Wednesday, December 31, 2014

BAMS 2014 / Music this year: a miscellany

Chris S. and me (and two other fans) photographed by The Chills.
Martin Phillips’ signing hand is bottom left.
Now, to be honest, my favourite musical things of the year were the Serum wave table synthesizer, and getting re-acquainted with the Reaper DAW, due to having a semi-modern laptop for the first time in ages. Certainly for the last 3 — 4 months of the year I spent my evenings tinkering with these programs, and not listening or reading as much as usual. Which possibly explains the total lack of records in the list below by people I’d never heard of before. Still, they are great records.
  1. Vashti Bunyan — Heartleap
  2. Lispector — The Cult of Less
  3. Comet Gain — Paperback Ghosts
  4. National Jazz Trio of Scotland — Standards Vol III
  5. Ian Crause — The Vertical Axis
  6. Vic Godard & Subway Sect — 1979 Now!
  7. Tara Jane O’Neill — Where Shine New Lights
  8. Morrissey — World Peace is None of Your Business
  9. Ai Aso — Lone
  10. Scott Walker + Sunn O))) — Soused
Best gig of the year was Security at the DCA in July supporting Ela Orleans (who was also great). A text message conversation is the closest I got to reviewing it:
M: Any good?
Me: Fucking amazing — I have a new favourite band. Called Security. Who said ‘AIDS care put back 5 years by Putin’. I pulled the singer’s piggy nose. How were Owen & the Rednecks?
M: Lol missed them; arrived late, left early. Wrong choice by me. Yours sounds awesome =]
Me: Aw — next time!
M: Only if they have sax
Me: They had sax with the furniture — does that count?
M: Did you go to the right show? That sounds slightly more specialised.
Me: I did. Which I guess means that the guy was actually subsidised for chasing people away from their seats and dry humping them.
M: Ooh… All for £5… Damn it.
Vic Godard was on top form at the Voodoo Rooms last month, too. To my shame I missed the only Pastels show within reach after falling over in my parents’ garden racing my niece and scraping most of the skin off my left palm, which made driving difficult. ‘You hurt yourself didn’t you? And you still didn’t win’ was her less than sympathetic summing up. It was amazing to see The Chills in August — and amazing, as Manic Pop Thrills pointed out, to hear them so vital and bursting with new material.

Best mis-heard song title of the year (by S.) was ‘Saddle Up’ by Comet Gain (it’s actually ‘Sad Love’).

The song that got me in all of the right places the most was Lispector’s ‘Endless Summerz’. Beautifully pitched between hope and despair.

BAMS is ‘An annual poll of Scottish Blogs and Music Sites’, on Twitter here. Thanks for asking me to participate (with the albums list, the rest is off piste).

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Anthony Trollope — ‘Framley Parsonage’

The Crawley Family
Amongst my excuses-to-self for sometimes not blogging about books are ‘it’s an ebook,’ and ‘it’s part of a serial’. Dr Thorne, the third of Trollope’s Barchester novels, fell foul of both, which is a shame, as it is probably my favourite so far. Its plot, involving murder, hidden provenance and uncertain expectations, was unusually dark and mysterious. Though the tone righted itself eventually, early on it could almost have been a Thomas Hardy novel, actuated by schaudenfrade and the playing out of old, hidden crimes (I’m thinking particularly of The Mayor of Casterbridge). The intricate plot was more characteristic: usually it’s the space between his characters which interests Trollope. The way things work together. It didn’t seem much connected with The Warden or Barchester Towers, its predecessors. Bishop and Mrs Proudie got walk-on parts, and the Thornes of Ullathorne were mentioned, but only to distinguish Dr Thorne from them. Framley Parsonage reverses the trend, and brings back the Proudies, the Grantlys, Miss Dunstable and Dr Thorne himself as major characters; we also discover something of the fate of the Greshams of Greshamsbury, the Arabins, Lady Scatchard and Mr Harding into the bargain. Dr Thorne could stand alone, but this book depends upon its place in the series.

Politics is back, too, and not just local or church politics. Framley Parsonage features a cabinet minister, Harold Smith, who after only a few weeks in the job finds himself a victim of Tom Towers, the most powerful man in the book. As editor of newspaper The Jupiter, Towers is more interested in causing events than reporting them. In The Warden he plagued Mr Harding into resigning the wardenship of Hiram’s Hospital, and in Framley Parsonage he causes even more of a stir when he appears, briefly, at Miss Dunstable’s party. Miss Dunstable, heiress of the Oil of Lebanon fortune and the richest woman in the country, is an interesting mix of worldliness and innocence. She genuinely frets about whether the two big stars she has invited will attend (one of them would add thirty percent to the value of the party, we are told), but she also mocks this deference in herself:
Angels and ministers of grace assist me! […] How on earth am I to behave myself? Mr Sowerby, do you think that I ought to kneel down? My dear, will he have a reporter at his back in the royal livery? (p. 303)
This is Towers’ only appearance, in person, but he makes good use of it:
‘By-the-by, Sowerby, what do you think of this threatened dissolution?’ said Tom Towers. (p. 304)
And so, by way of the rumour thus started, parliament is dissolved, and Harold Smith loses his cabinet post. But not before he has been buttonholed by Mr Sowerby (MP and rogue) and enjoined to recommend a preferment in favour of Mark Robarts, the incumbent of Framley Parsonage. The preferment in question is a prebend connected to Barchester Cathedral, previously held in absence by Dr Stanhope (now deceased), worth £600 a year. Sowerby is anxious to do this favour for Mark, as he has embroiled him in his money matters by getting him to sign a bill for £400, which, through renewals, increases to £900 and threatens to ruin Mark and his family. Sowerby is not wholly corrupt, and wants to do well by Mark; but the greater consideration is that any favour he accepts will bind him to Sowerby. Like payday lenders today, he wants to create a dependence: the last thing he wants is for the bill to be settled.

Lady Lufton and the Duke of Omnium
The other great star invited to Miss Dunstable’s party is the Duke of Omnium. Like Tom Towers, he is a background character, whose absence from the narrative is a characteristic of his great power. He has the misfortune, when greeting Miss Dunstable, to press against Lady Lufton:
The duke, as he begged her pardon, wore in his countenance that expression of modified sorrow which is common to any gentleman who is supposed by himself to have incommoded a lady. But over and above this, — or rather under it, — there was a slight smile of derision, as though it were impossible for him to look upon the bearing of Lady Lufton without some amount of ridicule. All this was legible to eyes so keen as those of Miss Dunstable and Mrs Harold Smith, and the duke was known to be a master of this silent inward sarcasm; but even by them […] it was admitted that Lady Lufton had conquered. (p. 294)
This meeting of factions is another important moment. The Duke of Omnium represents the new, racy, monied world (which includes the Proudies), who are busy gobbling up the old, staid, monied one (the Luftons, the Grantlys) across three spheres: land, church and state. Gatherum Castle is his home, viewed by Lady Lufton as a den of iniquity; and it pains her that her son, Lord Lufton, and her clergyman, Mark Robarts (a friend from childhood of Lord Lufton’s: the Framley living was his mother’s gift), have both visited. The trouble Robarts gets in as a result of this visit, and the obligations foisted upon him there by Sowerby, justify her view. Her son, too, is drawn in to the same situation, on a larger scale, and she has to sell some of the family estate to free him from the clutches of Tom Tozer, the debt collector (Tom Towers / Tom Tozer — there seems to be a deliberate echo in these names). Robarts’ smaller debt is the more important in terms of the story, and is the main fact about him: he is a good man, but a weak one. The same is true of Sowerby, and here Trollope shows the difference that circumstances can make, over and above character. Ever even handed, he also shows the opposite, via Miss Dunstable and Lady Scatchard, both ‘new money’ women, one who takes like a duck to water to her new milieu (though she is a long time finding a husband); the other who finds it profoundly awkward and lives a life of isolation.

Right at the other end of the social spectrum from Tom Towers and the Duke of Omnium, are the Crawleys. Mr Crawley is minister at the impoverished parish of Hogglestock, and he is fiercely, foolishly independent. An old friend of Mr Arabin, he feels unable to keep up the friendship since Arabin’s rise to dean of Barchester. He feels ashamed of his clothes, and of the fact that he has no horse. They are so poor, in fact, that it is even a struggle to feed the family. When his wife gets cholera, he refuses Arabin’s help, and it is only the strength of character shown by Mark Robarts’ sister Lucy, who essentially kidnaps his children to get them out of harm’s way, that is able to save the situation. She stays to nurse Mrs Crawley, and so is conveniently absent from Framley doing unquestionably virtuous things, at the period when Lord Lufton is trying to convince his mother that Lucy should be his wife. Lady Lufton had her heart set on his marrying the grand but vacuous Griselda Grantly, and takes some adjusting to the idea of his taking up with someone so ‘insignificant’ (p. 349). But she has misunderstood significance: it is not to be found in playing a pre-defined role (as Griselda is eventually able to do with Lord Dumbello), it comes through defining one’s own role, and hence through character. Always assuming the lubrication of money.


