name' shares its record label with the X Factor release. A 17-year-old RATM song will not change anything, however radical some of the sentiments. If it makes #1 it will be a fingers-up at Cowell (not a bad thing in itself of course) and the X Factor audience but it will not fundamentally change things. It has even enabled Cowell to - with some gall - call it a cynical stunt. Better rallying points? If it has to be something old, let us embrace something like Kevin Ayers's 'Hymn'; or indeed something from 2009, Hawley's 'Open Up Your Door', for instance (or - blasphemously! - something of non-US/UK origin!).

Morley is just talking on Newsnight Review about people collectively waking up in the last two years. This has been reflected in an initially strong year for pop, with Dizzee Rascal, David Guetta, even Michael Gove-favourite Lily Allen, making music that undeniably connects with these times and with people's lives. I just wish this early blaze of great pop could have gone further (and hope the likes of Little Boots will develop in the Abba/PSB tradition in time). I quite agree with the frustration of Robin Carmody as to the contradictory impulses; pop artists have seen the problem all too clearly - 'Dirtee Cash', all-crushing consumerism - but will not, cannot make a clean break from this and propose a new way of being.

Things = the fact that 19 million watched, and presumably a percentage of them share Cowell's vision of 'music' / 'entertainment' / 'democracy'.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Let out your troubles from the old kit bag...

More 1968:

The Zombies, 'Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914)'. A pop requiem for WW1; so much more brevity and subtlety than Pink Floyd's cudgelling 'Corporal Clegg', from the same year.

The Legendary Pink Dots start here; play this in league with 'Poppy Day' and shudder anew. Can't help but think of the footman-turned-squaddie Edward Barnes in the fourth and finest series of Upstairs, Downstairs...

Richard Todd

A figure from a different age, clearly; I was indeed surprised to find that he had still been alive when hearing of this news just now on Channel 4.

My main memory of him is for his fine performance as Sanders in the 1982 Dr Who story, Kinda, playing almost a simulacrum of the British martinet, a deluded old buffer whose mind is opened, or lost, depending on one's view. This stalwart British actor and WW2 veteran cast into a post-punk hall of mirrors; it is not for nothing that many claimed it could have been written by Kate Bush. As haunting as Sapphire and Steel in that scene of Tegan in the void, even a dodgy realisation of the Mara snake cannot mar the effect - even adds to this very British, low-rent avant-gardism. An avant-garde serial watched by 9 million, lest it be forgotten.

Can anyone recommend other Todd roles worth seeing? I have seen next to none of his films.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Zero Books - recommendations

Just received this today, before its supposed date of publication! 300 or so pages, 23 writers, including many vital voices:

Some more fine work from a publisher that doesn't talk down to its readers, nor intimidates. Accessible, eloquent polemics for these times:

'Where have the interesting women gone?'

A European Modernism reclaimed and asserted

'A ruthless portrait of our ideological misery'

N.P. The Jacksons, 'Show You the Way to Go' (1976)

Monday, 23 November 2009

1968 in twelve steps

MARGO GURYAN, 'Think of Rain'

Divine, heavenly; for me her finest song and seemingly much covered according to YouTube at least. One trembles to think what the likes of Scott Walker, Brian Wilson or Basil Kirchin could have done with this sublime song. Though perhaps a lot of its deathless charm is how unassuming it is; she clearly didn't want to be a star or Margo's version is not on YT, hence this version from the same year by Claudine Longet. It's not up there with the original but sticks sensitively to its contours, suggesting a bountiful fusion of Paris and New York:


Name of the following year's superlative album from initial Soft Machine member Ayers - present on this debut record. This starts off with aqueous guitars paddlingly languidly, moored by echoing, slightly dub-anticipating percussion, which gradually builds pace and the guitar starts to sear. It all comes to a precisely lurching close, to lead to a Wyatt-voiced piece not heard here.

CARAVAN - Love Song with Flute

Tell me the flute doesn't work in music, then listen to this! Or indeed Ambrose Campbell's 'Yolanda' from the same year. Doleful, plangent chords back a Wyatt-like voice, then gloriously uplifting organ enters; then, careful movement between the celebratory and the rueful. Lovely move into bossa nova from 1:38*, and then back to more Soft Machine territory, then the entrance of the flute finally at 2:45, beautifully withheld, and never more yearning than here, other than perhaps in certain 70s TV themes and Alessi's 'Oh Lori'.

* This list is shamefully lacking any Brazillian dimension.


I could equally go for 'Wailing of the Willow' - with more incisive use of bossa nova to join the above record - but that isn't on YouTube. This is pared-down cousin in its electric-piano jabbing melancholy, making points ne'er truer. Whilst he is searching for a foothold, trying all sorts of hats out on some of his 1967-9 work, on several tracks Nilsson is fully, even exquisitely formed: 'Sleep Late, My Lady Friend', 'Without Her', [the obvious one], 'Don't Leave Me', 'I Will Take You There', 'Open Your Window', 'Maybe', plus the two aforementioned.

I was once (c.2003/4) going to write a piece on Nilsson for Stylus, a discerning, now-defunct online music site, of the Freaky Trigger / Pitchfork variety. It never happened, was clearly never meant to be (despite the extensive close-listening I did at the time - notes from which I retain); it might just surface on here at some stage. I hold his music as dearly as subtly kindred spirits Scott Walker and Todd Rundgren, and that is saying something.

SCOTT WALKER - Plastic Palace People

That obviously has to lead to this, a cathedral of a record; chandeliers in tower blocks and all that. Intoxicating indeed, as a YouTube commentator puts it; an epic immersion in pure music that would be venerated as 'Hey Jude' if we were a truly European country. Intensely eerie yet beautiful, surreal yet bedsit-sink, this brings on thoughts of the best of 1968's cinema, where Europe, Britain and America did not seem so far apart: The Flat (Jan Svankmajer, CZE), Petulia (Richard Lester, USA), Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, USA), If... (Lindsay Anderson, UK), Charlie Bubbles (Albert Finney, UK), Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, UK), Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, USA), Rocky Road to Dublin (Peter Lennon, IRE/FRA).

THE PRETTY THINGS - Defecting Grey

'And all the flowers ain't for picking
They're just for standing in line'

And another of the grand gestures of this year of stalled revolution. The title might just suggest The Prisoner, or, even more elliptically, Episode Six's 'Gentlemen of the Park', as discussed a few months back. Of course, this record does not target a grey conformity but rather obliterates it. Visceral, whimsical, fearless, this pioneering, decimating record must simply be listened to to be appreciated. It is a truly ramshackle, stupendous imagining - its only real analogue being Pink Floyd's 'Apples and Oranges / Paintbox' single (1967). Note the brutalist morse code usage of the sitar and truly apocalyptic twisting of the 1968 'rock' organ:


'Mes Enfants D'Autre Part' is perhaps my favourite from this Frenchman's utter curio of a 1968 record, appositely named Phantastic, closest to Polnareff's in its blissfully schizoid spirit, but this is a cracking opener, disorientating and confounding. Another fresh interpretation of psychedelia, with a unapologetically Gallic helmsman; striking application of delay to the vocals.


I simply must include some Mark Wirtz, but assume (perhaps wrongly) that everyone knows 'Excerpt from a Teenage Opera' (aka. 'Grocer Jack'), and cannot find. This is technically a 1967 christmas single, but well, I think it fits rather better into its following year. A summation of English eccentricity, clearly born of that Harold Wilson-era London of Fletcher, Cohen and Nairn; the city and its inhabitants caught between an old world refusing quite to succumb and a new one being rather grudgingly born. It is an Old England record ambivalent at best about the future, almost uncannily prophetic of 'a last run' before the sort of homogenising forces identified by Paul Kingsnorth in Real England.

