Friday, June 29, 2012

Bill Drummond – ‘100’

I’m quite enjoying reading books without writing about them at the moment, but it seemed silly not to mention Bill Drummond’s new one, 100. Not least because it is harder to get hold of than I realised, and maybe this will tip off somebody before it is too late. I got mine from here, but it turns out that was quite lucky, because they were only selling 100 of the 1000-strong book cube sculpture (there’s a photo two thirds of the way down the page), and next month the cube moves to Liverpool where a further 100 copies can be bought from News From Nowhere. It’s as wonderful and miscellaneous as you’d expect, like all of Bill’s books an incredulous and joyful struggle with the ongoing process of being Bill. He is sticking to his story that recorded music is a dead art form, and his main thrust here seems to be against the more general passivity that consumer culture encourages. Don’t watch football, play football, he recommends; if you’re too old, go and watch your kids play in the park. Don’t listen to music, make music, make it for the moment, and don’t you dare press record. If I were to have four questions to ask Bill, one would be, ‘what are books, but “record” buttons’?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

David Sutherland: Comics Genius, Dundee University, 13th June

Another occasion deserving acknowledgement, to say the least, but I bet you’ve never heard the name. Those most strongly associated with long running Beano cartoon strips The Bash Street Kids and Dennis the Menace, naturally enough, are their creators, Leo Baxendale and David Law, but this year is the 50th anniversary of David Sutherland taking over the reins of Bash Street from a disenchanted Baxendale. He’s been drawing it ever since, and appeared at a Q & A yesterday evening at Dundee University, which has run several D. C. Thomson anniversary-related exhibitions over the last few years (there is even a comics department). Sutherland no longer draws the weekly Dennis the Menace strip, but it was his between 1970 and 1998, and as the event programme notes, ‘Sutherland’s Dennis remains the iconic version’. Certainly for people round about my age, who read The Beano in the ’80s, this is true. Working out who drew what in The Beano was difficult, though, as artists never signed their work, and you had to cross-reference it with signed IPC comic strips to learn which style belonged to, say, Tom Patterson, or Robert Nixon. Sutherland never crossed that divide, and remained anonymous. But his art was The Beano, to a large extent: it was the standard from which others deviated. Not exactly flamboyant, but full of warmth and unexpected detail. His composition of Bash Street Kids scenes is less anarchic than Leo Baxendale’s; they are remarkable for their order and elegance rather than their chaos. Which is a strange compliment to pay a strip about a class of uncontrollable children, but it works: they are built to last.

The idea was that David would draw various Bash Street Kids on a flip chart facing the audience (which meant he had his back to us quite a lot), and that three colleagues would ask him questions about his life and career as he did so. The drawing would distract him from being too embarrassed by the occasion. He was very quietly spoken, but not averse to telling an anecdote or two once the session began, and the audience hung on every word. He asked his wife to cover her ears, and spoke about the time he’d been confronted with a chip pan fire in the kitchen: ‘If I’d remembered what you’re supposed to do, and covered it with a dish cloth, it would have been fine,’ he said, ruefully. Instead he ended up making the fire worse, and in desperation threw the pan out of the back door towards the vegetable patch – but somehow it hit another observer square in the back, and he watched him pelt across the garden as his own forearm was ‘hanging like a glove’. Of more relevance, perhaps (‘Get back to the comics’, requested his wife) was his account of an early job designing themed d├ęcor for the foyer of a cinema, in the days before this was franchised, monetised and whatever else. He would cover great panels with jungle foliage, or other backgrounds relating to the film that was showing, and assemble them in situ, creating something like a stage set. Later he described appearing on the TV show Challenge Anneka, and decorating a bus with Beano characters on a similar scale. They offered to put him up at a hotel afterwards, but he wanted to get home, and drove straight back to Dundee, presumably not a short trip.

One of his original characters, I learned with delight, was Olive, the dinner lady from The Bash Street Kids – and she had been based on a tea lady at D. C. Thomson, whose tea was not up to much, and whom Sutherland teased mercilessly on this account (fair enough), before exposing her ineptitude to the nation in the comic (um…). Her only revenge, he said, was to sometimes ‘forget’ to bring any sugar with his tea, ‘so she got her own back’. That’s a good illustration of his modesty, I think: he doesn’t seem aware of his own importance, or if he is, he doesn’t care for it – something else in which he is the anti-Baxendale (not that I’d disparage Baxendale for his self-importance, it was quite justified). He didn’t talk very much about him, but he did speak movingly in appreciation of Dudley D. Watkins, whom he described as an all-rounder in much the same way that others speak of him – both seem to have had the capacity to move easily between a more realistic style of art for adventure stories, and the funny strips for which they are better known. He even mentioned being presented with the strip Watkins was working on when he died, and having to complete the last page drawn by his hero. ‘I didn’t know if it was something I wanted to do – but otherwise there would have been a blank page, it was a very tight schedule.’ Unbelievably matter-of-fact.

