Friday, December 27, 2013

Incongruous in-laws

Thinking about Nick Lowe, as I was the other day, and it always strikes me how odd it must have been for him to be Johnny Cash's son-in-law. He married Carlene Carter, Cash's stepdaughter, and wrote several songs for Cash, including "The Beast in Me." Here's how that song came about, with Cash singing it from about 6:20.

I suppose, though, that it's not that odd for an English singer-songwriter to be the son-in-law of an American singer-songwriter. A more incongruous match would be Mel Tormé (the "Velvet Fog") ending up as the son-in-law of the epitome of Northern English kitchen-sink acting, Thora Hird. His third wife, Janette Scott, was Thora's daughter. I wonder whether he ever sat around the parlour table pouring tea whilst passing around the bread and margarine? Mel was a better jazz stylist than anyone, in my opinion, as you can tell from this:

Thora, on the other hand, is better known for this kind of thing:

When worlds collide...

Actually, I think my favourite association by marriage has to be between Fred Trueman, dour pipe-smoking Yorkshire and England fast bowler of the fifties and sixties, and Raquel Welch,  improbably-bosomed actress of such high-brow epics as One Million Years BC. Trueman's daughter married Welch's son, and in true showbiz style, the wedding was sold to Hello! magazine:

I like to think of Fred explaining to Raquel how his away-seamers skittled out the West Indies in 1959 over the wedding breakfast table.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Old Magic

Nick Lowe has made a Christmas album, which on the face of it seems like a really bad idea. As any fule kno, the only Christmas album worth the name is Bing Crosby's White Christmas, especially anything with the Andrews Sisters. I have a soft spot for the Concord Jazz Christmas album, which is worth the price of admission for a rather bizarre song called "An Apple, An Orange and a Little Stick Doll" by Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham. At this time of year, it's hard to forget that Dylan released a Christmas album, containing the best Jewish Christmas song ever, "Must be Santa." Have a listen:

Names of the reindeer are interesting...
Anyway - Nick Lowe. His album The Old Magic has been on heavy rotation chez Topsyturvydom for some time, and I will come to it later. Meanwhile, Nick treats the Christmas themes with the same wry humour he brings to his non-seasonal product. Here's his take on Christmas airport chaos:

The problem with Christmas albums is that you can really only play them at Christmas, so for long-term enjoyment, it's back to the main catalogue. And in Nick Lowe's extensive and distinguished catalogue, there's nothing better than this 2011 release. The Old Magic is in the style to which his fans have become accustomed in recent years - poignant and observant lyrics, catchy melodies, a slightly retro-rockabilly feel. There isn't a dud on this album, which contains a set of eight beautifully crafted Lowe originals, and three covers, including one by his old mate Elvis Costello. The band comprises old pals who have been playing with him for years, and the familiarity shows - they are relaxed, but absolutely tight, playing in a light, spare groove that suits these songs perfectly.
The opening track, "Stoplight Roses", chronicles the desperate attempt of a deceitful man in a failing relationship to worm his way back into the woman's good books by offering a "stoplight rose" - one from the guys who sell things at traffic lights. It's doomed of course, and that song sets the tone for the album - it's all about failure, regret, yearning, getting old. In "Checkout Time" he reflects that he's "61 years old now, and Lord I never thought I'd see 30" and in "House For Sale" the run down dwelling is an obvious metaphor for the failure of the protagonist's life. "I Read a Lot" is a lovely meditation on the solitary life. "Sensitive Man" is dangerously close to John Shuttleworth territory, but he steers just clear of bathos, helped by the humour of the video:

The cover of Costello's "Poisoned Rose" is better than the original, and the cover of Tom T. Hall's "Shame on the Rain" sounds authentically Americana-esque. The best, in my view, is left to last. The final track is another tale of doomed love, "'Til the Real Thing Comes Along." It opens with a dreamy riff that would be perfect for the end-credits of a Bond film, and then the bittersweet lyric kicks in. "I know you're waiting for your dreamboat to come in / And that you don't see me as being him", sings Lowe's hopeful would-be lover. She might love him until the real thing comes along, and who knows, the real thing might turn out to be him. Except we know, and he does, that he won't be. I love the way the song uses the old standard of the same title as a reference point. In Sammy Cahn's song, the whole burden of the lyric is that the singer knows this is the real thing, and so, we imagine, does the love object.  Here, it's the wistful aspiration of a man with no chance.  I've been listening to Nick Lowe for over forty years now, since he was part of Brinsley Schwarz, and I don't think he has ever sounded better.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Norman Geras, 1943- 2013