BASIL KIRCHIN - Theme from 'The Strange Affair'

Remarkably evocative footage from the opening of David Greene's film, perfectly in keeping with the strains of Kirchin's astonishing music - like the opening of The Mutations (1974), a ghastly film overall but with this time-lapse photography opening sequence that, backed with Kirchin's music, defines the 60s/70s public realm (experimentation in the most commonplace, the interface between technology and nature, science and the Weird) almost as much as the opening sequences of The Clangers or Bagpuss. This here footage captures the British city (presumably London) in the state of decay and renewal documented in The London Nobody Knows, eerie vestiges of Victoriana clinging on. As in the aforementioned Norman Cohen film, this ends with images of the gleaming New, represented by modernist housing. The music is ethereal, overpoweringly autumnal; typically searching, restive chords that frankly I haven't heard anyone else tap into like this man can:


The new moon, the oldest. This seems to me of the 1968 moment, though it emerges from a left-traditionalism I would sense not entirely compatible with the urban / university-based New Left that was coalescing. Such enveloping visions, such possibilities. I could have selected any really from their LP of this year, but this seems to demand its place at the moment.

13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS - May the Circle Remain Unbroken

An epitaph in two parts, the dream faded. Back to the aqueous feel of the Soft Machine's 'Joy of a Toy', an unassuming withdrawal from the dizzying activity of previous entries in this litany. There's something of the spirit of Delia Derbyshire and Raymond Scott in this, in the pre-synthesizer synthetics, the manipulation of tape and sounds that is infinitely weirder and more uncanny. The assassinations of King, Robert Kennedy and the pivotal result of the 1968 US Presidential election come to mind... George Wallace and the vengeful Deep South seemingly resurgent, Nixon just getting in... bleakness setting in. The realisation that, whilst LBJ was badly wrong on Vietnam, he made strides domestically that simply have not been matched since in American politics... It might be pertinent to note that the Elevators' home state was the same as LBJ - Texas, now so synonymous with the worst of America...

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - Love Song for the Dead Che

'At the dawn of an ordinary Sunday
I remember the taste of you, sweet in my mouth,
Late in the year.
And in the stillness of the Oriente rainfall
I remember the warmth of you, still in my arms,
Late, late in the year.

I will bring to you flowers in the night
Soft as trembling fingers touch you--love,
I can offer you wine and candlelight
Late in the year.
Late in the year.'

This was of course written in the aftermath of another death - Guevara's in October, 1967 - but can be used to apply more broadly to the ideals of the 1960s. Such beauty, poignancy and understanding of what could not quite come to pass. It is quite a corrective to the unthinking adoption of Guevara as consumerist 'icon' for today; this is not just about what Che meant then, but sums up the potential inherent in a new generation that was about to be forced back into line by the forces of reaction.

Project for future - seize the airwaves!

Idea for a TV series: a kaleidoscopic, disorientating mix of sketch comedy, political documentary, satire and ghost story. There could be parodies, cut-ups. An overall atmosphere to be evoked within the seemingly disparate elements. The potential for serial narrative segments across episodes, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End-style. Only occasional scenes with actors. Scope for capturing some footage on various excursions - stock footage to put to some use. Some of it to be filmed in the north, but avoiding the obvious.

Adam Curtis shows / Steven Poole's wise tome on (ab)uses of our language, Unspeak / Jonathan Meades shows* / Sapphire and Steel / The Day Today / Brasseye / Cassetteboy / Absolutely / A Bit of Fry and Laurie / Monty Python / Patrick Keiller - London/Robinson in Space / Marker's 'La Jetee' (use of still images in storytelling).

Really need to watch Ways of Seeing...

This idea could even be realised for YouTube 'broadcast', conceivably, in fragments, or even a pilot episode. A long-term project, and one which needs a name... Planning can really begin earnest in a week or so's time.

* A major new discovery for me, the work of this man.

Monday, 7 September 2009

'hey, Jules and Jim, I wrote the hymn to ecstasy'

'I look around me, and I see
Folks leading more constructive lives than me'

Granted, it is no too-good-to-be-true reunion with Martin, Neil, Wendy and Thomas - but then it probably couldn't be. Noted is the tangible melancholy in Paddy's liner notes and his interview in Mojo magazine, projects and the prospect of realisation slipping away, while the number of songs composed continues to mount. The record company rejected the demos for this album in 1993, apparently partly due to religious themes in the lyrics; presumably they'd never listened to his lyrics before - indeed on a certain 1990 opus. 'Tis a vision of music as The Sublime, as God - hardly a hectoring advertisement for Christianity. Closer indeed to Smile:

'Children don't you cry because
he, he said "let there be music!"'

The synth organ chords that open 'Ride', sigh... and the staccato arpeggiated undertow. Just what is it that this critic doesn't get, dismissing music this moving and urgent?
Rather, this second track becomes immense - the finest use of the harmonica I have heard in aeons - the europhile beat insistently hooking you in.

And then. 'I Love Music' - a jazzy cantering rhythm, playful, near-techno organ stabs, meting out the devout. Fairlit sounds dotting about, that old delay on his vocals 'hell - hell - hell'.

'She's richer than money and bigger than fame
and love is the reason I'm playing this game'

Like Wendy, Martin and indeed Neil Tennant, he has not left the north-east. It is about the music, not appealing to an audience - a shame, as devout Sproutists such as myself yearn for many more releases.

There is brilliant scansion - 'Who's my hero? The unnerving, unswerving, Irving Berlin' - and love expressed for diverse geniuses:

'I love music! Nile and 'Nard
Pierre Boulez, guru of the avant garde'

Such beauty. The synth-strings following this, and the raindroplets of piano. I won't elaborate much more for the moment on the rest, but 'Music is a Princess' is glorious and 'Earth: The Story So Far' expansive, intimately grand.

It forms a junction between Jordan: The Comeback and Andromeda Heights, appositely enough considering the music was written from autumn 1992, and I am bound to luxuriate in that. J:TC I have often claimed as my all-time favourite record - ever an inspiration and consolation on one particular occasion - and this is the finest Prefab Sprout or McAloon album since that one.

No release from McAloon is without merit; I Trawl the Megahertz is an engaging world's service symphony (appropriately promoted via a Mixing It interview), the acoustic Steve McQueen recordings of 2007 are at times breathtaking; Andromeda Heights contains, amid its rather halting, slow progress, some of his very finest songs ('Swans', 'Weightless', 'A Prisoner of the Past') - even the maligned Gunman has a few that cannot be denied.

Let's Change the World with Music does attain a grace and sublimity, as McAloon says was aimed for in the liner notes. Divine chord changes abound and the sound is prime Prefab Sprout, albeit without Dolby. It does indeed sound like the original 1992 recordings embellished a little, sensitively. People could talk about things being 'dated' and then I'll stifle a yawn, as the J:TC sound is immortal. Another taste of it is glorious after the somewhat more conventional sound palettes of the last two PS records; the material here, with wrenchingly heartfelt use of electronics, matches Todd Rundgren's Liars (especially 'Afterlife') and John Howard's The Dangerous Hours albums - two more formidable 'comeback' records made in this decade.

All is right with the world in the duration of listening to new Pet Shop Boys and Prefab Sprout albums like we've had this year!

Telling interview, overlapping with the Mojo one:

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Films #1 & 2: Les Bicyclettes de Belsize (1968) / The London Nobody Knows (1967)

'Keep off
Mind how you go - oh oh
Don't you know the green grass is not for you
Oh no!

And all the flowers ain't for picking
They're just for standing in line'
(Episode Six, 'Gentlemen of the Park', 1968)

'YEAH – 1892 – lines are still on you – Hilly Fields'
(Nick Nicely, 'Hilly Fields (1892)', 1982)

An irregular series begins with a consideration of a pair of films recently issued on DVD for the first time, which form an eerie prelude to the sort of London psychogeography of Iain Sinclair and Patrick Keiller. I first read about the Cohen film, based on Geoffrey S. Fletcher's book, in Bracewell's England is Mine; I first caught glimpses of it during a 'workshop' computer session for my DTLLS teacher-training course late last year, when a fellow student, ex-Londoner and Art Lecturer watched a clip on You Tube of the Bedford Theatre part (now taken down), and told me how great a film it was.

