Saturday, 25 December 2010

Music for (your) pleasure, a Christmas bonus

Most Christmases, I send out a CD compilation of Christmas (etc) tracks. This year, I decided to go fully electronic and distribute it via Dropbox. If you're on my blogmail list you should have had a link message. If not email me (or leave a comment) and I'll link you up . . .

Whichever, whatever, here is the tracklist for the seasonal compilation, name of Christmash . . .

1 Santa Claus Is Coming to Town Bill Evans

2 Swinging For Christmas (Boppin' for Santa) Tom Archia

3 Gin For Christmas Lionel Hampton

4 Christmas Swing Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli

5 The Christmas Song Dexter Gordon

6 The Christmas Song Vince Guaraldi

7 Santa Claus Is Coming To Town Paul Bley

8 White Christmas Bobby Timmons

9 Winter Wonderland Bobby Timmons

10 White Christmas Earl Hines

11 Winter Wonderland Chet Baker

12 Winter Wonderland Allen Toussaint

13 Jingle Bells New Birth Brass Band

14 Jingle Bells Featuring Ed Calle, Arturo Sandoval And Jim G

15 The Christmas Song Gene Ammons

16 My Little Drum Vince Guaraldi

17 We Three Kings Of Orient Are Sergio Salvatore

18 O Tannenbaum (Oh Christmas Tree) Jesse Davis

Next up That long-promised next part of le comte de M Lacan and le con de Courbet

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Music for your pleasure, number seven

Finally, in this short series of my Theme Time Radio Hour writing, is something I wrote for the Ace magazine about the second volume in the series . . .

Imagine, for a moment, that you've lost your entire memory. You've forgotten everything you once knew about life and the world. Or maybe you're a Martian in possession of a good spaceship and in want of a wife on Earth.

In either case, imagine further that you are handed a copy of Theme Time Radio Hour with your host, Bob Dylan - Session 2 and told: let this be your guide. How will you do? What will you learn about life, love and the world? Will its 49-tracks - from many decades, places and genres - teach you enough to strike out on your own?

Saul Steinberg's famous New Yorker cover (March 29, 1976) imagined the 'View of the World from 9th Avenue' - that is, through the psychogeographical prism of uptown westsiders. The partiality of its vision is its truth. Here we have something similar: a View of the World from Studio B of the Abernathy Building. (Call me sceptic but I do sometimes wonder if that location actually has a zip code or phone number.)

What do you learn if you let Bob Dylan show you how the world looks out of that studio window? And how might that partial view measure up in practical terms? How much useful information will it give you about the physical and psychological environment of that big world out there that is currently a total blank to your cerebral cortex? (I'm guessing a little here, to be honest, about the details of Martian brain structure.)

Here is what I reckon you'd learn. Some of it, anyway - even the best of guide books leave you work of your own to do. Think of this as a top ten fact about the world as viewed from the Abernathy.

1. Human beings like to have sex with each other - and with each other's partners. This causes problems, sometimes to the point of violence (Loretta Lynn's Fist City), murder even (Porter Waggoner's Cold Hard Facts of Life).

2. Love is a complicated thing (Laura Lee's Separation Line, Jo-El Sonnier's Tear-Stained Letter, James Brown's Three Hearts In a Tangle, BB King's Walkin Dr Bill, The Dirtbombs' Your Love Belongs Under a Rock, Lucinda Williams' Changed The Lock).

3. Chickens have a special significance, particularly at celebratory events (Wanda Jackson's Let's Have A Party). They also choose to spent at least part of their time in trees (Mississippi John Hurt's The Chicken).

4. The French pass their early mornings pondering whether to wear a red or a blue sweater. Or, to be more specific, that's how young Franco-Tunisian women of the mid-1960s spent the first part of the day (Jacqueline Taïeb's 7 Heures du matin).

5. Cigarettes are both a central fact of night-time life and a contra-indicator to marital stability (Joe Maphis and Rose Lee's Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music, Red Ingle's Cigareets, Whusky and Wild Wild Women).

6. People change their names, sometimes to somewhat silly ones (Sun Ra's Rocket Nine Takes Off For The Planet Venus, Swamp Dogg's Sam Stone).

7. Inter-generational conflict has an inevitable quality to it but it is also one which changed somewhat in the late 1950s (Mose Allison's Young Man's Blues).

8. If you're after bagging a big, stripy cat or two in the subcontinent, you could pick worse guides than the man from Toronto whose starlight years were the two in the mid-1920s that he spent working in an alcove of the New Princes Restaurant, Piccadilly (Hal Swain and his Band's Hunting Tigers Out in India).

9. Women are human beings of many parts, not all of them always the ones they were born with (Archibald's She's Scattered Everywhere).

10. When it comes to satisfying a man, you should not underestimate the attractions of a limp wrist (Charlie Feather's One Hand Loose).

Frankly, as catechisms go, I've come across worse guides to the many meanings of life, love and chickens.

Next up I finally get back to M Lacan and the comte d'un con

Monday, 20 December 2010

Music for (your) pleasure, number six

And here is something general that I wrote for the first Theme Time Radio Hour compilation . . .

What, I wonder, do we dream of when we dream of Bob Dylan? And, more intriguingly, what does Bob Dylan dream of when he dreams of us?

This is what I think: he dreams of a small boy called Robert who lives in a small city, an industrial centre in a rural landscape. It's a nowhere town that was once called Alice but had its name changed when an enormous hole was dug where its new name used to be. That giant hole was - and still is - the biggest of its kind in the world, an open-cast iron mine.

