Saturday, September 29, 2007

Geoffrey Fletcher – ‘The London Nobody Knows’

We meant to go to Berlin, but I couldn’t get the whole week off and then when I could, it was too late for S. to get a passport, and so – London. Which I scarcely know at all, having been there only a handful of times. The last time was five years ago, passing through on the way to Shellac’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, and the time before that another nine years previously, my parents took us to the Tate for a Picasso exhibition so I’d have something to write about for an A-Level Art project / long essay. My sister scoffed all the garlic bread at Pizza Hut afterwards, which may or may not have deprived Tim, who hadn’t ordered anything, and she’s been embarrassed about it ever since. The exhibition was called ‘Sculptor / Painter’, and I still remember with a chill an impossibly heavy looking lump of bronze entitled ‘Death’s Head’ which with its skull stretched like skin and eye pits rather than sockets seems to prefigure the most horrific songs on Scott Walker’s The Drift. ‘Clara’ in particular, I suppose. This intense gloom was not typical of the exhibition and I was just as struck by the a sculpture of a baboon, in which the head was formed by two toy cars – VW Beetles, I think – one on top of another, the lower one inverted. An Egyptian sculpture I saw last week at the British Museum was strikingly similar. It was in the same room as these peculiar turtle headed figures.

This is the London I know. Specific times, famous places. As a tourist, I’ve never been there and not been tremendously busy. Apart from one morning last week, when I dug out The London Nobody Knows (suggested by Alistair’s side-bar and a Bob Stanley article) and went off on my own to look for Wharton Street and Percy Circus, the one area mentioned in the book which was close to our hotel. Even with the construction workers in orange jackets who had got there before me (there was a lot of scaffolding on individual houses, and similarly orange barriers all around Percy Circus), it was a relaxing place to wander, seeming to roll uphill through unruly ivy and nearly black bricks. The last of the summer sun across a couple of seven foot sunflowers, vertical gardening being the only practical kind in such small gardens. Two mounted police went by, perhaps solely for the visual effect of sun through leaves on the dappled grey. They certainly weren’t going to find any kind of trouble in this direction. At the top of Wharton Street is a square with a locked garden, and a little further on is the circus. A heritage plaque about Lenin is fixed to a rebuilt block – ‘bomb-damaged,’ explains Fletcher. Then:

These squares and circuses with their linked terraces are the logical way of living in cities – if cities are to be agreeable to the eye, that is, and not merely soul-destroying concrete and glass beehives; the squares of London are the city’s distinctive contribution to architecture. (p. 45)

Though this was the only place on his itinerary that I visited, I’d like to think that a lot of what Fletcher records of ’60s London remains today. None of it is prominent, of course, but all of it is old: what interests him is the evocation of the past in things one can still visit. He doesn’t want museums telling him how it was 100 or 200 years ago, he wants streets and buildings which have had the character and luck to survive that long – that they will have decayed accordingly, and had their use adapted, only adds to the accretion of history. At the end of the book is a plea not to continue to develop ‘hives’ (the metaphor is repeated), which will lead to London becoming: ‘…a new and ugly Babylon. And there were no aspidistras in Babylon.’ (p. 111). This is a dead giveaway, I think, of the nostalgia in Fletcher’s vision. He doesn’t write enough about the modern to get away with slamming it in this way, and the aspidistra is an incongruous thing to pine for.

For the most part, modern developments are avoided entirely, and in enthusing about old buildings (and the ways of life he extrapolates from these) Fletcher is wholly engaging. My favourite extrapolation:

One could devote a curious day to a tour of London laundries […] Of the collecting offices, the Sunlight Laundries, displaying a rising sun and tiles of an intense ultramarine interest me, and needless to say, those displaying the magic word ‘Bagwash’. The word, although in a class by itself, is one of those one would like to use for its own sake, irrespective of meaning, simply because they sound interesting. ‘Bagwash’ is pure East End, and suggests fat old women pushing prams of underwear. (p. 29)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

This is supposed to sound really profound, it prob'ly sounds trite

Yesterday Edwyn Collins was on Front Row, giving possibly his first interview since his brain haemorrhage two years ago. It was the first I’d heard, anyway. So great to hear him talk and sing again. Here is a review I wrote when his masterpiece Ostrich Churchyard was re-released as The Glasgow School in 2005. Andy was thinking of doing a fanzine and it was supposed to be for that, but it didn’t quite happen, so it appears here for the first time.

