Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Anne Bacheley – ‘Headquarters’

I know I wrote about her Christmas single, but I’m going to write about her album too. And why apologise? If there’s not enough about music on this blog, it’s because not enough of what I hear is as disarming and lovable as the merest fraction of your average Anne Bacheley release. Qualities picked up on at the time of her first album by Stephen Pastel and Alistair Fitchett – and how often do they chance upon the same star in the firmament? Alistair got a great release for his Unpop label with ‘Mixtape Babies’, but it was the follow-up, the Station Life EP which really got me hooked. To the trim sound, the arrangements which should have been sparse but which were so coloured in with so few strokes of the guitar. To the voice which should have been thin but which was so sure that its frailties became strengths. It was tantalising to have such a leap from LP to EP, and it was pretty obvious that her next step would be very special.

Headquarters doesn’t disappoint. Thrillingly, it is more pop than ‘Station Life’, and Anne has developed a great line in those little melodic tics which catapult a song sky high in an unexpected moment (the ‘Who will have to give in?’ line from ‘New Home Song’; ‘Spend your days alone and locked inside’ from ‘Energy’). She’s also given us more of the minimal textures that made ‘Drive in the Dark’ so deliciously melancholic – on ‘Genius Bike’, for example, which has similarly buried lyrics, with a ‘That’s too bad / Find somebody else’ poking its head above the clean tambourine and the subdued distorted guitar (mixed low like that, it is the sound of mental confusion). ‘Miss Helen’ follows on, dropping the distortion for a toy keyboard sound and a beautifully frail melody ascending from the words ‘why don’t you leave her alone?’ Again, the construction of the song appears to mirror an emotional state – a defensiveness followed by a spiralling away into Whatever Is Next. Defiant, resigned.

As for ‘Tangram’... ‘Pull triangles from a box / Assemble them into a fox [...] /Sat on the carpet in your room / Helping you to make it through / I will be by your side / To play Tangram’. If Katrina Mitchell had written more songs when she was younger, we might have got here sooner, but at least it’s happened now. Clutch this song to your chest and never let it go.

The rest is pretty fine too. ‘New Home Song’ is the only song I have ever heard about interior design (‘I don’t mind the plastic, the metal and the glass / You’re into high ceilings, wooden floors and brass’), ‘On Returning’ a claustrophobic but fond lament for a town left years ago in which, as so often here, the lo-fi homemade-ness of the record works in its favour. The ‘bass’ on the song is, if you’ll forgive a lapse into the muso, played on a guitar’s lower strings: it crackles a bit and is mixed too high for comfort – which gives the claustrophobia a string section would struggle to achieve. To accompany a line like ‘I bumped into someone I used to know / What should I do? / Should I look away or go and say hello?’ this is perfect: it captures the rush of memories and the self-conscious uncertainty of how to react. Brogues and I had a mini email argument about this last week – he said it’d be great to see what Anne could do given a proper studio. Which it would, but these particular songs are small scale in the best sense, they capture the precarious divide between feeling up and feeling down, and I wouldn’t want them any other way.

Buy or stream Headquarters here. Or pop in to Monorail.

Friday, March 14, 2008

J. P. Donleavy’s Ireland, In All Her Sins And in Some of Her Graces

This is some relief, light and dark. I had thought I was tiring of Donleavy somewhat, being underwhelmed with what I read of The Onion Eaters last year. An unfair thing to mention first because every single other book of his I’ve read has been touched by lunatic genius. Unfair too because I didn’t finish it, and essential to the success of his more farcical novels is a building and building of obscene and confounding ridiculousness (cut away sometimes suddenly to leave one breathless with the tenderness behind the ferocity), frustrating at the point when you think he’s taken an idea further than it will go, redeemed invariably with interest when he takes it further and further still. If it ain’t broke, break it. Then break something else. Preferably with your knob out. And / or bosoms. Lewdness aside, Schultz, Donleavy’s all action tale of a disaster-inviting American impresario of London musicals is not a million miles from, say, The Code of the Woosters in its senseless addictive drive, its constant delight in topping its own mayhem. It would seem appropriate to mention that Mr Schultz’s particular musical into which he sinks several fortunes with abandon, is called ‘Kiss It, Don’t Hold It, It’s Too Hot’. Such is my sophistication that this is my very favourite joke of all time. Also to mention that whilst Schultz himself is a complete if bumbling cunt, other of Donleavy’s protagonists are less so, especially if the setting is Ireland, and the character Irish.

