Saturday, November 21, 2015

Patti Smith – ‘Just Kids’

When I was ill and off work the other week, Patti Smith came on the radio (on Woman’s Hour) to talk about her new book M Train. Jenni Murray expressed incredulity at her fondness for English murder mystery TV, with a pause, and a ‘WHY?’ Patti said something about time spent in hotel rooms, and why not? I remembered that I had Just Kids stashed on my Kindle, along with so much else, plucked when it was on sale and then forgotten. Everyone knows that Just Kids is great. It can’t miss and it doesn’t. It’s the tale of two young artists in New York in the late ’60s, who supported each other to great things, surrounded by an impossibly glamorous cast.
He said they’d live in New York
And the stars would be their own
’Cause she was Debbie Harry
And he was Joey
He was Joey Ramone
        (Helen Love, ‘Debbie Loves Joey’)
That kind of thing, but a few precious years earlier. There’s Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, Candy Darling, Sam Shepard, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Warhol and Lou Reed from a distance. Allen Ginsberg tries to pick up Patti after mistaking her for a boy (he doesn’t mind, and they become friends). She is a great reporter of this social whirl, level-headed and journalistic, but able to dig down into artistry too. She is engagingly un-cool, in her own telling (most would disagree), her own rags-to-riches tale relatively workmanlike compared to that of her soulmate, Robert Mappelthorpe. She looks amazing in his photos, and adores the cultural milieu, but the social side can make her uncomfortable, and in a scene so defined by homosexuality and drug use, she is a bit on the conventional side. Tony Ingrassia, who directed her in two plays, calls her out on this:
Tony and I had a heated exchange that ended with him incredulous with laughter. ‘You don’t shoot up and you’re not a lesbian. What do you actually do?’
What she actually does, while the stars of New York swan around being fabulous, is work. Both in the prosaic sense, to support herself and Robert, and in the artistic one. She has a surprisingly religious attitude to creativity:
Robert […] never seemed to question his artistic drives, and by his example, I understood that what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of color and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies His motion. To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution. From this state of mind comes a light, life-charged.
Just Kids as a whole is not a book with a religious message (Robert is conflicted about his Catholicism, but mainly in relation to how his family see him), so this stands out.

As does this:
Harry Smith suddenly materialised, as if he had disengaged from the wall. He had wild silver hair, a tangled beard, and peered at me with bright inquisitive eyes magnified by Buddy Holly glasses. He shot animated questions that overlapped my answers. ‘Who are you do you have money are you twins why are you wearing a ribbon around your wrist?’
The longest section of the book is called ‘Hotel Chelsea’, as Patti and Robert live in this famed artistic centre for a while, and retain links to it (such as using its toilets and showers) when they move into a loft space nearby. Harry is the most Chelsea Hotel character imaginable, with his great archive and his idiosyncratic ways, alternately waspish and avuncular.
Harry was also an expert at string figures. If he was in a good mood he would pull a loop of string several feet long from his pocket and weave a star, a female spirit, or a one man cat’s cradle.
Who wouldn’t want him for a neighbour?

Monday, November 09, 2015

Patrick O’Brian – ‘Post Captain’