Illustrations are by John Everett Millais, from this site.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The Onion Club, Hospitalfield Arts, Arbroath, 6th December

A circular chord sequence, at the back of the room, played on an accordion. Nick Cave’s ‘The Ship Song’, I thought, as the woman with the Louise Brooks bob began a slow, meandering walk between the tables towards the stage. But it wasn’t, it was ‘Song to the Siren’. The lights were low, as they have to be, to hit the right mood; the cafe layout in the room is a prerequisite, too. This isn’t really an arts centre in an ornamental castle down a potholed track (though that setting would be special enough). This is Berlin in the ’20s. It’s Pandora’s Box, it’s Dr Mabuse the Gambler. Tim Buckley, Nina Simone, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, the singers whose catalogues have been appropriated in the cause of the show, have yet to be born. Billie Holiday is still a child. Kurt Weill walks its streets, inhabits its shadows, and usually a highlight of these… concerts? Let’s call them spells. Witching hours. They usually have ‘Alabama Song’ at their core. Not last night, but it was only thinking back that I noticed its absence. All the other songs, despite the breadth of the selection, and the variation in performance — they’re all ‘Alabama Song’ too. They’re all athirst. We must have whisky or you’ll know why.

Not me, actually. I was driving, so drank Coke and coffee — the latter, absurdly, sold by the full-size cafetière, so, as I write, it’s 4:30AM and I’m still wired. Pauline, she of the bob, did slug from a whisky bottle, but word has it that it contained apple juice. She had a cold — kept pulling paper hankies from somewhere about her person — so this was almost certainly for the best. Her singing was fractionally bluesier than a month ago, when we last saw The Onion Club, but not spoilt. Her patter was mostly the same, with cold-related ad libs thrown in. A string of twentieth century witticisms: ‘One more drink and I’ll be under the host’ (Mae West); ‘I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy’ (Tom Waits). It’s a good script, worth sticking to. Also courtesy of Tom Waits was ‘God’s Away on Business’, for which Pauline took the radio mic and went on the prowl, taking delight in throwing out an arm while half undressed and shouting ‘KILLERS, THIEVES AND LIARS!’ in whoever’s face was closest. This song, at the mid point of the first half of the set, upped the ante and cured the singer’s cold at a stroke. Lithe and livid, this is why it’s worth driving to a different town to see a covers band. There ain’t no other covers band like this one. Stephen, the pianist, whose playing always makes me think of ‘Time’ and ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ from Aladdin Sane, thumped the low notes with heat seeking precision, and God may be away, but this pair mean business.

Costume changes are always a feature of Onion Club shows. Their signature prop is a coat stand with a pair of angel’s wings hung on it (which no-one puts on), along with whatever else might be required. Last night there was a screen standing to the right of the stand, ostensibly for Pauline to change behind. ‘No peeking,’ she warned, disappearing behind it for about a second, which was quite enough down time from audience adulation, and she came out and half-changed into a black skirt with a leather belt (left unbuckled) in front of us instead, mid-song. I don’t know if there was a blouse to go with it, but she left it at the chemise, which made ‘God’s Away on Business’ seem fearless as well as fearsome. After the interval, and after the deep melancholy of Portishead’s ‘Roads’ and an interesting take on Kate Bush’s ‘The Red Shoes’ (possibly a slight mis-fire, because there’s not a lot to be done with that one-chord song), they did a great version of ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ from The Jungle Book, turned into a modern morality tale. Pauline almost fell over trying to sing into the mic and change into a suit at the same time. ‘I can learn to be a greedy bastard too’, went the amended lyric, as she fantasised about breaking through the glass ceiling from ‘75 grand PA’ to being the boss of her boss. Who must be a banker. For an instrumental / tap dancing break she put on a monkey mask, with a bowler hat on top of that.

In a way, The Onion Club are a very twenty first century proposition. Kenneth Goldsmith would probably approve of the emphasis on re-appropriation over creation. Would say that re-appropriation is the only form of creation left in this age of content overload. Praising Pauline’s singing and Stephen’s piano playing (which does need doing) is missing the point, because what you get at these shows is a powerful and entrancing aesthetic vision, stitched together from lust, joy and abandon as much as it is from the songs which give it shape, or the era which gives it much of its style. ‘My Funny Valentine’, augmented with trombone and muted trumpet, was so tender and beautiful; ‘Strange Fruit’, similarly paced, was its deathly flipside; ‘Mad About the Boy’ had the best posh twit accent and the amazing conversational gambit, tossed out in mock panic to an audience member: ‘Do you like fruit?!’; and at last Pauline put the accordion back on and played what appeared to be ‘Song to the Siren’ again, but this time it really was ‘The Ship Song’, and she meandered back through the audience, who all knew all the words, and sang them, way down low, in this lilac-lit stone room in the ornamental castle, down a potholed lane in Arbroath, where the car sat waiting patiently in the rain on a muddy verge. Wading the water. Sandman’s mud, sandman’s mud.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Throwing Muses and Tanya Donelly, Leeds Irish Centre, 18th September

The week before last, S. and I were on holiday in Cumbria. Not specifically to get away from referendum fever, but we weren’t tempted to reschedule when we realised that it was that week. To their credit, Throwing Muses went ahead with a gig in Glasgow in the midst of it all (if any art can transcend politics, it’s theirs, I suppose. Fuck Iraq, etc. On second thoughts, don’t fuck Iraq). We arranged postal votes, and wondered until the last minute how to use them. The choice: nationalism, or the Tories. The devil or the deep blue flag. I hate flags. And everyone hates the Tories, surely that goes without saying? The idea that nationalism could be about equality intrigued me; that it could be about breaking away from intolerance and the triumph of capital over ethics, art, and learning. Would it really have turned out that way? Probably not. Or, only if our new country could have afforded it. Still, it was sad to discover on Friday morning that Scotland didn’t even want to try. On Thursday, S. and I enjoyed some lovely English things: York’s Goji Café, and Leeds’ Roundhay Park, before going on to the gig. I wrote a review on Friday morning, published and then un-published it a few hours later, because it didn’t seem to chime with the day. But here it is again. And why not? The referendum was only one day; Throwing Muses are for life.


Of course I loved Belly too. They never did what the Muses did, but that wasn’t the point. They swooned and soared and let that huge voice of Tanya’s off the leash of backing vocals and occasional songs. It was her transformative contribution which made The Real Ramona such a great pop LP (witness the leap to electrifying 3-piece rock with her gone, on Red Heaven), and she brought the momentum of this to Belly’s two albums. Neither was perfect: Star is slightly garish, and King — which isn’t — doesn’t quite have the songs. But, often enough, they had this melting quality, between sex and dreams. Tanya’s soft, soft guitar, drugged up on reverb, acting (on Ramona) as a narcotic to the rolling smash of David’s cymbal-free drums, and the harsh harpsichord tone of Kristin’s guitar. In Belly, I suppose, there wasn’t enough harshness to provide that contrast, and in the solo stuff I heard, even the fun had begun to ebb. I gave up with the song ‘Goat Girl’, which is just as kooky and ill-considered as the title makes it sound. Commercial pressures, I guess. So the million-selling rabbit died away, and the cult tortoise continued being brilliant and frustrating (Purgatory / Paradise does my head in, but Crooked and Paradoxical Undressing are up there with Kristin’s best work).

After all these years, then, there stands Tanya, in this out-of-town, anti-glamour venue, with a Gibson SG, in a really great shirt. Black and white patterns, and sleeves in imitation leather, and I think a red band at the bottom. She explains that it was given to her by a local designer, and that it is cruelty-free. Her cellist looks familiar, and it clicks at some point that he is in The Magnetic Fields. There’s no drummer, but the sitting-down acoustic guitarist is somehow operating a tambourine, and there is an electric reverb guitarist to the left, who noodles too much but is otherwise fine. There are a few unfamiliar songs to begin with, which are reassuringly simple, direct, un-kooky. Tanya’s voice is so rich, I’d happily have listened to a whole set like this. ‘Sliding and Diving’ is the first song I recognise, and then she just goes flat out and spoils us. ‘Low Red Moon’ segues into ‘Dusted’ and back again, a reminder that she can do spine-chilling (if not quite the soul-freezing that is Kristin’s speciality), and then — oh my god — ‘Honeychain’. The bass part beautifully played on cello. And all that is solid melts into air. She gets two women from the audience up for ‘Not Too Soon’ as she doesn’t want to do the ‘cat calls’ alone (the ‘neeow-na-now-n-now / la la la la’ bit). It’s great. Tanya’s set alone was worth the journey.

Kristin, too, mentions the designer who has given them clothes. ‘People give me clothes all the time — I wonder what that says? But it’s usually people I know.’ Then Throwing Muses plunge into ‘Sunray Venus’, and half my doubts about Purgatory / Paradise evaporate on the spot. I close my eyes, and the sound becomes an environment; the actual world stops dead. Kristin’s guitar is, as on Ramona, harpsichord-like, harsh, brittle. But loud, breaking up, like you’d never imagine doing with that sound. I think of other Muses shows, and other guitar sounds: painful fuzz guitar assault, 1992 (for Red Heaven); clean and efficient, 1995 (for University); 2003 rubble (for Throwing Muses). She doesn’t vary the sound much within a show, which is very un-pop, but it helps take you to a zone, free of distractions. Likewise the way that it’s usually (apart from 1995) too loud for any purpose other than saturation, obliteration. The run of Purgatory / Paradise material (plus ‘Mississippi Kite’, thrillingly) locks on to its groove, and wipes the audience out. Buddhism is probably like this. I will try again with the record.

