Saturday, 26 December 2009

Looking that gift CD in the mouth

Putting this year’s Xmas CD compilation together, I realised that my formula is becoming more and more developed — perhaps formulaic, even. Whichever it is, here are the rules I seem to go by . . .

Rule one There must be some Elvis. This year’s is a posthumous duet. There’s something oddly fitting about Elvis being so prolific since he died. Also, as some of you might know, at the time of his first post-death spotting, in the Stapleton Hall Rd branch of Tesco, I was living just around the corner.

Rule two There must be a track from Phil Spector’s Christmas album. This year, it’s Darlene Love.

Rule three The first track must be a familiar one. See rule two.

Rule four Many, if not all, the best Christmas songs are about sadness, loss, separation and inevitability of death. See: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, Blue Christmas.

Rule five White Christmas must be in there somewhere. The only son of its author Irving Berlin died on Christmas Day. (See rule four.)

Rule six Many, if not all, the best Christmas songs are about family — its realities as well as its fantasies. See: Please, Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas), Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight).

Rule seven Modern Christmas offers an embodiment of the global hegemony of Anglo-American pop music. See: Noel Blanc, Merry Christmas Polka.

Rule eight Christmas is also a time for self-surprising sexual revelations. See: Christmas Tree, Handsome Santa.

Rule nine There should be unfamiliar versions of familiar songs. See: Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight), Happy Xmas (War Is Over).

Rule ten There should be at least one quite unfamiliar new(ish) tune. See: A Change at Christmas (Say It Isn’t So), Christmas Tree.

Rule eleven There should be a track that is familiar to the point of nausea yet which can be refreshed back to its original joy by being placed in new company. See: All I Want For Christmas Is You.

Rule twelve There should be something deeply ethnic. See: Conclusion Of Symondsbury Mummer's Play.

Rule thirteen There should be something deeply English. See: Conclusion Of Symondsbury Mummer's Play.

Rule fourteen There should be something by Bing Crosby or Johnny Mercer. Failing that, something by their oftentimes associates, the Andrews Sisters. See: Merry Christmas Polka.

Rule fifteen There should be one or more example of the wonderful world of US black Christmas pop. See: Winter Wonderland, Hot Christmas, 8 Days Of Christmas, Christmas Blues, 'Zat You, Santa Claus?

Rule sixteen There should be wit. See: Handsome Santa, Beatniks Wish, Hot Christmas, 'Zat You, Santa Claus?

Rule seventeen There should be some country. See: Blue Christmas, Little Drummer Boy.

Rule eighteen There should be a surprise, something that people would generally decide they hated before giving it a decent listen in the right company. See: All I Want For Christmas Is You, Children Go Where I Send Thee.

Rule nineteen There should be something that sounds like it was recorded in a cornflake factory. See: White Christmas (Sugar Boy Crawford).

Rule twenty There should be something by a girlie indie singer with an off-putting name and shtick which is nonetheless surprisingly enticing. See: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Not Now But in the Coming.

PS In the original draft of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, the next line was 'because it may be your last'.

Next up (perhaps) That dithertation.

Friday, 25 December 2009

A Christmas gift for you (and you and you and you)

Some Christmases I manage to get a proper CD compilation together and mailed to people. Last Christmas and the one before, I did just that.

Some Christmases I run so late putting it together, I get no further than a beta version to hand out on Christmas Eve. That’s this year.

So here is this year’s playlist. If you’ve got a CD, now you know what’s on it. If you haven’t got one and want one, try posting a comment on this posting. Even Santa sometimes comes late.

1 White Christmas Darlene Love
2 Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) Death Cab for Cutie
3 Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight) The Smithereens
4 Happy Xmas (War Is Over) John Holt
5 A Change at Christmas (Say It Isn’t So) The Flaming Lips
6 8 Days Of Christmas Destiny's Child
7 Christmas Tree Lady Gaga (ft. Space Cowboy)
8 Merry Christmas Polka The Andrews Sisters
9 Beatniks Wish Patsy Ray & The Beatniks
10 Hot Christmas The Elves
11 Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Aimee Mann
12 Not Now But in the Coming Katharine Whalen
13 Noel Blanc Jean Sablon
14 White Christmas Sugar Boy Crawford
15 Children Go Where I Send Thee Daryl Hall And John Oates
16 Winter Wonderland Allen Toussaint
17 The Little Drummer Boy Johnny Cash
18 'Zat You, Santa Claus? Louis Armstrong & The Commanders
19 Please, Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas) Sean Na Na
20 Blue Christmas Ernest Tubb
21 Christmas Blues Ralph Willis
22 Merry Christmas Baby Elvis Presley & Gretchen Wilson
23 All I Want For Christmas Is You Mariah Carey
24 Handsome Santa Marah (ft. Zuzu Petal)
25 Conclusion Of Symondsbury Mummer's Play Symondsbury Mummer's play

PS So, you might well ask, what happened to the posting about my dissertation that I keep promising. Well, I guess it’s now become a dithertation. Pretty soon, too, it’ll be part of a new year’s resolution thing.

Next up (Tomorrow, in fact. Honest Injun.) An explication of a kind about how I put this CD together.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Knees-up, Mother Freud, knees-up, Mother Freud, how about a knees-up? Knees-up, knees-up, knees-up, knees-up, knees-up, Mother Freud

So, to answer your question, Flea, why didn’t Freud go to his mother’s funeral? Particularly, as the year before her death, he wrote, in condolences to a colleague whose mother had died: ‘the loss of a mother must be something quite remarkable, not to be compared with anything else, and awaken excitations that are hard to grasp.’

What excitations, you ask? I don’t know. Hard to grasp? Perhaps the usual elision that awoke in Freud any time he came near to discussing his own undergrowth. We do, though, know he recalled seeing his mother naked on a train — in her sleeping compartment, nothing untoward.

It happened on what the Encyclopedia Britannica describes as the ‘fateful overnight train trip when the family moved to Vienna’ — his father’s (mostly fruitless) attempt to improve on his life in the tiny Moravian town of Freiberg (now Pribor in the Czech Republic).

He was four years old at the time — though, when dating his later, profound train phobia to this encounter with the topography that Courbet’s painting categorises as L’Origine du Monde, he remembered it as happening when he was two. A not insignificant change, to my mind — both in his life story and to his Oedipal theories.

Why did he say he didn’t go to her funeral. He told his brother he didn’t like ceremonies and, besides, he was iller himself than people thought (with the cancer that would kill him, nine years later). He also contented himself with the thought that at least he didn’t die first so she was spared the pain of his death. I think there was some vanity going on. He really, really didn’t like people seeing how he looked with his mouth prosthesis and the way it affected his voice.

Still and all, not going to your mother’s funeral? I think he was even more honest than he realised when he wrote to Ernest Jones about ‘the growth in personal freedom I have acquired’ since her death.

