Monday, October 26, 2015

Monorail: A Weekend Abroad, 23rd – 24th October, CCA, Glasgow

Time was, I’d scramble to gets the words down early the morning after, before too much of the hangover kicked in. Keep it fresh, keep it quick. I don’t know how relevant that approach feels anymore, and in any case, The Pastels sunk any possibility of it this time with their own Pastelism Pilsner, on tap at the CCA for the whole event, at a powerful 6.2%. Notes of elderflower, reckoned S. Very tasty. It had been a while since we’d been to Glasgow, but Brogues and Stephen conspired to get a few of us match fit by putting together a fanzine about the bands playing on Saturday. A kind of sequel to the one we did for the Pastels / Tenniscoats Stereo show in 2009. Brogues’ multi-coloured autumnal design was just perfect, and his enthusiasm (for Spinning Coin in particular, and for Glasgow music in general) as infectious as always. Chris S.’s contribution, about two idiots latching on to The Pastels as impressionable students, beginning to ‘slightly obsess’ (slightly?) over their music and the other music they drew on and fed into, is one of my favourite things ever. Just as actually living through it has been, of course. I love Andrew R. Hill’s piece too, the way it’s so abstract it doesn’t even mention the band it’s about; and the way it paints music as normal, problematic, everywhere.

‘So you missed the only good thing?’ said C., on Saturday, when we confessed to having missed Happy Meals the previous day. Before demolishing The Space Lady in three words: ‘It’s funny once.’ Which is a bulletproof argument*, but having thought about it, I would like to employ the Nigel Bruce defence: good isn’t the only good. And the least good thing in The Space Lady’s set was also the most striking: a new song, on her new split LP, called ‘The Next Right Thing’, in which she argues that the approaching environmental armageddon can be averted if each of us, individually, only goes about always doing the next right thing. It’s bollocks, and trite, but something about the flashing red helmet she wears saves it from the kind of terminal earnestness that it would have in the hands of, say, Bridget St John. Actually, through a decent PA, The Space Lady’s Silver Apples basslines punched pretty hard, and the ‘Tainted Love’ drum patterns sizzled pleasingly in the vacuum above. It sounded great. ‘Born to be Wild’ was a highlight, with reverb echo shrieks coming out of nowhere, belying the polite backing. Molly Nilsson followed, and had the audience at the front dancing crazily away for the duration. Between songs she knelt down to press ‘play’ on her laptop, which was a step too far from performance for me: there were no visuals, just Molly bopping slowly away, and singing not very expressively. Having said that, I did like some of the songs: particularly ‘Lovers are Losers’. I’m intrigued enough to want to know more, and actually I’d love to get back into music that sounds like this, because 1987 is where I came in, musically speaking (and the new New Order is nowhere near).

We arrived in time to catch most of Take Three Girls: The Dolly Mixture Story on Saturday, which certainly rewarded a second viewing, and which may yet come to DVD, said Paul Kelly, if they can clear the rights. He and Debsey Wykes did a Q & A afterwards, in which he said that there is yet more footage he’d like to edit in, adding another ten minutes or so. Debsey laughed at how much of a creep the guy on local TV had been, interviewing them before they played ‘Baby, It’s You’. ‘And yours is the definitive take?’ he said, remembering the original version. Debsey demurred: ‘I don’t know’, not playing the game, skin crawling, caught promoting a single none of them believed in to this cheesy guy. That single seems to have been the big mis-step in their career, earning them the distain of their peers. Though partly it was their aesthetic, too, and they were marginalised in much the same way that Talulah Gosh were later, for being girls not trying to be boys. The main insight which came out of the Q & A was that Take Three Girls is very much an insider’s take on the story, and a much needed one, to set the balance right, even in the minds of the band members. Paul said that their initial interviews were largely negative, and so he did them again (getting Captain Sensible and Rachel Bor’s son to interview Debsey), after making an effort to convey to them what a great thing they had achieved with Dolly Mixture.