‘You Cage’ marks the return of Tanya, for guitar and backing vocals. She takes centre stage, Kristin on her right, Bernard on her left. ‘Red Shoes’ allows her some of that deliciously lazy guitar, and it’s glorious to hear. No noodling. Red becomes you. I become you. It’s basically a nostalgia show from this point, but for those of us who never saw the full Muses line-up, it’s like seeing Orange Juice or The Velvet Underground put back together. And not all nostalgia is equal. Tanya may not be Kristin, but the Muses were never the same after she left. The run of records from Throwing Muses (1986 version) to The Real Ramona are the peak of human endeavour, if you ask me, and worth any amount of revisiting and celebrating. ‘Say Goodbye’ goes deeper still into the rock / pop collision, and edges closer to that Buddhist groove. Kristin stands back from the stage lights for ‘Green’, which I can barely believe I’m hearing. The stupidly high notes defeat Tanya, but for the rest she’s in strong voice, and even if the moment matters most for what it represents, it sounds brilliant too. David’s drums — always the heart of a Muses show — crisp and marching. They get to bounce and slither to a great encore of ‘Shark’, and to rage at full tilt for ‘Pearl’. Pockets of the crowd are going nuts, pleasingly. And then it’s over, and who knows when it will happen again?

Some more fine photos of the gig, by Simon Godley.
Tanya Donelly’s Swan Song Series.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Gavin Extence — ‘The Universe versus Alex Woods’

In short, it turned out that I was a major beneficiary of the will — one of only two beneficiaries — and this gave me a ‘plausible motive’ for wanting Mr Peterson dead [...]. I tried to point out to the police that this motive was only plausible if I’d known about the will beforehand — otherwise it was not only implausible, but also violated causality in quite a major way — but I got the impression that they saw this as a weak defence. Luckily, my lawyer told me I didn’t have to prove that I didn’t know about the will; the police had to prove that I did.
          ‘How could they possibly prove that?’ I asked.
          My lawyer shrugged. ‘If you confess.’
          ‘I could confess to anything,’ I pointed out. ‘I could confess that my father’s the Pope. It wouldn’t make it true.’ (p. 403)
This is a sweet book which takes some hefty themes — epilepsy, euthanasia — and weaves them into a story of friendship against the odds. It starts with seventeen-year-old Alex arriving off the ferry at Dover, and being stopped by a passport official. He sits at the wheel of a car in a catatonic state, an urn containing Mr Peterson’s ashes on the passenger seat, and a big bag of weed in the glove compartment. The police, not unnaturally, detain him. The rest of the book is an explanation of how he got there. It’s not a literary novel: there’s no mucking around with chronology, sources or points of view, there is no ambiguity about what is supposed to have happened, and in times of stress characters tend to say ‘right now’ a bit too often, giving it — just occasionally — the register of an angst-y soap opera. It can be acute too, though. Alex is right, in the quotation above: confession doesn’t make something true. It’s not exactly unliterary either: he hosts a book group at Mr Peterson’s house called ‘The Secular Church of Kurt Vonnegut’ (at which only books by Vonnegut are discussed), and he’s a voracious reader, especially when his epilepsy confines him to the house for a year:
Reading […] never made me feel like an invalid. And I found that the quiet concentration required actually helped to reduce the number of daily seizures. It put me in a state of mind that was good for me. (p. 72)
Alex’s epilepsy began when he was ten, after a meteorite crashed through the ceiling of his bathroom at home and hit his head, leaving him in a coma for several weeks. He recounts proudly how he is only the second person in history to have been hit directly by a meteorite. The other one — Ann Hodges, in Alabama in 1954 (pictured) — also survived. It may or may not have affected his personality, but he comes across as borderline autistic. He feels things very deeply (feeling them too deeply can trigger seizures), but he is unusually interested in the mechanics of things. The meteorite hit triggers a fascination with astrophysics, and the epilepsy gets him into neurology, both of which he reads up on and discusses in depth with adult experts (his doctor, and the scientist who analysed the meteorite). At school, he’s unpopular, because he enjoys studying. At lunch break he walks the perimeter of the school playing fields, alone, twice. Not that it does him much good, but he is perceptive about the evils of target culture. This drips with irony:
Education didn’t have to be its own reward. Education brought rewards later in life. If we worked hard, passed our exams and never gave up, one day we too could be as rich as Robert Asquith. (p. 87)
Robert Asquith is the entrepreneur whose money founded the Robert Asquith Academy, the school with the best exam results in the area. Of course, it’s a horrible place, in which the only lesson learned is how to be two faced, and at which bullying is rife. Alex has a moment of clarity after a fight with one of his tormentors, Decker, and informs the teacher investigating the situation (who is perfectly indignant, supercilious, despotic) that he hit him because he is a cunt. The incident is quickly absorbed into school lore, and here Ellie, an emo / goth who is the second of Alex’s unlikely friends, asks him about it:
‘Okay then, Mr Polite [...]. So why did you say it?’
          I thought about this for a while, trying to figure out how best to phrase it, and eventually, this is what I came up with: ‘Because naming something takes away its power.’ (p. 170)
It is an earlier event involving Decker and two other cunts (Studwin and Asbo) which introduces him to Mr Peterson. They see him walking back from the shops with an astronomy magazine, taunt him for a while, then give chase. He breaks through a hedge in desperation and hides in a garden shed, securing the door with a large bag of compost. Because they can’t get at him, Decker, Studwin and Asbo smash the glass in the greenhouse next to the shed, then leave him to take the blame. Mr Peterson, widower, Kurt Vonnegut fan and Vietnam vet turned pacifist, is the owner of the shed and the greenhouse. Alex’s mother negotiates a settlement whereby he has to do odd jobs for Mr Peterson until the broken glass is paid for, but after a bit of typing (letters on behalf of Amnesty International), they forget about the punishment and Alex starts going through Mr Peterson’s Kurt Vonnegut collection. This leads to the book club, which lasts fifteen months and overlaps with Mr Peterson’s diagnosis with PSP, a degenerative disease similar to Parkinson’s. The last act of the drama is a suicide attempt followed by Alex’s promise to his friend that he will take him to a clinic in Switzerland to die, in order that he can enjoy whatever time he has left without worrying about what happens when his mobility has gone completely.

It’s a touching and immensely likeable story, that makes a good contrast to Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa, with all its darkness and trickery. Both are books about friendship and loss, but The Universe versus Alex Woods is as guileless as its protagonist, as open as the autobahn on which Alex drives Mr Peterson to visit CERN on his one last day before dying.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Benjamin Constable — ‘Three Lives of Tomomi Ishikawa’

My dad lent me this book, which is by the son of my godfather. A glance at the introduction suggested it might be my kind of thing:
          ‘It’s the story of two people who hang around and talk and stuff.’
          ‘Uh-huh, yes, good,’ said Tomomi Ishikawa. ‘And what’s the angle?’
          ‘There is no angle. There’s no romance, no adventure, no —’
          ‘Wait, wait, wait, you must be mistaken. That would be boring. A book like this should have at least a betrayal, a stolen painting and a talking dog, or a monkey.’ (pp. 1-2)
Talking to Tomomi Ishikawa, AKA Butterfly, is Ben Constable, a protagonist named after the author, and based on him to some extent (at least according to his website: lives in Paris, teaches English, likes early evening drinks). Great, I thought. A book with no silly distractions. Straight (and hopefully funny) talking. No melodrama. So I was disappointed to find the introduction followed immediately by Butterfly’s suicide note, and a plot which revolves around a treasure hunt. You have to be kidding, I thought. Puzzles? Butterfly has left behind a series of notebooks concealed in public places, and clues on her laptop (she leaves this to Ben) which allow him to find them. Worse still, the notebooks all contain accounts of murders committed by Butterfly. It’s hard to imagine a more thorough betrayal of Ben’s conception of the book he wants to write (so: it must be deliberate). The two people don’t hang around, because one of them is dead, and the smart carefree talk is limited to scenes that Ben remembers and writes down in the midst of his grieving.

It is never clear whether or not the murders are actually supposed to have happened, whether they are fiction by Butterfly, or (a late suggestion, not sure if it’s exactly a spoiler) fiction by Ben, written as a way of dealing with her death. These, I think, are the ‘Three Lives’ of Tomomi Ishikawa. The same events, viewed from three different fictional perspectives. The stories in the notebooks accumulate into a narrative, a back story that darkens and enriches the character of whomever you consider responsible (mostly of Butterfly’s, then). The puzzles fade quickly, which is a relief: most are simply instructions about where Ben can pick up the next notebook from. In the first story, Butterfly meets a stranger wandering aimlessly in her home city, New York, on September 11th 2001. She follows him, he follows her, and they end up in his apartment. He tells her that his ex-wife was in the World Trade Center when the plane hit. He was on his way to meet her. He and Butterfly have ‘vacuous’ (p. 61) sex, and then she smothers him with a pillow. He is complicit, to the extent that he doesn’t resist. The style of the account is intense, teenage creative writing (‘by the evening of the day of this story I had been dead a long time. My body was just an empty shell’ (p. 55)). You don’t really believe the language, but the events express the numbness that must have pervaded New York that day.

So far, so psycho (except that there is compassion in the deed), but the remaining deaths are closer to home. Central to them is that of Butterfly’s nanny, Komori. As her father explains to her shortly before his own spectacular demise, Komori was Chinese, and a servant of the Japanese Sasaki family in Japanese-occupied Manchuria during the Second World War. When the Russians invaded in 1945, there was an evacuation of Japanese women and children, and the Sasakis smuggled Komori back to Japan, pretending she was one of them. Butterfly’s father, Takeo, and Komori were childhood sweethearts, but unable to marry because of the social gulf between Chinese and Japanese. He followed her to America nonetheless, and… married someone else, someone Japanese. Meanwhile, Komori was diagnosed with cancer. So then — this is the really weird bit, the solid gold piece of plotting that Trollope or Hardy would have been proud of — he gave his daughter to Komori, so that she would not be childless, though the cancer treatment meant she couldn’t have children, and so that she would have someone who could kill her when she got too weak from the disease. Takeo is only ever a shadowy presence in the novel, but it is this act of his which allows the rest of the story to happen. He explains to Butterfly:
You were brought up to do something that I didn’t know how to. You were brought up to live with loss that none of the rest of us could accept. You would be harder, stronger than us. You would be able to survive where we could not. (p. 244)
He cares too much to bring his daughter up, or to look after the woman he loves in her terminal illess. Unsurprisingly, his displaced, ultra-targeted compassion doesn’t make it to the next generation. Butterfly:
I think we’re just animals, trying to save our asses or our species. We are big piles of self-obsessed meat with lust for physical pleasure and chemical impulses driving us to procreate. Hormones provoking emotions that incline us to protect our young. Jealous need of possession. That’s what I think love is. (p. 247)
Although, in retrospect, you can sense Takeo’s moral code in Butterfly’s smothering of the stranger.