It began to seem as though this gentle, retiring man would be able to regale us, with prompting, well on into the evening, having completed only one page of the flip chart in an hour because of all the pesky questions. This page, which he coloured with pastels, contained the shorter Kids – Wilfred and Spotty at the top, and ’Erbert, the short sighted one, lower down looking at a thistle in a pot. ‘Sorry I’m late, Teech’, ran his speech balloon. But the interview section of proceedings drew to a close with the screening – after several attempts at getting sound through speakers, and subsequently under a mild patina of feedback – of a special message recorded by Nick Park, who was glowing in his praise, and hoped David wouldn’t be too overwhelmed by the collection of his work at the accompanying exhibition. Then there were audience questions, including ‘Will you sign my annual?’ from one boy, and ‘What will you do when you’re not allowed to call Fatty Fatty anymore?’ – this speculation on political correctness gone mad being met with a sneak preview of the plot of the strip he’s been drawing this week, in which Fatty takes diet pills, and ends up so thin no-one recognises him, though they’re suspicious of all the things he knows about Bash Street. Then he lets on, but the pills make him so flatulent the kids all throw their sweets at him, and Teech contributes his sandwiches, until finally he’s as fat as ever. Ready for next week, as always.

Oh, and Plug is his favourite Bash Street Kid, and he hates drawing bicycles.


The exhibition of David Sutherland’s drawings will be on until 15th August.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Momus at the CCA, Glasgow, 8th June

[This sounds a cop-out, but I really do have enough of staring at screens sometimes. What follows is what my diary says, without the usual editing down / up. Might still be OK, and the occasion deserves to be acknowledged.]

7th June. Momus in Glasgow tomorrow. Just listening to Bibliotek for the first time, it’s nice, very gentle, sound-wise. No big tunes standing out, but that does tend to take a few spins.

9th June. Live, the song ‘Bibliotek’ had more of a kick to it – ‘No one takes me out / And no one takes me back / To my bibliotek’, a hymn to neglected books which presumably springs from Momus’ own forays into authorship, but which also taps into the whole book / ebook debate, for who could regret a neglected ebook in quite the same way? Of course, his song ‘Datapanik’ is all about lost data, but it is personal data, and it is definitely panic, rather than regret, than the loss of porn videos and women’s contact details causes. I wonder if the two songs, with their short titles ending in ‘k’, are a deliberate pair?

He played at the CCA’s club room: small, stylish and sweltering. The radiators were on, the air conditioning units in the ceiling were off. A slowed down clip of Momus’ head and moving fingers was projected on to the wall at the back of the stage, and this, alongside a large upwards-pointing red lamp in one of the two window recesses, constituted the lighting. He began crouching with a growled, bitter cover of Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat’s ‘Ballad of the Bastard’. I didn’t identify it immediately, Momus’ ‘I Want You But I Don’t Need You’ suggested itself too. Then a rousing ‘Love Wakes the Devil’, rolling inevitably before a more impassioned climax than the record musters. Momus’ vocals throughout were laudably uninhibited, swapping more often to the higher register than the records do, and louder too. This must be the biggest downside of his tendency to make records at home, in surroundings which encourage intimacy more than performance. ‘Widow Twankey’ from Joemus was treated to a cracked falsetto bellow, deliberately ugly, and on the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ cover he had a good stab at Bowie’s controlled, loud croon. Come to think of it, octave hopping is a trick of Bowie’s too – e.g. ‘Heroes’ or the two versions of ‘It’s No Game’.

Perhaps the highlight of the set was ‘We Don’t Have to Make Children’, which departed quite drastically form the original, stretching the idea into old age and death. So,
We don't have to make children
When we make love
Kids are so noisy, they take so much time
This way the pleasure is all mine
eventually became, ‘We don’t even have to make love’. Momus’ back became increasingly curved as he mimed encroaching decrepitude, and then imagined the death of the partner – after sketching out the details of her decay too, the swelling curves, the sagging tits (described with more relish than disappointment). The themes of ageing and death kept recurring, in a later song he stretched out to mime being in a coffin, and in ‘Hypnoprism’ he stroked his failing hair to accompany the line,
I’ve got a spotty case of alopecia
And yet, these brazen observations of things most fiftysomethings would want to keep quiet about were not self-pitying, merely part of the insatiable curiosity which drives his ever prolific output.

There was variety, too – he asked us to imagine that his own head, projected behind him, was that of a beautiful woman, and caressed the wall where the image fell

[the diary entry cuts off here, without even mentioning ‘The Charm Song’. But I don’t have time to reformulate these thoughts, Momus, I have to find new things to be interested in. You taught me that. Thanks for the gig, it was great.]