After that, things start to get a bit hazy. Roxanne Clifford’s new band Normal Love seemed like a return to form following Veronica Falls’ attempt to go a bit too large with their second LP. Lightness, urgency and melody are back! It will be exciting hearing this come to recorded fruition – soon, hopefully. Spinning Coin’s shimmering 90s-ish indie rock sounded beefier than their first cassette EP, but I didn’t quite make the leap to adoration on this showing. There was some wittering between songs which didn’t help. ‘Is this some kind of metaphor?’ heckled Chris, helpfully, when they started to go on a bit. ‘It could be a metaphor,’ they conceded, to their credit. I had worried a bit about Birdie in advance, having watched some 2013 YouTube clips when preparing my fanzine piece. As a three piece, through a phone mic, there wasn’t much left of their detailed pop vision. In person, those concerns melted away, Paul filling in the gaps with his 12-string electric and high backing vocals. He even sang lead on one song, East Village’s ‘Shipwrecked’. Debsey was in fine voice, and sang the songs we wanted to hear – ‘Let Her Go’, ‘Linus’, ‘Folk Singer’. So elegant, full of tough melancholy. Amazing to hear. At the Q & A they said they’d retired Birdie in 2001, but also that they were doing this show for the simple reason that they had been asked. Promoters of the world, do some more asking, please. The Pastels followed this with a confident, home crowd set drawing largely from Slow Summits, dipping into their past for ‘Fragile Gang’ (dedicated to ‘our friend Carey’, the Camera Obscura keyboard player who passed away recently), ‘Baby Honey’ and the New York Dolls’ ‘Lonely Planet Boy’. Stephen’s songs ‘Night Time Made Us’ and ‘Summer Rain’ have never sounded better, and Katrina avoided melancholy completely with ‘Check My Heart’ and ‘Come To The Dance’ adding to the celebratory mood. The defining Pastels moment of the weekend, though, has to be this Tweet, from Friday:
See also the #fuckedonpastelism hashtag. Who else can do this? It’s great to be a part of it.

* Is it, though? Defence #2: Doing it once wouldn’t be all that funny, it’s the fact that she’s been doing this act for forty odd years that gives it… not gravitas, obviously, but something like poignancy.

Chris S.’s photos are here.

Andrew’s review of the gigs (including a pic of the zine) is here.

Brogues’s review, including a download of the zine, is here.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Andrew Roberts – ‘Napoleon the Great’

The friendship began when Napoleon tested Betsy on the capitals of Europe. When he asked her the capital of Russia she replied, ‘Petersburg now; Moscow formerly’, upon which ‘He turned abruptly round, and, fixing his piercing eyes full in my face, he demanded sternly, “Who burnt it?”’ She was dumbstruck, until he laughed and said: ‘Oui, oui. You know very well that it was I who burnt it!’ Upon which the teenager corrected him: ‘I believe, sir, the Russians burnt it to get rid of the French.’ Whereupon Napoleon laughed and friendship with ‘Mademoiselle Betsee’, ‘leetle monkee’, ‘bambina’ and ‘little scatterbrain’ was born. (p. 783)
Sent by the British to St Helena following the battle of Waterloo, Napoleon remained himself, here making friends with his hosts’ 14-year-old daughter while he waited for his own house to be made ready. He is frequently a disarming presence in this biography, which has no truck with the idea of the Napoleonic Complex, and excuses or explains almost all of his behaviour, give or take a massacre (at Jaffa) or an execution (of the Duc d’Enghien). It refutes, too, the suggestion that the British poisoned Napoleon on St Helena, going into detail about the stomach cancer which killed him and a number of his relatives. It clarifies that he wasn’t really all that short. Coming to it without a great deal of context it’s difficult to know what to make of Roberts’ defensive writing on occasion. His book is one long argument in its subject’s favour, but what an argument it is.