Orange Juice - The Glasgow School

Slightly more than a few years ago I was in the Dundee student union, having a game of lunchtime pool. Playing my usual tactical game of utter inconsistency. This wasn't in itself unusual, but if you'd taken a good look at my face, maybe you'd have seen. On the inside, Orange Juice's 'Falling and Laughing' stretched itself out and around my heart, lungs and other vitals. I'd got a date - or thought I had - and a two song imaginary jukebox had set itself up on a loop, alternating this with The Crystals' 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town', only with the girl in question's name substituted for 'Santa Claus'. The second song was a brash 'Yippee!'; the first a trembling and glowing secret, happily hidden from my pool adversaries. 'They say that there's a thousand like you / Well maybe that's true / I fell for you and nobody else' (that 'else'! - so deadpan, so provisional!)

It's utterly appropriate for an early Orange Juice song to equate to a bright romantic yearning, because that's their sound. Not punk mixed with disco or whatever: nothing so technical. Blind naïve adoration, no strings. Never approaching the angst of Violent Femmes or the bloody mindedness of The Smiths on similar topics, Orange Juice take 'the pleasure with the pain' without bitterness or even question: good things happen, bad things happen, that's how life works, is their philosophy. No regrets if it goes wrong, there's always tomorrow. And consequently, 'The Glasgow School' / 'You Can't Hide Your Love Forever' is / are (you gotta hear them both - I can't choose between them) the deftest, lightest of records: it gives, and is lovable, so lovable.

To explain that last bit: Orange Juice's debut LP exists in two versions. The first, 'Ostrich Churchyard', was recorded, along with their early singles, for the independent Postcard label; the second, 'You Can't Hide Your Love Forever', came out on Polydor, and delayed the release of 'Ostrich Churchyard' by ten years (until 1992). Wouldn't want to confuse anyone, would they? 'The Glasgow School' collects all the Postcard stuff.

The big thrill for me - because I'd never heard it - is the inclusion of the original 'Falling and Laughing' single. It sounds clunkily rehearsal room at first, the words half bellowed, where the version on 'You Can't Hide Your Love Forever' is studio produced and crooned. A listen or two later, the edges wear away and the song opens up, a giddy mess of falling downstairs disco and laughing carefree guitar. This is 'The Glasgow School' all over. First off, you're not convinced they can play. Timing is loose, Edwyn's singing slides around the place like an egg in a frying pan. The slick (and great) horn arrangements of '...Forever' aren't there, and the drums are emphatically not played to a click track. Guitars are ...frizzier. Only word for it. The band sound like they're having a great time in there. So you don't care that they can't play because if not playing sounds like this then you can keep your virtuosity.

Edwyn's singing, did I say? Is molten, alive, fleet of foot, 'I could be kidding you on', impossible to pin down because of its viscosity. On this record he's dancing with the gods, putting in the performance of his life without even trying. Because he's not trying. It's a hard thing to imagine on the basis of later records where the twinkle in the eye and the volatility disappear, the jokes become more heavy handed and the clichés start to intrude. Because he's trying too hard. Not that his later records are bad records, but they don't have the easy genius of this one. It's true of a lot of people, that they can't recapture the first rush of youth. But few flew so high in the first place as Edwyn.

He had a great foil in James Kirk, the guitarist who sings a couple of songs here (not 'Felicity' - I had to double check). His solo LP of a few years ago ('You Can Make It If You Boogie') actually came pretty close to rediscovering the stuff of which 'The Glasgow School' is made. So he was the Kim Deal to Edwyn's Black Francis then, perhaps - the one who did the spirit-embodying but only got to sing the occasional song. He was kicked out of the band for being too shambolic, of all things! And when they stopped shambling, things were never as good again. Here he's great though. A voice at once laid back and quavering, jumping-all-over-the-place song structures, and a ragged glory guitar with a William Reid fringe.

To someone who, as you may have gathered, is a little obsessive about early Orange Juice, it's peculiar to hear the singles juxtaposed with 'Ostrich Churchyard'. They're less of a piece than I expected. The LP is wholly gentle, from the best-opening-song-ever of 'Louise Louise' through the 'Will you dance?' / 'Sure I'll dance!' combo of 'Intuition Told Me' (parts 1 and 2) and onwards. The singles - which kick off the collection - are more obviously the product of post-punk times. I never really got 'Blue Boy', because its raucous edge, though fun, hardly seemed Orange Juice's strongest suit. Others will tell you it's the single which near enough invented Scottish indie rock, so what do I know? 'Poor Old Soul' is a storming pop moment though, and instrumental 'Moscow' starts out on a 'We're as tough as the Velvet Underground in drone mode' trip before dissolving deliciously into the poppiest surf guitar you ever heard. They can't help themselves. But you should.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Iris Murdoch – ‘The Black Prince’