The thing that strikes you about Cohen's semi-documentary is its sheer distance from the cliches of 1960s London, repeated to obsolescence by the media and associated heritage mongers: as here in the brainless shorthand given by the female presenter here: (yawn yawn YAWN)

Its companion film on the DVD release, Les Bicyclettes de Belsize (dir. Douglas Hickox, 1968), complements it well; it is a love-poem to Hampstead, presenting a delirious vision of the experiences of those more fortunate in society, those without financial hardship and in love. Even then, there is the sublimely queasy sequence backed by the song 'Gentlemen of the Park' by Episode Six (a forerunner of Deep Purple apparently). Supported by weightless, shimmering Beach Boys bass and harmonies, the singer infers about streamlining and conformity in ominous tones - inferences all the more chilling for how beautifully they are rendered.

The 'men in blue' in the lyric seem to be the authoritarian forces of public order; in the film, they are photographers gathered on Belsize Park - ambiguous, ambivalent, disturbingly impersonal. Packaging and trapping the miraculously gorgeous Judy Huxtable in a way vaguely analogous to Paul Jones in the similarly woozy, but infinitely bleaker Privilege (dir. Peter Watkins, 1968). The sharp editing cuts from her in various costumes, poses and hairdos, refracted infinitely, dizzying, untouchable - Anthony May uncertain, tremulous, on his bike in a quest to find her. The Episode Six song should be highlighted as it is magnificent, up there with the great things being done by the Pink Floyd, the Beatles and Mark Wirtz around this time. The idealised nature of this particular London reminds me of Van Der Graaf Generator's 'Refugees' (1970), wherein Peter Hammill laments the end of his flatsharing in 1968/9 in the West of London with Mike McLean and Susan Penhaligon - an actress who incidentally was in similar types of films to Huxtable:

'West is Mike and Susie,

West is where I love'

Les Bicyclettes de Belsize is one of the more European visions of an English city I have seen; it forms something of a bridge between Jacques Demy's Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) and Saint Etienne's Euro-inflected urban aesthetic. The effect is as if filtered through the wildest dreams of a Margo Guryan protagonist and the blurred gauze of her Take a Picture LP of 1968:

The London Nobody Knows forms the bleaker flipside to the bohemian languor of Belsize, showing the grisly Victoriana and war damage that lingered so long. It is an eccentric film, helped immeasurably by James Mason's role as a patrician guide and compere, complete with cap and wielding cane; his occasional interactions with Londoners are bizarrely amusing, and gradually take on a tragic aspect when he mingles with people boarding at a Salvation Army Hostel. These halfway houses to nowhere actually form a modicum of stability and luxury compared with the lives of those who, as Mason says, "can't and won't communicate with their fellow men":

Things reach a rather eerie, harrowing climax when Mason visits the crumbling 29 Hanbury Street in Spitalfields, Tower Hamlets - a Jack the Ripper murder scene - remarking that several residents of the street are old enough to recall those events. The film establishes the reasons that people tend to forget were behind the building of modern social housing: that many of the previous houses were horrific places to live, no more than slums breeding criminality and destitution. Along with Housing Problems (dir. Edgar Anstey & Arthur Elton, 1935), it is the finest indictment I have seen of the Victorian class and housing systems.

Mason addresses the likely passing of the Bedford Theatre in rather more melancholy terms, as befits a film actor of his theatrical style, yet there is no sentimentality. The theatre is an eerie, dead place; he makes sure we are under no illusions that the people have no use for it anymore. The music-hall entertainment - as detailed in its absolute twilight by John Osborne with The Entertainer - was no longer what people wanted; the theatre could not sustain itself. It had long been a tamed beast, anyway, after the royal patronage it received in 1912 (see my more detailed thoughts on music-hall at my old home, here: Better to demolish it and build something new than for it to undergo the undignified adaptation for the spurious purposes of 'regeneration', one might argue. An old Marie Lloyd song - with ghostly reverb applied - is played over details of crumbling decoration in close-up and the utter desolation of the entirety in panorama.

Another very old music-hall song is used in the graveyard scene, conveying a bleak gallows humour about death that reminds me of Steptoe and Son - the singer sings about what it is like to be 'blooming well dead!' Whilst music-hall may have been tamed and entombed even, working-class spirit still existed in 1967 - as shown in the remarkable market scenes that Mason mingles within. One has to take both parts of the picture; the vibrancy and the bleakness; today we see vibrancy in our cities generally replaced by blandness and corporate smugness and the bleakness is merely masked, disguised: moved to the outskirts.

Some would roll things back to the Victorian era, by way of the worst excesses of the last 30 years, represented here in unfettered selfishness and sod-the-environment-and-anyone-else consumerism:

These people must be opposed at every turn, as they are against the limited advances that this country has made. Who do we reckon is likely to suffer from the cutbacks that will ensue if Cameron pursues this on a larger scale? I think we know it won't be hard-done-by Kensington or Beaconsfield 'taxpayers', but those who rely on local authority services. Libraries will be shut, jobs lost, support will not be provided where there is a need. It increasingly seems to me that Hannon, Johnson and these Barnet Tories represent the true face of the party straining at the leash to get going; the Thatcherite attack-dog has always been dominant - there simply aren't many, if any, 'decent' Macmillan / Heath consensus Tories left. Cameron is likely to go along with all this, but simply try and sell it with the typical Carlton Man duplicity.

The London Nobody Knows shows things at a very much more promising moment, at least for the young. In line with Owen Hatherley's Militant Modernism tract, Darren Hayman & The Secondary Modern's contemporaneous album Pram Town*, recent TV documentaries on Park Hill, the new tower blocks are put in context: as necessary to replace what was for most a miserable existence. It was only bad local government and maintenance that necessarily condemned the utopian dream to its apparent failure.

Cohen's film has its moments of futurism; the haunting, Cyril Ornadel-meets-Basil Kirchin strings and brass gives way in this sequence to a startlingly Radiophonic composition - - indicating the accommodation of locality and futurism that marked this era.

These two late-1960s films are superb, and I strongly urge anyone with an interest at all in London, history, music-hall, modernist architecture, Victoriana, the sixties, James Mason, Judy Huxtable or Jack the Ripper, to buy the DVD - which you can get for an exceptionally generous fiver.

* Capturing the urban civic sentiment of the initial New Town dwellers, this is a rare musical release that one could feasibly compare with Sudden Sway's East Anglian 'soap-opera musical', '76 Kids Forever (1988), with Peterborough's current-day banal provincialism contrasted with the post-war dream in a movingly off-centre manner. Both albums contain a storyline and progression critical of what came from the 50s and 60s optimism. Obviously, the former Hefner singer's work doesn't quite have the musical experimentation or surreal academic wordplay of Sway, yet it forms a valid 'urban folk' counterpoint. Oh, and one cannot deny the glorious 'Compilation Cassette', with its winning, nerdy romanticism, conveyed with the aid of a ukelele, no less.

A meeting point is - not for the first time - the Star and Shadow Cinema in Ouseburn, which showed The London Nobody Knows in early 2008, in the same Saint Etienne-curated season as This is Tomorrow, which I went to see. It also played host to Hayman earlier this year -pictured here looking strangely like George Formby: - and I am now sad that I didn't go.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

'Making terms with the establishment'

Fine post on Morley's recent BBC4 programme / experiment, which I have seen the first of. I was hoping to compare with Goldie's similar exercise but sadly missed recording the second of those:

Much interesting stuff on Dan's blog of late, from Little Boots (this year's Hands is a good if not great debut album, very promising indeed - some rare Saint Etienne influence, all making good my call at the start of the year for this to be a year of synth) to Thomas Hardy...

I quite agree with him that there is a tantalising sense about the scene where he works 1:1 with the musician, interpreting his drone-based ideas. The brief, improvised piece that results is compelling, unknowable, capturing an essence of Fripp & Eno uncannily, considering the musician had never heard

Curious that Morley didn't probe the more avant-garde side of classical music; he has talked much before of Stravinsky, Debussy etc, as in the 1999 Art of Noise project / album / live your. Xenakis, Ligeti and the like share many coordinates with the Miles Davis / Eno type terrain he was looking for.