Am I getting this yet? Twenty books? That’s very nearly half an arm! They’re so rough and ready, too, and episodic enough to perhaps not be discrete novels at all, but an almost unending single work. And yet, and yet. What were those episodes again? There’s an entirely unexpected, and unexpectedly convincing Jane Austen bit near the beginning, when Stephen and Jack retire to a country house on the proceeds of the Cacafuego, blasted into submission by the heroic Sophie at the end of Master and Commander. Jack takes up courting – appropriately – Sophia Williams, and Stephen Diana Villers, her cousin. Then Jack’s prize agent fails, and he finds himself bankrupt, spending the rest of the novel in an undignified avoidance of arrest for debt (shades of Amelia, which I think also has information on where in London one can and can’t be arrested for this). There’s an amazing sequence in France, when war is declared and all Englishmen are wanted, so Jack dresses up as a performing bear, with Stephen his keeper, for a supremely uncomfortable walk to Spain. On returning, Jack is given command of an almost un-sailable ship, the Polychrest, which was built to carry a massive gun in any direction, so bow and stern are the same, and she advances, slowly, along a permanent curve (or leeway). The gun itself was found to be impracticable during construction, but the ship was completed anyway. Jack nevertheless manages a daring mission in her, and so arrives at a more satisfactory, but temporary, command, of the streamlined Lively. Here Stephen comes aboard as Jack’s guest, as there is already a surgeon, and is free to indulge his inner crank, which is a match for (and as funny as) Professor Calculus from Tintin. He brings aboard a swarm of bees, for research, and is delighted when they learn to feed on the crew’s morning cocoa, as it shows that they are able to communicate (the crew are less delighted). He wears an all-in-one woollen outfit, with flaps and sleeves to adapt it to various climactic conditions, which is a huge embarrassment to Jack, instantly undermining his new command, but Stephen is oblivious. This section of the book was my favourite. Here is Stephen at his absent-minded, charmless best:
        ‘Do you hear, Stephen?’ said Jack. ‘There is a gibbon aboard, that is not well.’
        ‘Yes, yes,’ said Stephen, returning to the present. ‘I had the pleasure of meeting her this morning, walking hand in hand with the very young gentleman: it was impossible to tell which was supporting which. A fetching, attractive creature in spite of its deplorable state. I look forward eagerly to dissecting it. […]’
        A chill fell on the conversation, and after a slight pause Jack said, ‘I think, my dear fellow, that the ship’s company would be infinitely more obliged to you, was you to cure it.’ (p. 405)

Monday, October 26, 2015

Monorail: A Weekend Abroad, 23rd – 24th October, CCA, Glasgow

Time was, I’d scramble to gets the words down early the morning after, before too much of the hangover kicked in. Keep it fresh, keep it quick. I don’t know how relevant that approach feels anymore, and in any case, The Pastels sunk any possibility of it this time with their own Pastelism Pilsner, on tap at the CCA for the whole event, at a powerful 6.2%. Notes of elderflower, reckoned S. Very tasty. It had been a while since we’d been to Glasgow, but Brogues and Stephen conspired to get a few of us match fit by putting together a fanzine about the bands playing on Saturday. A kind of sequel to the one we did for the Pastels / Tenniscoats Stereo show in 2009. Brogues’ multi-coloured autumnal design was just perfect, and his enthusiasm (for Spinning Coin in particular, and for Glasgow music in general) as infectious as always. Chris S.’s contribution, about two idiots latching on to The Pastels as impressionable students, beginning to ‘slightly obsess’ (slightly?) over their music and the other music they drew on and fed into, is one of my favourite things ever. Just as actually living through it has been, of course. I love Andrew R. Hill’s piece too, the way it’s so abstract it doesn’t even mention the band it’s about; and the way it paints music as normal, problematic, everywhere.

‘So you missed the only good thing?’ said C., on Saturday, when we confessed to having missed Happy Meals the previous day. Before demolishing The Space Lady in three words: ‘It’s funny once.’ Which is a bulletproof argument*, but having thought about it, I would like to employ the Nigel Bruce defence: good isn’t the only good. And the least good thing in The Space Lady’s set was also the most striking: a new song, on her new split LP, called ‘The Next Right Thing’, in which she argues that the approaching environmental armageddon can be averted if each of us, individually, only goes about always doing the next right thing. It’s bollocks, and trite, but something about the flashing red helmet she wears saves it from the kind of terminal earnestness that it would have in the hands of, say, Bridget St John. Actually, through a decent PA, The Space Lady’s Silver Apples basslines punched pretty hard, and the ‘Tainted Love’ drum patterns sizzled pleasingly in the vacuum above. It sounded great. ‘Born to be Wild’ was a highlight, with reverb echo shrieks coming out of nowhere, belying the polite backing. Molly Nilsson followed, and had the audience at the front dancing crazily away for the duration. Between songs she knelt down to press ‘play’ on her laptop, which was a step too far from performance for me: there were no visuals, just Molly bopping slowly away, and singing not very expressively. Having said that, I did like some of the songs: particularly ‘Lovers are Losers’. I’m intrigued enough to want to know more, and actually I’d love to get back into music that sounds like this, because 1987 is where I came in, musically speaking (and the new New Order is nowhere near).