Watching the film of The History Boys after reading Untold Stories the other week, I came across a National Theatre ‘background pack’, which puts the GCSE-style question: ‘Which teacher do you agree with? Is education for passing exams, or for making us better people?’ (correct answer in an exam situation: ‘for making us better people’). The teachers being the characters at the centre of the play: Hector, who believes in teaching things thoroughly, encouraging his pupils to learn poems and songs by heart; and Irwin, who wants them to be able to write eye-catching essays which go against the grain, the better to pass the Oxford entrance exam. The debate is similar to the one to the one surrounding rockism, and concerns authenticity – whether this is best represented by following tradition or breaking away from it, and (more contentiously) whether authenticity is what art should be about in the first place.

The Black Prince has a similar pair of characters, writers rather than teachers: Bradley Pearson, the Hector of the piece, all for a slow striving in authorship, and his younger rival Arnold Baffin, who dashes off books almost as rapidly as Irwin spins theories. The History Boys – despite its plot (which feels like a subplot) involving boys getting felt up by Hector on his motorbike – is measured in its treatment of this question. It encourages you to weigh up both approaches, and you’ll probably conclude that authenticity is important, but that not everybody’s authenticity takes the same form. The Black Prince is just about the least measured book I’ve ever read. To begin with, it reads like a satire on the precious writer, who blocks out everything in order to have the time to write, and forgets how to live in the process. Preparing to leave London to have some quality writing time with himself, Bradley records:

I had my suitcase ready and was about to telephone for a taxi, had in fact already lifted the phone, when I experienced that nervous urge to delay departure, to sit down and reflect, which I am told the Russians have elevated into a ritual (p. 21)

For the first hundred pages or so, he comes across like Mr Pooter dropped into a J. P. Donleavy novel. Events conspire to prevent Bradley from leaving London: his ex-wife unexpectedly re-appears, as does his depressed sister Priscilla, who has left her unhappy marriage. One is breezily domineering, the other fragile and clingy. He informs them both that he can’t be doing with any of this and is off to the country, but he can’t let go enough to actually do it. This is not because underneath it all he is nice really, but because he lacks the will.

‘Bradley, it’s been awful, awful, awful. I’ve been living trapped inside a bad dream, my life has become a bad dream, the kind that makes you shout out.’

‘Priscilla, listen. I’m just on the point of leaving London. I can’t change my plans. If you like I can give you lunch and then put you on the Bristol train.’

‘I tell you I’ve left Roger.’


‘I think I’ll go to bed if you don’t mind.’

‘To bed?’ (p. 72)

Bradley is bludgeoned into helping out, when if he had any decency about him he would do it willingly. His attitude is unsettling if you’ve ever put off something social for something solitary.

So how does The Black Prince get from this mean, small minded and farcical narrative to what Wikipedia describes as ‘a remarkable study of erotic obsession’? How is this self important chump ever going to have a convincing grand passion? Simply by blowing that self importance sky high. It certainly isn’t that you start taking him seriously, but you begin to view his overstatements fondly and indulgently, as though you had spoken or thought them (they are mostly thoughts) yourself. When Bradley falls for Julian Baffin (daughter of Arnold, 20 years old to his 58), he loses what limited objectivity he may previously have had about his life, melts into a viscous subjectivity, and the reader follows. In love, he is a monstrous creature (mostly to himself, if only because he spends most of his time alone), from his tedious anxiety to create art, to the quite useless highs of chasing around, semi-surreptitiously, the object of his affection. The force of these unreasoning highs – yearning, largely joyless – is there in the text to an uncomfortable degree. The shift from farce to derangement reminded me slightly of Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama, in which the fine glitzy satire of the first half is blown apart by terrorist explosions, death and incarceration. I’ve never been convinced by Ellis’ tortured (as opposed to torturing) passages, he needs to be funny to be good, but the same isn’t true of Murdoch. She has Bradley – ridiculous, dusty, academic, retired taxman Bradley – go off his head in love with Julian: when first smitten he lies for a day with his face buried in a rug in his flat; when he expresses doubts during their elopement journey, she is overcome and throws herself from the car; at the opera he describes his condition as ‘feeling a sick delighted anguish of desire, as if I had been ripped by a dagger from the groin to the throat’ (p. 256). I can’t think of a better prolonged evocation of the state of being so in love you’re ill, high and throwing up with no ground in sight. As busy as the most garish ’70s wallpaper, and with claws that penetrate to your dead twisted heart, this book will fuck you up.

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