In contrast to all this darkness is the decidedly un-suicidal narrator Ben Constable, who isn’t afraid to follow Butterfly’s lead, but is at heart a socialite. He is endearingly muddle-minded and credulous, ignoring any number of clues, flagged up by the sharper Beatrice (his accomplice when he follows the trail from Paris to New York), that… well, that would be a spoiler. He suffers from prosopagnosia, the inability to recognise familiar faces, which is ideal for a narrator who is thoughtful and sensitive, but doesn’t see the whole picture. His whimsical reflections, and his refusal ever to ask ‘why?’, are a kind of insulation, but also a kind of buoyancy.
I love to look at the collected objects around me, each with a story that will die on my parting, and the stopped clock on my wall saves me precious seconds. Its hands point to twenty past three, optimistically suggesting time for one last thing. (p. 11)

P.S. Between writing the above and posting, S. zipped through the book at her customary speed, and was slightly unsure about it. She didn’t like the ambiguity as much as I did. Did this stuff happen, or didn’t it? Whose account are we reading? I argued that the murderous events are a reaction to emotional trauma: either that of Butterfly’s childhood (if they are supposed to have occurred), or of her suicide (if Ben has made them up). Leaving this open is a way of projecting the hollowness and the slipperiness of trauma on to the reader. It means you’re never sure of the ground beneath your feet, very much as if something or someone you rely on has been suddenly taken away. What appear to be techniques of distancing and displacement actually draw you in, and show you what it’s like to be lost.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Paul Scott — ‘The Jewel in the Crown’

And all the time wanting Hari. Seeing him in my imagination looking over the shoulder of every pink male face and seeing the strain of pretending that the world was this small. Hateful. Ingrown. About to explode like powder compressed ready for firing.
          I thought that the whole bloody affair of us in India had reached flash point. It was bound to because it was based on a violation. (p. 459)
August 1942. The eastern edge of the British empire is under threat from Japan, and the Indian National Congress passes the ‘Quit India’ Act, demanding that the British leave. Gandhi has called for ‘satyagraha’, or non-violent resistance. The British arrest the INC leadership, and riots ensue, so the leaders of these riots are arrested as well, and kept under lock and key until the end of the war. The Jewel in the Crown, as it sets out from the beginning, is the story of a rape, charged with symbolism, committed in the evening on the day of these arrests, in the (fictional) Bibighar Gardens at Mayapore. Hari Kumar, a rich kid fallen on hard times, falls in love with Daphne Manners, a young woman with ties to the British administration, doing volunteer work in a hospital. The first and only time they consummate their relationship is on 9th August, in a kind of open pavilion at Bibighar. Some thugs who have come to Mayapore to riot watch them, then attack, tying up Hari and forcing him to watch as they rape Daphne.
They assaulted me because they had watched an Indian making love to me. The taboo was broken for them. (p. 470)
It is striking how similar this set-up is to the premise of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, set in the 1920s, in which English Miss Quested is thought to have been sexually assaulted by Indian Dr Aziz in the Marabar Caves; Forster using the fallout to examine Anglo-Indian relations. The point that Daphne makes explicit, that the British presence in India is ‘based on a violation’, seems to have been irresistable for the two novelists. Scott’s story is twenty years on, and the slow progress towards independence has increased the tension between the two nations even further (to ‘flash point’) — which is perhaps why a suspected assault in the earlier novel is replaced by gang rape in the later one. The point at which the tension was finally released, 15th August 1947, and the resultant creation of babies with superpowers, for those lucky enough to have been born on the stroke of midnight, is covered in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Googling around this subject recently, I found Rushdie’s opinion of Scott’s India, with its harsh portraits of the British:
It will not do to argue that Scott was attempting only to portray the British in India, and that such was the nature of imperialist society that the Indians would only have had bit parts. It is no defence to say that a work adopts, in its structure, the very ethic which, in its content and tone, it pretends to dislike. It is, in fact, the case for the prosecution.
It is useless, I’m sure, to suggest that if a rape must be used as the metaphor of the Indo-British connection, then surely, in the interests of accuracy, it should be the rape of an Indian woman by one or more Englishmen of whatever class… not even Forster dared to write about such a crime. So much more evocative to conjure up white society’s fear of the darkie, of big brown cocks. (from his ‘Outside the Whale’ essay).
He’s right, of course. At least, he’s right that the west should not view the east only through the eyes of western correspondents. The east is more than capable of accounting for itself. Adelaide ebooks linked to an interesting blog recently which lists 100 books, split proportionally by countries’ populations: it’s dominated by India (17) and China (19); the US gets 4, and the UK 1 (Pride and Prejudice). That’s a list to explore the world. Expatriate literature can be a part of this, and can have interesting things to say about the clash of cultures, and dominion, but it has a tightrope to walk, and one end of the balancing pole is likely to be much heavier than the other. I don’t think you can dismiss it for that reason, though. Britian is a part of what India is, and India is a part of what Britain is, and that’s because of the Raj. I talk to people in India every day at work, and that situation is at least partially due to our shared language. It’s the reason, too, that Midnight’s Children was written in English.

The Jewel in the Crown is good on the blending of the English character with the Indian. Although the action of the story takes place in the 1940s, the documents and interviews through which it is told are gathered by a shadowy historian (a bit like in Citizen Kane) in the 1960s. Here the lawyer Srinivasen compares the two decades; compares the last years of the Raj, with their exaggerated class and race divisions, to independent India, in which there is still an English presence, but one of technical experts who are useful, and not upper class:
He [the new class of technical worker] laughs at what the Gymkhana used to represent — that old-fashioned upper-class English stuffiness and pretence — which is why I suppose he comes dressed in shorts and short-sleeved shirts and uses vulgar expressions. He knows almost nothing about British-Indian history, so writes off everything that seems to be connected with it as an example of the old type British snobbery. Which means also that in a way he writes us off too. (p. 213)
‘Us’ being the generation of Indians who have absorbed the 1940s English values. The most thoroughly Anglicised Indian of the lot is Hari Kumar (or Harry Coomer), who received an expensive education at an English public school before his father, after some bad business decisions, killed himself. Hari was left with nothing, and nowhere to go except to his aunt in India, a country with which he is utterly unfamiliar. In effect, he is a white upper class Englishman transplanted into an Indian’s body. I felt for him when, penniless, he went looking for a job, leaning on old school connections for all he was worth (but pretending not to), and came up against an early example of the lower middle class technical worker, who felt challenged and provoked him into a put-down, which ruined his chances. As long as Hari remains English, Scott can tug effectively at the (English) reader’s sympathy for his isolation; but as he becomes more Indian, he slips out of focus, and I think this is a mistake. Daphne says:
I was worried, worried for him, because he was a man who would find it awfully difficult to hide, and I believed that was what he wanted to do. To hide. To disappear into a sea of brown faces. (p. 457)
His tragedy is that he is wrongfully imprisoned, and treated barbarously by the policeman Ronald Merrick (also his rival for Daphne’s affections). Lumped together with the rioters, it doesn’t matter in the end that the rape can’t be pinned on him, which is what Merrick wants. This fading away coincides unfortunately with his growing identification with India, and the impression is left that an Indian character has to be Anglicised to hold Scott’s interest. But the reverse is almost true too: all the English characters are implicated in the Raj by their presence, and are defined by their attitude towards Indians. It is the clash which animates the book.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Thoughts on ‘God Help the Girl’

Typically, Chris S. is able to dispatch the whole God Help the Girl project with a look of righteous indignation and the proclamation that Stuart Murdoch has got the horn — which is much the funniest way of looking at it, but there is a bit more to say, I think. It’s affecting, is the first thing, which is a relief. It works, as a rite of passage movie, about a young Australian woman, Eve, who naïvely follows where her true love leads, to Glasgow, and ends up a heartbroken anorexic. The film is the story of her recovery, through — friends and music? Through a band, certainly. She plays songs on her own on the hospital’s piano, then she magically improvises ‘The Psychiatrist is In’ in her flatmate James’ room, while he strums a guitar, dumbfounded. They add Cassie to their number because James already plays music with her. She marches on a machine in an exercise park (instant comedy) as the other two discuss how to make a great pop record. Eve is still fragile, and doesn’t want to involve any other people. James is clear: if you’re making a pop record, you need drums and bass. He is the motivator early on, taking Eve and Cassie out on canal expeditions in a canoe, and providing the learned pop narrative in which, in his vision, the band (I don’t think they’re actually called God Help the Girl in the film) need to exist. It takes Eve a while to notice the flaw with this vision, which is that it doesn’t include an audience, particularly. James wants to make the perfect record on his own terms; Eve comes to realise that the thing she wants is to sing to people, and connect with them.