J. P. Donleavy’s Ireland is a themed memoir, and the theme – Ireland and Irishness – is so central to the man that the chunks of life omitted under this scheme seem scarcely to matter. Early on he sets out his provenance:

I am a ‘narrowback’ [...,] a term used [...] to refer to the first generation of Irish born in America of Irish born parents whose backs, broad from the old country, now toiled to rear the narrower backs of their children in the New World. (pp. 9-10)

Reading his books originally in isolation from biographical information I was unable to tell where he was from: Schultz seemed obviously the work of an American; The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman (a brilliant, brilliant novel) just as obviously that of an Irishman. On Desert Island Discs last year his speaking voice sounded almost RP English, with Irish and American refracted through it. At the time I thought it peculiarly polite, given the hell he raises on the page – and yet he told there, as he does here, the story of Brendan Behan breaking into his house in Kilcoole, reading and amending the manuscript of The Ginger Man in Donleavy’s study, then stealing some twenty pairs of his shoes which just about saw him down the country lane to the pub with dry feet. On the radio the 81-year-old also acknowledged that he still boxes, and seemed calmly to accept that fighting – with the fists, and in court – is just part of life. Not something of which to boast, or be ashamed. But when needs must:

‘It’s him. It’s Donleavy, he’s coming.’

‘You bet your bloody Irish arses I am and I’m going to kick the living bigoted shit out of all of you.’

Of course I may not have said ‘bigoted’ at the time. (p. 198)

This in defence of Ernest Gebler, who was being persecuted (and here outnumbered) for living unmarried with Edna O’Brien in a country particularly sensitive to certain kinds of propriety. Of which, another example:

For upon [Gainor Crist] presenting himself in a chemist’s shop for the first time to buy contraceptives, and making his condom request known, the chemist blessed himself, turned candy coloured purple and red and then knocking over his counter of laxatives and other highly in demand eliminating aids, not only retreated into the back of his apothecary but pushed his two young lady assistants before him. (p. 122)

For autobiography, J. P. Donleavy’s Ireland has an unusual sense of self. For much of the time there is no central character, situations, places and friends taking the stage and Donleavy quietly observing, save when his fists are required. In a very male way, the events he can acknowledge as being worth recording fall into set categories: drunken, reprehensible escapades; good breakfasts; the ‘crut’ (by which he means hypocrisy) of the Irish; and work. The first half of the book sees Donleavy trying to make it as a painter – of ‘wet canvases’, as he puts it, never being quite prepared for an exhibition. He never discusses what his aims are in painting, but the fact that he produced and exhibited the work is clearly of importance to him. Family life he seems to consider outside his remit or our interest, a wife and children being acquired with little comment. And so he emerges an engaging conundrum: at once private and, with his controversial first novel, inescapably public; full of pretensions but by no means a gobshite in putting them about. All delivered up in the unruly infectious prose, the staccato building sentences and the words all out of sequence for cantankerous emphasis which make him a joy to read.

There is not a little irony in the title (if not the subtitle) and even in the cover of this light green book. Donleavy knows he can never actually belong in his parents’ homeland:

Always knowing Ireland was a country in which it was best to be a foreigner, and to be forgiven not knowing of its obtuse tyrannical repressions. (p. 212)

For as much as Ireland is in Donleavy’s veins, he is enough of an outsider to be acutely aware of its shortcomings. The provincial intolerance. This mixture of love and rage (a rage almost with himself) must be responsible for the explosive nature of The Ginger Man, which did not go down at all well in the country which inspired it (‘Telephones went dead. Hostile glances came from every side.’ (p. 209)). In his over-reactions, Donleavy is untouchable.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Katherine Mansfield’s Selected Stories

Don’t know what it is, but I’m finding this book impossible to write about. Maybe it covers too much ground to tackle as a whole (extracts from five short story collections, plus critical essays and some letters – it’s the Norton Critical Edition), but it’s genuinely great in quite a lot of places, and always interesting. Could just be the February blues, or this bloody cold. I’ve ended up writing several fragments, which don’t quite go, but anyway: some diary extracts, then a proper bit on ‘The Garden Party’…

27th January

On the top of a big hill they stopped. The driving man turned to Pearl and said ‘Look, look!’ and pointed down with his whip. And down at the bottom of the hill was something perfectly different – a great big piece of blue water was creeping over the land. She screamed and clutched at the big woman. ‘What is it, what is it?’ ‘Why,’ said the woman, ‘it’s the sea.’ ‘Will it hurt us – is it coming?’ (p. 38, from ‘How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped’)

This story felt a bit Kate Chopin-y, for the sun and water, and the carefree vs. staid tension. I bought this book on a whim after hearing a Matthew Parris-presented radio programme, ‘Great Lives’, with Jacqueline Wilson and a Mansfield scholar. It concentrated on the life to the exclusion of the work a bit too much, but they spoke of her as an unfairly neglected early 20th Century / Modernist author. Not neglected by the public, but by the literary establishment, which doesn’t see her as being as important as Forster, Lawrence, Stein etc. Woolf. I must admit, too, that they made her life sound so tragic (chronically ill, and chronically ill-suited to her husband) that that made me want to read her. Is that ghoulish? The stories I’ve read so far are strong on vulnerability, dazzlingly rendered, one can easily imagine their author being too sensitive for this world.