I never met Norman Geras, but he's been part of my daily life for years. His blog was always entertaining, intelligent, and thought-provoking. We had a shared interest in cricket, and I sometimes had exchanges with him via Twitter or e-mail about England's chances against his beloved Australia, or who was the best spin-bowler of all time. He kindly invited me to feature as a guest on his blog, thus giving Topsyturvydom its biggest ever spike in readership. Others better qualified than I am have written about his standing in the field of political analysis. What struck me about all his work  was how he managed to write about complex subjects in scrupulously clear prose. I wish more academics would understand that, if you can't communicate your brilliant insights clearly, then there's no point having them. Norm was a brilliant communicator, and I will miss him.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Tash Aw

To the Burgess, to be present at the 2013 Burgess lecture, given by the Malaysian novelist Tash Aw, author of The Harmony Silk Factory, A Map of the Invisible World, and, most recently, the Booker-nominated Five Star Billionaire. Aw was an inspired choice to deliver the lecture, as it turns out he was a great fan of Burgess's Malayan Trilogy as a boy. His talk was a fascinating account of his response to Burgess's representation of the Malaya of the fifties, a time he (born in 1971) cannot remember, but which his family lived through. As a boy, he was thrilled to discover an English novelist had set his story in the unfashionable part of Malaysia where he lived. He illustrated his talk with some family photos from the fifties.
The lecture was an astute mixture of personal reminiscence, close reading, and well-informed revaluation of Burgess's reputation. The event was introduced by John Mcleod, Professor of Postcolonial Studies at Leeds, and, as he was quick to point out, a Mancunian himself.  His introduction and some of his later questions, teased out the tensions in Burgess's stance: on the one hand, unlike, say, Somerset Maugham, Burgess gave equal prominence in his novels to the indigenous population, making them major actors rather than local colour. On the other, he invented place names that were obscenities in Malay, and thus offensive in a rather puerile way. I suggested afterwards to Tash Aw that perhaps Burgess was evoking the spirit of Dylan Thomas, whose Under Milk Wood is set in the fictional Welsh village of Llaregyb, or "bugger-all" backwards.
The lecture was very well-received by the small but select audience, featuring some of the usual suspects, and also some new faces to me.
Tash Aw aligned himself with Burgess, as a writer dealing with the marginal and the marginalised, outsiders even when apparently "inside," and his latest novels, both featuring Malaysians displaced in other countries, confirms that notion. It's pleasing to see the connection between Burgess and such a talented contemporary novelist, and it's to be hoped that Tash Aw's career will go from strength to strength. The Harmony Silk Factory is now on my to be re-read list, as he confessed to some resonances between it and Earthly Powers, which I certainly didn't notice when I read it.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Judy Collins

What a privilege to be a few feet away from Judy Collins as she performed in St Ann's Church in Manchester yesterday. There were no more than 130 people arranged on the pews to see this legendary (I use the word advisedly) artist perform. Blimey, I've given lectures to more people. Maybe more people would have been there if they could have got through the roadblocks around the Conservative party conference...
Anyway, a lovely intimate setting for Judy to perform. The thing is - she is still a magnificent singer. That crystalline voice that startled the folk world over half a century ago is as brilliant as ever, and it was truly spell-binding when she went for, and held, those top notes.
She looks as beautiful as ever, those enormous eyes still holding the attention beneath what is now an impressively lustrous mane of white hair. She strummed a twelve-string guitar for the most part, with her musical director Russell Walden adding depth from the piano. She also took over on piano for a few tunes, showing that she has lost none of the technique she learned as a budding concert pianist. She was charming, and funny, getting the name of the church wrong, and launching into anecdotes about her early days in New York, often including snatches of song acapella along the way. What a range she has, and she gave it full rein here. She sang Rodgers and Hart, she sang Lennon and McCartney; she sang Stephen Sondheim, she sang Stephen Stills; she sang Brel and Baez; she sang ancient ballads and poignant new songs about her parents; and she finished, as she had to, with "Amazing Grace", to which we were all invited to sing along.
A wonderful, uplifting evening, which occasionally brought a tear to the eye. Judy Collins is 74...