These musical differences are paralleled romantically, when Eve, instead of taking up with the nice chap who has rescued her from despair, opts for a brooding, masterful Frenchman, who treats her bad and gives her the horn. James concentrates on making himself and his behaviour perfect in his own eyes, and unimpeachable in Eve’s; but unimpeachable is not sexy. Unimpeachable doesn’t grab the moment. So the film embodies the whole indier-than-thou / Pop! debate: it’s about ambition and integrity, and it seems to side with the notion that integrity without ambition is not worth the bedsit it’s concocted in. Just like Belle and Sebastian embraced their fame and became a proper pop band. But they didn’t leave Glasgow to do it, so it feels a little odd to see Eve get on a train to London at the end, to go to music college.

So maybe that’s not it: maybe James is the moral victor, setting off with Cassie and her tandem, back out of Central Station, knowing that, at nearly twenty five, his (quite local) wandering days are not over yet.


Further thoughts after a second viewing

  • The hunk (still can’t remember his name) is German Swiss, not French, don’t know where I got that from.
  • Throughout, Cassie wears a pendant saying ‘Deputy’, which is a cool thing to do.
  • Eve’s tape, which she hands in, via the hunk, to a local radio station, does actually say ‘God Help the Girl’ on it.
  • The local DJs, whom you never see, are played by Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie. This works very well, but it’s odd that the local Glasgow DJs aren’t Glaswegian.
  • It’s odd too that none of the leads are even Scottish. The most memorable locals in the film, arguably, are the neds who proposition Cassie from the bank as the three band members paddle past in a canoe.
  • As James and Cassie ride off on a tandem, and the credits roll, Belle and Sebastian’s ‘Dress Up In You’ plays, which supports the idea of James as the moral victor, with Eve selling out, or at least moving on to somewhere less special.
  • James makes much of the fact that he lived in Scotland for six months after he was born, before he moved to England. Everyone knows that you have to stay for two years for it to mean anything.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Morrissey — ‘Autobiography’

When there is no matching of lives, and we live on a strict diet of the self, the most intimate bond can be with the words we write:
Oh often have I washed and dressed
     And what’s to show for all my pain?
Let me lie abed and rest:
Ten thousand times I’ve done my best
     And all’s to do again.
I ask myself if there is an irresponsible aspect in relaying thoughts of pain as inspiration, and I wonder whether [A. E.] Housman actually infected the sensitives further, and pulled them back into additional darkness. (p.96)
Whenever I have gone off Morrissey, this has been the reason. I never wondered the same thing about Joy Division or Throwing Muses, whose music is darker than The Smiths’, and which I discovered, as a tortured (not literally) teenager at about the same time. There is a peculiar complacency to Morrissey’s outlook which is much more rare than the ability to turn a depressive teenage anthem. ‘You should not go to them / Let them come to you’ is part of it: the attempt at self-sufficiency by a man so obviously in need of company. That line is good advice, though: the best way for the socially awkward to reach out is not to plunge into society and alienate everyone by being socially awkward. Far better to record a string of urgent, wounded pop LPs, sit back and hold court at interview, now that everyone wants your opinion. It’s also dangerous advice, because you could sit forever in your room waiting for the knock from Johnny Marr that never comes.

Autobiography gives real insight into the state Morrissey had got himself into before that knock. This is brave:
I am cross-examined at Stretford Sorting Office as there are postman vacancies, and this is the most I consider possible. Yet it isn’t, because I am turned down — deemed physically and psychologically incapable of delivering letters. There is now no escape but death. (p. 121)
How many people would put that in their autobiography? Without passing it off as a joke, because he is perfectly serious. A specific account of this sort is not something which could be easily fitted into a song, though there are several lines which surely link back to the experience (‘I was looking for a job…’; ‘I tried living in the real world instead of a shell / But before I began / I was bored before I even began’). It’s sad to read about such isolation, but… I used to hate job interviews. Now I just avoid them completely, knowing that there is no point. As per usual, it is at once a comfort and a dangerous invitation to apathy to get self-validation on the subject from Morrissey. But look what he can do, simultaneously:
The Ramones are models of ill health, playing backwards, human remains washed ashore, so much condensed into a single presentation, and it is outstanding. Change! Change! Change! It doesn’t happen by being the same as everybody else. (p. 112)
The pre-Smiths section is more vital than the Smiths section (just as Strangeways, Here We Come is no Meat is Murder), which mostly consists of side swipes at Geoff Travis and the hippies at Rough Trade. The break-up has no explanation. Johnny sees him a few years later and realises that Morrissey doesn’t know why it happened, but fails to elaborate. The widely reported section on the Mike Joyce trial wasn’t quite as stodgy as I’d feared, and presents a convincing page-by-page rebuttal of judge John Weeks’ conclusions. He says that Joyce was after 25% of The Smiths’ total income, rather than the 10% of the profits that he signed up to. He never says what the 10% or the 25% would be in pounds, though: I felt that a real Penguin Classic would have offered footnotes here, putting the argument in context.

Fortunately, Autobiography manages a second tour-de-force section as it draws to a close, and as Morrissey tours the world to adoring audiences. He reflects on the phenomenon of himself, much as he did previously on the nonentity of himself:
The streets flood with Morrissey. I do not know what to do with all this happiness. Viva Hate emblems; art-hound T’s, tank tops and bags graffitied in Morrissey-code. Most of all, every arm, every neck, every hand mobbered with a Morrissey tatoo. Fresno! Fresno! Fresno! Here is the light! And never go out. (p. 413)
This is not simply self-congratulation, it is fandom of fandom, it is communication on the grandest scale to and from someone incapable of it on the smallest. It is fascinating to see him feed on the love and the roar and the surge of the crowd, which is undeniably something, even if ultimately it becomes part of his solipsism. His saving grace is that he does not take them for granted, and he is up for the fight — as once he was not — to stave off irrelevance:
I will border on silliness — anything at all to avoid self-indulgence replacing the old hunger, for that is the route they all go, and can’t help but go. (p. 408)

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Herman Melville — ‘Moby Dick; or, The Whale’

In 1995, I left a Wordsworth Classics edition of Moby Dick in the drawer of the bedside table when I moved out of Belmont Halls of Residence. That, and a thick hardback religious book I had had pressed upon me by an evangelist of some sort, still shrink-wrapped (no idea which book or religion). Between then and now, my room got stove by the commercialisation of university accommodation, replaced by Belmont Flats, a peculiarly angular construction, too jaunty for the acute angles to have any edge. But perhaps they are no worse than the drab ’60s concrete I remember. I left Moby Dick behind in frustration at not having finished it (and the religious book in embarrassment at having accepted it). I’ve seldom felt tempted to go back to it, because, for one thing, it’s 600 pages about the most reviled form of hunting there has ever been, and for another, good novels have to feature men and women, don’t they? There was no way it wasn’t going to be full of blood, guts and machismo. But The Confidence Man turned out to be great, and so did ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’; then Leviathan was one huge advert for reading it, so now seemed the right time to have another go. And do you know what? It is particular, inquisitive, inventive beyond belief. It even (occasionally) has animal rights tendencies:
Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take up a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw? Cannibals? Who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that Fejee, I say, in the day of judgement, than for thee, civilised and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in their paté-de-fois-gras. (p. 327)
On the other hand it delights in gore, as in the chapter ‘The Shark Massacre’, when sharks are attracted by a whale carcass moored to the Pequod, and are kept at bay by Queequeg and Stubb, who hack at them with ‘whale-spades’:
They viciously snapped, not only at each other’s disembowelments, but like flexible bows, bent round, and bit their own; till those entrails seemed swallowed over and over again by the same mouth, to be oppositely voided by the gaping wound. (p. 329)
Isn’t that a great image? So pregnant with allegory, it could stand for hunting or consumerism; and it could certainly stand for Captain Ahab’s insane passion for catching Moby Dick, which eats away at him, but feeds him at the same time (what would he be without it? It is his only characteristic). Melville has a knack of creating irresistible images like this, the bigger and more grotesque the better. He has the crew of the Pequod catch a second whale before the first has been processed, and the heads of the two creatures are hung on either side of the ship:
The carcases of both whales had dropped astern; and the head-laden ship not a little resembled a mule carrying a pair of over-burdening panniers. (p. 358)
One is a sperm whale, the other is a right whale. He takes the opportunity to compare the anatomy of the two creatures:
standing in the Right Whale’s mouth, look around you afresh. Seeing all these colonnades of bone so methodically ranged about, would you not think you were inside the great Haarlem organ, and gazing upon its thousand pipes? (p. 366)
On to the sperm whale:
you observe that the mouth is entirely under the head, much in the same way, indeed, as though your own mouth were entirely under your chin. Moreover you observe that the whale has no external nose; and that what nose he has — his spout hole — is on the top of his head, nearly one third of his entire length from the front. (p. 368)
Just as Leviathan spends a good chunk of its length being a book not about whales but about Melville and Moby Dick, so Moby Dick itself spends the absolute bare minimum of its time being anything one might recognise as a novel. Ahab aside, its characters (and arguably the story) are relatively unimportant, compared to the great task of explaining all about whales and whaling. I’ve never read a novel with so much technical information, but it is riveting technical information. In chapter 72, ‘The Monkey-rope’, the process of flensing a whale (removing its skin and blubber) is described. A large hook is suspended from high up in the ship’s rigging, and attached to the blubber near the tail of the whale carcass floating alongside. Cuts are made, with the whale-spades, in a spiral around the whale’s body, to allow the skin and blubber to be peeled away like an orange skin. But here’s the crazy part: supervising the process is a man (here Queequeg) standing on the mostly-submerged whale carcass as it spins, surrounded by sharks trying to get at the flesh, and attached by this monkey-rope to a man on deck (Ishmael) whose job it is to jerk him back in to position whenever he slips or falls. Melville admits in a footnote to embroidering the truth: ‘The monkey-rope is found in all whalers; but it is only in the Pequod that the monkey and its holder were ever tied together’ (p. 350). This allows him an analogy with the dependence inherent in the human condition: ‘If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die’ (p. 349). There is an undercurrent of attraction, too, between Ishmael and Queequeg: the latter dresses for the flensing ‘in the Highland costume — a skirt and socks — in which to my eyes at least, he appeared to uncommon advantage’ (p. 348). Love, too, is a monkey-rope.