We arrived in time to catch most of Take Three Girls: The Dolly Mixture Story on Saturday, which certainly rewarded a second viewing, and which may yet come to DVD, said Paul Kelly, if they can clear the rights. He and Debsey Wykes did a Q & A afterwards, in which he said that there is yet more footage he’d like to edit in, adding another ten minutes or so. Debsey laughed at how much of a creep the guy on local TV had been, interviewing them before they played ‘Baby, It’s You’. ‘And yours is the definitive take?’ he said, remembering the original version. Debsey demurred: ‘I don’t know’, not playing the game, skin crawling, caught promoting a single none of them believed in to this cheesy guy. That single seems to have been the big mis-step in their career, earning them the distain of their peers. Though partly it was their aesthetic, too, and they were marginalised in much the same way that Talulah Gosh were later, for being girls not trying to be boys. The main insight which came out of the Q & A was that Take Three Girls is very much an insider’s take on the story, and a much needed one, to set the balance right, even in the minds of the band members. Paul said that their initial interviews were largely negative, and so he did them again (getting Captain Sensible and Rachel Bor’s son to interview Debsey), after making an effort to convey to them what a great thing they had achieved with Dolly Mixture.

After that, things start to get a bit hazy. Roxanne Clifford’s new band Normal Love seemed like a return to form following Veronica Falls’ attempt to go a bit too large with their second LP. Lightness, urgency and melody are back! It will be exciting hearing this come to recorded fruition – soon, hopefully. Spinning Coin’s shimmering 90s-ish indie rock sounded beefier than their first cassette EP, but I didn’t quite make the leap to adoration on this showing. There was some wittering between songs which didn’t help. ‘Is this some kind of metaphor?’ heckled Chris, helpfully, when they started to go on a bit. ‘It could be a metaphor,’ they conceded, to their credit. I had worried a bit about Birdie in advance, having watched some 2013 YouTube clips when preparing my fanzine piece. As a three piece, through a phone mic, there wasn’t much left of their detailed pop vision. In person, those concerns melted away, Paul filling in the gaps with his 12-string electric and high backing vocals. He even sang lead on one song, East Village’s ‘Shipwrecked’. Debsey was in fine voice, and sang the songs we wanted to hear – ‘Let Her Go’, ‘Linus’, ‘Folk Singer’. So elegant, full of tough melancholy. Amazing to hear. At the Q & A they said they’d retired Birdie in 2001, but also that they were doing this show for the simple reason that they had been asked. Promoters of the world, do some more asking, please. The Pastels followed this with a confident, home crowd set drawing largely from Slow Summits, dipping into their past for ‘Fragile Gang’ (dedicated to ‘our friend Carey’, the Camera Obscura keyboard player who passed away recently), ‘Baby Honey’ and the New York Dolls’ ‘Lonely Planet Boy’. Stephen’s songs ‘Night Time Made Us’ and ‘Summer Rain’ have never sounded better, and Katrina avoided melancholy completely with ‘Check My Heart’ and ‘Come To The Dance’ adding to the celebratory mood. The defining Pastels moment of the weekend, though, has to be this Tweet, from Friday:
See also the #fuckedonpastelism hashtag. Who else can do this? It’s great to be a part of it.

* Is it, though? Defence #2: Doing it once wouldn’t be all that funny, it’s the fact that she’s been doing this act for forty odd years that gives it… not gravitas, obviously, but something like poignancy.