It's a place that seems to doze on the periphery but is, in fact, also surprisingly at the heart of things. When Robert was growing up, it had the most lavishly appointed high school auditorium in the whole country. He played there, in a rock and roll band.

It's the head point for the drainages to three great seas, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. Swim up any of the great rivers of the eastern United States (Canada, too) and it's where you'll end up, like a salmon returning to spawn.

It's where the Greyhound Bus company was founded and headquartered for many years. It sits between the two great spinal cords of the continent - to the west, the eternal geographical one, the Mississippi River, to the east, the old national one, Highway 61.

Here, young Robert took in all the musics that swam to him up all those rivers, that spilled out of all those long-haul buses, that drifted up the great natural wonder that the Cheyenne called Big Greasy River - and the first European to see it called the River of the Holy Ghost.

Blues and folk and country and R&B, that's what Robert's dreams were made of. And I think he had a dream of a radio dee-jay out there somewhere, distant enough to be mythic, close enough to be real. This dee-jay would play records for Robert and his imaginary friends. He'd link song with song, mixing and matching and combining and recombining them. It'd be a bridal outfit of a radio show: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. And the dee-jay would tell stories to go with the songs: about them, inspired by them, around them.

In dreams begin responsibilities, wrote Delmore Schwartz, poet, drunk, Lou Reed's teacher. And so Robert eventually became his own dream, hosting Theme Time Radio Hour, week in, week out. Last time, I looked there had been 69 shows. I've got them all in my iTunes and so, whenever I shuffle-play, I'll always hear Bob Dylan's voice, reading me a Robert Frost poem or making one of those wry digs he makes every time he plays a Beatles track. It's strange: one of the most elusive of performers now shares his thoughts with me on an almost daily basis.

Theme Time Radio Hour is the mix-tapes collection we've all dreamed of making. It's both a taxonomy and a topography of 20th century popular musics. Not all of them, it's true. There's no Charles Trenet, say. No Abba, either. But Grandpa Jones is there. Jack Teagarden, Charles Mingus, the Donays and the White Stripes, too. The show is always as happy to let songs collide and divorce as it is following them up the aisle or encouraging them to cuddle up in bed together.

Dylan (and his collaborators, I guess) approach 20th century pop the way 18th century naturalists figured out how tomatoes are related to tobacco and where swallows go to in the winter. Making sense of things nearly always involves categorising them somehow.

As these things do, it started with life's basics, things like Weather, Mother, Father. And it's pretty much stuck with the everyday: School, Sleep, Food, Tears. It's addressed life's two great certainties, Death and Taxes - though not yet the third, Nurses. It's travelled a bit: Tennessee, New York. It's even found space for a little product placement: Cadillac.

Roger Armstrong (and his collaborators, I should imagine) have taken this great, ongoing taxonomic and topographic project and refined it down into an elegant precis of the original. A taxonomy of a taxonomy, a topography of a topography. I found myself thinking about something I was told only recently: that any chip of any diamond will always be a mini-version of the whole diamond, a microcosm of all its glories.

So this double CD, too, takes and shakes the everyday world, raising all kinds of new questions and notions along the way. Listen - carefully or lightly, or both - and you find new thoughts on something as old and universal as the Heart (show 41, Billie Holiday's Good Morning Heartache) or the potential erotogenic symbolism of Musical Instruments (show 37, Dinah Washington's Big Long Slidin' Thing) or the bibbity-bobbity relationship between family life, heredity and alcoholic Drink (show 3, Mary Gauthier's I Drink).

Then there's the two versions - one black, one white - of Pistol Packin' Mama (show 25, Guns). They got me thinking afresh about what really is one of pop's oddest megahits. It had a 15-year run as a scene-maker, from around the time the time the world went to war to the time Elvis went into the army. Maybe there's another song recorded by both Bing Crosby (plus Andrews Sisters) and Gene Vincent (plus Blue Caps). I never heard it.

If it weren't for the jauntiness and accordion of Al Dexter's original, I'd have realised long ago that it's a pop musical parallel to the same period's film noir, with the same anxieties about women's new place in a new world (and the bedroom). Personally, I see Joan Crawford in the lead, reprising her role in Mildred Pierce, only with a blam-blam-blam in every hand, as Dylan put it in John Wesley Harding.

A fast dance tune about sex and violence, drink, guns and girls that ends with the singer's murder. If you can't find your own dreams, schemes and themes in there somewhere, I doubt you're human.

Plus A little seasonal story-telling

Next up What does the world look like through Bob Dylan's eyes?

Friday, 17 December 2010

Music for (your) pleasure, five

This one was the very last track on the first volume of Ace Records Theme Time Radio Hour compilations . . .


(Jonathan Richman)


Home Of The Hits LP HH 1910 76) 4.03

From Show 18 “Radio”

Roadrunner is one of the most intriguing songs in all pop history. It looks backwards, to the Velvet Underground's three-chord Sister Ray - the riff is the same, only minus one chord. It looks forward, to punk - the Sex Pistols played it, early on, and recorded it, late on.

It appears to be playing with irony - a hymn to 'the modern world' has to be a gag, right? But I don't think it's actually meant to be ironic. I think Jonathan Richman means every word of it, really does love Massachusetts and the modern world, if in a Jonathan Richman way.