I have covered fewer than twenty five pages of Moby Dick above. It is so dense with amazing thoughts, images, analogies, and raw information; it is like no other novel, and it gains stature from its imposing subject, rather than losing it from its circumscribed cast of characters. When I’d just started reading it, my mum asked, ‘Who is your sympathy with, the whalers or the whale?’, and I’ve thought about that a lot without coming to a conclusion. Ahab is not a sympathetic character, but neither is Moby Dick, who is equally gnarled and grotesque. I think he is a warning, though: his rage is justified, whereas Ahab’s is not. Sadly, his rebellion against the fishery (apparently based on fact) could not hope even to slow down its exploitation.

Monday, May 26, 2014

‘Dexys: Nowhere is Home’, Monorail Film Club screening at the GFT, 25th May

At the Q & A after the film, people didn’t want to ask questions so much as to tell Kevin Rowland how much his music means to them. They wanted to tell him what it’s like, living with this impassioned, insanely well crafted quicksilver, that can ground you even as it soars, pull you together as it explodes. One woman said she felt that One Day I’m Going to Soar surpassed even Don’t Stand Me Down, and asked him which record gave him more personal satisfaction. ‘One Day I’m Going to Soar,’ he said. ‘Massively.’ Against the myth, he thought that the earlier record hadn’t had a bad reception, there had been some supporters, but everything had come right this time around. From finding singer Madeleine Hyland through a friend at a market, to the way songs written over a period of years clicked together into a single narrative, even that the run of shows at the Duke of York’s Theatre fortuitously extended to allow Kieran Evans and Paul Kelly time to put this film together. If I had had a question, it would have been, ‘You know some of us put My Beauty up there with your other four masterpieces?’, because it’s well overdue the kind of resuscitation afforded Don’t Stand Me Down over its several reissues. And he would have said ‘What’s the question?’ as he did when one chap asked about Searching for the Young Soul Rebels being so, so great. ‘No part twos, ever’, he said, when he asked why they hadn’t made another LP like it.

I was lucky enough to see one of the One Day I’m Going to Soar concerts, at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh (there’s a slightly perfunctory review of it, and the following day’s soup, here), and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life, of course it was. The oddest aspect was the burlesque act which opened proceedings, but this, if it was the same in London, didn’t make it to the film (and neither did ‘Come on Eileen’). Instead, it begins with: ‘You know what? I was a no-hoper. Prison was a possibility’, those striking words from the trailer; but in the film they’re not a voice over, Kevin’s head fills the screen, and you think you’re in for some big confession. Then the quiet opening bars of the album play over twilight shots of the theatre and its immediate surroundings, of people coming and going. Then another segment of interview, in which Kevin and Jim Paterson, seated in the stalls of the empty theatre, signally fail to follow up on the prison comment. Then into the second half of opening song ‘Now’: ‘Attack, attack!’, suddenly you’re there in the front row, or onstage with them, as the show kicks into life.

And what a show it is. Where there had been a screen on stage in Edinburgh with a projection of Madeleine Hyland for ‘She Got a Wiggle’, in the film she’s lounging on a divan with a cigarette holder, behind and above Kevin and the rest of the band. Not wiggling, for sure, but the song has a tightrope to tread: to convey how sexy this woman is, while displaying her, wearing a big leather frock and suspenders, somehow without objectifying her. The way the drums lock in to that slow foreboding groove give the imagined wiggle menace, though, and titillation seems a million miles away. The character Hyland plays is about as developed as a Dickens heroine, there is nothing to her beyond her looks and her clothes. I’m not criticising her performance, which is great, but she acts solely as Kevin’s muse, the out of focus flame to his well delineated moth, an ideal with no rough edges, no characteristics beyond a smouldering sexuality, hurt, and a combustible temper when the occasion calls for it. Which it does half way through ‘I’m Always Going to Love You’, the tipping point of the album and the show. Kevin coaxes Madeleine with unconditional devotion, and she joins in, singing ‘I’m always going to love you’ back to him. This registers, and he sings: ‘We’re always going to, we’re always going to love...’. But there is nowhere for the syntax to go, other than ‘each other’, which would be an inconceivably ugly end to the line, so he sings instead, ‘I think I’m going round the bend / Now we must end’. And everything falls apart.

Back at the Q & A, asked about compromise by Duglas T. Stewart, Kevin showed himself to be a little more flexible than might have been expected. He talked about the 2003 shows he did with Dexys, when he was broke and about to get married. He did them because he needed the cash. But he got too interested in them, he got more into Dexys than he was into the idea of getting married; and anyway, he said, they spent so much on rehearsing and staging them that they didn’t make any money. In the film, he talked about how he didn’t want to be too chummy with his audience: if you’re a fan he’s not your mate, he’s not on Facebook chatting and stirring up a buzz. He wants to make the records, perform the shows, and that’s his audience interaction, the fact that he’s paid us the compliment of making something that’s good. So good. Again and again, five times now (is it six? I must track down The Wanderer). It’s scary that this is so far from the norm as to sound like a revolutionary idea, but I think he has hit on an important truth. Work can so easily be diluted by marketing, and marketing is no longer the preserve of corporations, any more than releasing records is: everyone’s at it.

The film continues beyond the One Day I’m Going to Soar material into the encores, including the beautiful, slow version of ‘Tell Me When My Light Turns Green’, and climaxes with a full-length ‘This is What She’s Like’, which automatically makes it a brilliant film. The interspersed interview doesn’t slow the show’s momentum, though Kevin is quite guarded (he was a bit less so at the Q & A). There are some deft directorial touches, like the screen test style shots of fans outside the venue towards the end, standing still, looking into the camera; or the startling shot of Hyland looking into the mirror after performing, close to tears. For the most part, though, this is a concert film, documenting a spectacular stage show, and coming closer than should really be possible to matching the live event for thrills.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Richard P. Feynman — ‘The Character of Physical Law’

‘A’ hates his mother. The reason is, of course, because she did not caress him or love him enough when he was a child. But if you investigate you find out that as a matter of fact she did love him very much, and everything was alright. Well then, it was because she was over-indulgent when he was a child! By having a vague theory it is possible to get either result. The cure for this one is the following. If it were possible to state exactly, ahead of time, how much love is not enough, and how much love is over-indulgent, then there would be a perfectly legitimate theory against which you could make tests. It is usually said when this is pointed out, ‘When you are dealing with psychological matters things can’t be defined so precisely’. Yes, but then you cannot claim to know anything about it.
The person who recommended this book did so at least partly, I suspect, because of this attitude. He has amusingly little tolerance for psychology, and less for history: they’re bullshit, because they’re made up, or not sufficiently provable, just as the cause of ‘A’’s hatred isn’t in Feynman’s scenario above (though he is attacking vagueness, not psychology as a whole). Usually I would have just as little tolerance for someone who writes things like ‘the reason is, of course, because’*, but this is a fascinating book of lectures, and the speed at which it powers along in this occasionally ungrammatical vein is really helpful if you’ve never read a science book before and all of a sudden here is quantum physics. It’s something of a high wire act, breaking down extremely complicated ideas into explanations and analogies which make sense to the non-specialist reader. There are very few equations, and there is plenty of repetition of key concepts that you might have forgotten from earlier on: if he is developing a concept, he doesn’t assume you remember what it was, which is a help if you hadn’t quite grasped the previous explanation. For example:
This is called the principle of relativity, that uniform motion in a straight line is relative, and that we can look at any phenomenon from either point of view and cannot say which one is standing still and which one is moving.
If we are unable, by any experiment, to see a difference in the physical laws whether we are moving or not, then if the conservation of charge were not local only a certain kind of man would see it work right, namely the guy who is standing still, in an absolute sense. But such a thing is impossible according to Einstein’s relativity principle, and therefore it is impossible to have non-local conservation of charge.
It’s a little unfair to quote these things out of context, precisely because they do work by accumulation. Feynman elucidates gravity, angular momentum, relativity, the laws of conservation and symmetry, winding up with the movement of electrons as both particles and waves, and a discussion of how physics might develop in the future (he’s talking in 1965, so there’s no Higgs Boson, but CERN exists, and he does talk about discoveries happening through high energy collisions). There are some dazzling asides, like his explanation of how carbon can form in a star, when the only other elements present are hydrogen and helium, and how this happy accident is likely to be the cause of life as we know it. He also explains how it is that there are two tides for every one rotation of the earth, and how it might be possible to communicate with aliens in terms of physics: he can discuss dimensions, because he relates them to hydrogen atoms, but because of anti-matter he doesn’t have a way of distinguishing left from right. It also turns out that he doesn’t hate psychology or history after all:
all the sciences, and not just the sciences but all the efforts of intellectual kinds, are an endeavour to see the connections of the hierarchies, to connect beauty to history, to connect history to man’s psychology, man’s psychology to the working of the brain, the brain to the neural impulse, the neural impulse to the chemistry, and so forth, up and down, both ways. And today we cannot, and it is no use making believe that we can, draw carefully a line all the way from one end of this thing to the other, because we have only just begun to see that there is this relative hierarchy.