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Lyons Lithographs

To the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne, to view the Lyons Lithographs, three series of prints commissioned by the Lyons company, who owned the chain of Corner House tea-shops which were ubiquitous in England from before the First World War to the 1970s. After the Second World War, with many shops in need of refurbishment, and resources very scarce, the company decided to commission some lithographs from prominent artists that could be displayed in many of the shops, thus ensuring original works of contemporary art were on display but without expending huge amounts of money. Three series in all were commissioned, and some strikingly evocative images were produced.
Among the artists whose work was on display were Edward Bawden, John Nash, L.S. Lowry, David Gentleman and Barnett Freedman. Some of the work is undoubtedly aimed at cheering up the Lyons punters in an age of austerity, and as such occasionally veers towards the sentimental. But Lowry's familiar townscape, Sam Rabin's boxers slugging it out, and George Hooper's oddly Germanic hotel scene are certainly not that.
The exhibition arranges the prints in three sections, representing the three phases of the commission, and provides some useful background detail on the technique of lithography. There's a good selection of the images here.
After the exhibition, it's a must to visit the café, where the waitresses have donned "nippy" uniforms, and serve against a giant photo of a vintage Corner House. Can't imagine Starbucks ever doing something like this.
(Image: John Piper, Elizabethan Dance)

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Trip to Jerusalem

I'm tempted to use "the mixture as before" for the third successive post. This is the next story in the Bracewell mysteries, and all the familiar ingredients are there: dastardly acts of sabotage by the Earl of Banbury's Men; a player who is not what he seems; the abduction of one of the boy-players; marital problems for Lawrence Firethorn; bloody scenes of torture and death. But then, the genre is formulaic, and Edward Marston has honed his technique well. And to be fair, there are some unusual elements to this tale of Lord Westfield's Men. The plague has forced the players out of London, and the action takes place in a series of provincial locales, ending up at York, where, according to this novel, the pub called the Trip to Jerusalem was to be found. I remember going to the Nottingham Trip, so I was puzzled by this substitution, especially as some of the action takes place in Nottingham, where Firethorn pleases the locals by giving them his Robin Hood.  Extensive research (well, I googled it) suggests there was no Trip to Jerusalem pub in York, and actually, Marston's pub now has a new name since it was taken over by Sir Clarence Marmion.
Bracewell is his usual resourceful self, saving the company from disaster, and bringing a plot that involves recusant Catholics, gay spies and a mad woman to a satisfactory conclusion. Still enjoying the series, and looking forward to where a capricious fate will take him and the company next.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

The Best British Short Stories 2013

Thanks to Salt for sending me this collection, the latest eclectic volume in their series. It's very much the mixture as before, with well-established authors rubbing shoulders with newer names, with stories garnered from a variety of sources, from the august (Granta, The Edinburgh Review) to the obscure (Willesden Herald New Short Stories 6) and with some having previously been published online only. The selection, by editor Nicholas Royle, delights by its variety and its juxtaposition of the nightmarish and the mundane. Royle's entertaining introduction starts with a lively rant at the concept of flash fiction, and then goes on to examine the state of the short story in Britain today, which, it seems, is in rude health.

The collection offers stories by leading authors such as Jackie Kay, Adam Lively, Robert Shearman and Lesley Glaister. More intriguingly, the volume features some writers new to me, whose profile will benefit from the exposure gained by being alongside those familiar names. Regi Claire's 'The Tasting' is an unsettling, somewhat surreal tale in which a woman is led into a dangerous game that threatens her being and her sanity; in Nikesh Shukla's 'Canute' a man escapes briefly from his life as a software engineer to lose control as he hunts for sea-bass; Charles Lambert's 'Curtains' explores the devastatingly destructive psychological effects of abortion on a couple; Laura Del-Rivo's 'J Krissmann in the Park' is a strange vignette in which an oddly obsessive old man filters the everyday world through his fractured consciousness. There is no overall theme, other than excellence, to the collection, but time and again, one senses a kind of Verfremdungseffekt - that sense by which the familiar is made strange.

This is an ideal bedside book, offering immediate gratification for the reader in these often very short (but not flash) stories, great for dipping into. It's well-produced, too, and includes author biographies, often highlighting the quirkier aspects of the writers' lives: Laura Del-Rivo, whose first novel was filmed by Michael Winner fifty years ago, "lives in Notting Hill and runs a stall on Portobello market." She sounds like a character from Penelope Fitzgerald.