Need classical music necessarily be an elite, in opposition to pop? Pop has encompassed Ligeti (that staggering part of the longer version of 'Dr Mabuse' by Propaganda).

I suppose much depends on one's view of 'professionalism' in music terms. I tend to feel the outsider, the agitator, need not have mastery, but some of it at least enables one to break the rules and make something new with more effect. Collaboration - or collision - between more schooled, intuitive musicianship and the more ideas-driven conceptual use of influences, is something I myself am looking to take part in. I am clearly more the latter, but can get by relatively speaking on a few instruments and have just bought a Roland Juno-D synthesizer (which I carried all the way home from Newcastle to Suderland, insanely - though via aid of our metro service). Whilst not a great listener 'by ear' I certainly get the minor / major distinction, which Morley so surprisingly could not.

It was interesting in pt.1 watching Morley interact with the musicians; he did seem cowed, in awe of them, to a large degree. No longer acting as the agent provocateur he once would. An attempt to broaden his horizons, move beyond his journalism - which has had little of the old passion for some time (indeed his daughter, Maddy, wrote an excellent piece a few years ago that showed enthusiasm and made one want to go and listen to music:

Making a pact in order to 'get on' is a key theme in James Mitchell's superior historical drama, When the Boat Comes In, which I have now completed watching: more on this series anon; it begs for comparisons with the similarly expansive Upstairs, Downstairs - a northern variant, that also seeks to portray lives across the whole of society, across multiple decades.

Jack Ford may often seem like an antithesis to Hardy, Lawrence or Alan Bennett or Dennis Potter, but the series tackles this theme subtly throughout, with Billy Seaton's leftist's progress, and the curious episode in the final series about a local boy 'made good', going to Oxbridge and something of an unfinished business in Jack Ford's increasingly empty existence. The fourth series seems to locate the tenor of Noel Coward's 'Twentieth Century Blues' - so powerfully rendered by Al Bowlly with Ray Noble - locates the ennui of the 1930s, all the more powerfully for locating the hitherto cocksure, swaggering Jack so relentlessly within its conflicts and miseries.

This last series represents a search for meaning, in its occasionally 'travelogue'-like* progress (Cornell, Day, Topping, Guinness Book of Classic British TV, 1993)... Ford seems to find it within his essential defeat. Again he takes sides, again ambivalently, but you realise his essential loyalties have stood firm. An existence of compromise with all sides, but a deeper loyalty to his own: his platoon in WW1 and to decent working people and trade unionists. Whilst he rues his lost fortune - caused by the Wall Street Crash - he comes to accept that there is no way back. He must now take sides, and is able to do so in his usual nuanced manner.

* Hints of Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man! of eight years previously?

Friday, 14 August 2009

Whilst I am aware many feelings are genuine, and ruefully realise that he represented that old spirit of football - now lost - the above article should form a corrective. Robson was sacked as Newcastle manager - down to short-sighted chairmanship, as well as impatience from the fans and conflicts with the new type of players.

A fair few giving their tributes were scarecely qualified to do so, considering the history.

Same old lies

So, the nutters find an ally to peddle this hateful nonsense.

Obama's plan isn't even looking to establish a health service free at the point of use; he isn't Nye Bevan, more's the pity - but, he is looking to moves things in a better direction.

'Eccentric' views, eh, Mr Cameron? He well knows that the Daniel Hannan position is representative of many in his party... why should anyone believe the NHS would be safe in Tory hands? Cameron is following to the letter Thatcher's strategy of saying as little as possible before getting into power. It is so frustrating to see Prescott and others making the right sort of noises on this now, when they have so comprehensively rejected the collectivist way of thinking embodied by the NHS in how they have governed this country. Quite a perceptive piece on current signals from Cameron here:

So, the worst side of America comes in the open, yet again; erroneously trying to use Stephen Hawking and others to back up their campaign. We do things differently here, at least on this topic. There is vast public support for, yes, our socialist way of doing health - it is about caring best for all in the country.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

46. Ted Hughes - 'The Suitor' (1962)

To János Csokits 6 August 1967 [János Csokits was a Hungarian poet friendly with TH]

[...] The Suitor is a story of death & the maiden & is a prophecy – I wrote it in 1962, ?January, almost under dictation. The Suitor is me, the man in the car is me, the girl is Sylvia, the Stranger is death, & the situation turns me into an animal – as Gog. Also, the girl is my spirit of light, my Ophelia.'
(The Daily Telegraph, 'Ted Hughes: A life thrown into turmoil', 7 October 2007,

'She's whispered to me that she might be
All things bright and beautiful tonight'
(Jake Thackray, 'Salvation Army Girl', 1967; Jake in a Box, 2006)

'And here I am, hopeful of a beginning. As yet, I have not spoken to her.'
(Ted Hughes, Difficulties of a Bridegroom: Collected Short Stories, Faber and Faber, 1995, p.126)

Now this is powerful stuff, a great modern poet crafting an almost mythical tale. The story is simple - rival suitors waiting for a girl - but is rather more than just a mood piece.

Written in 1962 and published in Wodwo (1967), it is of course productive to view from a biographical angle - see Hughes's letter above - but this should not obscure the craft and other wider resonances.

Hughes perceives himself as split into two, a powerful, seemingly repressive figure - with an official, professional air - and a solitary, game-playing youthful suitor. The tall man inspects the vistas 'officially', 'gigantic in the tricky light', whereas the youth is ever crouching, hiding or creeping around. (p.131)

It is a first-person narrative, and the youthful narrator - presumed to be fifteen, as he first encounters the girl at school, and she is said to be that age - allocates plenty of emphasis to his feelings about the man (who has, it is ambiguously suggested, left the girl in the house, imprisoned). 'He glances at me and I recognise the type of face, I recognize a familiar category of face. Ah, no! I like him less and less, in these seconds. I like what I infer less and less'. (p.130) This controlled, colloquial sounding narration indicates the unnamed youth (or young Hughes, as we might infer) dislikes the older man that he might become. Before reading about Hughes's letter, I had felt this was possibly her father, ambiguously abusive - 'She flies to the wall, as if she had been struck.' He is arguably protective of her, in that he unambiguously attacks the rival suitor, the Trilby-wearing stranger - possibly warding off her death, as he sees it?

The girl herself, the object of the story, is scarcely characterised; is more of an elemental force, who has compelled these suitors to her door. Young Hughes has walked five miles, in inapt dancing shoes, to get there; the love seems to be courtly, and can only remain so in the context of this story: 'Is she exclusively my secret? I scarcely know her. I have watched her at a distance, outstanding among three hundred others.' (p.126) Whilst never having spoken to her, she has clearly enraptured him, and is only seen through his perception in this narrative - when emerging from the older man's 'managerial' car, she is described in terms of her 'great fleece of hair'. Appropriately classical imagery used to evoke her distance from the scrupulously observed natural setting.

Here is a fascinating sound recording of Hughes, reading from Crow, his 1970 collection of poems:

Such tactile, northern vowels; just listen to how he pronounces 'fact' and 'black' - the predominant colour applied to the setting in The Suitor.

The setting brings out Hughes's clear-sighted, blunt lyricism; every part of the suitors' strange game is described as embedded within a harsh, cold, grimly romantic landscape - the same to be recognised in his poems. It cannot help but evoke Hughes's Yorkshire and the Calder Valley in particular in its archetypally northern gloom: 'A wind chopping and cutting and swirling in from all directions throws up the boughts of the elms as I pass under the rectory wall, and swipes my lapels against my cheeks, and clogs my hair with the drizzle.' There is, you guessed it, heavier rain, later, which in the true northern manner does not bother the narrator*, or alter at all the progress of the suitors' game. Such grasp of the north, and the simplicity of the situation, brings to mind the work of Jake Thackray, with his mythically prosaic Yorkshire tales.