And so to today's Advent goodies . . .

One If you want to know how to swear in ASL, watch this.

Two There is a section in my book, Filthy English, about Jackie Wilson and Lavern Baker's . . . alternative version of Think Twice. Now I've found this cute picture of the two of them together.

Three As there are rules for a bride's outfit (old, new, borrowed, blue) and a cocktail (sour, sweet, strong . . . *), so I have developed rules for creating Christmas (plus Hannukah) CD compilations. The first rule is: there must be Elvis. Here is the Memphis manchild performing a posthumous duet. NB Pop experts will notice that something has been excised from this recreated version — Elvis shouting 'Play it dirty!' On a Christmas song.

I would, of course, shown off my new YouTube skills by embedding it but that's blocked for this clip. But not for . . .

Four The other week, someone who was talking to me about their personal life said: It's not rocket science, is it. I said: Yes, it is actually. It's rocket science that isn't rocket science. It's people that are rocket science. Then, in a quite different context, I was pointed in the direction of this clip. Which is: a double pendulum. Which is: a physical demonstration of chaos theory (the butterfly effect) by which the tiniest change in the starting point can very quickly produce extraordinarily varied outcomes. Which is: a pretty damn good analogy for the complexity of human beings bumping along with each other.

Next up Dat dissertation (finally)

* Something like that anyway and certainly nothing to do with the 'cocktail rule' about VAT rate for composite items with differing VAT rates — book plus CD, for example.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Free gifts

It being the time of year that it is, I thought I should make out like other bloggers do and give you stuff — links etc, that is. I briefly — very briefly — considered a whole advent calendar of goodies but settled — realistically — on just putting a few in here.

I've already gifted some people Bessie Banks' studio tapes and Jerry Lee Lewis as Iago. (If both of those two things don't quicken your pulse just reading about them, you wouldn't have been interested in them anyway.)

Here, though, I offer, for this ninth day of Advent, a few little things. (Also, I get to display my eventual and tardy mastering of embedding YouTube postings.)

First Many of you might already have seen the Taiwanese TV news recreation of the Tiger Woods event. But it's surely worth another look. If you haven't seen it, think Grand Theft Auto. Wouldn't it be great if all TV news was like this? Who wouldn't want to watch a recreation of the Brown-Blair Granita dinner? Or what went on that night at OJ Simpson's?

Second In another part of my life, I write about legendary photographers for Professional Photographer magazine. This month, the editor got me to put my index figure where my words are and arranged a spot for me in the photographers' pit catwalk show in London Fashion Week. See how I dealt with it. (It's where the image above was taken.)

Third The Word magazine published a piece of mine about my book, Filthy English, and invited me in to talk dirty with them on their monthly podcast. Which four of us did, for an hour. It's got a parental advisory on it. The comments on it (which are many) contain excerpts from the Troggs tapes ('why don't you just fucking do what you fucking started doing?') and performances of some of the songs I write about in my book.

Fourth My word for the day: callipygian. You'll find it on the second page of this New York Times review of the Knee High production of Brief Encounter — which, being much impressed by other Knee High shows, I meant to see in London but, being somewhat busy with my course and book etc, never did get round to doing.

Next up Freud: if it's not one thing, it's his mother

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Eine kleine nacht spiel, part six: the contents of Mrs Klein’s drawers

There is a joke in the play about Mrs Klein’s filing cabinet. It’s of a kind that Ray Cooney would have constructed an entire play around. An intellectual version of Benny Hill could have made a career out of it.

The gag is this. Mrs Klein files her her correspondence into three different drawers of the cabinet, according to the divisions of Freud’s 1921 structural* model of the mind: ego, superego, id. (I’ve no idea whether Mrs Klein's filing strategy has any historical accuracy. Nor can I decide whether that matters — or whether I wish it did or didn’t.)

So, of course, Mrs Klein puts letters from the taxman in the superego drawer. And she puts the letter from Melitta which is the driving force of what plot there is . . . well, to be honest, I can’t remember which drawer she uses for her daughter's correspondence. However, I do suspect, that my not remembering is an accurate reflection of a similar confusion in the characters’ minds about which drawer the letter properly belongs in.

I had an irritating question about this gag, though. It’s a topographical one. Filing cabinets (including the one in the play) have four drawers, not three. So what does Mrs Klein call her fourth drawer? And what might she keep in it? What, in the Kleinian administrative universe lies beyond (or below) the ego, superego and id. Possible answers welcome in this posting's comments section. (Facetious ones, hopefully.)

PS1 How can I have six sessions in a week? Isn’t that transgressing a central rule of analysis? No. Freud himself regularly did six-day weeks for his patients. (I’ll be writing more about Freud’s work practices when I get back to writing about my dissertation.)

PS2 Kleinians, of course, would never do six-day weeks. That would mean they couldn’t demand of their patients** on a Friday morning: so how do you feel about how much you will miss me over the weekend? Or, of a Monday: so tell me about your missing me over the weekend.

PS3 Yes, I do know that ‘spiel’ is a masculine noun in German but ‘ein klein nacht spiel’ just didn’t roll right.

PS4 The play’s run finishes tonight.

* The structural model — the ‘second topography’, to the French — eclipsed the previous, topographical which divided the mind/brain into conscious, unconscious and, sometimes, pre-conscious. Almost without exception, modern analysts slip — promiscuously, with polymorphous perversity even —between the two models.

** At first, I typed ‘parents’ — a significant slip, of course, and one that neatly matches (and ironises) Kleinians’ view of the transference thing. The patient as parent to the analyst is as good a construction as any to start a discussion of the meanings of transference.

Next up I shoot a model

Friday, 4 December 2009

Eine kleine nacht spiel, part five: the so-what of it

My teenage son and I walked away from the theatre, north on Upper St, past the Hope & Anchor, the rock basement where I spent so many hot and sticky evenings in the late 1970s — when my theatre, I guess, was seeing Joe Strummer in the pink zoot suit he wore as a 101er, clambering over amps and barking Them’s Gloria.

Well? I asked my son.

Hmm, he said. (Or something of the like.) What was it about? he asked. What was the point of it?

If I’d been really on the button, I’d have said: That you came to ask what was the point of it, that was the point of it.

But I wasn’t and I rambled a bit about how sometimes the things which have an obvious meaning later come to seem as if they have actually have no or little meaning.

At least he didn’t suggest that it’s not just psychoanalysts make bad parents but students of psychoanalysis, too. Too polite for their own good, perhaps, today’s teenagers.

Next up The sixth of the five parts of Mrs Klein. (I told you the collective noun is a complex of analysts.)

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Eine kleine nacht spiel, part four: the so? of it

So . . . when I wrote the thing about my evening with Mrs Klein, I divided it into five sections, mimicking the five sessions of a full analytic week. Or, rather that's what I thought I did.