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Dickens vs. Conan Doyle

This hasn’t been much of a book blog lately, the directions I’ve been meaning to pursue have been a bit contradictory, perhaps – English essayists, Virginia Woolf / Bloomsbury, and then the Big Books that glare out at me. Big novels can be great, of course, they can absorb you into a setting in a way that smaller ones can’t. But what if it strikes you, three quarters of the way through, that the painstakingly constructed social scene is a house of cards, that the words are just words, that length doesn’t equal depth after all? Chris and I never did reach any kind of agreement over War and Peace: for me, the second half was a thrilling exercise in thinking everything into line with a cause, I got caught up in the back-projected, desperate nationalism; for him, it was deeply untrustworthy. For the last few weeks I’ve been re-reading Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, not because of his bicentenary so much as a smaller anniversary – twenty years ago my class read it at school, and I loved it as much as most of the class hated it. Now, I always get annoyed with Dickens somewhere between half way and three quarters of the way through one of his longer novels: his circumscribed idea of characterisation becomes so irritating (Mr Jarndyce has just proposed to Esther, if you must know – why on earth?). This time, the vagueness of his attack on the processes of the law has also become a bit too blatant. They are bad because they result in endless procrastination, and they should be reformed. What are they? Bleak House won’t tell you that. So it, too, becomes deeply untrustworthy. But for the left.

A splendid antidote to all of this has been Arthur Conan Doyle’s marvellous, straightforward The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard, a collection of linked short stories about a soldier in Napoleon’s forces, both before and after the Battle of Borodino which lies at the heart of War and Peace. A brave and hilariously conceited brigadier looks back on his exploits in the glory days of 1812 or so, when he was about thirty, which would make him 112 in 1894, when the first story was published – or 77 in 1869, the year of Conan Doyle’s birth, so it is at least plausible that he could have met a hero of this sort as a boy. Anyway, he blows up a castle in that first story, so let’s not quibble. Then he gets involved with bandits with vendettas, other bandits who want to lash him to bound trees and rip him in two, bandits in disguise, Wellington, Napoleon himself several times, damsels in distress who may or may not be in distress for the reason they pretend, English soldiers who rescue him from bandits and therefore might not be so bad after all – it’s great fun. And I shouldn’t call him conceited, because, as he argues:
It has sometimes struck me that some of you, when you have heard me tell these little adventures of mine, may have gone away with the impression that I was conceited. There could not be a greater mistake than this, for I have always observed that really fine soldiers are free from this failing.
The irony doesn’t dawn upon him, as ironies never do, for Gerard is like Bertie Wooster in his ability to tell a complete story without understanding half of it. Napoleon seizes on this quality when he picks him for a secret mission:
‘Brave and clever men surround me upon every side. But a brave man who –’ He did not finish his sentence, and for my own part I could not understand what he was driving at.
It is striking, in fact, how much Gerard is like the stupid Watson played by Nigel Bruce in Roy William Neill’s 1940s films. The Gerard stories are much funnier than the Sherlock Holmes stories and, if less ingenious, they are much more action packed. I love the bit where he escapes from prison and navigates by following the wind in the dark.

I also read Anthony Horowitz’s ‘official’ Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk recently, which struck me as pretty good, all things considered, but please take into account my extremely high tolerance for bad Holmes adaptations. S. read it too, and pointed out that the language is not 19th century English, though it clearly strives to be; there were too many modern idioms for her liking. Not to mention idiotic mistakes, e.g. an old newspaper that becomes as soft as tissue – this simply isn’t what happens to old newspaper, it becomes brittle. Various clever-sounding clues fail in this way. My favourite bad bit was Holmes’ deduction, from watching Watson’s bookmark move slowly and unsteadily through a book he’d lent him, before disappearing completely, that he’d finished the book, and hadn’t liked it very much. There were plenty of good bits too – the American gangster plot was well done, and the basic problem of how to spin out a Sherlock Holmes story to novel length (always tackled by Conan Doyle with lengthy absences of Holmes, or 100 pages of back story), was inventively dealt with, by linking two stories together. Then to finish a set piece of depravity – used as a reason for this story’s late emergence – and a really great horse drawn chase sequence, which finds its equivalent in the Gerard story ‘How the Brigadier was Tempted by the Devil’. Or The Sign of Four’s boat chase, possibly. Curiously, the book seemed aware of the trap of linking Holmes too closely with the police (discussed here), but fell into it anyway. Holmes is not about procedures or processes – neither is Gerard – but about swiftness and excitement. Not that it is wrong in a novel to point out the limitations of the legal procedures that less mercurial citizens have to endure, but I think I’ll pause a bit before finishing Bleak House.

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