* Actually it seems that the lectures were never written, only transcribed, which makes this more forgivable.

Open Culture has the whole lecture series online.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The Space Lady, Dundee Contemporary Arts, 5th April

There was a singalong during Saturday night’s performance by The Space Lady, which she introduced as a song by The Space Manager, the man standing at the entrance, who had encouraged us all in his friendly American way to come closer at the beginning of the show. She mentioned that they had been together for six years, which made me wonder about the husband she talks about in the Space Lady’s Greatest Hits CD booklet, who wrote songs for her in the ’70s and ’80s. It had a modern hymn type tune (when I say ‘modern’ I’m thinking back thirty years to primary school), and words about everybody being light looking for a place to shine, and love looking for a place to be. It was catchy — I can still remember it, no recording equipment involved — but the sentiment was too generalised for me. She then answered the question she had left hanging by introducing the next song, ‘Humdinger’, as being by Joel Dunsany, her late husband of thirty years, and the father of her children. The specifics crowded in, in a gently humorous, self-referential way:
Street singer, that’s a rock ’n’ roll show
Hot speakers, woofers and tweeters
Electric reverb stereo sci fi space echo
Keyboard Cadillac with a Vox Jaguar
Atomic Wurlitzer flash
A souped-up Casio
No disrespect to The Space Manager, but if you ask me, that’s love.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Frànçois & the Atlas Mountains – Stereo, Glasgow, 29th March

Is it really four and a half years since Frànçois put in this incredible performance in a tiny student theatre in St Andrews? Apparently it is, and I’ve continued to be as hard to please by his subsequent records as that review shows I was by the earlier, lo fi ones. Probably it’s a compliment, not wanting him to be spoiled, because he has been so special. Still is so special. But I want him to prove it, again and again. The move from Fence to Domino has brought with it a bigger sound, and E Volo Love was a step outside the Tindersticks-ish beauty of Plaine Inondable to something less sombre, more in love with life, and the new Piano Ombre… It’s too early, I can’t tell. My first impression was that the new version of ‘The Way to the Forest’ is overdone compared to the one on the excellent Brother EP, which must be the pernicious influence of being on a label people have heard of, right? I do think that the new record gives itself less space to breathe, sonically, than Plaine Inondable: it is more of a producer’s construction than a record of the band’s live sound, as the earlier record gave the impression of being. But like The Notwist, whose amazing Mono show the other week I managed not to write about here, the Atlas Mountains’ live sound is now so expansive that a straightforward recording would almost certainly fail to capture it adequately. Both bands stretched out their songs in exhilarating and imaginative ways, tailored to a live audience.

Support band Barbarossa had a singer whose voice S. identified as the one from the theme song to The Bridge, or very close to it. Very high, unashamedly emotive. Then she got more generous, suggesting Arthur Russell. I countered with Chris Martin, and she backtracked and said Terence Trent D’Arby. It’s not the kind of singing I ususally get along with, but they were good, considering. A two piece: the singer behind a small bank of synths and gadgets, and a drummer who verged on drum solos in places, which was actually a good counterpoint to the vocalising. On one song his timing seemed to go all to pot, so much that it may have been deliberate. The singer modestly suggested that they were but the putting-on-make-up stage of Saturday night, compared to the main event of going out clubbing. Then, concerned that he might appear too cool, he clarified that it was OK if people ‘do it with your parents too’, his syntax getting the better of him. ‘I’m sure he means well’, said S.

‘Showtime,’ said Frànçois, somewhat more directly, when he hit the stage. The Atlas Mountains numbered between four and five for this show: two drummers, sometimes three, including the fabulous Amaury Ranger, still with his water drum and bongos, still playing like the world will stop turning and all its plates will crash to the floor if he stops gyrating as wildly as possible. I was wondering how they would adapt to the confines of a raised stage, especially one crammed with so much kit. The colourful fabric-covered mic and guitar leads were encouragingly long, though, and within seconds they were into a synchronised dance routine, jumping 180° and back again, and all doubt was gone. Like a proper pop band, except, in all my years of going to see live pop music, I’ve never seen that (maybe the Pet Shop Boys’ dancers did it in 1989, but I can’t really remember. Jens Lekman did something similar once, when he got his band to be aeroplanes for a bit). It could’ve looked silly – well, it did look silly – but it was as much a declaration of faith in Pop as sliding on his knees into fairy lights was in 2009. This stuff matters. It works because Frànçois is such an energetic performer, as animated as Amaury but more elegant, constantly in motion, never on one part of the stage for long, jumping when he can fit it in. The constructed drum attack of Piano Ombre found its live counterpart in an irresistable onslaught which was impossible not to dance to, to smile to. I’m reminded of Orson Welles’ idea that the cinema screen is a dead thing, so you have to go all out to grab your audience at the beginning of a film. A CD, too, is a dead thing, relying on technique and trickery to make a bid for your attention. A live performance doesn’t have that problem, and songs from a record which was going to take some time to absorb came into colour there and then, it was wonderful.

Frànçois declared perilously early that they were on to their last song, ‘because it’s Saturday night’, but it must have been a joke against club venues, because they carried on for ages, playing most if not all of Piano Ombre, and encoring (without leaving the stage) with ‘Les Plus Beaux’ and ‘Be Water’, both stretched well beyond their recorded forms, the latter unrecognisable for three or four minutes at least, and featuring some... I don’t know, Turkish-style singing, possibly? in the intro, before it morphed into a song which used to be so light on its feet, but made for a great, epic set closer. Stereo was packed, but people danced as best they could, it was so much fun. S. looked at me at the end saying, ‘One of the best ever’. And it was.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Philip Hoare — ‘Leviathan; or, The Whale’

Threatened sperm whales will stop feeding, swim to the surface, and gather to each other in a cluster. Assembled nose to nose around their calves, the form a tactical circle known as a ‘marguerite’, bodies radiating out like the petals of a flower. They present their powerful flukes to any interlopers, protecting their young in a cetacean laager. In an alternative version, they touch flukes, heads out and jaws at the ready. (p. 78)
This reminded me of the behaviour of musk oxen, as described in Barry Lopez’s fantastic book of nature writing, Arctic Dreams. Both animals form a defensive circle around their young, and both make themselves vulnerable to man by doing so. Leviathan contains far less nature writing than Arctic Dreams, as it is more of a cultural history, examining the way in which mankind used whales during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as industrial product (oil for lamps, baleen for corsets); and also the hold that whales and whaling have on the human imagination, primarily through Moby Dick. The variety of uses that whale product was put to grew over a century and a half until by the 1960s, it was everywhere:
Their bright shiny faces were washed with whale soap, and having tied their shoelaces of whale skin, they marched off to school, past gardens nurtured on whale fertilizer, to draw with whale crayons while Mum sewed their clothes on a machine lubricated with whale oil, and fed the family cat on whale meat. (p. 340)
This miscellany of uses is reflected in a rather miscellaneous structuring of the book. By and large, it is chronological, so the international whaling ban which took effect in 1987 comes near the end, and early chapters skip around between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. For roughly half the book’s length, I was wondering when the section about Herman Melville and Moby Dick was going to end: interesting though it was, it didn’t seem to be constrained by chapter boundaries, and this is, after all, not a book of literary criticism or biography, is it? But it is, some of the time. Which had a rather peculiar effect on this reader: while the book never lost my interest, I find it hard now to say what its cumulative effect was, or if it really had one. Appropriately for a book which repeatedly gasps at the scale of whales too big to be perceived (or, more gruesomely, weighed) in one go, it is hard to sum up. W. G. Sebald springs to mind, except, except...

Except that Philip Hoare is not the writer Sebald was. The first thing that struck me about his writing is that it can be imprecise. On page three, in a paragraph about school swimming lessons, we are told that ‘I never did learn to swim’; the following paragraph has: ‘It was only later, living alone in London in my mid-twenties, that I decided to teach myself to swim’. One of these things cannot be true. On page 418, Hoare swims ‘eye to eye, fin to fin, fluke to fluke’ with a whale ‘bigger than our boat’ (p. 417), and it’s a nice phrase, but sadly impossible, even if you allow the equivalence of pieces of swimming gear with parts of the whale’s anatomy. These examples are symptomatic of a certain low-level sloppiness in the book’s language that I found distracting. How can you trust writing which disproves itself? There were smaller stylistic problems, like the over-use of the word ‘cetacean’ when anthropomorphication was being committed. There was missing information: in a section about how captivity truncates the lifespan of orcas, their natural lifespan was never mentioned. But you can look it up on the internet (Wikipedia gives it as 50 years on average, up to a maximum on 80-90 years. Captive orcas live ‘usually less than 25 years’). Leviathan feels like a very internet-age book, in fact, with all the jumping around between subjects, and the copious, well chosen illustrations.

Talking about the section on orcas reminds me of a nugget of information about their name: that ‘killer whale’ is a mistranslation of their Latin name, which actually means ‘whale killer’. This is clue, perhaps, to the way Leviathan works. It is less an Arctic Dreams about whales, than an elongated QI about them. By the end you’ll have built up your store of whale facts, and they will pop up in your memory, triggered by other whale facts. And you’ll feel as though you know these great creatures just a little better.