In fact, I divided it into four, only missing out the fourth section and skipping straight to the fifth. So, as someone who has learned to seek (if not always find) significance in even seemingly straightforward errors, I found myself faced with the question: what should I do with this unexpectedly blank Thursday afternoon session? How might I fill the space?

I thought about this . . . and I thought about this . . . and I thought about this . . . and, suddenly, my fifty minutes were up. See you tomorrow.

PS1 Yesterday afternoon I recorded a podcast for The Word magazine, for whose latest issue I've written a piece about swearing. It was fabulous fun, a whole hour of talking seriously and laughingly about my book and swearing with two old work colleagues, David Hepworth and Mark Ellen — both of whom I've known since I was half the man I am today. In fact, since I 'wore skinny ties and dressed like a member of an Island records power pop group — the Jags, say', said Mark Ellen. 'Not in a bad way, though,' he added with his customary exquisite tact.

You can hear our full podcast here.

It carries a parental advisory warning.

PS2 Someone has also posted links to the Troggs Tapes on it — which I don't mention in my book but maybe should have.

Next up After the play is over

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Eine kleine nacht spiel, part three: the what did I think of it

What did I think? Of the production, that’s easy. It was as excellently acted, carefully directed and arrestingly staged as you come to expect in Lottery theatres. Of the play itself, though? That’s far harder. Its structure and its writing are both fine, of course. Well, better than fine, in fact. Far better. But there’s something beyond that which, well, I don’t even really know myself . . .

A few thoughts, though . . .

* The blood-red red of the set made me think of the womb — it is MK’s consulting room

* There was something of The Servant or Pasolini’s Theorem about the play — the outsider who comes in and takes over

* Paula Heimann was, I finally realised after much head-scratching, played by the actress who was Ruth in Spooks — a Ruth, in fact, who was no stranger to fiction (suitably, given the above)

* It’s a truism (and, in my experience, true) that analysts don’t make good parents — this play certainly more than hints at that

* Melanie Klein analysed Melitta — no analyst would do that now but, surely, even at the time, it must have seemed improper at least

* Paula Heimann, in time, also fell out with MK — though there is no hint of this future discord in the play

* Hanna Segal — who did become MK’s representative on earth and who is still alive — blamed MK’s own mother for her ‘bad’ mothering of Melitta

* The analytic world is fractious beyond all imaginings — even more so than the play presents

* Analysis is — if you believe it has any meaning at all — a form of biography, in good part, at the very least

* A love of gossip is one of the human universals, according to anthropologist Donald E Brown

* In discussing the history of psychoanalysis, analysts are wont — very wont — to dismiss biographical discussion as ‘mere gossip’

* Psychoanalysis prides itself on its unblinking view of humanity — though maybe not of psychoanalysis or, more particularly, psychoanalysts or, even more particularly, the ‘great’ and ‘good’ ones

PS1 Nothing to do with psychoanalysis (or any of the other things I usually blog about) at all but . . . there is a print and pot sale of students' work at Morley College (near Waterloo) tomorrow lunchtime. The work (at least some of it) is of staggering quality. I went today and bought all your Christmas presents. Well, ones those of you I actually bother to buy presents for. The teapot and harlequin set of half a dozen cups and saucers I'm keeping for myself. If you go, say hello to my friend Duncan.

PS2 This is the third of a five-part post. If you just pitched up, you might like to start here.

Next up Tomorrow belongs to . . . Thursday afternoon with the Kleins

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Eine kleine nacht spiel, part two: the what of it

And an evening round the Kleins (of St John’s Wood) is what the play is. It’s a three-hander, a revival, first performed at the National in 1988. Like a classical drama, it takes place in a period of less than 24 hours: an afternoon, an evening, a morning.

There’s Melanie Klein (the ‘great’ analyst, only 56 at the time but seeming far older, in the way that people then seemed to have done). There’s Melitta Schmideberg (her daughter, also an analyst, though not so great). And there’s Paula Heimann (yet another analyst, and greater than Melitta, though not as ‘great’ as Melanie).

In life and the play, Melitta falls out with her mother, challenges her psychoanalytic theories and (not in the play, this bit) doesn’t go to her funeral. (Freud didn’t go to his own mother’s, either. His excuse wasn’t good, either. Not even very convincing.) Paula Heimann became one of the great propagators of Kleinian thought — the end of the play is the beginning of her first analysis with MK.

So it’s the tale of a mother and two daughters, a real one (who fails her) and an acquired one (who helps cements her reputation). And, of course, it’s not pleasant stuff. There’s not much goodness on display.

This Melanie Klein is capricious, arrogant, self-centred, suspicious (she locks her drinks cabinet), patrician. Melitta is put-upon, flighty, almost as self-concerned, slightly histrionic in an Evelyn Waugh/drop-head coupe sort of way. Paula is, well, creepy. She is the woman who comes to dinner — and, once she’s got her feet under the table, doesn’t leave, of course. A poor Jewish immigrant analyst, she clearly sees MK as her main chance. Latch on to her and she’ll survive and prosper. Otherwise . . .

It’s a talkie, of course. No flying, gunplay or conjuring tricks (well, only verbal ones). No warning about strobe lighting on the door. It was a night out for the listening classes — an accident that night, at least, could seriously have damaged the productive capacity of the north London therapy industry.

PS Now this is something I would have included in my book, Filthy English, if I'd known about. But which schmuck should I thank, Mel Brooks or The Onion?

Next up A variant on: leaving that aside for the moment, what did you think of the play, Mrs Lincoln?

Monday, 30 November 2009

Eine kleine nacht spiel, part one: the where of it

A father and (younger) son outing to a mother-and-daughter evening: Mrs Klein, a play, at the Almeida Theatre in Islington. Oddly, although I go to the theatre quite a bit, I’d never been to the Almeida. Which, given its reputation, is even odder.

A regular — an enthusiastic regular — had described it to me as ‘a jewel’. He was right, of course. It’s a Lottery theatre, one of that turn-of-the-century generation of rebuilds funded by channelling the hapless dreams of the poor into bricks-and-brushed-steel arenas for dreams of the rich. From Lottery tickets to theatre tickets.

A century or so ago, Frank Matcham was responsible for creating something like two hundred theatres of a distinct type in Britain. (Hackney Empire, London Palladium, Buxton Opera House etc etc.) I reckon that, a hundred years from now, the Lottery generation of theatres — though not as numerous — will be seen similarly, through a prism of stylistic similarity.

With its amused joining of original building and modernist additions, the Almeida is happily typical of the type. Concrete access ramp meets classical columns — with bar and education facility. It also had the best-dressed and most attractive looking audience I’ve ever seen at the theatre. You really felt as if you were out for a night with Islington society.

First, I wrote ‘the great and the good’, then I typed it out. Not just, embarrassedly, because it was a lazy cliché. But because any notion of there being such an entity as ‘the great and the good’ could surely not survive the merest brush with Freudian thought, let alone an evening round the Kleins.