Then there is the house - 'a truly commonplace house, semi-detached, pebble-dashed' - which takes on a forboding aspect as the tale unfolds. And then, the people; young Hughes at one with bleak nature, almost a northern stone wall himself: 'I hug my garments to me, reshuffling my warmth. Behind me the shrubbery shudders and flinches dismally. I am a black column of patience.' (p.128) As the suitors circle the house, after the tall man has left, all of the lights in the house are out; the imagination cannot comprehend what has passed and what may pass: 'Has she gone into a dark house? Is she sitting in the dark?' (p.133)

And, the resolution? Bloody great in its lack of resolution - ending in a bizarrely existential state of stasis. The young suitor has transmogrified into a figure almost resembling Alan Bates as Charles Crossley in Skolimowski's film - from a Robert Graves short-story - The Shout (1978), and the stranger is playing notes on a flute, notes that vie with and overcome the winds.

A vivid scene of hopelessness which burns itself into your mind; here's the whole of the last paragraph:

'And now in a kind of inane ecstasy, I writhe up my features again, stretching my mouth wide, making my eyes bulge, like a man laughing at tremendous volume or uttering a battle-cry, but in absolute and prolonged silence, while the flute notes dot and carry about the black garden and climb the wall and tap at the dark window and come circling back to the bowed attentive figure here, not three feet from me.' (p.134)


Monday, 20 July 2009

45. L.P. Hartley - 'A Change of Ownership' (1948)

'Laid back, I'll give you laid back'
(Hot Chip, 'Over and Over', The Warning, 2006)

'What fun for him, after these constricted years, to come home to a big house of his own, where he has three or four sitting-rooms to choose from, each of which he may occupy by himself!'
(L.P. Hartley, The Complete Short Stories, Hamish Hamilton, 1973, p.167)

It can never be 'his' front door.

'It was locked all right; but who had locked if?' (p.169)

A real oddity this one, of English gothic vintage. This side of Hartley was discernible in the Belladonna episode of The Go Between, with all its shattering symbolism of innocence and experience, but this is a fully fledged dalliance with the Weird. Making sense of 'A Change of Ownership' is harder than most; it is in many ways a refreshingly recalcitrant read - the sort of short-story where you do have to go back at several points to grasp the underlying narrative of the main character.

Hartley establishes the rather splintered, paranoid personality of 'Mr' Ernest carefully; first, he is seen partly through the eyes of a companion, Hubert - an old friend who gives him a lift back home after they have been to the theatre. Ernest's home is 'semi-rural', a large suburban house overlooking a field on one side. (p.163) His friend's conversation illustrates Ernest's isolation, living alone in this big house (his servants are apparently away), where previously he has lived in shared accommodation: when Ernest says that he is alone 'in a sense', Hubert understandably queries, 'Queer devil you are, Ernest; you must either be alone or not alone. Do I scent a romance?' (p.164)

Hardly so, as once his friend has departed, Ernest slips into thinking about himself in the third-person, a trend that marks the rest of the narrative. He imagines himself in a strange array of guises and roles while attempting to get to grips with being locked out of his house - which has been done by mysterious means. Internal dialogues convey an authentic sense of madness, and Hartley displays an unerring command of using the present-tense to embroil the reader. The status of the narrative voice is deliberately unclear - at times, as in the epigraph above, it seems as if it is mocking Ernest.

His learning to live alone, 'like other people', is shown to involve a splintering of - or at least, an uncertainty within - his personality. Stithies Court, the house, is a forbidding place and becomes literally inaccessible to him, its presumptive owner. The word presumptive being operative there. Stithies - evocatively, choicely, named - is something of an impregnable, infernal fortress: 'it looked like a large black hat-box, crowned at one corner by a smaller hat-box that was, in fact, a tower', the only certainty and constant in this unreliable narrative. (p.164)

LPH delves into the uncanny, and this can be said to fit in very nicely in the English Weird continuum, linking M.R. James and Christopher Priest; I, Haruspex is indeed the short-story covered so far which this most resembles. It is revealed that the figure in the house, keeping down the window with his fingers when Ernest tries to get in that way, initially has a Sapphire and Steel anticipating blankness - its face 'a featureless oval, dimly phosphorescent'. (p.173) This 'simulacrum', it is eventually made clear, is no less than Ernest himself: 'This time the face did not alter. It was Ernest's own face, a hateful face, and the face of a murderer.'

It is, overall, a continually discomfitting, confounding tale, written in an unusual, intriguing style; another fine advertisement for home ownership! Hartley, often facilely bracketed as English Heritage, is indeed, far from that; this is anti-heritage in almost all senses, being concerned with deeper things. As with his great 1953 novel, tradition and hierarchies are destructive; in this case, the old English house itself takes on particular malignance:

'In an old house like this, of course, the floor-boards do contract and expand; they have seen a great deal; they have something to say, and they want to get it off their chests.' (p.168)


Sunday, 19 July 2009

44. E.M. Forster - 'Ansell' (1903)

'We were feeding on the past, and I knew that we could not live by that alone.'
(E.M. Forster, The Life to Come and Other Stories, Penguin, 1975, p.29)

Subtle links with the Bates story, with literature the focus instead of music; the unnamed 'I' in the Forster being analogous to Bates's gifted, yet unhappy, main protagonist, Clara.

Forster has a succinct, emphatic way of expressing the difference between having a traditional, presumably Oxbridge, education, and not. He explores this in the relationship between the verbally articulate 'I' and the manual worker and title character, Ansell. They were relatively on the level when introduced at age 14, Ansell proving a playmate, albeit one distracting 'I' from what his parents see as his serious destination: 'The sound of our whoops and shrieks as we jumped with abandon on one another's hats penetrated even into the smoking-room, where my father was arguing with my cousin as to the respective merits of Eton and Winchester as a school for me.' (p.28)

A future mapped out, and bound to lead away towards the sort of conveyor belt identified by one of the three posh-schooled boys in Granada's Seven Up series (the one who broke out of it by going to Durham, and then became a BBC producer, pointedly not taking part in the series beyond age 21).

He returns to the Hall where Ansell works when now are both 18 and have taken drastically divergent paths in life, and then again at 23, where the main action takes place; Ansell is now a type who anticipates Ted Burgess in L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between (1953), presumably many in D.H. Lawrence and even Tom Seaton in When the Boat Comes In. A man defined by work, practical and taciturn, who often comes into contact with the 'higher orders' by virtue of his work.

The narrator identifies the distinctions; physically he himself is inept, out of shape in comparison: 'But I had forgotten how to rest, and preferred reading to outdoor amusements.' (p.28) But he consoles himself with his presumption of higher intelligence, which are represented not by himself but by his books: 'After six years of a student's life I was perfectly inured to attacks on my implements.' Forster undermines this by the way in which it is revealed that he does not contain the requisite knowledge to complete his dissertation in his noggin, but has to rely overly on his notes and annotations (admittedly something I can sympathise with to some extent!). Also, in a key passage, his greater learning is revealed to be more of an insecurity; his reflex is simply to speak to cover any awkward silence, even making quotations that are not strictly relevant to deflect the idea that he might be wrong in any way.

Forster speaks volumes about what university means, socially: 'But to educated people silence matters: it is a token of stupidity and lack of invention. I racked my brains for some remark that would serve to keep my self-respect, but could find none.' (p.29) This expresses how people are judged socially, and have to adapt to survive, within the sophisticated world of academia. The academy develops the ability to fill gaps in conversation, but not necessarily to communicate meaning; talk may be superfluous, redolent of an untrustworthy verbosity. Forster is clearly ambivalent about this, being of this world himself, not necessarily trusting it and grasping for something more. 'unless I speak I cannot go on thinking' - amply expressing the way thoughts come through a constant articulation in the intellectually self-confident.