Then again:

Her black satin skirt swished across the scarlet and gold hall, and she stood among the artificial palms, her white neck and powdered face topped with masses of gleaming orange hair – like an over-ripe fungus bursting from a thick, black stem. (p. 47, from ‘Bains Turcs’)

30th January

She had not time to form a consistent attitude to any one finished story: each stood to her as a milestone passed, not as a destination arrived at. Let us say, she reacted to success (if in Katherine Mansfield’s eyes there were such a thing) as others react to failure – there seemed to be nothing left but to try again. (p. 350, from Elizabeth Bowen’s essay)

…which could stand as a definition of Pop.

It had never been so plain to her as it was at this moment. There were all her feelings for him, sharp and defined, one as true as the other. And there was this other, this hatred, just as real as the rest. She could have done her feelings up in little packets and given them to Stanley. She longed to hand him that last one, for a surprise. She could see his eyes as he opened that… (p. 111, from ‘The Prelude’)

Linda Burnell on her prosaic husband. I’m beginning to realise that it’s not just my erratic reading habits over the last few weeks which makes these stories… not a struggle, exactly, but elusive, and tough just to casually dip into. They don’t take care of one’s understanding as most stories do – reading them directly after Trollope (who mollycoddles, and is an effortless read) makes this especially obvious. Mansfield gives the reader only just enough information for the story to make sense, and then only at the last possible moment. Daydreams only gradually appear as such. Ideas are not followed through, but suggested (often brilliantly), leaving the reader to unpack the implications.

3rd Feb

‘The Man Without a Temperament’ an awfully sad KM story, clearly based on her illness (TB) and her husband’s attempts to care for her. A doctor has recommended she go somewhere with ‘a decent climate’ for two years if she’s to stand a chance of survival. And then:

…He is with her. ‘Robert, the awful thing is – I suppose it’s my illness – I simply feel I could not go alone. You see – you’re everything. You’re bread and wine, Robert, bread and wine. Oh, my darling – what am I saying? Of course I could, of course I won’t take you away….’ (p. 179)

Heartbreaking.

17th Feb

[On the Scott Walker documentary, 30 Century Man, shown on BBC 4 recently:] Scott said that record by record he’s stripping out the personality from his performances, so that – contrarily – any feeling or emotion that makes it through to the records is genuine. What a distinction to make! It fits perfectly with this passage in Mansfield, a mess of personality:

‘Good morning,’ she said, copying her mother’s voice. But that sounded so fearfully affected that she was ashamed, and stammered like a little girl, ‘Oh – er – have you come – is it about the marquee? (p. 287, from ‘The Garden Party’)

[Not from my diary, but following on from this quotation:]

In ‘The Garden Party’, Mansfield begins with a scene of social awkwardness, as the rich Laura Sheridan addresses some workmen who have come to put up a marquee for her mother’s garden party. Fortunately the one who replies has a smile ‘so easy, so friendly, that Laura recovered’. She decides that she likes workmen. The story is a light comedy in this vein until the point at which the man delivering the cream puffs passes on the information that a man who lived in one of the cottages just outside the Sheridans’ grounds has fallen from his horse and been killed. ‘He’s left a wife and five little ones’ (p. 292). Nobody is very much bothered about this except for Laura, who feels that the garden party must be cancelled: ‘just think of what the band would sound like to that poor woman’ (p. 293) she protests to her sister Jose. Jose doesn’t see it that way, and neither does Mrs Sheridan (‘But, my dear child, use your common sense. It’s only by accident we’ve heard of it.’ (p. 294)), so the garden party goes ahead.

After the guests have gone they do have the grace to be slightly ashamed about this, and, looking at the catering leftovers, Mrs Sheridan decides that Laura must take a basket of food to the widow Mrs Scott, to show sympathy. It isn’t an unkind thought, but it is one that jars a little: clearly Mrs Sheridan sees Mrs Scott as socially inferior, and her fellow feeling in a time of tragedy is only going to take her so far. Laura, fresh from her pleasant experiences with the workmen, feels the injustice of this, but takes the basket willingly enough. Now, you would think that comeuppance of some sort for this lack of tact was just around the corner, but the story takes an unexpected turn when Laura is ushered into Mrs Scott’s house by her sister, who also insists on showing her the body. This is her reaction:

There lay a young man, fast asleep – sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy… happy… . All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content. (p. 298)

In a letter included in this edition, Mansfield explains that in ‘The Garden Party’ she was trying to convey ‘the diversity of life and how we try to fit in everything, Death included. This is bewildering to a person of Laura’s age.’ (p. 331). Although the embarrassment and sadness of visiting Mrs Scott are real, Laura is able to place them in a much wider context, and this is the point of the story: not the clash of classes, but the way they get along.

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