PS1 This is the first of five blogs about Mrs Klein and her two daughters, one a day for the rest of the week — kind of like a week of analysis.

Next up
I get to the play — and the two daughters

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Now that's what I call (filthy english) music

I decided that those of you who weren't at the launch party might be interested in the tracklist of its soundtrack. So here it is. The page numbers refer to pages in the book. The photograph was taken outside 55 5th Avenue, NY NY and refers to . . .

1 Shave ‘Em Dry Lucille Bogan

‘. . . in a studio above 5th Avenue, sometime on Wednesday, 19 July 1933, a thirty-seven-year-old black woman gathered herself together, stepped up to the microphone and began to sing.’ (page 181)

2 Mother Fuyer Dirty Red (with Bob Dylan)
‘Born in 1916 and widowed in 1968, Beatty Zimmerman has only ever given one interview, in 1999, to her (and her son’s) hometown paper, the Duluth News. She told the reporter: ‘One thing Bob does like, and I know he hates the publicity, but I know you have to write something nice – and everybody likes a good recipe – he does like chicken every way.’(page 134)

3 F**K Off (Dirty Rooster) Slim Gaillard
‘Asterisks were established by the early eighteenth century. The word is from the Latin asteriscum, little star – as we acknowledge when we refer to the exam result A* as an A-star rather than an A-asterisk. It’s derived from an early printers’ symbol used to mark dates of birth.’ (page 259)

4 Don’t F**k Around With Love The Blenders

‘In 1953, Joe Davis (label owner, producer, all-round music business hustler) had a bright idea for the Blenders, a New York doo-wop group who’d been together since church choir. They’d cut a track called Don’t Mess Around with Love. He got them to recut it as Don’t Fuck Around with Love, then slipped this dirty version on the sly to dee-jays so they’d play the original, clean one on their shows. The promo scam didn’t work.’ (page 186)

5 The Rotten Cocksuckers Ball The Clovers

‘In 1953, the Clovers, turned up for a session at their record label Atlantic’s central Manhattan studio. They told their label boss and producer Ahmet Ertegun that they wanted to record something of their own this time. The engineer set the tape rolling. The tune was The Darktown Strutters’ Ball – a 1917 song which some claim was the very first jazz recording ever made. The Clovers sang it acappella. Only the words were different.’ (page 186-7)

6 Think Twice (Version X) Jackie Wilson & Lavern Baker

‘Then there’s the version of Think Twice cut in Philadelphia, in 1966, by Jackie Wilson and Lavern Baker, for Brunswick records – a Mafia-controlled label, as it happens.’ (page 187)

7 Cocksucker Blues Rolling Stones

‘From the period when schoolboys would hang around the railings around Piccadilly Circus waiting to be picked up,’ said my informant. ‘Certain people from Rocket Records were rumoured to be regular customers.’ (page 191)

8 Fucking Ada (edit) Ian Drury & The Blockheads
‘Ian himself could, as it happens, be a complete and utter arsehole. Also a bastard, a fucking cunt and a prick. Even by the standards of pop stars.’ (page 180)

9 Too Drunk To Fuck Dead Kennedys
‘I flicked through this iTunes fuck list, casually looking out for names I recognized. I found Amy Winehouse (Fuck Me Pumps), Arctic Monkeys (Who the Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys), Babyshambles (Fuck Forever), John Lennon (When in Doubt, Fuck It), P. J. Harvey (Who the Fuck?), the Super Furry Animals (The Man Don’t Give a Fuck), Ryan Adams (Fuck the Universe), the Dead Kennedys (Too Drunk to Fuck and Nazi Punks Fuck Off) and Portishead (Music to Fuck To).' (page 193)

10 Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole Martha Wainwright

‘A daughter’s view of her father, in which the usage is factual rather than metaphorical.’ (page 193)

11 Ashes KT Tunstall

‘These, of course, are just the fucks and cunts that appear on the label or tracklist. The iTunes search engine doesn’t find deliberate misspellings – Kunt and the Gang of Basildon, Essex, for example. Nor does it find lyrics. So no ‘Arseholes, bastards, fucking cunts and pricks’. No ‘fucking peasants’. No ‘Fuck you, little princess’ from St Andrews, Scotland, either. (page 194)

12 Fuck Was I Jenny Owen Youngs
And no ‘What the fuck was I thinking?’ from Montclair, New Jersey.

13 Flower Liz Phair

Nor ‘I’ll fuck you like a dog’, and ‘I’ll fuck you till your dick is blue’. (page 194)

14 Cunts Are Still Running The World Jarvis Cocker
‘When Jarvis Cocker wrote and recorded this, he didn’t put it on his new album but on his MySpace page. He edited its title, too, cutting it down to Running the World.’ (page 73)

15 Fuck Tha Police N.W.A.

‘Some familiar names. Dr Dre’s Fuck You, Eminem’s Just Don’t Give a Fuck, NWA’s Fuck tha Police . . .’ (page 193)

16 I Wanna Fuck You Dirty Snoop Dogg
‘. . . Snoop Dogg’s I Wanna Fuck You, Lil Wayne’s Fuck the World, Peaches’ Fuck the Pain Away . . .’ (page 193)

17 Fuck It (I Don’t Want You Back) Eamon
‘In 2004, the British charts were topped by Eamon’s Fuck It (I Don’t Want You Back) . . .' (page 194)

18 Fuck You Right Back Frankee
‘. . . which was then knocked off that spot by its answer, Frankee’s Fuck You Right Back.' (page 194)

19 Bitches Ain’t Shit Dr Dre

‘As Dr Dre of NWA once remarked ‘niggganigganigga fuckthisfuckthat bitchbitchbitch suckmydick’. (page 193)

20 Bitches Ain’t Shit Ben Folds
‘Quiet, reflective, piano-led recasting.’ (page 194)

21 I Like to Fuck Young Hot Rod
‘Porn star Tila Tequila’s contribution to the Young Hot Rod track includes her promise to perform oral intercourse ‘until I hurl’. (page 193)

22 Winin’ Boy Blues, Pt. 1 Jelly Roll Morton
‘Winin’ Boy was Mr Morton’s other nickname and the song was his theme tune. Its title was a reference to a certain pelvic motion at which he had attained particular virtuosity – or at least said he had.’ (page 186)

23 Fuck Christmas Eric Idle
‘In 2004, the FCC fined Eric Idle $5000 for saying fuck on an American radio station. He responded with a Noel Cowardish song, Fuck You Very Much – a title shared with the similarly jaunty 2008 ringtone chart-topper by Lily Allen.’ (page 193)

24 The Shag (Is Totally Cool) Billy Graves
‘Shag (1788) is perhaps a variant on shake – as also may be the American dance with the same name which, to much trans-Atlantic amusement, has been around at least since the early 1930s.’ (page 36)

Next up (tomorrow) On the couch with Mrs Klein (and her two daughters), five times a week (for one week only).