Chris S.’s photos are here.

Andrew’s review of the gigs (including a pic of the zine) is here.

Brogues’s review, including a download of the zine, is here.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Andrew Roberts – ‘Napoleon the Great’

The friendship began when Napoleon tested Betsy on the capitals of Europe. When he asked her the capital of Russia she replied, ‘Petersburg now; Moscow formerly’, upon which ‘He turned abruptly round, and, fixing his piercing eyes full in my face, he demanded sternly, “Who burnt it?”’ She was dumbstruck, until he laughed and said: ‘Oui, oui. You know very well that it was I who burnt it!’ Upon which the teenager corrected him: ‘I believe, sir, the Russians burnt it to get rid of the French.’ Whereupon Napoleon laughed and friendship with ‘Mademoiselle Betsee’, ‘leetle monkee’, ‘bambina’ and ‘little scatterbrain’ was born. (p. 783)
Sent by the British to St Helena following the battle of Waterloo, Napoleon remained himself, here making friends with his hosts’ 14-year-old daughter while he waited for his own house to be made ready. He is frequently a disarming presence in this biography, which has no truck with the idea of the Napoleonic Complex, and excuses or explains almost all of his behaviour, give or take a massacre (at Jaffa) or an execution (of the Duc d’Enghien). It refutes, too, the suggestion that the British poisoned Napoleon on St Helena, going into detail about the stomach cancer which killed him and a number of his relatives. It clarifies that he wasn’t really all that short. Coming to it without a great deal of context it’s difficult to know what to make of Roberts’ defensive writing on occasion. His book is one long argument in its subject’s favour, but what an argument it is.

The context I did have was entirely from fiction: War and Peace, The Count of Monte Cristo and Conan Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard stories all make use of the cult of Napoleon (from safely after his reign), though he is only fleetingly present in those books. His reputation rather than his person is the point: he has dominated Europe and inspires awe, fear and… something else. Respect is part of it, and it’s something to do with the way he fused monarchy with republicanism. Roberts notes that ‘Emperor of the French Republic’ ought to be a contradiction in terms, and makes much of the durability of Napoleon’s reforms, saying that he was able to make them stick because of his autocracy, so that the Bourbons, when restored to the throne in 1815, found France changed in an irreversible way:
During his sixteen years in power, many of the best ideas that underpin and actuate modern democratic politics – meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, secular education, sound finances, efficient administration, and so on – were rescued from the Revolutionary maelstrom and protected, codified and consolidated. […] The Napoleonic Code forms the basis of much European law today […] His bridges span the Seine and his reservoirs, canals and sewers are still in use […] The lycées continue to provide excellent education, and the Conseil d’Etat still meets every Wednesday to review the proposed laws of France. (pp. 809-10)
Yet Napoleon’s own position was fragile, which is also part of the appeal. He tried to mitigate against this using every means at his disposal:
Napoleon’s strategy was to ensure that, although he could always count on British hostility, there would be no moment when all three continental powers of Russia, Austria and Prussia would be ranged against him at the same time. He thus needed to play each off against the others, and as much as possible against Britain too. He used Prussia’s desire for Hanover, Russia’s inability to fight on after Friedland, a marriage alliance with Austria, the differences between Russia and Austria over the Ottoman Empire and the fears of Polish resurgence that all three powers felt to avoid having to fight the four powers simultaneously. (pp. 459-60)
Although the 1812 campaign in Russia is identified in the turning point in Napoleon’s fortunes, the reason he invaded was to protect his Continental System, which was designed to prevent trade with Britain. Russia initially signed up to this, but Tsar Alexander became progressively less keen as the blockade hurt the Russian economy. The Royal Navy was a constant thorn in Napoleon’s side, and the reason his plans to invade Britain never came to fruition. Blocking trade with France and her allies was the only way he could hurt Britain – and it did hurt us, helping to ‘spur the Luddite protest movement against unemployment in England’ according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Which gives us a link to Charlotte Brontë, whose Shirley is set during the Luddite protests, and whose hero, as we know, was the Duke of Wellington, victor at Waterloo. I wonder if this is part of the reason she’s so incredibly ill-disposed to Belgians?
‘Napoleon is a torrent,’ Kutusov said in deciding to surrender the city, ‘but Moscow is the sponge that will soak him up.’ (pp. 609-10)
We’ve met Russian commander-in-chief Kutusov before, in War and Peace, where he – as in real life – gave Napoleon the run around while he wore himself out. The map showing the brutal reality of the half-a-million French losses during the campaign (above) is chilling, and a reminder that war is more than political action. Which is the rub, I guess, with Napoleon. Roberts puts the figure of French military and civilian losses during ‘the Empire period’ as 916,000, ‘of whom fewer than 90,000 were killed in action’ (p. 811 – the remainder are casualties of the campaigns caused in other ways than direct conflict, like disease, starvation or suicide). For the whole of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, across all nations, the figure is four million, but that predates Napoleon’s ascent, going back to 1792. Is any great man worth 916,000 deaths? Don’t the deaths mean he wasn’t great after all? In as far as it is possible to make the contrary case, Roberts makes it.