It's a road song yet, of the many songs about specific roads - Route 66 etc - it is surely the only one about a by-pass. Not just any by-pass, though. Route 128, which loops around Boston, was 'the first limited access circumferential highway in the US'. It opened in 1951, the year Richman was born, in Natick, less than five miles to the west. Like London's M25, it's evolved, over time, to become half ring-road, half metaphor.

As home - and connecting ribbon - to generations of computer and software companies, it's developed a whole other imaginative life as an adjective, a synonym for 'hi-tech'. In other words, Route 128 really is the modern world. What sounded like - and still sounds like - a naïve projection was, in fact, a fairly accurate prediction of our future. Out of the mouths of babes and Jonathan Richman.

Next up A trip up river, to deepest Minnesota

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Music for (your) pleasure, four This is something I wrote for the first Theme Time Radio Hour compilation, back in 2008.

TOMMY GUN (Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Nicholas Headon)


CBS 6788 (1978) 3.15

From Show 25 “Guns”

I'm not sure if I was there when Tommy Gun was cut but I was there when the Give 'Em Enough Rope sessions were just starting, in a deconsecrated church in west London, with war films projected on the studio wall. And I was there when they were finishing, too, in an office block in mid-town Manhattan, with three studios running simultaneously - one each for recording, overdubbing and sequencing. New York and London, war and grandiosity: the story of the Clash. One of them anyway. Nostalgia is another.

The Thompson gun was the very first hand-held machine gun, developed in the aftermath of WWI. By 1978, it had long been a museum piece. Once upon a time, though, it was the the Depression era rum-runner's Chicago typewriter, the rat-tat-tat of the St Valentine's Day Massacre. It was John Dillinger's chosen weapon. Baby Face Nelson's and Pretty Boy Floyd's, too. That's why Joe Strummer wrote a song about it. It was a gun with history and meanings: romantic, sexy ones.

Like so much about the Clash, Tommy Gun seeks to have it both ways - and manages, it mostly, too. It's a violent song about the horrors of violence. It knows how much fun shooting and killing people is - in our secret thoughts anyway. But it also knows how terrible guns and death are in reality. Its power and meaning distills from the tension between those two tragically incompatible thoughts. Oh, and from Topper Headon's drumming, too.

Next up Jonathan Richman's journeys through the outskirts of Boston, Mass
Music for (your) pleasure, three For this third sample of my writing from Theme Time Radio Hour, I tackle the world's greatest dancer . . .


(Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields)

FRED ASTAIRE with the Oscar Peterson Group

Clef MGC 1002 (1952) 2.58

From Show 78 “Night”

To explain the exquisiteness of Fred Astaire's voice, best start with his legs. The clearest view is in The Barkleys of Broadway - he and Ginger Rogers dance in kilts. His legs are so, so thin - the stuff of chopsticks. They were that way for a reason, though: his exceptional physical balance and grace. You and I need muscles. He got by on air.
His singing was the same. Light to the point of non-existence, it was a speech-like expression of a deep, subtle understanding that the meaning of a great show tune is in the dance between tune and lyrics. And this is one of the greatest. Debuted, by Astaire, in the 1936 movie, Swing Time, it's become an untypically rueful wedding song standard. This version was cut in 1952 in Los Angeles, at loose, lengthy studio sessions with a cool jazz sextet led by Oscar Peterson. The music is by Jerome Kern, a German Jewish New Yorker who fell in love, one summer night in 1910, with the landlord's daughter at the Swan, Walton-on-Thames. They lived the happy-ever-after life of a Broadway hit. The words are by Dorothy Fields - Jewish, from New Jersey and not so lucky in real love. But an exceptional love song lyricist - notice the internal rhyme of 'warm' and 'for me'. When Kern first played her the melody, she left the room to cry. 'I couldn't stop, it was so beautiful.' Love, pain, tears. Death, too. Good or bad, every marriage ends in tears.

PS If you want to hear this song (or any of the others I've posted about), either post a comment or email and I'll send you a link.
Next up The Clash and their Chicago piano
Music for (your) pleasure, number two

So, for the second of my writings for the Theme Time Radio Hour compilation, we move from the modern Manhattan of 14th St to the eternal hope springs of gospel . . .

16. THE BLOOD (LC Cohen)


Dooto 602 (1960) 2.06 From Show 80 “Blood”

Pressed for my religious affiliation, I tend to reply 'North London Jewish-ish (through marriage) Catholic atheist' - and, to steal an old Nik Cohn line, not untypical of the sort. As such, I feel as qualified to comment on matters sacred as the merely worshipful - more so, perhaps, not being distracted by faith*.

Founded in Los Angeles in 1944, the Zion Travelers worked steadily but never made the headlines. Though The Blood sounds like it could easily predate Hymns Ancient and Modern, it was actually made in 1962, for Dootone - the label that Earth Angel built. LC Cohen, manager and lead tenor, sings/shouts/wails/testifies: 'Weeeell, bloood, running warm, aaaargh-uh-h, o Lord, in your veins, wooh.' What's he on about? And what is it that a non-Bible-basher like me can find so moving - irrefutable, even - in such unchecked sky pilotry?

My guess is it's because it's a kind of Rothko painting for the ears. An essentially abstract piece of work that floats on the boundary of consciousness - where the inchoate begins to be represented as language. Such expressions of a universally shared sense of the ineffable are pop's half-secret core: from Clyde McPhatter's opening cries on Billy Ward and His Dominoes' The Bells to Lorraine Ellison's despair between 2:42 and 2:54 of Stay With Me to the piano sound at 1:06 (and again at 2:09) on Abba's Mamma Mia.