This volume, like the previous ones in the series, is highly recommended, and Salt are to be congratulated for promoting the continuing development of the short story in this country. And thanks too to Nicholas Royle, whose voracious reading allowed him to identify these gems.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Merry Devils

The second volume of the Bracewell mysteries is very much the mixture as before. The familiar figures of the Earl of Westfield's players, presided over by the calm and commanding presence of Nick Bracewell, encounter a series of baffling events that threaten their livelihood. Our hero's wit, persistence and fortitude allow him to engineer the obligatory happy ending, though not without some blood-letting on the mean streets of Elizabethan London.

The merry devils of the title are characters in a play of the same name that seems to be jinxed, possibly, according to its co-author, because it uses actual spells from the Malleus Maleficarum. Nick suspects a more worldly source for the trouble, and is eventually proved right, though not before an unexplained death and his own imprisonment disturb his plans. The subplot features a mysterious prisoner in Bedlam, and some dark work at a country estate. As in the first volume, the climax features a performance that is sensationally and bloodily interrupted. The play, a comedy as the name implies, seems very like Jonson's The Devil is an Ass.

The novel uses essentially the same elements as the first in the series, and is none the worse for that. The sights, sounds, and especially the smells of Bankside and Southwark in the late sixteenth century are vividly evoked. Again, some of the explication is a little laboured, and one wishes Marston veered more towards showing than telling, but it is a minor quibble, and for readers unfamiliar with Elizabethan stagecraft, I suppose it is essential. And, since Marston has been a successful full-time writer of historical fiction for thirty years and more, who am I to criticise?

Marston won't ever win the Booker, but these novels are more entertaining than many that will. And that should be enough for most. Even then, there are some profound moments, none more so when Dr Mordrake ( a John Dee-like figure) is in conversation with the anguished poet Ralph Willoughby: "The duty of a divine is to justify the ways of God to man. Christianity gives answers. The duty of a poet is to ask questions. That can lead to danger. Religion is there to reassure. Art disturbs."

Saturday, July 06, 2013

The Queen's Head

I came across Edward Marston, a  new-to-me author the other day, and was impressed enough by his prolificity to have a go at one of his period detective stories. Marston has published over forty detective novels, all historical, as befits someone whose background is as a historian. What attracted me particularly to The Queen's Head was that it was the first of a series set in Elizabethan London, with the central figures all members of a fictitious actors' company. The combination of the historical period and the theatrical setting sold me, and I was not disappointed.
Our protagonist is Nick Bracewell, the book holder of the Earl of Westfield's Men, and the setting is immediately after the defeat of the Armada. After an opening vignette describing in gruesome detail the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, the action centres around the search for the killer of one of Bracewell's actor colleagues. The execution scene, seemingly unrelated to the main plot, does have resonance later.
Bracewell is a likeable detective figure. Modest and unassuming, he is the key member of the company, holding the one complete copy of the play text, calling the scene changes, organising the stage hands, arbitrating between disputing players, and keeping the vanities of the Brian Blessed-like principal actor, Laurence Firethorn, in check. He was on Drake's circumnavigation, but apart from that, his life before joining the players is a mystery, to which even his landlady / lover is not privy.   There was an air of Elizabethan Theatre 101 about some of the scene-setting sections, but I am hoping that this is because it's the first of the series. Clearly Marston (a good name for a writer on Elizabethan theatre) is a man who has immersed himself in the period. What's more, he once ran his own theatrical company, so he writes from experience.
This is undemanding fare, but pleasant to read. Marston manages to make his dialogue seem authentic without any excessive fol-de-rollery. The outcome was not entirely a surprise, but the climactic scene is a tour-de-force, as danger stalks the company's performance at court.
I see the series in now up to number 16, so I'm way behind. Onwards to the next volume.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Exterminate All The Brutes