The picture at the top of this entry is one of my own, taken from the room at Jesus College I stayed in during the first of my two return visits to Cambridge last year - one in a professional capacity, the other to receive the absurdly difficult to explain (or justify!) Cantab MA. These visits, within the space of three months, brought back the Oxbridge experience in all its ambivalence; there was the space and context to 'get on', as Jack Ford would have it, almost too much to handle. It is a truth that Oxbridge gets better results due to fundamental factors such as the student : lecturer ratio, as well as that expectations, from parents, society and background are greater than they are for someone going to Sunderland or Northumbria University, say. It is a foreign country, compared with up north; a confident, increasingly secular and well-read middle-class enclave, in which the average record shop customer in Fopp was buying distinctly non-mainstream music and cinema. Of course, there's a great potential for smugness there, that you may not get in the more mixed areas of bigger cities like London or Newcastle. Yet, revisiting Galloway and Porters, for example, Clowns cafe, conversing with old faces at the MA reunion, it seemed, once again, an attractive world, if not quite mine, all the way. Part of me will always be there, part will always be at the old Roker Park (with perhaps the modern analogue of the Raich Carter Centre, Sunderland and the 5-a-side team I play in); part to Newcastle, though obviously never to its football. Owen Hatherley captures the city's contradictions well in these pieces:

It is set up better than most to be a European city (YES, indeed, regarding the metro system, and its fine architectrual mix), but is held back by too many living up to the Viz-documented Biggmarket lairiness and unpleasantness. This has definitely been corroborated by several friends who live there, who tend to agree with me that Ouseburn, east of the city centre, is where to go. Civilised, and yet far from smug; as beautiful in its distinct way, as Cambridge, so long as they don't spoil it with over-development - the seemingly eternal, and depressing, fantasy of yuppie flats and their implied end of history. The Cumberland Arms forever.

(Anyway - barely related digression over!)

The two young men's past escapades - making birdlime from a Boy's Own Paper recipe - cannot sustain an easy conversation in the present. An inter-dependence only comes apart through the jeopardy they are thrown into - and indeed, 'Them Books' quizzically referred to by Ansell, end up saving his life. The cart carrying both of them and the narrator's books pertaining to his dissertation becomes overturned and the weight of the box of books saves them - going into the river before they do.

In this situation they literally save lives, but they ruin, or at least drastically alter, the narrator's assumed passage in life: he is looking to become an academic and requires successful completion of his prized dissertation to achieve that end. With Ansell's and others' help, he recovers several books, including the 'cover of an Artistotle', but his in-progress dissertation and annotated notes are lost forever - effectively ending his career before it had even truly begun. (p.34)

Intriguingly, Forster's The Longest Journey (1907) - made much of by Michael Bracewell in his England is Mine exploration of English cultural trends - also contains a character named Ansell. It will definitely be the next Forster I read; I regret to say that I have read no further than A Passage to India (1924) - and that was as a requirement as part of my BA course. 'Ansell' is a well crafted tale, especially impressive considering EMF's youth at the time; he is indeed remarkably adept at conveying what it is like to be 23 and 'educated'.

'Well, there's other things but books', Ansell reflects.

'If I met with one sign of sympathy I should break down'.


Saturday, 18 July 2009

43. H.E. Bates - 'A Christmas Song' (1950)

'A little snub worked wonders with these stupid girls, though, really, she had to admit that Joan's devotion was less revolting than the so-called normal attitude that Tim Prosser and the others professed so loudly, a normality that apparently classed human beings with pigs.'

'It was the most wonderful Christmas Eve, just like a fairy story.'
(Angus Wilson, Such Darling Dodos, Penguin, 1960, p.113/118-9)

'Instead there was almost always rain and long columns of working-class mackintoshes floating down a street that was like a dreary black canal. Instead of singing Mozart to the snow she spent long hours selling jazz sheet-music to factory workers and earned her reward, at last, by being bored at the Williamsons' party.'
(H.E. Bates, Love in a Wych Elm and other stories, Capuchin Classics, 2009, p.135)

Well, there will be something of a theme for this new week's short-stories; they will all be from English writers, arranged alphabetically by surname. Fittingly, there is link with the last one I read; the Muriel Spark, because there is a Christmas theme.

H.E. Bates seems to have been off the radar for a long time in blighty; I cannot remember exactly when the successful TV version of The Darling Buds of May was on, and his books are scarcely in print, it seems, and like Angus Wilson's, do not seem to be accorded the merit of new editions by Penguin. There was, I suppose, the mention in Withnail and I (dir. Bruce Robinson, 1987), and a Peter Tinniswood-involving Uncle Silas TV-adaptation but his work seems to have slipped from public memory in the last 15-20 years or so. Many other major English writers born in the 1890-1914 era seem to have slipped from view somewhat: L.P. Hartley and Anthony Powell (barring Simon Barnes's regular allusions in The Times) do not have the profile of Waugh or Wodehouse, say.

But in 2009 we have a Capuchin Classics collection of his short stories, spanning the whole of his career; the back refers to Graham Greene's comparison of Bates with Chekhov, considering him the best short story writer of his generation. It is also perhaps his provincialism - refusal to court acceptance in London, or move there - that counts against him for some. And his being perceived as an avuncular ruralist.

Like Angus Wilson, he stands as a significant post-WW2 writer born before WW1 and who does not fit easily into today's packaging of the past, which prefers to believe that there was nothing before rock 'n' roll and the Angry Young Men. Or, nothing between WW2 and Elvis. You get a sense in this story, as in early Wilson, of the curious place that Britain was, after the war but before Macmillanite consumerism had won the day. They are sensitive writers, dissecting the pulse of a nation that was changing, moving towards socialism but not quite. 'A Christmas Song' may be compared with Wilson's story from the same year: 'Christmas Day in the Workhouse', a wartime tale set in a Bureau. In that, the young, highly proficient and refined Thea repulsed by a perceived new vulgarity, which she sees as manifested in architecture and people, as captured in Wilson's sly prose:

'Despite the freezing wind that blew across the dismal meadows, where each month saw less trees and more concrete buildings, the atmosphere in the canteen with its radiators and fluorescent lighting was stiflinf. The white coats of the waitresses were splashed with scraps of food and gravy stains; around their thickly lipsticked mouths, their cheeks and chins shone greasy and sweaty. The young technician who sat opposite to Thea spat fragments of potato as he talked to his girl friend. She pushed aside her plate and decided to leave before the roof of her mouth was completely caked in suet. What a prelude to a Mozart concert! she thought. Nothing in her education had ever allowed her to bridge the gap between the material and the cultural.' (SDD, pp.113-4)

There is something of the unease Losey and Pinter captured in their 1963 film, The Servant (itself an adaptation of a 1948 novel), with Bates emphasising the dissolution of an out-of-touch upper crust in society - though in the fictional Evensford the rug is yet to be definitively pulled from under their feet.

The quietly anguished Clara - or "Good Old Clara!" as she is to the absurd Freddy Williamson - is the central character, who is delicately sketched in comparison to the broadness of her sister, the more social Essie, and the Williamsons: 'The Williamsons were in leather; they were very successful and had a large early Edwardian house with bay-windows and corner cupolas and bathroom windows of stained glass overlooking the river.' (p.136)

Clara dreams hopelessly of Christmas snow which might transform the drab Evensford into a more romantic, or Alpine, European town; the epigraph to this post indicates how she sees herself as distinct from both the unsophisticated, increasingly prominent working-class and the rich, represented by the ghastly Williamsons. She is a decidedly pre-pop culture sort of heroine, not assertive in accepting or rejecting the overtures of Freddy, but just not responding to them. The contrast is provided by the 'shy ardent' young man who cannot recall any of the song he wants to buy from the shop. She takes to him with all of his sensitivity and embarrassment - he clearly gets the emotion of the song he is seeking, in contrast to how the Williamsons raucously respond to her habitual Christmas Eve performances.

The song turns out to be, as she had suspected, a piece by Schubert - 'Standchen' (1828) in particular - and this impresses her, presumably in contrast to the endless jazz dance band songs she has to help people buy. There is a wistful gentility in the untapped, unspoken romance that cannot but remind one of Brief Encounter (dir. David Lean, 1945), a sort of Englishness that has in many senses been crushed by left, right and most of all, by consumerism.