* Not that I have anything against the religious. I have a cousin -a successful lawyer - who believes in fairies but I still let her drive my car.

Next up Fred Astaire's wedding song.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Music for (your) pleasure, number one

One of the other things in my life . . . I help out (a little) on the Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour compilations put out by Ace Records — and my old friend Roger Armstrong. Among other things, this time round, for the third volume, it involved such burdensomeness as dinner at Moro. It also involves my writing about music — something I don't do that often these days.

Each album is a double with forty or fifty songs that Dylan played on his show. There is no Dylan voice on there. (Actually, there is one tiny, tiny snatch of him and I'll provide a reward to anyone who can tell me where it is.) There is a really extensive booklet for each album — and now a cardboard slipcase to hold all three albums. If I didn't already have it, I'd command you to buy it for me this Christmas. (So buy it for someone else instead. You won't regret it. The range and quality of the music is astonishing. The latest one has Jerry Lee Lewis singing as Iago in Othello. Can pop get any better than that?)

I've written a few bits for the sleevenotes etc now and thought you might be interested in them. I'll be posting one a day till I've finished them (then get back to Lacan's con). First up is Laura Cantrell's version of 14th St. If you don't know the tune, post a comment or email me with your address and I will send you a link to my dropbox which will enable you to fetch it etc. So . . .


Taken from the album “Humming By The Flowered Vine” Matador LP OLE 651 (2005) 3.16

From Show 83 “Street Map”

A song about boundaries and borderlines - crossed, uncrossed and uncrossable - sung by Laura Cantrell, a Nashville emigrant to New York whose biggest champion was an Englishman, John Peel. It's a pinhole view, she said, of 'the moment when you see someone you're obsessed with - and decide whether it's worth it to say hello or stay safely in the background.'

Love and not-love, desire and rejection: they couldn't have a more evocative setting than the broad crosstown street which is not just the unofficial divide between uptown and downtown Manhattan but an interzone between the ancient and modern worlds. It's where the city's rigid street grid plan begins. It's where they put the barricades on 9/11. Originally, it was - as Bob Dylan put it on Theme Time Radio Hour - 'the old artery of Manhattan'. By the 1970s, it was meat-packing joints, gimcrack shops and dangerously louche gay sex clubs - The Anvil, The Toilet, The Manhole. These days, it's upscale fashiony.

The song's writer, Emily Spray, lived on its eastern reaches in its crack low-day of the late 1980s/early 1990s. 'It's quite literal. I had a crush on a guy who was unavailable and I used to run into him on 14th street and have this emotional experience. I could tell he enjoyed my attraction to him and played with my feelings a little. From there came the song.' With, at its core, a borderline never crossed. And a heart-rending shard of psychogeographical word-play - 'not counting the blocks between you and me'.

Next up The Zion Travelers' ecstastic religiosity

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Un conte d'un con et aussi de M Lacan, part one

First to the National Portrait Gallery*. A couple of months ago, I was writing a piece on 'sexy vs sexist' for Professional Photographer. (I write a monthly column for the magazine, on a legendary photographer. Here's one on Robert Frank. I'll put a fuller list in a future posting. I also write longer pieces.

As part of that sexy vs sexist piece, I sent out an email to all of you on my blogmail list. (If you want to be added, post a comment or email me.) It contained links to various photographs and asked you to rate them as sexy or sexist. As I hoped and expected, the responses were thoughtful and widely varied. One man's urge to goose is rarely another woman's desire for a gander. And, most strikingly, vice versa.

Among the images - and, in a way, the thing that made me think of doing the email - was a photograph that had been shortlisted for the National Portrait Gallery's Taylor Wessing portraiture prize. Titled My British Wife, it is . . . well, I'll quote from the piece I wrote . . .

'a portrait by Greek photographer Panayiotis Lamprou, of his real wife. Unnamed, she is sitting in the sun, at an outdoor table. Behind her is a half-open Mediterranean blue door. Beside her is a cooking pan, with a little food still clinging to its edges - an omelette, we are told. She has finely shaped eyebrows, an aquiline nose, grey-blue eyes and a wide, pale pink-lipped mouth. Her hair is tousled and falls messily over the top of her halter-topped sundress. You can see a light touch of hair in her left armpit. She sits, looking directly at the camera/viewer, her legs apart, on a chair cushion almost the same colour as the door. She has no knickers on.

She also has no pubic hair - shaved, I guess - and a notably expressive vulva. Context and intent aside, it is the stuff - the raw material, anyway - of pornography. Or, at least, what is usually meant when people use the word, pornography. Certainly, the NPG was worried enough about it to crop the picture in half for its website, turning it into a plain and almost unexplicable image of the top half of an attractive young woman.'

So, when invited to the press show, I made sure I went. The picture didn't win. It was a runner-up**. The photographer was there - though not his British wife. I talked to him briefly but his English (not fluent) and my Greek (non-existent) weren't really up to a meaningful conversation, particularly in a room where everyone was acting as if there wasn't something notably notable about the convergence of the image of his wife, him and a shuttle of artsy journalists.

I did think of asking him: how's the wife? But I wasn't sure the humour would translate. He did, though, hand me a leaflet, the press release for his picture, written by the art critic of the Greek broadsheet Kathimerini. It's a not unthoughtful piece, if marked by the rhetoric of art-speak and Mediterranean journalism - 'condensation of beatitude and lightweight materialism'. It describes the picture as 'a rather delicate, unpretentious requiem for femininity, a reminder of the self-esteem of the naked body before the fall and sin . . .' Myself, I think that's a naïve, unhistorical approach - once the fall has happened, it can't be unfalled, so to speak, its tragic irrevocability is the trade-off we made for self-knowledge. But still . . .

