Wednesday, 15 April 2009

19. Wolf Mankowitz - 'Expresso Bongo' (1960)

'The gold on Bongo was no more real than the white beard on the Father Christmas at Selfridges, yet look how that show runs year after year.'

(Wolf Mankowitz, Make Me An Offer, Expresso Bongo and other stories, Hutchinson Educational / Unicorn, 1961, p.85)

There are interesting contrasts to be drawn with the Sitwell; this is focused on the urban scene that is used as marker of oddity against which people in staid Newborough are judged. The style is hard-boiled, rather than florid; clearly the cosmopolitan Mankowitz draws influences from all over - Damon Runyon, for example - rather than the aristocratic Sitwell, rooted in English culture. As with Sitwell and his criticisms made of society as it was, Mankowitz is well-qualified to cast an acidic eye on life in the metropole, being very much part of it himself.

The concern with money is universal in the delocalised world; everything is a show, in a way closer to the modern free-market than to the drowning Victorian age depicted by Sitwell. Mankowitz writes from a Jewish and London perspective entirely new to this blog; perhaps tangentially related to Harold Pinter, though clearly leaning more towards depicting the actuality of the characters' activity in The Dumb Waiter than capturing menace. He has an interest in low-life types and a keen perception of how urban life and pop culture was developing, placing them in the same lineage as musical theatre and Hollywood - with the depiction of a has-been mogul important at the end. Judy Garland is a motif, and high culture is seen inextricably linked to the popular; the dyspeptic talent impressario Mr Mayer professes to be an opera fan, who hates the new-fangled sounds - yet he knows where the money is and invests in Bongo: 'Yet from this disc lunacy I make money.' (p.77) The mogul's films, clearly of the Cecil B. deMille variety, are reappraised by the young: 'He was so dead that the long-haired cineastes (who hate live film makers) put three of his pre-accountancy-era movies into a National Film Theatre series.' (p.92)

Mankowitz is good in capturing talk, if hardly a Pinter; he captures the bravado very nicely, and the whole effect is as much to satirise as to mythologise the pop life: 'you are great with the teen-age public just so long as you're one of them.' (p.88) He creates the sense of this important new consumer group, the teenagers, who would not have been existed a decade before; the dress-sense in the Italian coffee bar is all string-ties and velvet-collared coats and pony-tails for the girls. (p.76) Coffee and pizza are clearly relatively new imports too, enjoyed by the band and their initial fanbase - also, the manager enjoys one of London's Chinese restaurants. It is very much the same sort of picture as that conveyed in the Daniel Farson-helmed TV documentary of 1960, Living for Kicks, with the Brighton youth constrained, envious, looking to America for the answers. Indeed, Mankowitz uses a similar TV documentary, Teen-age Rebellion, as a means of showing how Bongo Herbert becomes popular: 'The shots of him beating the life out of Mother and Hoxton in the shape of a pair of midget drums had real power.' (p.82) The same page describes how the documentary featured, along with other 'delinquent types', 'a magistrate, a psychiatrist and the governor of a Boys' Remand Home.' (pp.81-2) I cannot recall whether the Farson programme counterpoints the views of the young with the old or not...

But, those views are perceived as as irrelevant as the treasures uncovered by those combing the sands in 'Low Tide': 'The older generation, with a belly full of wars and post-wars, was too tired from jumping over rising costs and crises to see the worry behind its children's gaiety.' (p.86) Mankowitz is very perceptive on how the older generation - perhaps anyone who did national service and older? - are excluded from this new world. The provinces too, are secondary; reputations are made in 'the Smoke', the capital; 'According to them [booking agents], in the provinces the public didn't watch television or read the newspapers. But the fact of no bookings apart, maybe to let Bongo get lost up North for a few months would be bad business wise.' (p.83) Restrictions are still in place, though, even in London; the 'small-time nude revue off Brewer Street' that the manager attends has a 'tableau vivant' in which, rather absurdly, neither the female artiste nor the horse is permitted to move - by law. The Lord Chamberlain's veto on theatres and other such moves on censorship were still in effect. Ironic perhaps that Cliff Richard stars in the film of Expresso Bongo (1959) - which portrays a cynicism towards censorship as much as towards the pop phenomenon - when ten years later he would be a close ally of Mary Whitehouse in her 'Festival of Light' campaign against filth on television, the stage and in popular culture generally.

The somewhat hypocritical nature of the fanbase is made clear; these are easily manipulated, by a fan-mag which absurdly portrays Bongo as 'giving Mum big play for her golden heart and undying faith' - she is actually more concerned in him becoming a standard breadwinner. Perhaps this is merely intended as a reassurance for the older generation; the teenagers clearly revel in how rebellious Bongo is in the early throes of his success.

I have not yet seen the film of this, but would imagine it would at least be interesting; Val Guest is one of the more durable veterans of British cinema, involved in everything from The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), to The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961; an apparently fine science-fiction film), to Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974) and surely a nadir in British cinema and culture, Cannon and Ball's The Boys in Blue (1982). Fascinatingly, in view of both how Crompton's series developed into the 1960s, he actually directed a 1947 film entitled Just William's Luck, which I had never heard of before: This does not appear to be available on DVD, and I can never recall it having been screened on TV in the last ten years.