SPOILER ALERT: It does also completely give away the ending of Moby Dick.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

C. S. Lewis – ‘The Magician’s Nephew’

Oh the stress, this week, for some reason. Which is fine occasionally, and it’s good to retreat into a comfort read every so often. To jump between pools into other worlds where no-one will ever find you. That in-between world of pools was about all I remembered of The Magician’s Nephew from reading it as a boy; that, and the cab-driver’s horse who accidentally ends up in Narnia, blessed with both speech and the power of flight. I remembered, too, that the horse, Strawberry, used his newly conferred gift of speech to grope backwards into the murky memory of his old London days. Here he considers his old master, a ‘thing’ very mysterious from his new vantage point:
‘I’ve a sort of idea I’ve seen a thing like this before. I’ve a feeling I’ve lived somewhere else – or was something else – before Aslan woke us all up a few minutes ago. It’s all very muddled. Like a dream. But there were things like these three in the dream.’
‘What?’ said the Cabby. ‘Not know me? Me what used to bring you a hot mash of an evening when you was out of sorts?’
I say ‘old London days’, but in fact, Strawberry’s London life ended only a few hours previously, and as he says himself, he was ‘woken up’ just a few minutes ago, when Aslan chose him as one of the animals to be given speech, as he went around creating Narnia. It hardly seems a fair aspersion to cast on all dumb animals, that they barely have consciousness or memory, but it’s a striking thought, nonetheless. The way in which Strawberry previously thought of the cabby must have been different, at least. Language turns him from a slave into an equal – at least, until Aslan makes the cabby into a king.

It’s not going to do, is it, to examine this too closely? You might think that there would be an egalitarian subtext to the elevation of a working horse to a Pegasus, but there isn’t, and The Magician’s Nephew is full of hierarchy. Only some of the animals in Aslan’s newly-created Narnia are given speech; the majority are left dumb. He instructs them to be magnanimous to their former contemporaries, so it is clear he is setting up an aristocracy even before he appoints a king and queen. And above the wordly hierarchy is the religious one, with Aslan as its god, and Jardis (later the White Witch) as its devil. There is a clever reversal of the Garden of Eden story, in which, instead of Eve being tempted by the snake to eat the apple, Digory has to fetch a silver apple from a very Eden-like orchard, without eating it, for the good of others. The apple which would be fatal to the soul of the self-seeker, is a power for good when used selflessly. So there’s that. But it’s all contained within a hierarchy of power and approval. In this new world, everything is instantly rigid, which seems a waste of all that magic.

There’s still fun to be had, though, if you can turn a blind eye to all of that (probably easier if you’ve read it before, and it didn’t occur to you). There’s a good bit where all the animals emerge upwards out of the earth, and the stags’ antlers look like trees. There’s a sweet jackdaw who is so terribly proud to be the subject of the first joke in Narnia (he thinks he’s made the first joke, until Aslan spoils it by pointing out that everyone’s laughing at him). Most of all there is Digory’s Uncle Andrew, the cowardly magician of the book’s title, who deserves all the ridicule he gets, which is plenty:
During the afternoon [the Bear] found a wild bees’ nest and instead of eating it himself (which he would very much like to have done) this worthy creature brought it back to Uncle Andrew. […] The bear lobbed the whole sticky mass over the top of the enclosure and unfortunately it hit Uncle Andrew slap in the face (not all the bees were dead). The Bear, who would not at all have minded being hit in the face by a honeycomb himself, could not understand why Uncle Andrew staggered back, slipped, and sat down. And it was sheer bad luck that he sat down on the pile of thistles. ‘And anyway,’ as the Warthog said, ‘quite a lot of honey has got into the creature’s mouth and that’s bound to have done it some good.’ They were really quite fond of their strange pet and hoped Aslan would allow them to keep it. The cleverer ones were quite sure by now that at least some of the noises which came out of his mouth had a meaning. They christened him Brandy because he made that noise so often.
Bees seem to be well down the social scale in Narnia, don’t they? And in the intuition that Uncle Andrew’s noises are intended to convey meaning, there is a tantalising egalitarian green shoot (maybe the animals who weren’t selected by Aslan make meaningful noises too). But I’m twisting the sense too much: this is a book in which a boy and a girl stumble upon the creation of a magical world, and escape from drabness, taking the reader (and a witch, unfortunately) with them.

Friday, February 28, 2014

BAMS 2013

I forgot to mention that this blog’s list of great records made in 2013 by ’80s and ’90s legends (and a few others) was included in the Manic Pop Thrills-run Scottish Blogs and Music Sites poll this year. The subtext of the request, I think, was that my inclusion might help to propel Throwing Muses’ Purgatory / Paradise into the list, except that I was an awkward sod and stuck to what I had originally chosen for Monorail. So, thanks and apologies to Manic Pop Thrills for the inclusion and the omission respectively. The final list includes all of two records I had previously heard, so there’s plenty of discovering to be done there, and in the list of contributor’s blogs, I suspect. Equally, those good people could do with listening to more Helen Love.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Jeffrey Vance — ‘Douglas Fairbanks’

The first time I heard of Douglas Fairbanks was in Kate Bush’s song ‘Moments of Pleasure’, with that line about him waving his walking stick. And do you know, she actually meant Michael Powell, doing an impression? The man himself only lived to 56, and died of a heart attack, so he wouldn’t have had much use for one; but if he had, he would certainly have waved it about, imagining it into a sword. Fairbanks’ sword fighting on film is ridiculous and exhilarating. This week I’ve watched The Mark of Zorro, Robin Hood and The Iron Mask, all wonderful films, and certainly in the latter two there are moments where he’s single-handedly driving back ten or twenty other swordsmen with his bold but wild flailing and thrusting (Zorro has more one-on-one fighting and nimble escapes). Even if you know nothing about fencing, it’s completely implausible, and there’s a lovely tongue-in-cheek bit in The Iron Mask where one of the King’s Guard turns from Fairbanks (as D’Artagnan) and flees for his life, arms aloft, straight towards the camera, after only a few seconds of fighting. In Robin Hood, he is almost overcome by sheer numbers, on a balcony in a castle, but performs a magical escape, sliding down a curtain almost as easily as if it concealed a slide beneath the cloth. Which it did, of course.

The second time I heard of Fairbanks was when the DCA cinema showed The Black Pirate, ten or more years ago, with some great piano accompaniment (have you ever heard a piano make the noise of an exploding ship?) It’s such a great film, simpler and shorter than the others because, as Jeffrey Vance points out:
Technicolor’s inherent limitations and cost at the time had the effect of unfettering the Fairbanks production from pageantry and visual effects, thus producing what is in essence a straightforward action adventure film. The result was a refreshing return to form and a dazzling new showcase for the actor-producer’s favourite production value: himself. (p. 203)
That’s right, a colour film in 1926 — the first one, says Vance, with a few caveats (it was the first ‘major Hollywood’ (p. 205) film for which the Technicolor process was ‘carefully tested’ before production; and earlier films such as The Ten Commandments (1923) had featured colour sequences). The most striking thing about the colour in The Black Pirate is its subtlety: sometimes it hardly looks like it’s in colour at all. Audiences in the 20s had exactly the same concerns about colour as people did about 3D when it made its comeback a few years ago. Fairbanks wrote:
The argument has been that it would tire and distract the eye, take attention from acting, and facial expression, blur and confuse the action. (p. 204)
He adds, winningly, ‘Personally I could not imagine piracy without color’. The colour he ended up using, therefore, was the opposite of the garish, saturated look of Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood or The Wizard of Oz in the following decade. It’s interesting that this extravagant star, whose acting and characterisation were made in the broadest, most generous strokes, could be a subtle colourist. His Black Pirate, shaved chest on show, up to his eyeballs in cutlasses, dastardly plots and powder trains, is amazing to watch, capturing a ship single handedly and sliding down its main sail on his sword. You have to laugh, but then, I’m sure you’re supposed to. Fairbanks’ films are not technically comedies, but they are hilarious at the same time as they are exhilarating, and many of his mechanisms (particularly chase sequences) are shared by comedies of the period. It’s interesting that Buster Keaton’s The Saphead was based on a play in which Fairbanks starred (well before his swashbuckling days). Their personas are so different, but there is much in their appeal that is similar: the ingenuity, the boundless energy. The innocence, too.

Vance’s book is a treat for any fan. It’s beautiful, lavishly illustrated, a real coffee table item. As a biography, it’s a little unusual in its extreme concentration on the work: the bulk of it happens between 1920-9, with a chapter each for the films made during this decade. There’s copious information on each production, and very little indeed of what one would usually consider real life. There’s the awkward relationship with Douglas Fairbanks Jr, who made his father jealous by being younger, prettier and also in motion pictures, trading on his name. There’s his brother John’s stroke, apparently caused by the strain of the Robin Hood production. He died a few years later, but neither the stroke nor the death gets more than a passing mention, and an indication that the relatively dark The Gaucho owes some of its mood to the bereavement. Likewise, Fairbanks’ marriage to Mary Pickford is just there, during the glory years, you don’t get a sense of their relationship at all. Then sound happens and it turns out that they don’t have much in common, with all that time on their hands. Although their first joint venture, and Fairbanks’ first sound film, Taming of the Shrew, is another interesting first: the first sound Shakespeare film. But it was not a happy production, and was the beginning of the end of their marriage.

Published jointly by California University and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, of which Fairbanks was the first president, you would expect this biography to lionise, and it does. But it is not uncritical, drawing attention, for example, to holes in the plot of The Gaucho, nearly sabotaging its own argument for the film’s rehabilitation. I can’t shake the sense that there is another story to be told, about the people behind the work, but still, what work it is, and this is a fine critical appreciation. Oh, and about that favourite production value of Fairbanks’:
Between four and five o’clock, he stopped work altogether for a game of his own creation, a combination of tennis and badminton known as ‘Doug’, which enjoyed a brief popularity in the 1920s. (p. 161)

This is the dumbest thing you will ever see.
And this the most swashbuckling (though it’s only the black and white version).

Blog archive