Its writer continues: 'but also a reminder of the admiration of a man towards a woman, a prompt to the classical work of art of . . .' I should have seen this coming but didn't . . . 'Gustav Courbet, The Origin of the World.' And then, of course, he references this painting's last private owner, the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. He poses a question: can we accuse 'Lacan for voyeurism, the man who changed the course of psychoanalysis and modern thinking'? He clearly thinks not. I'm not so sure.

I've been thinking about Lacan's ownership of that painting for some time now but had somehow never quite got round to posting the blog about it that I intended to write. Ever since I'd learned that he'd owned the picture, I'd been intrigued by that fact. I already knew the painting but . . . well, there was something odd about his ownership. It was, apart from anything else, such a, well, French thing to do.

I wondered how that had come about and looked it up. It's a story. I'll tell it in the next blog or two.

* Site of one of the world's great escalator journeys. (For some years, I have been making a small collection of them.) It begins in the modern day and takes you back to the 16th century.

** Nothing was said but there had been a similar picture in the show a few years ago. The differences are notable, though.

Meanwhile, a little French? (I knew the song already but found this video because it’s in the new Martin Scorsese film, a documentary about Fran Lebowitz.)

Next up Some music writing of mine, occasioned by the arrival of Theme Time Radio Hour Three

Soon Part deux of this conte (in which a Turk tempts a desperate man)

Friday, 12 November 2010

Wonders of the modern world, number five . . . the sound of no-hand clapping

It was the Sarah Kane play, Blasted, a revival at the Lyric, Hammersmith. I’d not seen it first time round, probably put off by the reviews which described it as needlessly violent and juvenile.

It’s now fifteen years later. Fifteen years. The same gap as between, say, Elvis’s first hit — or Look Back In Anger — and Pink Floyd’s sixth album - or Last Tango In Paris. Or Anarchy In The UK and Madonna’s Blond Ambition.

It’s a great play, I decided. Of course, it’s violent. Then it was the time of the Balkan civil wars - it’s almost a struggle now to recall how staggeringly violent they were and how shocking it was to have something happen quite so close to, well, Primrose Hill.

It is, of course, clearly marked by Beckett and Ionesco and Albee etc, blah blah. But it is also a very funny play. More than that, it’s a comedy of manners, very English, almost traditional. A couple in a hotel room with a man who wants to have sex and a younger woman who doesn’t and the man ends up — inadvertently and amusingly - short of some of his clothing. As my friend Gerry who was with me said, it’s a kind of Brian Rix farce.

I found myself thinking of it as Noel Coward with — if my Nadsat is still with me — a touch of the old ultraviolence. A couple in two different hotel rooms, playing out the not always pleasant realities of romantic entanglement.

Which is why it’s so funny — in this production at least. Tragedy is, of course, my splitting a finger nail. Comedy, though, is a man (a journalist, a tabloid writer, a buffoonish parody of one) who has . . .

* bitten his girlfriend’s vulva till it bleeds

* been buggered - on his hotel bed - with a pistol by an Irish-accented terrorist (who now lies dead beside the bed)

* eaten the leg of a dead baby (having disinterred the infant from its onstage grave)

* had both his eyes removed — for the terrorist’s snack, I think

. . . and who is standing up to his chest in the baby’s now-emptied grave. It’s raining on him through a hole in the roof, too.

See what I mean about farce. As Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest can be seen as an antic inversion of Oedipus Rex, so this play is inside-out Ray Cooney. Comedy played as tragedy.

Anyway, to continue, standing there, buggered and eyeless, having feasted on unroasted baby, in the pissing rain, he opens his mouth, pauses, then says ‘Thank you’. The human comedy. The precision of the line — and its truth.

I was, though, the only one who laughed - as I suspected I might be so I muffled it somewhat.

Anyway, that’s all by the way of preamble to what happened next - to the reason for this piece. What happened next was . . . nothing. Complete quiet in the audience. Complete darkness onstage. Complete quite onstage. And so on. And on and on and on and on. The sound of no-hands clapping.

I was delighted. At last, I realised, I might discover the answer to a question I’d posed to myself but never got round to asking of someone who might actually know the answer. The question is this: how does the clapping start at the end of a play?

Most of the time, of course, it’s not a question. The final line is delivered with the duh-duh-duh of a joke’s punchline. Or everyone knows the ending anyway. You know exactly where you are when, for example, Fortinbras announces: ‘Go, bid the soldiers shoot.’

Sometimes, though, it’s not clear quite where you’ve got to in the play. Is it a pause, a very long one, or is that your lot? I saw Sondheim’s Into The Woods in the park this year and, never having seen it or heard it in full before, I wasn’t at all sure if the end of the first half was the end of the whole thing. I wasn’t the only one, either. My friend Dorothy who was with me felt the same thing, too.**

So the lights dimmed on Blasted and the buggered journalist was, presumably, still there in the dark hole, getting wetter and wetter. All was silence, though.

No one clapped. No one stirred. (Perhaps it’s relevant that it was a Saturday afternoon matinee. Perhaps not.) The silence went on for thirty seconds, then more. A minute, I’d say. Then more, more. Perhaps even two minutes. Then rustles. Then the faintest of, well, not laughs exactly, amusements perhaps.

