Saturday, November 21, 2015

Patti Smith – ‘Just Kids’

When I was ill and off work the other week, Patti Smith came on the radio (on Woman’s Hour) to talk about her new book M Train. Jenni Murray expressed incredulity at her fondness for English murder mystery TV, with a pause, and a ‘WHY?’ Patti said something about time spent in hotel rooms, and why not? I remembered that I had Just Kids stashed on my Kindle, along with so much else, plucked when it was on sale and then forgotten. Everyone knows that Just Kids is great. It can’t miss and it doesn’t. It’s the tale of two young artists in New York in the late ’60s, who supported each other to great things, surrounded by an impossibly glamorous cast.
He said they’d live in New York
And the stars would be their own
’Cause she was Debbie Harry
And he was Joey
He was Joey Ramone
        (Helen Love, ‘Debbie Loves Joey’)
That kind of thing, but a few precious years earlier. There’s Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, Candy Darling, Sam Shepard, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Warhol and Lou Reed from a distance. Allen Ginsberg tries to pick up Patti after mistaking her for a boy (he doesn’t mind, and they become friends). She is a great reporter of this social whirl, level-headed and journalistic, but able to dig down into artistry too. She is engagingly un-cool, in her own telling (most would disagree), her own rags-to-riches tale relatively workmanlike compared to that of her soulmate, Robert Mappelthorpe. She looks amazing in his photos, and adores the cultural milieu, but the social side can make her uncomfortable, and in a scene so defined by homosexuality and drug use, she is a bit on the conventional side. Tony Ingrassia, who directed her in two plays, calls her out on this:
Tony and I had a heated exchange that ended with him incredulous with laughter. ‘You don’t shoot up and you’re not a lesbian. What do you actually do?’
What she actually does, while the stars of New York swan around being fabulous, is work. Both in the prosaic sense, to support herself and Robert, and in the artistic one. She has a surprisingly religious attitude to creativity:
Robert […] never seemed to question his artistic drives, and by his example, I understood that what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of color and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies His motion. To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution. From this state of mind comes a light, life-charged.
Just Kids as a whole is not a book with a religious message (Robert is conflicted about his Catholicism, but mainly in relation to how his family see him), so this stands out.

As does this:
Harry Smith suddenly materialised, as if he had disengaged from the wall. He had wild silver hair, a tangled beard, and peered at me with bright inquisitive eyes magnified by Buddy Holly glasses. He shot animated questions that overlapped my answers. ‘Who are you do you have money are you twins why are you wearing a ribbon around your wrist?’
The longest section of the book is called ‘Hotel Chelsea’, as Patti and Robert live in this famed artistic centre for a while, and retain links to it (such as using its toilets and showers) when they move into a loft space nearby. Harry is the most Chelsea Hotel character imaginable, with his great archive and his idiosyncratic ways, alternately waspish and avuncular.
Harry was also an expert at string figures. If he was in a good mood he would pull a loop of string several feet long from his pocket and weave a star, a female spirit, or a one man cat’s cradle.
Who wouldn’t want him for a neighbour?


Warning: don’t read the Kindle edition, like I did, if you want to see the book’s pictures, as they are left out. A bit of an omission for a book largely about a photographer.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Patrick O’Brian – ‘Post Captain’

Am I getting this yet? Twenty books? That’s very nearly half an arm! They’re so rough and ready, too, and episodic enough to perhaps not be discrete novels at all, but an almost unending single work. And yet, and yet. What were those episodes again? There’s an entirely unexpected, and unexpectedly convincing Jane Austen bit near the beginning, when Stephen and Jack retire to a country house on the proceeds of the Cacafuego, blasted into submission by the heroic Sophie at the end of Master and Commander. Jack takes up courting – appropriately – Sophia Williams, and Stephen Diana Villers, her cousin. Then Jack’s prize agent fails, and he finds himself bankrupt, spending the rest of the novel in an undignified avoidance of arrest for debt (shades of Amelia, which I think also has information on where in London one can and can’t be arrested for this). There’s an amazing sequence in France, when war is declared and all Englishmen are wanted, so Jack dresses up as a performing bear, with Stephen his keeper, for a supremely uncomfortable walk to Spain. On returning, Jack is given command of an almost un-sailable ship, the Polychrest, which was built to carry a massive gun in any direction, so bow and stern are the same, and she advances, slowly, along a permanent curve (or leeway). The gun itself was found to be impracticable during construction, but the ship was completed anyway. Jack nevertheless manages a daring mission in her, and so arrives at a more satisfactory, but temporary, command, of the streamlined Lively. Here Stephen comes aboard as Jack’s guest, as there is already a surgeon, and is free to indulge his inner crank, which is a match for (and as funny as) Professor Calculus from Tintin. He brings aboard a swarm of bees, for research, and is delighted when they learn to feed on the crew’s morning cocoa, as it shows that they are able to communicate (the crew are less delighted). He wears an all-in-one woollen outfit, with flaps and sleeves to adapt it to various climactic conditions, which is a huge embarrassment to Jack, instantly undermining his new command, but Stephen is oblivious. This section of the book was my favourite. Here is Stephen at his absent-minded, charmless best:
        ‘Do you hear, Stephen?’ said Jack. ‘There is a gibbon aboard, that is not well.’
        ‘Yes, yes,’ said Stephen, returning to the present. ‘I had the pleasure of meeting her this morning, walking hand in hand with the very young gentleman: it was impossible to tell which was supporting which. A fetching, attractive creature in spite of its deplorable state. I look forward eagerly to dissecting it. […]’
        A chill fell on the conversation, and after a slight pause Jack said, ‘I think, my dear fellow, that the ship’s company would be infinitely more obliged to you, was you to cure it.’ (p. 405)

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