The context I did have was entirely from fiction: War and Peace, The Count of Monte Cristo and Conan Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard stories all make use of the cult of Napoleon (from safely after his reign), though he is only fleetingly present in those books. His reputation rather than his person is the point: he has dominated Europe and inspires awe, fear and… something else. Respect is part of it, and it’s something to do with the way he fused monarchy with republicanism. Roberts notes that ‘Emperor of the French Republic’ ought to be a contradiction in terms, and makes much of the durability of Napoleon’s reforms, saying that he was able to make them stick because of his autocracy, so that the Bourbons, when restored to the throne in 1815, found France changed in an irreversible way:
During his sixteen years in power, many of the best ideas that underpin and actuate modern democratic politics – meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, secular education, sound finances, efficient administration, and so on – were rescued from the Revolutionary maelstrom and protected, codified and consolidated. […] The Napoleonic Code forms the basis of much European law today […] His bridges span the Seine and his reservoirs, canals and sewers are still in use […] The lycées continue to provide excellent education, and the Conseil d’Etat still meets every Wednesday to review the proposed laws of France. (pp. 809-10)
Yet Napoleon’s own position was fragile, which is also part of the appeal. He tried to mitigate against this using every means at his disposal:
Napoleon’s strategy was to ensure that, although he could always count on British hostility, there would be no moment when all three continental powers of Russia, Austria and Prussia would be ranged against him at the same time. He thus needed to play each off against the others, and as much as possible against Britain too. He used Prussia’s desire for Hanover, Russia’s inability to fight on after Friedland, a marriage alliance with Austria, the differences between Russia and Austria over the Ottoman Empire and the fears of Polish resurgence that all three powers felt to avoid having to fight the four powers simultaneously. (pp. 459-60)
Although the 1812 campaign in Russia is identified in the turning point in Napoleon’s fortunes, the reason he invaded was to protect his Continental System, which was designed to prevent trade with Britain. Russia initially signed up to this, but Tsar Alexander became progressively less keen as the blockade hurt the Russian economy. The Royal Navy was a constant thorn in Napoleon’s side, and the reason his plans to invade Britain never came to fruition. Blocking trade with France and her allies was the only way he could hurt Britain – and it did hurt us, helping to ‘spur the Luddite protest movement against unemployment in England’ according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Which gives us a link to Charlotte Brontë, whose Shirley is set during the Luddite protests, and whose hero, as we know, was the Duke of Wellington, victor at Waterloo. I wonder if this is part of the reason she’s so incredibly ill-disposed to Belgians?
‘Napoleon is a torrent,’ Kutusov said in deciding to surrender the city, ‘but Moscow is the sponge that will soak him up.’ (pp. 609-10)
We’ve met Russian commander-in-chief Kutusov before, in War and Peace, where he – as in real life – gave Napoleon the run around while he wore himself out. The map showing the brutal reality of the half-a-million French losses during the campaign (above) is chilling, and a reminder that war is more than political action. Which is the rub, I guess, with Napoleon. Roberts puts the figure of French military and civilian losses during ‘the Empire period’ as 916,000, ‘of whom fewer than 90,000 were killed in action’ (p. 811 – the remainder are casualties of the campaigns caused in other ways than direct conflict, like disease, starvation or suicide). For the whole of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, across all nations, the figure is four million, but that predates Napoleon’s ascent, going back to 1792. Is any great man worth 916,000 deaths? Don’t the deaths mean he wasn’t great after all? In as far as it is possible to make the contrary case, Roberts makes it.

There’s so much in this book I haven’t touched on at all, but two more quotations to finish, the first showing Napoleon’s pragmatic approach to religion:
In religion, I do not see the mystery of the Incantation, but the mystery of the social order. It associates with Heaven an idea of equality that keeps rich men from being massacred by the poor… Society is impossible without inequality; inequality intolerable without a code of morality, and a code of morality unacceptable without religion. (p. 272)
He was a very thoughtful, and a very well-read man, in Roberts’ telling, frequently drawing on the examples of his heroes Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. He was also a compulsive liar, always manipulating battle (and plebiscite) statistics in his own favour. His first wife, Josephine, showed an ‘almost psychotic extravagance’ (p. 155), which led to this:
Josephine also kept there [at Malmaison] a menagerie of kangaroos, emus, flying squirrels, gazelles, ostriches, llamas and a cockatoo that had only one word (‘Bonaparte’) which it repeated incessantly. She would occasionally invite a female orang-utan dressed in a white chemise to eat turnips among her guests at table. (p. 468)
Those nouveau riche, eh?

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