I’d always assumed — on the basis of absolutely no evidence at all — that the ushers were instructed, under these conditions, to start the clapping. Clearly, I was wrong.

Still more silence. No clapping anyway. Just the sound of people starting to turn round for a check on the house or whisper, not quite quietly enough, to their partner.

Then, finally, it came. The first clap, from someone over to the left of the balcony. And everyone joined in, of course. And the curtain rose and the cast of three — buggered, wet, dead, eyeless etc — stood to take the applause. Even they were smiling. Laughing almost.

* A knowing parody, perhaps, given that both her parents were journalists. But then, for that reason, perhaps not.

** Mr Sondheim himself was there that night, too, as it happens. I saw him at the interval, with a drink being brought to him. Astonishingly, given the obsessiveness of Sondheim fans and fanettes — fanosexuals, too — no one else seemed to notice him. I couldn’t bring myself to go over and tell him about the wonders of his rhymes.

I’ll regret it. I know I will. I bumped into the great TV writer Jack Rosenthal at a party and didn’t tell him about the wonders of his gags. He died not long after. I still regret my inaction, shamefully.

Why didn’t I do something? In Rosenthal’s case, I think because I was worried he’d say something like: which of my plays do you most admire? And the thought of that prospective question emptied my brain of the tiniest detail of his work. Well, all but the title of his Barmitzvah Boy — and that’s not enough to sustain a conversation past its opening sallies.

Next up A visit to the National Portrait Gallery (and maybe the story of Lacan’s con).

Friday, 5 November 2010

Wonders of the modern world, number four

There, on a council estate, in the bit of north London which has stopped being Camden Town and has not quite become Kentish Town, there, just off the main road, slap in the middle of that estate, is a crazy golf course. It's an official one, with all the tricky little holes and tunnels and slopes you get in a seaside amusement park. It even has a sign on it, saying something like: this golf course is for the residents of this estate and their guests.

A crazy golf course on a council estate? I stretch to even imagine the meeting at which that was discussed and agreed. What was said? Could anyone keep a straight face? Did they say things like: swings and roundabouts are so 20th century! Or: it's a narrative which addresses the middle-class hegemony of golf. Or: nothing is too good for council tenants, they deserve a crazy golf course.

I guess that I could, of course, call up someone at Camden council and ask them but, frankly, I'm happier with my musings than I might be with the facts.

I walk past it fairly often and I've yet to see anyone playing on it, though. I've always fancied having a go but the problem is there is nowhere to rent golf clubs for it. Now there's a business opportunity going begging.

Meanwhile . . . Cheap flights

Next up The story of Lacan's con (enfin)

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Wonders of the modern world, number three

'Clayton initially lost his place in the team to the more adventurous and flamboyant Eddie Clamp of Wolves.' I read that line in The Guardian's obituary of Blackburn and England right-half, Ronnie Clayton. It was written by Brian Glanville – who, as it happens is a the grandfather of one of my son's best friends and the ex-father-in-law of a friend of mine.

I can't make up my mind what I most love about that sentence. Is it the word 'initially'? Or is it that it's about a football player called Ronnie Clayton? Rather than, say, Amine Linganzi or Benjani Mwaruwari. Or is the charming dislocation between the phrase '
adventurous and flamboyant' and the name Eddie Clamp of Wolves?

Next up Golfing in Camden Town

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Wonders of the modern world, two

The Guardian has a section/sidebar in which an ‘expert’ reviews or reflects on a work that relates to their occupation. So . . . there was a saleswoman on Death Of A Salesman.

She didn’t like it, I think. She wrote: ‘Sales is about personal development: it’s about being self-motivated and growing as a person, or peopled won’t believe in you.’

She wasn’t that keen on Willy Loman, either. ‘Willy’s problem is his personality or lack of it.’

If only, I found myself thinking, Arthur Miller were still alive to have his greatest character explained to him so . . . unusually?

Meantime . . .

An instrumental and some dancing.

The first of the three before eight, as mimed three decades later. Or: the other thing Orwell missed out on in Wigan. (The first being not finding the pier.)

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Where was I?

Oh, yes. In Exhibition Rd, heading north towards Hyde Park and a talk at the Royal Geographical Society — I’d never been there before.

It was by the analyst Ron Britton and it was entitled Between Brain and Mind? I had no idea of the meaning or significance of that question mark at the end of the title before the lecture. And I was no wiser after the lecture. Obviously, it was about the relationship between physical structure etc and consciousness etc. But, basically, as he had no interest in the former, he had nothing to say about its relationship to the latter.

The only point I really took away was his distinction between comprehending and understanding. That is, in a way, a version of the second two-thirds of the Confucian maxim: I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand. He used the phrase ‘getting it’. I got it

I remembered a bit about Ron Britton from my course, but not much. He was a Kleinian, I remembered. And he’d written about Wordsworth’s early poetry — the Prelude and Ode: Imitations of Immortality. These poems are, as you might guess if you’ve read them, big in the analytic world.

I quoted him in my dissertation, in fact. I could repeat what I wrote but I won’t. You wouldn’t like the language. I’m not sure I did. The gist, though, was that he came up with a smart idea about how art was arrived at/created: by a continual feedback loop between the two Kleinian ‘positions’mental states, that is. I’m not sure if it’s right — or even necessary — but it’s smart and fun.

Which his lecture wasn’t. It rambled. It missed the point. It ignored the subject of the title. It asserted where it should have argued. It went on and on.