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Party pris

Those of you who get my occasional blogmail update would have been invited to the launch party for my book, Filthy English. I thought those of you who couldn't make it might like to know who did . . .

I have learned that the best way to put an invite list together for a party is to do it the same way you'd prepare a bride's outfit - or, as I point out in the book, write a sexy blues. You mix something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

So, among the trades and professions represented were: journalist (of course), ceramicist (and hat-wearer), tax lawyer, editor, receptionist, architect (a brace, at least), psychoanalyst (more than one, in fact - a complex of them, perhaps), actress (too evocative a word to be collapsed into the sexless actor), record producer (currently working with the Pope), photographer, parent counsellor, publican, Indian hotel owner, Iranian golfer, pre-school teacher (several, in fact - they were quite unshocked by the language), travel agent, artist (from Warsaw), charity lobbyist (from Fulham), record company owner (from north Acton), astrologer (from Kentish Town), sex writer (see previous blog posting), teacher, therapist, research scientist, Shoreditch building owner, cartoonist, dance student, school administrators (German, English), press agent (three, at least), charity manager, university lecturer (retired), builder, kitchen designer, magazine designer, pop musician (French, English, Welsh), art teacher (retired), paratrooper (veteran), jewellery maker (and bike-racer), caterer, printer (from Bermondsey) and stilt-walker (one, stiltless).

PS1 You'll find more details of the party here on my publisher's blog site.

PS2 The word in the picture is spelled out in fairy cakes. They were made by my daughter. The photo was taken by this lot.

PS3 The Independent ran a big hunk of my book. It's about swearing on TV. Read it here.

Next up
Those filthy English songs, in full

Monday, 9 November 2009

Dis dissertation or dat dissertation?

In one of the very first lectures of my course, the lecturer said something like: 'Pay attention to the questions you ask and the thoughts you have now because very often they are what you will find yourself coming to when you do your dissertation.'

When she - I think it was a she, there were a lot of female lecturers, maybe a majority - said it, my first thought, of course, was: bollocks! How can she say that? The second was: well, she's been round this track before and she wouldn't say it if it didn't have history, would she?

So - for once - I did what I was told and thought about what I'd been told. What was in my mind? The lecture was about the aims of psychoanalysis. One thing mentioned was Freud's view of these aims. 'Love and work,' he said. That is, a capacity for both those two things was a working definition of both psychic health itself and the aims of his couch trip - by extension, all forms of talking therapies, too. Maybe, added the lecturer, Freud said this or maybe he didn't. No one seems quite sure.

I found myself thinking about this. My journalistic head asked: did Freud say it? if not, who did? There's a story there, surely. Maybe it would make a dissertation.

The trouble was that I felt I had already committed myself to a different subject for my dissertation. At the interview for the course, I'd been asked what I might be doing my dissertation on. Bit premature, I thought, but I said what had been on my mind: punk.

As someone who had been around punk as a writer, I'd long thought that there had never been much of interest written about its psychological character - let alone anything of substance viewed through the psychoanalytic prism.

There had been historical books and memoirs - I'd even written one myself. There had been sociological studies, feminist views and post-modernist structural analyses. God, have there been post-modernist structural analyses.

But there had been nothing specific on its psychology. The material was there and plentiful, I thought. The reconstruction of self by taking on new, often self-lacerating names - Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten etc. The fantastic - maybe even fantastical - anger. The dressing-up - ripped, torn, chains, self-mutilation. The rhetoric - dystopic, millennial.

Even more interesting was the fact that this stuff appealed so deeply to well-educated young men from comfortable backgrounds. The notion that punk was a working class thing was, of course, always so much, well, bollocks. Art class thing, perhaps. Working class thing, no.

More, I'd known some of the people first-hand and read many of the memoirs. I was struck by the painfulness and dislocations of so many of the main players' personal histories. There were a good number of familial suicides and alcoholic and junkie parents - enough that I'm surprised it's never drawn comment. There were also, of course, lots of alcoholics and junkies in the bands - and among the writers.

There was a lot of parental abuse, too - though not always presented as such. Johnny Rotten wrote about how his father broke his son's leg, twice. Once, by whacking his bed with a tyre iron. Twice, if my memory isn't tricking me, by running into him with a JCB. Both accidents, wrote Johnny.

I also remember seeing a lot of what I later came to know as self-harm. People burning themselves with cigarettes. One woman, in particular - a girl, really - slashing her belly with broken bottles, then claiming - without much conviction - that she had been attacked.

For my dissertation, I intended to explore the way the psychopathology of the punk 'elite' and its iconography found a home in the psyche of otherwise regular people - or, at least, the ones Freud elsewhere referred to as subject to no more than 'common unhappiness'. What echoes did punk's hysteria and 'madness' find in us all?

I think my title would have been a take on Richard Hell's t-shirt slogan: Please kill me now (the polite nihilism of punk). Or maybe on Leni Riefenstahl's Nuremburg romp: The triumph of the ill.

That seemed a good enough starting point to me. So when, over the first year, fellow students asked about my dissertation plans, that's what I told them I was doing. They seemed to think it was a good idea, too.

I did, though, sometimes also make a joke that my other idea was about love and work - no more than a joke really, based on an old gag about a pub sign painter and how you can get the word 'and' five consecutive times in one sentence. You can guess the rest.

Next up Dis or dat, I still have to write the bloody thing

Friday, 23 October 2009

Publish and be ******. (Or maybe even ******.)

Not only is my book, Filthy English, now out and for sale in all bookshops (good, bad and smelly) but it’s even had good reviews. Here is the one in The Observer.

Thanks to all of you who got in contact about hearing me on the Today programme. Now I know what a good number of my friends and acquaintances get up to before breakfast on Saturday mornings. The IPlayer link to that show is no longer available but here is a link to what I wrote about it on my (wonderful) publisher’s blogsite.

Next up That dissertation, finally.

PS The book cover is actually blue but the jpg came out this strange pink colour (on my laptop anyway). I’m popping out for some technical advice. Be with you again soon.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Close encounter of a personal kind, three

So there I was in the part of Kilburn that now calls itself Brondesbury, with a plate of barbecue and a glass of red wine. Listening to the conversation around me, I realised that I was surrounded by a partyfull of psychoanalysts.

Which led me to thinking about what might be the correct collective noun for psychoanalysts. Not a partyfull, that’s for sure. The thought of a roomful of them dancing to, say, mid-period grime or deep crunk is not an enticing one.

(What would be their collective musical taste? Bach, mostly, I reckon, and for the pop pickers among them, I guess late Bob Marley. Oh, and I’m sure nearly all of them have a copy of the Buena Vista Social Club.)

So, if it’s a murder of crows, what is it of analysts? An anxiety? A doubt? A neurosis? A regression?