There’s so much in this book I haven’t touched on at all, but two more quotations to finish, the first showing Napoleon’s pragmatic approach to religion:
In religion, I do not see the mystery of the Incantation, but the mystery of the social order. It associates with Heaven an idea of equality that keeps rich men from being massacred by the poor… Society is impossible without inequality; inequality intolerable without a code of morality, and a code of morality unacceptable without religion. (p. 272)
He was a very thoughtful, and a very well-read man, in Roberts’ telling, frequently drawing on the examples of his heroes Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. He was also a compulsive liar, always manipulating battle (and plebiscite) statistics in his own favour. His first wife, Josephine, showed an ‘almost psychotic extravagance’ (p. 155), which led to this:
Josephine also kept there [at Malmaison] a menagerie of kangaroos, emus, flying squirrels, gazelles, ostriches, llamas and a cockatoo that had only one word (‘Bonaparte’) which it repeated incessantly. She would occasionally invite a female orang-utan dressed in a white chemise to eat turnips among her guests at table. (p. 468)
Those nouveau riche, eh?

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Mitch Cullin – ‘Mr Holmes’ / Anthony Horowitz – ‘Moriarty’

Having enjoyed Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk a few years ago, more or less as a guilty pleasure, I immediately resigned myself to Moriarty when it appeared in a Kindle Store sale recently, putting aside a book on Napoleon for one on the Napoleon of crime. It’s possible I may have resented Moriarty unfairly for this interruption, and also more than likely that it is not my kind of book: an action-packed thriller, with violence several notches above anything in Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories, and stretched, too, over a longer distance than any of his Holmes novels. It doesn’t even have Sherlock Holmes in it, aside from the short story ‘The Three Monarchs’ included at the end. This story is excellent, a playful take on ‘The Six Napoleons’ (there he is again), with a murder and the theft of three jubilee souvenir statuettes of Queen Victoria from three neighbouring houses. Horowitz captures Dr Watson’s style to a T. In the main body of the novel, his narrator is Frederick Chase, ‘senior investigator with the Pinkerton Detective Agency in New York’, who is a surrogate Dr Watson to Athelney Jones’ Sherlock Holmes. Jones is a Scotland Yard detective, featured unflatteringly in The Sign of Four, who has become obsessed with Holmes’ methods, and is determined to redeem himself for his earlier dunderheadedness. They meet in Switzerland, and view what appears to be the body of Moriarty, ‘fished out of the Reichenbach Brook’. In a concealed pocket they find a note in code, arranging a rendezvous in London with Clarence Devereaux, a criminal mastermind who has encroached on Moriarty’s territory in London, importing brutal American methods and generally raising hell. This is the starting point of their joint effort to eradicate him. More than that, it would be unfair to say – which is a shame, because the virtues of the book lie in the clever plotting and deception. I liked what happened more than the way in which it happened, which is why it isn’t my kind of book.