The book which contains EB is part of a series of 'Unicorn' hardbacks, with a fairly abstract uniform cover design, with a unicorn at its centre. Being Hutchinson Educational, they are clearly intended for fairly intelligent schoolgoers; other Unicorns included The Red Badge of Courage, Huck Finn, The Day of the Triffids, Doctor Syn and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - which certainly reflect a culture in the early-60s that encouraged the questioning of authority, tying into what was going on in pop culture. My parents' edition is ex-library, with due-to-return dates of 26 SEP 1967 and 23 FEB 1972; it is from Bramhall County Grammar School, I gather in or around Stockport, where my parents lived and taught from about 1974-8 (though not at this school). Paul Morley went to a very similar grammar-school, Stockport GS itself (?), around this time; interesting to consider whether he might have read this in the late sixties - I need to read his superb memoir Nothing again soon.

It is very much a moot point whether Mankowitz glamourises his first-person narrator, who is an archetypal pop svengali - though more a manager than a producer. There is an offhand moment of Spector unpleasantness, dished out to his female secretary with singing aspirations which is not editorially commented upon. However, perhaps his fate, outwitted by a Bongo who is clearly intent upon donning the lucrative, though less vital, mantle of the 'all-round entertainer', ending up with nothing is seen as just desserts in his world. What lingers perhaps more in the mind is how he promotes the first record in terms bound to capture a voracious youth: 'Hate him or hug him, Bongo has something that's new, a swaying calypso beat woven around a rock foundatio. Here it is, kids. Bongo, you beasts.' (p.79)

'In profit.
I love those words.'

Mankowitz touches on how important this was becoming; however restrained capitalism was in comparison to the last thirty years we have witnessed, the old drives, suppressed for so long, were returning.* The essential vitality offered by the narrator and by Bongo would clearly have been difficult to resist for the young. The Tom-Tom club's 'yokels from Elephant and Castle', and Bongo with his 'hoarse Hoxton voice' are a deft portrait of young Londoners who have simply had enough of the very limited world offered by the older generation at this stage. Yes, one will get more depth in terms of interpreting language, mores and behaviour by reading the contemporaneous works of Harold Pinter or Angus Wilson, but this is a very prescient early development of the pop narrative - admittedly one that has since been tiresomely overused in films and literature over the last fifty years. Whilst the utter vitality and necessity of pop culture must be stressed, most would acknowledge that it held greater power when in opposition to an established order with values, rather than in league with a capitalism without values - as has been the case since 1984 and the crucial victories of Thatcherism.**

* Martin J. Wiener, in English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit (1981) records the gradual retreat of the British from the sort of urban capitalism, industry and enterprise that had led to Empire and the growth of cities. He fixes upon this as the high watermark of commerce: - and the retreat, whether into ruralist, religious or socialist values is more marked from this point. He uses examples from Dickens and Hardy, as well as the more expected examples of Chesterton, Wilde and Morris, to show how the culture recoiled from what it had done.
Wiener's was an important book in the establishment of Thatcher's monetarist reforms, providing ballast for the case to be made on changing the culture; a copy was distributed to every cabinet member when it was published.

** The articulate cellist Zoe Martlew made the point on Newsnight Review last night (17/04/09) that from 1950-75 we had a funding of classical music youth orchestras which actually compared with the rest of the world - our Local Authority Music Services. This meant free access to tuition and instruments. The Education Reforms of the Tories They were discussing the excellent Venezuelan policy of giving all children (including the poor) a music instrument and subsidising lessons, bringing them into orchestras - resulting in the Sounds Venezuela concerts under review. Portillo, generally making fatuous points on the other topics, made the obvious but pertinent observation that it is 'culturally impossible' for people to be raised in this country by classical music. The urgency, enthusiasm, the training to listen could not be achieved in our current culture, where, as he said, disadvantaged people have no belief in bettering themselves through an artistic education. This is a human right in Socialist Venezuela, and should be everywhere, including Britain. As it stands, classical music is branded as elite; the politicians and educationalists will have nothing to do with it. It is left as the preserve of the pushy, well-to-do middle-classes, who can afford to pay for private tuition; yet one more aspect of our class divided society. Like Martlew, Goldie knows what should be done; like with the youth centres, subsidise; people won't be raised in any other way. And popular music itself will be richer for the interaction and antagonism with the classical. We know it works, it has before.



  1. Oddly enough I just mentioned Wiener here - (though bear in mind that, as usual with that blog, there's a catch: 'jock mctrousers' has definite anti-Semitic leanings)

    'Living for Kicks' does have at least one older contributor whose name escapes me, but if memory serves she seems to be fairly sympathetic towards the young of 1960 - certainly much more so than James Wentworth Day, who doesn't appear (I'm guessing this was after Farson had frozen him out, terrified that JWD might land him in court for his sexuality).