I fell to talking about this with the woman sitting next to me. She was an analyst, of course. One or other of us suggested a couch of analysts.

She asked me about myself. I told her I was doing the MSc course. She knew all about it. I added that all I had left to do was my dissertation.

‘It’s due sometime in mid-August,’ I added.

‘August 14,’ she said.

How could she know the exact date when I couldn’t remember it myself? The question must have been clear on my face. She told me the answer: one of her patients was one of my fellow students.

A listen of analysts?

(To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I felt. Was she betraying a confidence? She didn’t tell me who it was but still . . .)

Next up Work, love, dissertation

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Close encounter of a personal kind, two

It was a barbecue in north west London, a Sunday afternoon at a friend’s, with beer and baked meats and cakes. Sunny and relaxed in a lovely garden and a beautiful Victorian house.

Fortunately, I was more prepared for what happened than the person I encountered. The host was a psychoanalyst and — I knew — a friend to at least one of the tutors on my course. One in particular.

I saw this particular tutor as soon as I walked in. She recognised me, of course. But she took a few moments to work out who I was. Context is all. This was a kind of category error, an eruption of one part of her life into another. It made her feel awkward, I could see. So I moved on to the beer and baked meats.

A little later, I found myself sitting opposite her. She talked about the course, about the strains of Saturday morning seminars, of how the money wasn’t great. Mostly, though, she talked about the students. She was interested in them and concerned for them — or rather, us — in a way that was hard for a non-teacher like myself to imagine. She cared in a way I never would.

Then she asked me why I hadn’t turned up to several of her Saturday morning seminars. I think she said I missed two. Or that I’d only turned up to two. I’m not sure which. I can’t remember my answer. I do know, though, that I didn’t tell the truth.

Then her husband rescued me. ‘What is she like as a teacher?’ he asked. At this moment, of course, the whole patio fell silent and looked to me and my answer. My brain raced and raced and raced. A breath or two passed, maybe. ‘Charismatic,’ I said, telling a truth.

He was pleased. She was pleased. My wife was impressed at my unusual of deployment of tact.

Next up What happened next

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Close encounter of a personal kind, one

Around the time I was doing my exams, a friend invited me to her final show for her art degree. Like me, she was a mature student and presumably making up for something she’d missed out on first time round. Or, rather, felt she had.

It was at Goldsmiths — which is where I took my first degree all those years ago. I’d driven past the building many times. It was on the way to my parents’ house. I’d even walked past it once, with a friend who was set on showing me the bright lights of New Cross. (We didn’t find them. Even the pub in which they filmed Shaun of the Dead was closed, shuttered, boarded, beerless.) But I hadn’t entered Goldsmiths since the day of my last exam.

I knew the art school had a spanking new building, designed by Will Alsop. I’d even got a look at it when I was taken in search of hip New Cross. So I assumed that the show would be in there.

It wasn’t. It was at the back of the back field — which meant I had to go through the front entrance. The way I’d first entered the building when I went there for an interview. The way I’d entered it every time I turned up for a lecture or seminar — which wasn’t that often. The way I’d entered it the day of my final final exam.

How was it? Odd. What was odd about it? That it wasn’t odd. It didn’t feel strange. It didn’t bring back memories. There was a new lighting system but that aside, it looked pretty much the way it did the last time I saw it. We turned right at the front door, then left and down the corridor which led to the side entrance to the main hall in which I had sat down and written my exam. The corridor I’d walked across as I left the exam for the student union bar.

What did I feel? Surprisingly little. I didn’t feel like a stranger or a prodigal son. It wasn’t unpleasant. It wasn’t exciting or comforting or even evocative. It was just . . . the way it was. It was somewhere that I once was and now wasn’t. As a part of my past, it seemed to have no connection with my present. That was then, this was now. Done, dusted. Resolved perhaps.

And the final show itself? That was not that different from way back when either. Lots of conceptual work. Goldsmiths was not big on painting then and it’s even less big on it now. The only major change was the amount of video work. Virtually every ‘piece’ had a video showing itself back to its viewers (and itself). Reflections of the way it used to be — even if only a microsecond earlier

Next up A close encounter at a north London barbecue

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Testing, four . . .

So this year's exams? How did it go?

Well, it was different, in several ways. One, I'd done three-quarters of the exams last year so I only had three questions to answer. Two, to be honest, I'd done a lot less reading this year. Three, I was caught up in finishing my book.

So it was a kind of exams-lite. The revision wasn't so much revision as learning the stuff for the first time. I did my spreadsheet of past questions but it took so little time it didn't feel like it was making the contribution it did last year.

I can't remember exactly how much revision I did. It certainly wasn't as much as I did the previous year and I certainly didn't feel that anxious about the exams. I didn't exactly swan up to them but I did aspire to - maybe even pretend to. I definitely worked hard at concealing any furious below-water paddling there might have been.

Next up Two close encounters, one with my younger self

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The finals curtain

So I got my results. I passed. I can now put new letters after my name — if I were so disposed, which I’m not.

How does it feel?

Like a real achievement. But, inevitably, a bit empty, too.

I’ll write more about this very soon.

Next up More on exams, my dissertation and finishing the course

Monday, 28 September 2009

Testing, three . . .

So . . . if the first time I finished my university exams, I went straight to the bar, got drunk and vowed never to do an exam again, what did I do second time around?

Well, I didn't go straight to the bar and I didn't vow never to do an exam again. I went home and had a cup of tea. Then I took the tube back to Tottenham Court Road and joined my fellow students for a couple of drinks. I didn't get drunk, though, and I didn't vow never to exam again.

I was, to be honest, fairly tired by this point. I was writing a book. I was running the usual life of someone with a living to earn, three children and a small dog. I also had another long-term project which I was about half-way through. Right through the revision, I'd had a touch of back ache which I kept at bay by doing yoga stretched every hour or so.

So what happened next? My back went, of course. I spent weeks in which the smallest journey - across the room, say - was a real struggle. Like everyone else in that position, I suffered through the reality of what some people spend their life having to deal with - and got an unpleasant foretaste, perhaps, of the inevitable difficulties of old age.

I learned, too, that you can keep working through. In fact, I found myself feeling really fortunate that I could keep working through. A lumberjack, say, or a hospital cleaner, would not be so blessed. Me, though, I could sit at a desk or table tapping out words and working hard not to feel sorry for myself.

It was a strangely restricted life. Work. Get fed - itself something of a novelty for me, as I'm usually the one doing the feeding. Sleep. Get up. Work. Get fed. Sleep. I didn't see the local shops for almost a month. I still remember the day I managed to walk to a restaurant for lunch - 200 metres or so. When I got there, I had to sit on the steps for a minute or so to recover.

All of which adds to the reasons I didn't write much about the exams before now and why my blog was so episodic for a while.

So how did I do this year, in my second set of exams?