I dozed a little, I must admit. So it’s possible that I missed the good bits, though I doubt it.

There was a good bit during question time, however. Someone from the audience challenged his lack of interest in — and understanding of — neuroscience. He — and his fellow panellist, Peter Hobson — took umbrage, albeit in a very academia-ish way, smooth and accepting.

Essentially, they asserted their position: that neuroscience offers nothing of interest to our understanding of mind. That is, of ourselves. Psychoanalysis: that’s the thing. Of that, they are certain. Of that, they sing. True believers.

It’s a row I’ve seen before. In fact, it’s the row going on in psychoanalysis at the moment. In one corner, the neuropsychoanalysts — led by Mark Solms, a South African who also makes wine. In the other, the traditional Kleinians — led by Rachel Blass who, being a suburban New Yorker, also, er, whines. I heard a debate between the pair of them and it was great fun. The Blass position was completely assured in its own logic. It was like Labour activists’ view of the Conservatives. Essentially, she couldn’t credit her opposition with a brain. There was an air of Prime Minister’s Question Time about the way she argued — fabulously well and completely convincing but, ultimately only in the moment.

To me, for what it’s worth, the neuropsychoanalysts seem more, well, measured. An odd choice of word, perhaps, but the one that came straight to mind. They seem more worldly, less propelled by their own logic.

Significantly, there seemed to be very few psychoanalytic heavy-hitters at the evening with Ron Britton. There were also, to my eye, no non-white faces and far more women than men. Is now the place to mention that there is a theory — a suggestion, anyway — that the reason psychoanalysis’ wider social influence has declined is related to the increasing number of women in the profession?

No, don’t hit me. There is an argument to be made. I will come back to it, too. Soon. Well, in time.

A little reading for the early evening . . .

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Wonders of the modern world, one

Saturday morning, early, on Primrose Hill, with my dog. Bright and chill and damp.

A handful and a half of middle-aged men (mostly) crawling up the hill, in a very strange way. A younger man with an Australian accent is shouting at them (not at all angrily). ‘You’ve got to get under the barbed wire. You’re being shot at. So keep your arses down. ’

Next up What I got up to on a Friday evening in Exhibition Rd.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Psychoanalysis, a slight return

To Exhibition Road on a Friday afternoon, in mid-October.

I was invited so I went — to a preview of a show at the Science Museum. Entitled Psychoanalysis: The Unconscious In Everyday Life, it is small, tenderly curated and intelligent.

It’s just off the main entrance, up a flight of steps. The light is low — giving a sense of the couch and the consulting room. A fine and private place.

The show’s title gives little indication of the contents or approach, though. It is, in fact, a collection of objects which exemplify and dramatise psychoanalytic thought and concepts. So there is stuff from Freud’s room — predictable in essence but given depth by the accompanying exploration of their significance by psychoanalyst David Bell.

An interruption to myself. David Bell is a funny little person, with a beard which perhaps contains a nest or two. He once nearly ran me over, on his bike, as he emerged, inattentively, from cycling through Waterlow Park. He certainly, absent-mindedly, didn’t see me. He always, always, always wears a sleeveless sweater, whatever the weather — which, of course, makes him look like an overgrown schoolboy from the 1950s. Which, I suppose . . .

Anyway, he was scurrying around the show at the preview, explaining things and herding people the way he does. He is also a wonderful speaker, a true believer whose views of psychoanalysis — as the central organising subject of human thought, effectively — are made acceptable — if not true or entirely believable — by his wit and eloquence. Though not charm. I doubt if anyone has ever accused him of that.

Other stuff in the show includes toys — as used to analyse children, by Margaret Lowenfeld and Betty Joseph. Basic idea: children aren’t capable of talking coherently about their inner life — ie via free association — so analyst gets them to play with toys and then analyse the deeper meaning of their play.

There are also drawings made by Melanie Klein’s young boy patient Richard. Pictures of Spitfires and Messerschmidts shooting and burning — it was war time. There are Winnicott’s squiggle pictures. Basic idea: analyst draws squiggly line on paper, child extends it, analyst explains meaning of child’s squiggle. (Put like that, it can sound daft. But I’m not sure it is. In fact, I’m sure it’s not. If we can’t find meaning and emotion in the shape and rhythm of a line, we would never visit art galleries and Picasso would have been out of work straight away.)

And there art works. One is directly sexual. Of course it is. It’s by Tim Noble and Sue Webster — YBAs, famous for their rubbish pieces (description, not judgment). There is an electronic piece. Of course, there is. It’s Arnold Dreyblatt’s The Wunderblock — a tablet screen which displays a paper of Freud’s which compared the way memory works to the child’s toy known, in German, as a Wunderblock. In English, a mystic writing pad — you write on it, you see what you’ve written, you lift the wax sheet you’ve written and it’s all gone. On Dreyblatt’s the text is electronic, speeding and drifting past, constantly rearranging and re-emphasising itself. Unfortunately, it’s the one thing in the show which isn’t well described or explained.

There is also a gorgeous Grayson Perry pot — his wife is, of course, an analytically inclined therapist. There is a ‘Cabinet of wish fulfilment’ — votives and pieces of tattooed skin from the Science Museum’s own collection. (You can imagine the justifying explanation by the curator who collected them, can’t you. Come on, he or she would have said, there’s bound to be a show someday when we’ll need a few ancient small carved penises and hands. Trust me, there will.)

What’s most intriguing about the show, I guess, is its concreteness. Psychoanalysis is the most cerebral — or, perhaps, most mental — of disciplines. It’s about words — silences and gesture, too, but mostly words. This show gives it, I suppose, body.