Mitch Cullin, writing in 2005 (of 1947), seems to have Horowitz’s number. This is the kind of thing which comes through the letter box of the 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes:
There would be requests for magazine or radio interviews, and there would be pleas for help (a lost pet, a stolen wedding ring, a missing child, an array of other hopeless trifles best left unanswered). Then there were the yet-to-be-published manuscripts: misleading and lurid fictions based on his past exploits, lofty explorations in criminology, galleys of mystery anthologies – along with flattering letters asking for an endorsement, a positive comment for a future dust jacket, or, possibly, an introduction to a text. (p. 7)
‘Misleading and lurid’ is a perfect description of Moriarty – though not necessarily a criticism, since it sets out to be both. Mr Holmes (or A Slight Trick of the Mind as it was called before it was made into a film) is an altogether more gentle and straightforward novel. At least, it is if ‘straightforward’ means not concealing things for dramatic effect. From the point of view of character, it is far more complex, and tries to imagine an old and declining Holmes, trying to stave off the effects of old age and coming to terms with the few things which, almost despite his efforts, he has come to hold dear. Chief of which is his apiary: as indicated in several of the short stories, Holmes retires to Sussex to keep bees. Partly this is to do with the royal jelly they produce, which he believes helps to keep him active and well; but as the inter-woven story ‘The Glass Armonicist’ unfolds, it emerges that there is also a sentimental reason, a bee which alighted on the glove of the woman in that case, a woman who fascinated him for no very discernible reason. But perhaps the reasons for these things are never overtly demonstrable, and Mr Holmes tussles with Holmes’ strict logic, and the people who circumvent this. It doesn’t make him lovable, exactly, and the strict logic is always there, but he does have feelings of comradeship for Watson, Mycroft (both now dead), and Roger Munro, the teenage son of his housekeeper, who tends his bees when he is away. This thin thread of human connection and affection is as necessary to him as his work, which takes in the apiary and the composition of specialist texts, such as The Whole Art of Detection*. The sub-plot involving a trip to Japan to find that other rejuvenating substance, prickly ash, works as an illustration of what happens when Holmes tries to engage with the world. He has kept up a correspondence with Mr Umezaki on the subject of prickly ash, the culmination of which is his visit, but it turns out that Umezaki has an ulterior motive, and has merely had the sense to dress up his plea for help in the guise of scientific interest. When Holmes tries to reach out, it doesn’t work. He doesn’t have the knack, so has to wait through a lifetime of rigour for those three or four moments when connections to other people occur, unprompted, uncontrived, unforced. That they all die is as brutal an authorial policy as anything in Moriarty, but the Holmes that remains is sustained by his interests, and receptive to the possibility of genuine connections, however rare they may be. He comforts Roger’s mother with this moving speech:
It seems – or rather – it’s that sometimes – sometimes things occur beyond our own understanding, my dear, and the unjust reality is that these events – being so illogical to us, devoid of whatever reason we might attach to them – are exactly what they are and, regrettably, nothing else – and I believe – I truly believe that that is the hardest notion for any of us to live with. (p. 240)
There is no higher reason for Roger’s death, caused by wasp stings as he defended Holmes’ apiary – except, of course, to allow Holmes to work out what happened, and Cullin to make that point. Here they are earlier on, in happier times, surrounded by phenomena which can, reassuringly, be defined:
        ‘Is this cliff only chalk?’
        ‘It is made of chalk, and it is made of sandstone.’
        Within the strata beneath the chalk was gault clay, greensand, and Wealden sands in successive order, explained Holmes as they continued downward; the clay beds and the thin layer of sandstones were covered with chalk, clay, and flint added throughout the aeons by countless storms. (pp. 112-3)

* The Whole Art of Detection seems to be an actual thing.

A glass armonica in action.

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