Next up The answer to that question.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Testing, two . . .

So, fifteen months or so later, I found myself in a room high above Tottenham Court Rd. I'd already taken exams at the end of the first year's study. I'd done well enough in that first set of exams. I had, though, been pretty stressed in the lead-up to them. Why? Because . . .

1. Since learning to touch-type some thirty years ago, I'd barely written more than a short note for someone else to read. My handwriting has always been terrible (worse, actually) and three decades of not writing for other people had done nothing to improve it.

2. I was quite out of practice at studying for exams. I had no real way of knowing what was expected. There were no sample answers to look at. I wondered if criteria had changed since I took my first degree. I did ask a tutor and was, again, told not to worry. But still . . .

3. I did want to do well. I didn't want to shine. Or rather, that would of course be nice but I wouldn't be downcast if I didn't manage it. Getting a really low mark, though, that would be humiliating.

4. There had only been one previous piece of submitted work for the course. Although I'd done well in that, it was far from being a general test of my understanding and knowledge.

5. Somehow, I'd managed to do more units in the first year than I intended. My idea was to do around two-thirds of the course in the first year. But units were moved around and I didn't adjust my schedule accordingly. So I ended up doing three-quarters of it. And so I could do nine out of the necessary twelve exam questions. Which I did. (Despite also facing a looming delivery deadline for my book, Filthy English, Portobello, October 2009.)

So, stressed, I revised. With no guidance, I developed my own strategy. I made a spreadsheet of previous years' questions and did a rough frequency count to predict what would come up in each unit. I wrote a list of concepts, with notes on each. I focused on a few potential questions and wrote draft answers in note form and introductory sections in full. I read and re-read them.

All of which worked, more or less. I reckon I only fell down badly on two papers. One was a new unit for which no one could have predicted the questions. I wrote some fractious rubbish.

The other unit I'm sure I screwed up was the French stuff: Lacan and Andre Green. Despite there only being one seminar on Green to seven or so on Lacan, the exam had always featured a question on each. Further, the Green one was always the same. It was about his big thing, the dead mother complex. (You were supposed to glide over the fact that this was something that was expressed in his own personal history. Mere gossip, in the words of psychoanalysts' favourite brittle, defensive put-down.)

I couldn't, though, bring myself to answer or even revise the Green question. An evening at a lecture by him at the Institute of Psychoanalysis exemplified for me everything I had always hated about the game. It was pompous, endless, petty and spiteful, self-congratulatory and expressed in a language which bore no relation to any I'd learned. It certainly wasn't in either English or French - or even the Cairene Arabic or Ladino of Green's childhood. As I wrote at the time, as evenings go, it was the longest month I've ever endured.

So: no Green. It had to be Lacan then. My calculations pointed to the Lacan question being about the French guru-analyst's deeply silly and wrong notion that the unconscious is structured like a language. I'd not been there for that lecture so I actually had to read some of his quite awful writing.

(That judgment of his prose is not opinion but fact. Even our Lacanian tutor - an amusing and engaging London-based French psychiatrist who dresses like a Balkan gangster - opened his seminars by pointing out what a terrible, terrible writer Lacan was.)

So I tried to read Lacan. And failed. I'd either get angry and argue with every word on the page or I'd drift into some kind of trance state. I'd like to liken it to analysts' aimed-for state of free-floating attention but I can't. Free-floating disattention, more like it. I'd look at a page for what felt like hours - useless hours, at that. Then I'd look at my watch. Hours really had passed. So I gave up on Lacan.

What then did I do when my predicted question came up in the exam? I blagged it, of course. Just as I'd always done in exams I hadn't revised for. I dragged in as much outside knowledge I had - from linguistics, in this case - and slapped it on to the page, filling out what little I knew. And I pointed out that thinking of the unconscious as structured like a language was silly, wrong and - biggest no-no in the psychoanalytic world - in direct contradiction of Freud's thoughts on it.
It's not really a surprise if I got a bad mark for that one, is it?

Next up The aftermath of last year's exams

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Testing, one . . .

Just over 35 years ago, I walked out of an exam room, having finished the final paper of my psychology degree finals. I’d been sitting exams once or twice a year since the age of nine or so. Twelve years: maybe twenty sets of exams. Mostly, I was good at them. But I’d had enough.

I walked into the bar, I announced that I would never take another exam. Then I got drunk.

I don’t know if I meant my decision to last a lifetime but I certainly stuck to it for long enough. Apart from taking my driving test (and maybe the odd personality test in a magazine), I sat no exams for 35 years. Nor did I miss them.

It’s not that I don’t think exams are a good thing — now and or back then. I think they’re a good way of assessing capability. They’re not perfect, of course, but they are a pretty good measure of knowledge, understanding and ability to work smart and fast in a stressful and unpredictable situation. All incredibly useful skills in life and work’s not uncommon tight spots.

Renouncing exams was a purely personal thing. Enough was, just, enough. I felt I’d had my lifetime’s fill of them.

So, when I decided I wanted to do a masters in psychoanalysis, I was put off by the fact that the UCL course had exams. It was clearly the best and toughest course — closest to my house, too. But exams . . . I really, really couldn’t be having with them.

I mentioned this to a university lecturer friend, Elizabeth. She was her usual direct self. ‘Don’t be so silly,’ she said. ‘You of all people shouldn’t worry. You’ve spent a lifetime writing to deadline under pressure. You’ll be fine.’

Next up So was I? Fine, that is.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

School’s out

It’s over. In the words of Alice Cooper (and the playground rhyme that inspired him), no more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks.

That’s it. It’s all over bar the mark. I’ve done the seminars, the essays, the exams, the dissertations. Somewhere down the line, I'll get the piece of paper to prove it.

Meantime . . . I took an extended summer break from this blog — even longer than I intended, frankly. I will now, though, be posting fairly regularly. In particular, I’ll be writing about the course and stuff I learned on it — about psychoanalysis, yes, but also about people (in which category, I include myself, at least some of the time).

So . . . forthcoming attractions include:

Dissertation writing — as viewed from a lifetime of writing

Exams — what’s a grown man sitting at a desk scribbling furiously with a pen

Drugs — should I have taken neuro-enhancers?

Chance encounters of a psychoanalytic kind — a barbecue of analysts (where? in north west London, of course)

Sunny Goodge Street — what I’ll miss about the course

Then and now — a (brief) return to south east London and finishing with academia for the second time

Typography — me and IKEA

Lacan and le con — what the French psychoanalyst kept in his cupboard

See you soon.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Self and others

I’ve made a few small changes to the way this blog looks and is arranged.

One I’ve added a new photo of myself. I’ve already asked some of you this question but no-one has got it right yet: who took the photo? There’s a prize for a correct answer — and it’s not a signed copy of the picture. Clue one: he’s not unknown (actually, that’s two clues, isn’t it). Clue two: there’s another clue lower down in this post.

