Thursday, April 18, 2013

Paul Eddington — ‘So Far, So Good: The Autobiography’

I made the mistake of reading this just before going away on holiday, without it, so I shan’t do a full review. If you have about you any fondness for Paul Eddington, though (and why wouldn’t you?), this is a great read, and surprising in several ways. One is the extent to which he was a theatre actor as opposed to a television actor. Another is the year of this book’s publication, 1995, the same year that he died (given the title and the presentation, it can’t have been posthumous). A third is the way it is told, which, to be critical, might be said to lack dynamics: the book is largely a string of theatrical anecdotes, put into chronological order, with little space devoted to anything more personal. Marriage and children are mentioned as they occur, but he doesn’t pause to reflect about The Important Things. It’s actually rather refreshing, and revealing perhaps in a way he didn’t intend, because this approach surely comes from the same stoicism which enabled him to keep acting through, and until very nearly the end of, twenty years’ worth of skin cancer. This could so easy be a memoir that fits into the awful ‘Hard Lives’ section you see in book shops nowadays, but it remains upbeat, though his symptoms are described, briefly but candidly. There is a TV interview he did, after his face had been disfigured by the disease: it’s upsetting to see, and hard to recognise him, until he starts talking, in his disarmingly jovial way, saying ‘You have to be pretty fit to be as ill as I am’. Bless you, Paul.

Some theatrical anecdotes. First, for fans of The Prisoner and Danger Man:

But Patrick McGoohan, whom I remember as a fee-paying semi-student, was a difficult person to help. After rehearsals Geoffrey [Ost], as all directors do, would hold a ‘notes’ session. He would approach Patrick, nervously tapping his left forearm with his right hand. ‘Ah, Patrick,’ he would say. Patrick would glower. ‘Er, very good, very good,’ Geoffrey hastily added before passing on to the next actor. (p. 68)
On John Gielgud and some members of the Bloomsbury set (this occured when Eddington and Gielgud were both in Alan Bennett’s 40 Years On):
        ‘Did you really know Vita Sackville-West?’ I asked one day.
        ‘Oh, yes,’ he replied.
        ‘Gosh!’ I said. ‘What was she like?’
        ‘Oh...,’ he hesitated. ‘Tiresome old dyke.’
        He seemed to have known all the people Alan had written about. One evening he observed, ‘I can’t think why Ottoline Morrell had an affair with Bertie Russell. Terribly bad breath, you know.’ (p. 120)
On Lawrence Oliver, with whose wife, Joan Plowright, Eddington appeared in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:
Olivier came round afterwards looking thin and old but not actually ill. He told me how awkward it was for him to go to the theatre nowadays, especially the Olivier. ‘Everyone nudging and pointing.’
        I said, ‘Why not wear a big hat and dark glasses?’
        ‘I’ve tried that,’ he said, ‘and nobody recognised me.’ (p. 159)

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Adam Hochschild — ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’

Last July I read a piece of family history written by a cousin of my mum’s, about the time his grandparents (my great-grandparents) spent in the Congo as Baptist missionaries. The start of their time there (they stayed from 1906 — 1916) coincided with the end of King Leopold II of Belgium’s rule over the territory, which he gave up following a decade long campaign by E. D. Morel and others. The campaign sought to bring an end to Leopold’s exploitation of the Congo’s wild vine rubber, from which he drew enormous profits by a system of forced labour, under which it is estimated that the country was de-populated by around ten million. It is the kind of figure which is impossible to get around: critical faculties go to the wind, and moral outrage and horror are the only possible response. My mum’s cousin felt this acutely, and consulted mum, her sisters, and a cousin of mine who works in Sudan before letting anyone else read the document. To be complicit in such a regime would be a terrible thing, and they concluded that there was complicity on the part of the Baptist Missionary Society, but not from Frank and Daisy as individuals. Coming now to Adam Hochschild’s book, I found this in the afterword (added in 2005; the book was published in 1998), which would seem to mitigate that somewhat:

[Kevin] Grant shows how virtually everyone who has written about Morel, myself included, has overlooked the way Baptist missionaries had already started to draw large crowds in Scotland to ‘magic lantern’ slide shows about Congo atrocities two months before Morel founded the Congo Reform Association. (p. 314)
It’s a minor point, though, in the scheme of things. Missionaries are not central to Hochschild’s story, being neither the administrators nor the victims of brutality, though they can be useful as witnesses. Some (like William H. Sheppard, a black American Presbyterian) did speak out against the atrocities they encountered, and the horrific photographs upon which much of Morel’s campaign relied were mostly taken by Alice Seeley Harris, a Baptist missionary. Several are reproduced in this book, including one with the following caption:
Nsala, of the district of Wala, looking at the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter, Boali, a victim of the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company (A.B.I.R.) militia.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more shocking photograph, and it is easy to see how a campaigner’s polemic could, and should, be built around images like this. King Leopold’s Ghost itself, though, is an incredibly measured book; certainly compared to Conan Doyle’s The Crime of the Congo, which I tried to read last year, but gave up, finding it too upsetting. The books have different purposes, of course: Conan Doyle’s cause has gone now, and Hochschild’s is to do with not forgetting history. Several times he compares events in Leopold’s Congo to the more familiar holocaust of World War II (with its lower death count of six million). He doesn’t labour the point, but isn’t it incredible, and shameful, that one event is so much less well known than the other, though they are separated by fewer than forty years? At times, too, Hochschild expresses regret that so much of his story has to come from the points of view of Europeans and Americans. Where victims’ testimonies exist, he uses them, but they never amount to a life story. It could well be that the names in the caption above are all that is known of Nsala and Wala: in narrative terms, there is no competition between that and the minutely documented life of a king.

There are three or four fascinating, interdependent stories here, nonetheless, only one of which revolves around royalty. Leopold himself is emblematic of the dangers of disconnecting effort from consequence: all that ‘targets’ stuff I got so worked up about last time. ‘Encapsulation’ is another term for it; ‘friction free’ another. He appears to think himself absolutely benign: one version of Leopold has him importing The Times from London by express train, having it ironed to kill any germs, then reading it in bed every night. When the paper began to criticise him, he cancelled his subscription, but still sent a servant out to buy it for him in secret. This is not a Hitler-like figure: Hochschild reminds us that the deaths he caused were not a genocide, technically, because it wasn’t ideology which lay behind them, but greed. Elsewhere he can be far more worldly, especially in his manipulation of the press and public opinion. He claimed his activities in the Congo were philanthropic, and / or (depending on whom he was trying to convince) scientific. On the one hand he took advantage of public anti-slavery feeling by targeting, in his rhetoric at least, Arab slave traders; on the other, he used Henry Morton Stanley to map out the territory he was to exploit, in the name of exploration. On the world stage, he gradually achieved recognition of his anomalous, personally owned state of Congo, by having his millionaire friend Henry Shelton Sanford wine and dine the big wigs of Washington: once America had recognised the Congo, Germany followed, and then the rest of Europe.

Stanley and Shelton are both interesting characters (Hochschild barely has a good word for Stanley: a bully, an emotional cripple and a relentlessly inaccurate self-publicist), as are E. D. Morel, future MP for Dundee no less (OK, that’s the least interesting thing about him), and Roger Casement, a British diplomat whose report on Leopold’s regime was instrumental in bringing it to some sort of account. Casement was Irish and gay, a mesmerising talker and as bold as he was foolhardy: he was knighted and executed by his adopted country, for a second exposé of atrocities he wrote in South America, and for Irish nationalist activities respectively. Throughout his adult life he kept diaries of assignations, almost deliberately undermining his work by providing information about his (then illegal) sexual activities which could be, and was, used against him. In the last few chapters, the achievements of Morel, Casement and others is placed in a bleak context. ‘Why the Congo?’ (p. 279) is a startling question after all that has gone before, but it seems that what happened there under colonialism was far from unique: for all his public relations expertise, Leopold was vulnerable in the end because he made too good a story, too good a target (and here we are back at encapsulation). The after-history of the Congo is sobering, too, and includes the US / Belgian sponsored assassination of a democratically elected prime minister, Lumumba, in 1961. He was followed, after a 1965 coup which had ‘United States encouragement’ (p. 302), by the reassuringly militaristic Mobutu, whom Hochschild compares to Leopold:
His one-man rule. His great wealth taken from the land. His naming a lake after himself. His yacht. His appropriation of state possessions as his own. His huge shareholdings in private corporations doing business in his territory. [...] ‘Those who are conquered,’ wrote the philosopher Ibn Khaldūn in the fourteenth century, ‘always want to imitate the conqueror’. (p. 304)