And, having spent an intrigued and distracted hour at the show, I wandered up towards Hyde Park for the next of the day’s distractions.

But that’ll have to wait for the next posting. Tomorrow. Probably.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Murray Sayle

January 1,1926 to September 18, 2010

Aw fuck it. More death. Another friend.

Like most people, I read about the great Australian journalist Murray Sayle’s death on the obituaries pages. I knew he was ill, of course. He had Parkinson’s. His wife Jenny had let me know and told me he was no longer at home but a little way away, in a nursing home.

Even the giants stumble and fall.

We worked together in the 1990s, when I commissioned and edited him for Night & Day, a Sunday supplement for the Mail on Sunday which was intended as an upmarket alternative to YOU Magazine — which, in going downmarket, had lost its lucrative, uptown advertisers.

I think Phillip Knightley* introduced him to us. Or rather us to him. We paid well — very well. And smart, fast, elegant and entertaining magazine writers are always much harder to find than all but those who’ve had to find them realise. I spent my days (and nights) making pig’s ears into, well . . . something better than dog’s dinners. (A good deal of editing time is spent unravelling and mercy-killing bad writers’ cliches and incomprehensible, mixed analogies.)

Murray was — with Phillip — one of the best. Although I knew the name and work, I didn’t know the breadth and range of his interests, life and appetites. He was a delight to work with. I loved his enthusiasm — not just for his own stories but for other people’s, too, and for technology. He was the first person I knew with a portable hard drive. On visits to the office, he’d plug it into a spare computer in the subs’ room and away he’d go, working his copy over and over. The subs considered and treated him like some kind of eccentric uncle. For me, he was one of those substitute fathers you pick up along the way — someone you can learn new stuff from.

I can’t remember all the stories he did for us but I remember a piece about female priests and several book reviews which weren’t really reviews but wonderful, brief essays.

In particular, I recall working with him on a shortened version of his New Yorker piece about the atom bombing of Japan. The original was, according to The Australian, his ‘greatest piece of sustained reporting’. Like all his work, it was full of odd but resonant details. I learned so much from him. He turned journalism into something approaching a sensory experience.

And I remember our lunches, of course. Not particularly alcoholic by Fleet St standards but certainly long. Murray liked to talk. God did Murray like to talk. Theories, observations, anecdotes, thoughts, gags spieled out of him. No quiet mouse myself, I think I may have contributed the odd question.

Gradually, through his spieling, I found out more about him. About his early years, working on a Murdoch paper. He was assigned to looking after the young Rupert when he first arrived in the office — or maybe that was Phillip Knightley’s job. I met his wife, Jenny — and spoke to her a lot on the phone when Murray was out and about somewhere.

I learned about his years in Japan. I’d been there, on a job, a few years earlier and had been told to look him up as he was the one who would make sense of it for me. I didn’t — too unconfident, I guess. I should have. Always generous with his opinions, he gave me answers to all the questions I’d had in my head ever since my visit.

Why, for example, do the concierges at Japanese hotels persist in giving you directions to places when they clearly have no idea where they are? A simple matter of face, explained Murray. That was the answer to a lot of my questions — though his answers were longer, far more detailed and always entertaining.

I learned about the wonderful documentaries he made with the photographer Elliot Erwitt — I’ve still got the wobble-colour VHS copies he made for me somewhere. I heard about his famous expenses claim, for a piece of sailing equipment — ‘money for old rope’.

I didn’t learn, though, that he’d also climbed Everest, crossed the Atlantic single-handed, unearthed Philby in Moscow and found Che Guevara in the jungle, like some modern day Stanley.

When I left the magazine, we kept in touch, via email, card and even the occasional phone call. He came over to give evidence at the Bloody Sunday enquiry. He’d written a report about it for the Sunday Times, claiming it was a deliberate assault by the British army. It was spiked and he resigned from the paper. You can find the piece and his later reflections on it for the London Review of Books. It’s worth reading — as is everything he ever wrote. (Though I’m not as keen as others on his Fleet St novel, The Crooked Sixpence. He told me it wasn’t very good and I think he was being as honest as ever.)

Annually, for the Chinese (Japanese?) New Year, a special Murray postcard would arrive. The format was always the same but it was a wonderful format. There would be Murray and his family — who, judging by their expressions, were actually fond of their father — posed, artlessly, in front of some object or place that he’d chosen to represent that year. If I remember right, for the year of the rat, the Japanese family Sayle shared the frame with Mickey Mouse. For the year of the cock, they were sat in front of a branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

I looked forward to them and wished I could think of something similarly witty to send in return. I kept them all — though I can’t put my hand to any of them right now. Then one year, the card didn’t come. I guessed, correctly, that he was ill. Then he was dead. I’m not the only one that will miss him.

* Phillip and Murray went way back. They were at school together, I think, in Sydney. Murray came to London first and when Phillip followed, he got him a job. They worked together at the Sunday Times. Phillip’s wife, though, was not so keen on Murray and the way he dominated any conversation. He was barred from their house. I think someone told me that Murray was the model for ‘the great bore of far-eastern journalism’ in John LeCarre’s Honourable Schoolboy. It might have been Phillip.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

What other people did on their holidays . . .

Meanwhile . . . Get your washboards out
What I did on my holidays . . .




Long Rock

Next What other people did on their holidays . . .

Meanwhile . . . Shakin' all over New Zealand