One should not easily pigeonhole Bates, at least on this evidence, as a purveyor of cosy, middle-class consensus; there is a restlessness about conventional class-based society that you find everywhere from the finest work of Innes and Stanshall ('Postcard', 'Sport (The Odd Boy)', 'My Pink Half of the Drainpipe') to Bennett and Potter. Those who are cultured and sensitive are not necessarily going to fit in anywhere, seems to be the message. The function of the Schubert is almost entirely what the Al Bowlly songs are within Dennis Potter's work - incantations that transport the protagonists beyond the humdrum and everyday, or emphasise the melancholy contrast between the ideal and the reality. Wilson's Christmas story actually includes a part where 'Paper Doll' (used also in The Singing Detective, IIRC) is playing, chides Thea and her dreams of escaping from her isolation: 'I'd rather have a paper doll to call my own' the crooner sang, 'than a fickle-minded real life doll.' (SDD, p.125)

Counterpointing the poignant encounters between Clara and the shy ardent young gent are her forced encounters with Freddy Williamson. She is entrapped by this grotesque's persistent advances, which she can only seem to avert by agreeing to attend the yearly ritual that is the Williamson Christmas family party. Her reveries are bound to be broken by this actively reprehensible chap - often referred to as like a dog. His fatuous demand for kisses and attention - 'Come on, let's have one for Christmas' - cannot ultimately be rejected. (p.140) Freddy is rather like one of Angus Wilson's grotesque types, vividly painted in his malignance: 'He smacked at her lips with his heavy, dog-like mouth, pressing her body backwards.' (p.141) He also uses phrases like 'Whizzo'...

Christmas is bound to be appropriated by the Freddys; her cultivated, European dreams are ever at bay. There are clear analogues in 'A Christmas Day at the Workhorse'; Major Tim Prosser for Freddy, Stephanie for the ardent shy young man in terms of oblique romantic longing: 'A few minutes later Stephanie had slipped away, and Thea stood by a window, gazing out on to the wet shiny asphalt paths as though her dreams were reflected in their mirrored surface.' (SDD, p.122)

Underlining the resolution is a quintessentially English sense of doors being shut, of opportunities sadly slipping away: 'She felt the frost crackling under her feet. She grasped at something that was floating away. Leise flehen meine Lieder - Oh! my loved one - how did it go?' The inability to precisely remember the words mirrors her inability to escape the world of the Williamsons and find romance.


Songs of the year - so far...

1. Pet Shop Boys - 'Legacy'
2. Camera Obscura - 'My Maudlin Career'
3. Passion Pit - 'Sleepyhead'
4. Calvin Harris - 'I'm Not Alone'
5. Dizzee Rascal & Armand Van Helden - 'Bonkers'
6. Charles Spearin - 'Vanessa'
7. Malcolm Middleton - 'Red Travellin' Socks'
8. Belbury Poly - 'A Great Day Out'
9. Manic Street Preachers - 'Jackie Collins Existential Question Time'
10. Toddla T. ft. Roots Manuva & Siobhan Gallagher - 'Sunny Money'

#3 and #7 were on the recommendation of a particularly discerning student.

Ten from the past:

Long Fin Killie - 'British Summertime'
Basil Kirchin - 'I Start Counting'
Clifford T. Ward - 'A Sad Cliche'
Duncan Browne - 'The Ghost Walks' (though frankly any on his magnificent 1968 LP)
Aztec Camera - 'Mattress of Wire'
John Barry - 'The Persuaders'*
The Legendary Pink Spots - 'Government Health Warning' (much else from them too**)
The Passage - 'Xoyo'
Janet Jackson - 'When I Think of You'
Michael Jackson - 'Rock with You'

* Well used by BBC Parliament to underscore the opening to their Fall of the Callaghan Govt. night.
** A discovery made by chance, as he was being interviewed with career overview on Resonance FM not too long ago, which I happened to be streaming via iTunes...

Thursday, 16 July 2009

non-aligned lefties for left unity

A broad-based alliance is proposed, to unite against and supplant the systems of neo-conservatism and free-market capitalism. It should and must combine the following groups, to have any chance of working:
  • The Green Party and all environmental groups (barring any affiliated to the far-right).
  • All socialist, anarchist and communist organisations / small parties.
  • Anyone involved in public services, with an interest surely to have a system orientated towards public service ideals, e.g. those in health, education, local government, &c. A fair few areas of the country have 35-40% of the workforce who are in the public services - though obviously areas like Catterick or Colchester may not be so fruitful!
  • People in the Arts already facing cuts from Blue Labour and much to lose under the Tories.
  • Musicians, filmmakers, artists &c.
  • People who with 'Old' Labour values and those remaining in working-class occupations such as manufacturing and heavy industry. All ordinary, working people.
  • All students, of whatever age. Whether going to Cambridge, Sunderland or the Open University, you should be with us. A new left will be seriously dedicated to education.
  • The poor and those who have particularly lost out from the boom and bust of capitalism and its philosophy.
  • Small and local businesses - see above point.
  • Campaigners against war, prejudice and inequality.
  • All Pro-Europeans.

The quartet shown at the top of this post represent some of the differing types who really ought to get together; more that unites than divides, surely. And yet they vote for, or represent, four different parties; there ought to be one organisation that could accommodate all four, or at the very least unite them in a coalition. There is to be a north-east meeting of Non-Aligned Lefties tomorrow evening, which may follow up some of the points from the first London meeting in May:

There was a longer piece I was planning on this topic which is included below, as a draft; it was originally penned in late June, reflecting upon things as the dust was settling after the European Elections.
Future Politics and Coalition Building

23 June 2009

Good piece by Owen Hatherley on Bob Crow here:

I am beginning, finally, to engage myself in some political activity - after a long slumber, or disillusion, call it what you like. I joined a grouping set up by Hatherley, Non-Aligned Lefties for Left Unity; an impulse that fully accords with my views: that the left must work on a united programme, and work together on providing a future for our country and world. Petty divisions and splintering purism must be put aside; there must be compromises, clarifications and generally just the willingness to agree to disagree over some philosophical or issue-specific differences.

This attempt to coalition build* involves numerous small leftist parties, the Greens and the 'Labour' Party. It is quite right to target disaffected Labour voters and areas because the BNP are tending to fill the vacuum in these areas. The position ought to be: we support a Labour candidate only if they propose a progressive, left-wing platform, i.e. Cruddas, McDonnell and all too few others. They wouldn't even debate Robin Cook's legacy at a recent Labour Conference. Cook - the one man who might have been a genuine coalition builder, broadening Labour's support with the left and non-Tory centre, in stark contrast to Brown's dwindling, leaky 'tent', his .

The European Elections showed that Labour itself is finished, unless it adpots some principles and purpose - it no longer represents its own people in any meaningful sense, it continues to represent the bankers, the media barons and the tabloid press. (given succour by real people only in the sense of focus grouped 'consensus')

I still cannot see one party I would join; the LibDems do not propose much more than mild reforms to capitalism; Labour is decimated by 12 years of gutless governance, pandering to the British people's worst instincts; and the SLP . The Greens are maybe the closest, Monbiot and others articulating a cohesive, workable agenda that is close to Labour at its most left-wing but without the emphasis on class politics or manual labour. But then again, the Greens can tend to come across as patronising and aloof, being indelibly university-educated and middle-class - they will find a lot of votes in Brighton or Norwich or Oxford, but hardly in Oldham or Copeland or Sunderland...

A member of Bob Crow's NO2EU - Yes to Democracy alliance - a fair few small left-wing parties, plus his trade union - acknowledged to me that the naming of this party was not ideal. One might give this the benefit of the doubt - oh, it is the sort of populist gambit that might get more working-class voters on board - but then one should not. Crow - in the interview Hatherley links to - claims to be an internationalist and a pro-European, rightly saying he would support French Trade Union action. So why so crudely attack the EU when what should be attacked is the sort of capitalism that underpins it at present? A reformed EU would clearly serve out interests better than withdrawing from it, which would only leave us even more exposed to our own 'Anglo-Saxon' capitalist excesses.

I won't go in for further recriminations; there is a lot in Crow's agenda (and his connection to locality and history) that is invaluable. He is perhaps the one man - along with Jon Cruddas - who can potentially take on the BNP in Old Labour areas and win with a left-wing agenda. You cannot see Iain Sinclair or George Monbiot doing it, can you? Seemingly, the opportunistic name is to be shed, which can only aid co-operation.