Monday, April 01, 2013

Hookers for Jesus — ‘Hymns for Beautiful Losers’

Not sure where he got this idea, but Andy asked me to write a press release for the forthcoming Hookers for Jesus EP – their first, and the second in a series of releases which pretty closely matches The Pastels for speed of output (at least, if we are conveniently ignoring soundtracks and collaborations, and comparing singles with albums). The Candy Store Prophets gave their 1999 single Songs for Angels the catalogue number Piss One – Piss being short, somehow, for Pioneer Sounds. That band split up a few years after the single, but two of them – Andy and Graeme – have of late been playing gigs as Hookers for Jesus. As you’ll know, if you’ve been paying attention. Strange, bleak, sometimes hilarious gigs, which for me outstrip the dear departed Prophets because their sensibility is wilder and more pop. So it’s great news that they have an EP ready to go – catalogued as Piss Two – and an EP launch this Saturday at Beat Generator Live!, Dundee. I must admit I was slightly hoping, when this moment arrived, that they might consider S.’s illustration of some garbled lyrics at their first show when putting together the artwork, but it was not to be. That there on the left, though, is the tree that never flew.

EP launch Facebook event page / Hookers for Jesus Facebook

Hookers for Jesus were born under punches: a freezing end-of-month gig above a pub, in a room with black balloons and an untouched cake hinting that the previous event there was a celebration gone wrong. And of course, that fits so well, because Hookers for Jesus are a celebration of the gone wrong. ‘Been on a losing streak longer than I can recall’, goes the closing ‘We Are All Broken People Now’; ‘I’m on my belly, creeping, crawling’. Over a pensive, icy, two-chord backing, swirling in delay and decay. It would be almost true to say that the song is saved from self pity by the bitter pay off line, ‘No matter how bad it gets, I wouldn’t ever ask you for your fucking forgiveness’; except that it isn’t, because it doesn’t want to be saved. The delivery is stone cold, defiant, and the lyric is vague enough to be more about the idea of failure and abasement than any specific instance. It doesn’t say — as Meursault do, for example — ‘I'll be sorry for you if you’ll be sorry for me’. It says, ‘This is mine, keep off’.

And so it is that Hymns for Beautiful Losers, though it is doomed and damned, is pricklier and altogether more fun than the lines quoted above might suggest. There’s a delicious sense of self-mockery to the sampled choir voices which introduce ‘Drifting into Unthank’. The music, as it unfolds, is so opulent, so light on its feet, fizzing with Sci Fi effects and rumbling with kettle drums; snatches of Chinese zither and pizzicato violin burst on the tongue. Its themes are alienation, mortality and underachievement, the whole is just so ludicrously ambitious, it’s one of my favourite pieces of music, and the centrepiece of the EP. It is flanked by two pretty songs, ‘Promised Me Dots’ and ‘On a Night Like This’, the pop song and the ballad of the piece respectively, the latter speculating that ‘Even the angels might have abandoned me’, recalling the title and cover of Andy and Graeme’s previous release as (two of) The Candy Store Prophets — their Songs for Angels 7" single.

Opener ‘Cabaret Song’ has a story to tell, of drugs, sleeping around and the tedium of getting a bus all the way from Scotland to London. Whilst it shares some of the sense which inhabits the other songs here, of time passing, and things getting worse, it is more specific, more immediate:
In a matter of a minute, civilisations rise and fall in your sitting room, beautiful colours explode in the wall, the room was a gallery of breathtaking intensity, that’s when I became frightened.
Overdriven guitar snarls over a chorus of ‘Something’s wrong I’ve fucked my head’, and subsides into woozy synths and lopsided drums for the monologue verses. As it ends, we’re back with entropy: ‘Life sure passes by quick when you’re young and jerking off’. And it goes even more quickly when you’re older and still jerking off. If you’re looking for a record that’s not afraid to say so, without necessarily weeping buckets in commiseration, Songs for Beautiful Losers is the EP for you.

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