Sunday, September 21, 2008

Robert Forster, Oran Mor, Glasgow, 20th September

In amongst the loveliness of walking down the steps by the ticket office into the warmth of ‘Head Full of Steam’, and spotting the selection of rare-looking Go-Betweens 7-inch singles spread out on the merchandise table, I missed the notice on the wall behind them: ‘Robert here 6 minutes after the end of the show’. Leaving the stage a little less than two hours later he announced a revised schedule: ‘I’m going to go upstairs and drink a bottle of cool alcohol-free lager, then I’ll be over at the back if you have any questions. See you there in eight – no, eight and a half minutes.’ And out he bowed: his arms in the air, the crowd’s arms in the air, to more than your average round of cheering. ‘The gig equivalent of a standing ovation,’ thought A. It’s obvious why, of course: The Go-Betweens were always a band who inspired affection, and for most of us this is the first time we’ve seen Robert play since Grant McLennan’s ludicrously premature death two years ago. We’ve always loved him, of course – how could you not? – but this time out it’s that bit more important to show it. Robert knows this, and he gives us the chance: plays Grant’s ‘Quiet Heart’, introduces bassist Adele Pickvance saying, ‘Grant McLennan used to call her the duchess of the deep end’ (exactly the kind of naff thing Grant would say). It’s well judged: an acknowledgement of what we’re all thinking, in the midst of an evening which is more Robert Forster-ish than you would believe.

A. had another thought, during the wait for Robert to finish his alcohol-free lager. That he had begun to resemble someone in the decade since she last saw him, at a Go-Betweens show which I missed, but at which a lemon yellow-suited Robert, chatting afterwards, asked politely about Glasgow bands and Chris warned him off Mogwai (Chris hated Mogwai) by doing an unprovoked and embarrassing hunchbacked impersonation of Stuart Braithwaite, whilst G. attempted to distract attention by standing on Isobel Campbell’s record bag. Robert sipped his herbal tea and Grant was oblivious, intent on finding out where was good to go clubbing. So who does he resemble?

‘Isn’t it obvious?’

‘Not really. He’s Robert Forster – he looks like Robert Forster.’

‘And John Cleese.’

There is something in this. Something of the Ministry of Silly Walks about the rock ’n’ roll moves he started to pull a few songs in, when things really began to take off. Possibly during ‘German Farmhouse’, and the wild-eyed overacting accompanying the line, ‘there was a rumour PAVAROTTI would play there’. There was this thing he did a couple of times: eyes popping out of their sockets, hands stretched wide to the sides of his head, as a way of emphasising something. And the break downs! If you’ve ever dreaded the day your favourite band decided to double the lengths of your favourite songs, putting in quiet bits and bluesy bits and shouting out ‘once more!’ when the break down (do you call them break downs?) seems to be almost over, well – fret no more, if The Go-Betweens are your favourite band, and ‘Spring Rain’ your favourite song. There is clearly no way this ought to have worked, but Robert managed to make these comedy moves with such seriousness that you didn’t know whether to laugh or dance, and ended up doing both. For too much of Robert’s solo career in the ’90s his records (all except Danger in the Past) lacked exactly this crackle – he went blues but forgot that blues needs energy. And now here it is, redeeming the previously anaemic ‘1-2-1’ like it was a beast of a song all along. Even ‘I Can Do’ was kind of OK, and that’s saying something.

There were plenty of songs, too, which had never needed saving – ‘The Darlinghurst Years’ from Oceans Apart (‘this covers the years 1981-83 in my life, in exhaustive detail’), and a couple from this year’s The Evangelist, my favourite record of his since The Friends of Rachel Worth. ‘Demon Days’ was rapturously received, probably for the line ‘the fingers of fate / stretch out and take’, which felt like it referred to Grant, though the song itself is (wonderfully) vague. Older songs included ‘Draining the Pool for You’ and ‘Heart Out to Tender’ – both featuring epic break downs, the latter prompting the heckle, ‘I’ll bid for it!’ – and, glory of glories, ‘People Say’, which is and always has been the last word in two minute off key pop perfection. It really feels now, as it rarely did in the ’90s, that Robert Forster can stand outside The Go-Betweens – now that he has no choice, and now that he no longer has to stand at odds to them. Which is great news: he made a fine journalist and all, in the interim, but what the world really needs are his moves.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Leo Baxendale – ‘A Very Funny Business: 40 Years of Comics’

The most recent Asterix book, Asterix and the Falling Sky, is a two-pronged allegory targeted at the state of comics and the state of the world as they were in 2005. The Gauls’ magic potion becomes Iraq’s supposed stock of Weapons of Mass Destruction, which a group of aliens representing America (and, in the other allegory, Disney) see it as their duty to confiscate. A second group of aliens, the Nagmas (representing Manga), also want to get their hands on the magic potion, because they are evil and want to stomp all over good old traditional comics / western nations with their rampant commercial success / enhanced biffing power. It’s all a bit confused, and a good example of the megalomania which can creep in when a comic artist is stuck at a drawing board for years on end, churning out the funny stuff. I mention it because Leo Baxendale has a bit of an ego on him too, and in this history of his time in comics (thanks to Tim for the recommendation) he rarely misses an opportunity to tell you how good other people think he is, how good he thinks he is, and how he has been ripped off regarding the rights to his strips and characters. The wounded pride is tangible, as it is on his website , where almost the first thing you see is this:

The rights of Leo Baxendale to be identified as author of The Bash Street Kids, Minnie the Minx, Little Plum, The Three Bears, and The Banana Bunch, have been asserted in accordance with ss. 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

The site also refers to a ‘7 year High Court action over my Beano creations’, so clearly there is bad blood between Baxendale and his former employers. Of course he is entitled to remind people of how badly he has at times been treated, but I was a little worried at the start of this book that it might be simply an exercise in vindication, more about the arguments than the comic strips.

Thankfully, it isn’t. Leo Baxendale loves comics. Though chapter one has the ominous title ‘The creation of Bash Street’, it actually begins with the moment in 1952 when, aged 22, he saw his first Dennis the Menace strip, in a cast-off Beano of his brother’s:

Here was a remarkable new character in a modern urban setting. The Dennis page seemed to crackle with life. I thought ‘I could do something like this’, and promptly started sorting out samples of my cartoon work to send off to the Beano. (p. 6)

This is Baxendale in a nutshell: there is very little separating his appreciation of other people’s talent and his appreciation of his own. At first this is irritating, because he’s always telling you how great he is, and how well developed his humour (‘Animals behaving sneakily are funnier than people being sneaky. I don’t know why this should be, but it is so.’ (p. 8)). It takes a while to absorb the fact that as well as being a touch boastful, Baxendale is very acute in his judgements: he knows what he likes, in himself and in others, and when he finds it, he says so. Much of A Very Funny Business is not about Leo Baxendale at all, but about David Law (who drew Dennis the Menace), Dudley Watkins (Lord Snooty) and Ken Reid (Jonah, ‘an incandescent creation’ (p. 60)). He praises Watkins’ professionalism, but identifies more with Law and Reid as they struggle to keep up with ‘the relentless pressure of the non-stop comics schedules’ (p. 61). He visits the widows of Law and Watkins in the final chapter, ‘Dundee revisited’, and asks them both the same question: ‘Do you think he did too much?’ (p. 128). Baxendale is quite candid about the effect of speed on his drawing: his best, ‘vintage’ work was done slowly, and his career in comics is told as one long struggle to get his workload down to a level at which he can produce good drawings.

He is specific about when this was possible, too. Someone at D. C. Thomson should go through this book (he’s really not that unpleasant about them – IPC come off as faceless and second rate by comparison) and take him at his own estimation: print a collection of the stuff he rates. Starting with all his Bash Street Kids, Little Plums and Minnie the Minxes from 1957-8. He writes about the different styles he went through (drawing under pressure elongates characters, he says, in all seriousness), and you can see the change comparing the ’50s strips reprinted here with the ’70s Willy the Kid material. Both are styles I recognise – the former from Minnie the Minx strips in old second hand Beano annuals (a few going back to the ’70s, but no earlier) and possibly the odd reprint; the latter from IPC’s Whizzer and Chips in the ’80s. Baxendale had retired from comics by then, and hadn’t worked for The Beano since walking out in the mid ’60s. Before seeing the Beano exhibition the other week and then this book, I probably hadn’t seen very much of Baxendale’s work at all, but it looks very familiar. He describes the phenomenon of watching other artists pick up styles he himself used only for a matter of months: his chaotic detail and consistently awesome facial expressions (furious, fiendish, gleeful) became part of the fabric of British comics, and continued after he stopped drawing them himself. He’s earned his time in the garden.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Down an August Path

Walking home late on Wednesday I noticed some sunflowers in a front garden, growing up against a wall, nearly reaching the first storey. Now I’m wondering whether to nip out and photograph them, lit by street lights, sunflowers in the dark. Ungainly things, out of their element. It would make a good back cover, I reckon, in contrast to the sunlight on the front – but it’s half an hour’s walk away, I’ve no bus change and it’s nearly bedtime as it is. So it’s too late, ’cause this is getting posted tomorrow morning, this EP by my sister and I. Planet Sunflower are our band, or duo anyway, and years ago we used to make songs by looping bits of Nick Cave records and writing down the names of things in the room to use for lyrics. ‘In My Eyes’ from Loss Angeles is a Planet Sunflower song (no Cave there – The Seahorses, Stevie Wonder and Beatrix Potter were our, uh, inspirations). Another, the best one, was called ‘Wind Sand and Stars’ for no better reason than that Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry’s book of that name was on a shelf nearby when we wrote it. Random choices can be good ones. Though lately when we’ve done stuff it’s been less random, more song-like. Catriona (AKA Janet Sunflower) says, ‘The first two songs are old Planet Sunflower-style (complicated) & the latter two are new PS-style (simple / only got an acoustic guitar on us).’* ‘The Escarpment’ is our first single.