We are correct to target Labour, but I would also include the Liberal Democrats, whom, for all of their faults, are in many areas of the country positioned to the left (if not always dramatically) of Labour on civil liberties and the public sector. They gained a lot of what I might term the Stephen Fry Vote at the last election - students, intellectuals, graduates, based in London, Cambridge, Durham, York, Oxford, Brighton, Norwich. They gained many ex-Labour voters, Neil Tennant and myself included (a simulacrum of an ex-Labour voter, having never voted for them in a national election! But i was Labour in my pre-life, and my parents always were).

In addition, the sort of solid Labour people who cannot seem to bring themselves to vote for another party; they either hold the nose and vote LAB or do not vote at all - there were probably a million or so of these in the EU election, if you compare the 2004 and 2009 votes. These people may be public-sector workers (education, health, the arts), with perhaps the most to lose from a Conservative government if one thinks about the cuts that are likely; they should be an ideal group to vote Green / Left, or left-wing Labour.

My suggestion to voters would be: consult the voting record of your MP; if their record is broadly in line with your principles, vote for them whether Labour or LibDem - if not, vote for Left / Green. Likewise, the Greens and other Left parties should not field candidates against MPs who have consistently stood up to free-market capitalism or stood for our civil liberties.

So, this coalition should include Bob Crow, George Monbiot, Stephen Fry and The platform would be pro-EU, but against the harmful aspects of it. More emphasis should be put on cooperation between European people and states, defining a positive, secular culture.

Whether it could include Polly Toynbee (whom should come under the dictionary definition of 'vacillating', with her 12 year long marriage to New Labour, supposedly thinking she has credibility on the strength of persistent, but unfulfilled, flirtation with other ideas) would be a matter for

* Something that was done to all of our costs, of course, in the 1980s, with Thatcher expanding the blue collar, working-class Tory vote, and changing the culture to gain an ever-growing home ownership vote. The left needs to get itself organised and united behind if not one party then one agreement, seeking to build a broad base of support with many different types of people. Diammetrically opposed to Thatcher in what is being argued for, but like her and unlike Blair in that it would be a movement based on principles.

Jackson preliminaries

Ghost at the feast, A. That is what one tends to feel like regarding the bizarre, enthralling and disturbing Jackson and the number of intriguing pieces of writing about him and what he may have represented:





Morley: (including languid thoughts from people such as Traceyanne from Camera Obscura. Swoon.)

I only came upon him in the Dangerous-and-onwards period, and few can surely pretend he was the same. So many projections, so little of a man there by the end. A media grotesque, an embodiment of celebrity / corporate culture and how it can corrupt. It was not the case in 1979, but then that was pre-Reagan; Funkadelic and Chic were mainstream, incipient hip-hop promised so much.

I will do a piece on Jackson's work, bringing in some of the wider context - not hoping to math the other articles above, just hoping to give my own necessarily partial assessment of the entire back catalogue. I feel I should know it more, and this is an ideal opportunity to explore it in more depth.

Draft impressions / prejudices / hypotheses:
  • Off the Wall the early pinnacle.
  • Heal the World and other follies
  • 'Stranger in Moscow' is great - worthy of the Pet Shop Boys as I think someone else once said.
  • Bad the most 'pop' album - an epitome of where he was at when at his biggest
  • Thriller over-exposed; I'm a bit bored by it, frankly. And it marked the crossover into corporate 'icon' and artist-as-advertisement to be projected all around the world.
  • Did he work well with Jam and Lewis? If not, who or what was to blame?
  • Is Janet not better? Surely nothing matches Control. Does his control go post-'Billie Jean', quality and artistry-wise.
  • His Chaplin fixation - compare and contrast his own career with Chaplin's.
  • Buying the Beatles's back catalogue - why?
  • Jarvis Cocker incident - hubris punctured...? Sets himself up as God, attacks the way the world has become but proposes no answers - the projection cannot break out of the system.
  • Why did he never attempt some proper techno madness? Or even something as out-there as Bablyon Zoo's 'Spaceman'?
  • He is not one of the great pop artists*, because he is bigger than that - he practically *is* pop culture itself, in all its complexity. (*e.g. Prince, Kate Bush, Abba - who clearly are)

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Schadenfreude? I don't think misfortune comes into it

It had to happen! Belief undone by a fatal lack of ability (as well as the most red cards of any team in the league). Especially good to see two of the more intelligent managers, Hodgson and O'Neill, apply the final nails to the coffin.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

42. Muriel Spark - 'The Leaf-Sweeper' (1952)

'But it was still misty, and really, I can't say whether, when I looked a second time, there were two men or one man sweeping the leaves.'
(Muriel Spark, The Complete Short Stories, Penguin, 2001, p.190)

I had little or no idea what this was going to be about, or like; a good way to finish this extended week of stories from favoured writers. If a week is a long time in politics, I am not sure what Harold Wilson would make of my progress with this. I only got around to completing this story on Thursday 16th of July - as you will see the post has lain dormant for quite some time. ASSAD will reconvene shortly, on a week by week basis, perhaps without a theme to begin with - let's just get things started again!

In truth, I shifted to novel reading: Grant Allen, John Verney, Sjowall and Wahloo, E. Nesbit, Donald Barthelme... and only on Thursday managed to get around to reading this piece. One recent novel read spurred the choice of Spark, a new favourite: her Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), 64 years on, a distinct, droller bedfellow of Allen's The British Barbarians. This is a strain of literature probing the English in particular, their foibles, hypocrisies and absurdities. Dougal Douglas, like Bertram Ingledew, a stranger in a foreign land, is regarded with a mixture of fascination, admiration, horror and incomprehension - and like Ingledew, his role is freelance agent provocateur, sprite-at-large, observing . He is, however, more devious and machiavellian in his means of exposing folly and involving himself in these people's lives. He also takes on paid employment, given the brief of almost a 'blue skies thinker' in the modern parlance; he is given the task of taking the pulse of the workplace and approaches it in an idiosyncratic manner the bosses accept due to their perception of this Scot as an 'Arts Man'.

'The Leaf-Sweeper' is an even earlier work from Spark's career of over fifty years, published originally in The Observer - and will be far from the last I will read (there is an allegory of Watergate in a nunnery, a fictionalised account of Lord Lucan's later life and, of course, a certain novel that was filmed about a schoolmistress with fascist fixations... plz feel free to recommend any more, anyone!). She seems to me to be one of the key post-WW2 writers, along with Angus Wilson, Kingsley Amis &c.

The first thing to state about this story is that, like TBOPR, this is bloody funny - Spark has an understated way with insinuation and absurdity. The premise itself rings true in its absurdity - the leaf-sweeper turns out to be an author and fanatic recently released from a mental institution. Johnnie Geddes's fanaticism revolves around his unshakeable opposition to Christmas and all its works. He has some success with pamphlets on the subject and then full-length books (including Abolish Christmas or We Die) outlining his apocalyptic vision, captured amusingly by Spark: 'He cites appalling statistics to show that 1.024 per cent of the time squandered each Christmas in reckless shopping and thoughtless Churchgoing brings the nation closer to its doom by five years.' The effect is all the stronger because he rather has a point!

Spark introduces the concept succinctly and without ceremony - with something of the matter-of-fact quality that I observed in Dahl; after establishing the rather wistful, grounded scene of a man sweeping leaves in the mist for the local council, she throws in this: 'He looks much older than he is, for it is not quite twenty years ago that Johnnie founded the Society for the Abolition of Christmas.' (p.185) It gets one intrigued, right from the off, and Spark goes on to cover a lot of ground in a mere six pages. We get to know very little about the narrator who encounters Johnnie, and it simply does not matter in a vignette such as this is.

Quite how Spark turns it into a ghost-story is ingenious; amusing and melancholy at the same time: 'But perhaps you don't know how repulsive and loathsome is the ghost of a living man. The ghosts of the dead may be all right, but the ghost of mad Johnnie gave me the creeps.' (p.189)