Two I’ve added a link to rocksbackpages (rocking writing under free-ish associations below). It’s an archive of all kinds of pop music writing. There’s loads of my stuff there. I think you might have to pay for some of it but it is also available free via some local libraries. There is a link on the rocksbackpages home page to something called Freekly. The idea here is that you sign up — for free — and the site interrogates your iTunes, then sends you links to pop music stories, old and new, that you might be interested in. If you then buy stuff on click-through, I get money. That is the idea anyway. I find it quite fun: it’s even recommended my own writing to me. So it clearly has taste.

Three I’ve added a link to Professional Photography magazine (legendary photography, under free-ish associations below). I’ve been writing a series for them, on . . . legendary photographers. I’ve done a dozen or so far, including Guy Bourdin, William Eggleston, Herb Ritts and Deborah Turbeville. As soon as I’ve done posting this, I’m off to finish one on Araki.

Next up Shhhh

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Group theory

People were always asking me the same question about my course. It was the one I’d have asked me, too, if I weren’t me. It was this: ‘Theoretical?’ As in, why Theoretical Psychoanalytic Studies? Does that mean they’re not real studies, only theoretical ones? Some put it less politely.

I’ve always given the same answer — there or thereabouts, anyway. I tell them that it’s theoretical as opposed to clinical. That is, it’s not training to become an analyst or a therapist etc. It’s the study of psychoanalytic theory. Its practice, too, as it happens. But not how to practise it.

Last week, I came up with another answer: a less abstract, more concrete one. It comes in two parts.

Part one. We are sitting in the seminar room. The seminar leader is outlining the work, life and theories of Wilfred Bion, an analyst who helped set up the Tavistock. His notion of ‘containment’ has seeped out into the wider world. Roughly, it’s the idea that the analyst can take a patient’s messy, unhappy emotions, hold them ‘inside’ himself for a bit of processing and return them in slightly better shape. It can sound hippy-dippy but Bion didn’t mean it that way. He was looking to explain how patients could and did get ‘better’.

Bion also did a lot of work on group dynamics. In some accounts, he is the major influence in the early development of studies on how groups function — and dysfunction. This was raised in the seminar. There was, though, only the briefest reference to the fact that we, in the room, were a group — and no attempt to discuss or dissect its dynamics. That’s theoretical for you — a discussion of the practice rather than the practice itself.

Part two. After class one Saturday, I’m having lunch with the other students who, like me, had chosen to do the course over two years. We are discussing this year’s students — the way you do, the way anyone would. We talk about them as individuals and as a group.

Interestingly, we each have quite different views of them — as individuals and as a group. For some of us, they are far more intellectual than the previous year. For others, they like to talk more. For some of us, they are more engaged in the subject. For others, they are less worldly. For some of us, there is a feeling that the course directors thought the previous year’s lot — ie us — were a bit flaky. Others of us thought: whatever.

What we all agreed on, in an unspoken way, was that there was a group, that this year’s intake were a group and that we were a different group — still essentially linked to last year’s students who have now left. How easily and inevitably are groups formed, I thought. And how we look for and mark the things which make our group distinctive. And how small a step it can be from there to marking the things which make our group better — or, at least, we imagine they do. And from there to the eternal tragedy of Freud’s narcissism of small differences.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

A tale of two dumplings

Some years ago now, my father-in-law had a stroke. So it was decided that, to lighten the load for my mother-in-law, we would have that year’s seder at our house.*

The seder meal is a fairly standard one — though it varies from family to family. The one I’m used to starts with chicken soup plus all the trimmings. Bits of chicken, noodles and — most particular and important of all — kneidlach. Little dumplings.

I’d eaten kneidlach many times, of course, and can’t say I’d liked them much. They’re the kind of thing, I guess, that you have to grow up eating to appreciate. About the size of a very large marble and the colour of a camouflaged tank, they’re heavy eating. To my mind, they’d be better put to use as large calibre ammunition.

I’d never made them, though. I’d not even watched someone make them. So, charged with providing a batch for fifteen or so people, I did what I thought was the most sensible thing. I looked up the recipe in Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food — to Jewish food what the OED is to the English language.

I followed it carefully, finely chopping the coriander, beating the egg whites into peaks and folding them in with a knife. These kneidlach were fantastic, by far the best I had ever eaten — light, fluffy, fragrant, joyous.

I’m not a big praiser of my own cooking in public but I was about to say something when I caught the air of general distaste around the table. These aren’t right, was the clear and general vibe. These are not kneidlach as we know them. But they’re much better, aren’t they — light, fluffy, fragrant etc etc. Absolutely, I was told. That’s what’s wrong with them. Kneidlach are meant to be heavy, leaden, drably coloured. Home is where the heartburn is, I guess.

So I never made kneidlach again. Which is where this story might have ended. Then I happened to be reading a New Yorker profile of Claudia Roden. In it, she told a story about what she, a Sephardic Jew from Cairo, thought of the food served by her husband’s Ashkenazi family in London. She found it quite awful, leaden, colourless and flavourless — dreary, central European, stodgy. In particular, she hated the kneidlach.

Years later, she took her revenge. When writing the kneidlach recipe for her masterwork, she invented her own recipe for them — a Sephardic reimagining of an Ashkenazi staple. Which, of course, was the one I followed so carefully. So light, so fragrant, so . . . inauthentic.

* The seder is the Passover meal, the one that Jesus is tucking into in the Da Vinci painting that the book got all coded up about.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

I have seen the future and it’s . . . pandas

I was in Israel last week, for a wedding — eight hundred or so of the bride and groom’s closest friends. It was a Sephardic-Ashkenazi marriage, held in a kind of pretend oasis in the rich flatlands south of Tel Aviv.

There was food (lots, of course). There was drink (lots, too). There were no suits and virtually no ties — but many, many deep-cut frocks, somewhat to the dismay of the religious, Sephardic side of the union. There were Power-pointed speeches. There were video-screens.

There was dancing — to modern house, to the delight of my son and the dismay of the older guests. The newly-weds were, as tradition demands, hoisted up high on shoulders. The groom’s brothers and friends hit the shots and circle-danced.

And there were pandas . . . giant, inflated, dancing pandas. Four-metre tall pandas, with men inside. They joined in on the dance floor, buffeted and barrelling around till exhaustion set in.

So? So this is where you first read about it. I’m as certain as I can be that this was the first appearance of inflatable giant pandas at a wedding anywhere. The bride had seen them on a TV show and thought: that’s exactly what weddings have previously lacked. The way you do.

I could, though, hear the minds of the young girls on the dance-floor whirling away. They were thinking: when I get married, giant pandas, that’s what I’ll want. But, Daddy, they’ll say, there are always giant pandas at weddings, it’s tradition. Etc etc.

The future started here.

Next up A story about the Sephardic-Ashkenazi thing, starring Claudia Roden . . . and me