Planet Sunflower – ‘The Escarpment E.P.’

  1. The Escarpment
  2. Big Stripey Lie
  3. Where is the Now?
  4. My Planet Sunflower
  5. Cheap Cigs & Beer
Songs by Catriona and Chris except ‘Big Stripey Lie’ which is by Kate Bush. The first two were recorded in August 2008, and the rest between 2004 – 2006.

Download it here, or listen below.

* She said this before we found the fifth song, so it made sense at the time.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Ha Jin – ‘Waiting’

More than with most novels, there is a feeling about Waiting that the blurb on the back tells you all you’re going to find out from the book itself:

For more than seventeen years, Lin Kong, a dedicated doctor, has been passionately in love with an educated, modern woman, Manna Wu, but back in his traditional home village lives the humble, loyal wife his family chose for him years ago. Every summer, he returns to ask her for a divorce and every summer his compliant wife agrees but then backs out. This time, after eighteen years’ waiting, Lin promises it will be different.
The story opens with Lin back at the family home in Goose Village. Manna is not hopeful about the outcome:
By 1983, Lin and his wife had already been separated for seventeen years, so with or without Shuyu’s agreement, he would be able to divorce her next year. That was why Manna was certain that he wouldn’t make a great effort this time. She knew the workings of his mind: he would always choose an easy way out. (p. 15)
The action swiftly moves back twenty years, takes in the meeting of Manna and Lin, and everything indicates that we are in for a narrative framed by its culmination: end, start, middle, end, like an unimaginative biography. Dropped back to 1963, you already know that there is going to be an extra-marital affair of some kind, that it will start around about 1966, and that by 1983 it will be stuck, not very much further on, awaiting the divorce. There is no suspense about this either: the divorce is bound to happen after the eighteen years are up, whereupon Lin and Manna will marry. But how happy an ending can this really be, after all the waiting?

There is precious little passion about Lin and Manna’s love, either. Strange to say about such an inconvenient situation, but it is essentially pragmatic: he doesn’t want an old fashioned, village-dwelling, village-minded wife with bound feet. He’s an educated man, and wants someone he can relate to – what could be fairer than that? She falls for him on the rebound, and after he takes care of her badly blistered feet on army exercises. It all makes some kind of sense at the time, and soon they come to accept each other as partners-in-waiting, emotionally dependent but never consummating their relationship. To begin with they believe they will be married soon, though the reader knows otherwise. Their abstinence is largely due to the fact of living and working in a Communist-run army hospital: there are restrictions on where unmarried couples can walk together, and there can be little privacy when the whole staff live in shared rooms. There is the suggestion, though, that Lin is weak to allow these difficulties to stand in their way:

‘To be honest, if I were you, I wouldn’t think of leaving my family. I’d just keep Manna as my woman here. A man always has more needs, you know.’ He grinned meaningfully.

‘You mean I should have her as a mistress?’

‘Good, you’re learning fast.’

Lin sighed and said, ‘I can’t do that to her. It would hurt her badly. Also, it’s illegal.’

Geng Yang smiled thoughtfully. A trace of distain crossed his face, which Lin didn’t notice. (p. 166)

Geng Yang brushes aside the idea that this illegality would be damaging, offering bribery as a solution. This unpleasant character is more brash, more willing to act than Lin Kong, and is ultimately rewarded for it when he makes a fortune in the construction industry.

The inevitability of the storyline means that Waiting can work as a fable. The moral being that selflessness and generosity of spirit are their own reward, and are worth more than any tangible prize. Ambition is shown to be a drab and ugly thing – whether this is Lin and Manna’s modest ambition to marry, or Geng Yang’s more worldly grasping for sex and wealth. More engaging than any of these characters are Shuyu and Hua, Lin’s first wife and their daughter. Once the eighteen years of separation are over, the novel emerges from stasis in Part Three, when Shuyu travels to Lin’s hospital for the divorce. With her arrival the spell is broken, and the reader no longer knows what is going to happen next. Lin gives her money for a haircut and, not knowing what to ask for, Shuya plumps for the same style as the hairdresser (a bob), and accidentally ends up looking quite good. It doesn’t occur to her to be embarrassed by this ignorance, and by the time the cut is finished she has charmed a small audience with her calm simplicity. Likewise the nurses who treat her sciatica, and who are fascinated by her bound feet (she won’t show them, they are for Lin’s eyes only). Incredibly, Shuya never abandons her idea of herself as Lin’s wife, and she is almost always obedient to him, during and after the divorce. Her circumscribed, unchanging outlook ends up seeming far preferable to the vacillations of Lin and Manna – especially Manna, who builds up such resentment during the years of waiting. Their love, strained beyond endurance by a constant focus on the future, seems as though it has never been real at all; hers simply is, and it endures.

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