    'Just William's Luck' was, I am pretty certain, shown by Channel 4 on New Year's Day 1994 ...

    You know what *really* riles me? The idea that pop that engages with and takes ideas from classical music or 'high' culture can only be Rick Wakeman (whose current return will, I fear, only damage the cause of pop that exists outside the establishmentised cliches of "rock'n'roll", so deep-rooted and institutionalised is the status of his name to have the cultural power to, in many circles, destroy the arguments of people like me in itself). It's like that whole ILM mindset of saying "go read Jane Austen" when someone dares to suggest than Steven "autism = racism" Wells' writing is crass and idiotic, as if those two extremes are the only two things that exist in the world, as if there's nothing in between. I remember Ben Watson in the Wire saying that the problem with mainstream prog was that it aspired to the bombast of Wagner rather than the more detailed and subtle music of other classical composers, and that's truer than it isn't - the problem comes when you have an entire rock culture that doesn't even know those other classical composers *exist* (and only know even Wagner because of the Hitler connection). That's when rock culture really does become the New Entrapment.

  2. They certainly wouldn't know Messiaen, Gorecki, Bartok, Debussy, Britten, let alone the more extreme stuff... I am looking forward to reading David Stubbs' book, which is pretty much on this theme: how critics and listeners reject experimental (classical) music out of hand, while they seem to accept similar moves in art.

    The Tories as ever have much to answer for; the year zero of 1988 - National Curriculum and all that entails. But it does seem that the state had gradually been rowing back from subsidising classical music for all during that 1975-88 period, though I would need more detail to be certain about the details.

    It is the false terminology applied; elitist as perjorative, painting a whole vast tradition of music and culture as inherently Tory and limited to a sect in society, when it should influence everybody. The positive argument for high culture needs more people like Goldie on side; Ian Hislop is not going to win anyone round! The argument being made in public school tones automatically makes it easy to refute by the govt. and media.

    n.p. Ruth White, Satie: Gymnopedie no.1 / Janet Jackson - Someone to Call My Lover (a somehow sublime fusion of 70s AOR (America), contemporary r&b and the same Satie... a meeting of continents, highways and constellations that Tony Blair could only dream of))

  3. The thing is that the Left and the Right always like to blame each other for the decline of subsidised high culture, when in reality both are at fault.

    The Left say that it is purely the Tories' dramatic reduction of funding to schools, denigration of learning for its own sake and introduction of a rigid, utilarian curriculum (the latter two trends at least continued by NuLab, of course). The Right say that it is purely the usurping - some time before Thatcher came to power - of the strong-state, Third Programme ethos of the Attlee government by an extreme Leftist relativism that talks pejoratively of "dead white males" and makes a mantra of "democratisation" (a word which when used by trendy-lefties is, in fact, little more than the Thatcherite argument of "giving the people what they want" justified in different words). Both are half-correct and half-wrong. Both Left and Right, as on so much else, are guilty.

    This is why I find it interesting that funding of classical music for all may have been initially cut back in 1975. Although the Left was at something of a high water mark of power and influence at that point, much of it was already - especially at local council level in Labour's urban heartlands, particularly inner London - quite different in ethos from the post-war Left that had put so much emphasis on giving the best to all, with its creation of the Arts Council etc. I can well imagine Labour councils, or the old Inner London Education Authority, around that time diverting money away from school visits to classical concerts, art galleries etc. because it was seen as "imposing" an "irrelevant paternalism" upon the young, and directing the funding they had - which was still lavish by later standards, although Callaghan may have had to cut it back somewhat after the IMF loan - towards more "relevant" activities. Later, of course, they would find they had very little time or money left for *any* non-utilarian activities. This is not a "loony left" rant - we all know that those rants were completely hypocritical because The Sun in the 1980s shared a similar cultural agenda to that of trendy-lefties anyway, merely justifying it in terms of "relevance" rather than making money - merely a recognition that neither Left nor Right has clean hands on this issue.

    I suppose the closest thing to someone who comes from a public school background, doesn't want to hide it or conceal his knowledge, and is very widely liked, and isn't seen as representative of a caricaturedly stuffy old elite, is Stephen Fry - though even he is resented and misunderstood by some (to this day there are people - often ridiculously self-hating ex-public-schoolboys themselves; I can imagine Brigstocke and even Brooker being in this category - who think there was no difference between A Bit of Fry and Laurie and the TV shows of Kit and the Widow, for fuck's sake). These things are much more complicated than they're made out to be - most prog musicians were not from the same background as Gabriel, Rutherford and Banks, or even anywhere near it - but I think the more public school people embrace the absolutism, what is now almost the *fascism* of pop, the more the mass will feel it is justified; there is still an undercurrent of "oh, posh people like it so it *must* be OK" in England, even among those who would regard themselves as above such thinking.

  4. (of course, what I meant above was that The Sun justified a certain agenda in terms of making money and trendy-lefties justified it in terms of "relevance", not the other way round)