What to do about the rising tide of human population? It's quite simple, really. Here's a neat solution, to be applied in a Utopian future republic:
Procreation is the triumph of the living being over death; and in the case of man, who adds mind to his body, it is not only in his child but in the dissemination of his thought, the expression of his mind in things done and made, that his triumph is to be found. And the ethical system of these men of the New Republic, the ethical system which will dominate the world state, will be shaped primarily to favour the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity--beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds, and a growing body of knowledge--and to check the procreation of base and servile types, of fear-driven and cowardly souls, of all that is mean and ugly and bestial in the souls, bodies, or habits of men. To do the latter is to do the former; the two things are inseparable. And the method that nature has followed hitherto in the shaping of the world, whereby weakness was prevented from propagating weakness, and cowardice and feebleness were saved from the accomplishment of their desires, the method that has only one alternative, the method that must in some cases still be called in to the help of man, is death. In the new vision death is no inexplicable horror, no pointless terminal terror to the miseries of life, it is the end of all the pain of life, the end of the bitterness of failure, the merciful obliteration of weak and silly and pointless things.... The new ethics will hold life to be a privilege and a responsibility, not a sort of night refuge for base spirits out of the void; and the alternative in right conduct between living fully, beautifully, and efficiently will be to die. For a multitude of contemptible and silly creatures, fear-driven and helpless and useless, unhappy or hatefully happy in the midst of squalid dishonour, feeble, ugly, inefficient, born of unrestrained lusts, and increasing and multiplying through sheer incontinence and stupidity, the men of the New Republic will have little pity and less benevolence. To make life convenient for the breeding of such people will seem to them not the most virtuous and amiable thing in the world, as it is held to be now, but an exceedingly abominable proceeding.
 Pretty straightforward, isn't it? All the useless weak people will be exterminated, leaving the earth to the beautiful healthy ones. What's more, many of those expendable people will be black, or brown, or yellow:
Most of the human types, that by civilized standards are undesirable, are quite willing to die out through such suppressions if the world will only encourage them a little. They multiply in sheer ignorance, but they do not desire multiplication even now, and they can easily be made to dread it. Sensuality aims not at life, but at itself. I believe that the men of the New Republic will deliberately shape their public policy along these lines. They will rout out and illuminate urban rookeries and all places where the base can drift to multiply; they will contrive a land legislation that will keep the black, or yellow, or mean-white squatter on the move; they will see to it that no parent can make a profit out of a child, so that childbearing shall cease to be a hopeful speculation for the unemployed poor; and they will make the maintenance of a child the first charge upon the parents who have brought it into the world. Only in this way can progress escape being clogged by the products of the security it creates. The development of science has lifted famine and pestilence from the shoulders of man, and it will yet lift war--for some other end than to give him a spell of promiscuous and finally cruel and horrible reproduction.
 Appalled yet? These passages are from H.G. Wells's book Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought, published in 1902. Yes, Wells, usually considered a beacon of rationality and scientific truth.  I was led to this book by reading John Carey's 1992 book The Intellectuals and the Masses, which sets out to show how the literary intelligentsia of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries viewed the common masses. I knew that Pound (a fascist) Lewis (a fascist sympathiser) and Eliot (an anti-Semite) had some deeply unpleasant views, and that many modernists were also snobs, but I hadn't realised the depth of their contempt for the common man and woman. Carey shows how much some of these writers owed to Nietzsche, and how pervasive their attitudes were. Writers who, one might think, would have some empathy with the working class are shown to be rabid advocates of a societal structure that would keep them vigorously suppressed. Here's D.H. Lawrence on education: "General education should be suppressed as soon as possible" so that boys can learn manly crafts and girls domestic skills. "There should be no compulsory teaching to read and write at all. The great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write--never." In this way, the state will avoid the curse of "a helpless, presumptuous, news-paper-reading population." Carey also reminds us of Woolf's dismissive attitude to Joyce, " a self-taught, working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking and ultimately nauseating...I'm reminded all the time of some callow board school boy." That contemptuous reference to the board schools - the schools set up after the education acts at the end of the nineteenth century, which offered some sort of schooling for the first time to ordinary children - encapsulates the snobbery of the intellectuals in the face of the rise of an educated working class. Carey explores the way that the intellectual elite conceived of the masses as a poisonous, semi-human swarm, ripe for extermination, so that a more beautiful earth could be left for people with artistic taste, like, well, themselves...

The fury of the intellectuals is turned on the new popular media the masses embraced, particularly the cinema and newspapers. Even cheap editions of the classics come under fire, since they enabled the working person to experience the literature that had hitherto been the province of the elite. Carey shows how the newspapers, considered utter trash by people like Lawrence and Wyndham Lewis, actually offered serious intellectual sustenance. Tit-Bits, reviled by the Bloomsberries, contained a weekly 40,000 words, with no illustrations. It included extracts from classic authors such as George Eliot, Carlyle, Macauley, Poe, Ruskin, Hawthorne and others. A new weekly poem by an established poet was a feature. It serialised the early Sherlock Holmes stories. It's hardly the Daily Star, then, but to Eliot, Gissing, Woolf et al, it represented the end of civilisation as they knew it.

Cary is particularly acute on the attitude to the clerk, who epitomises the new order. He finds numerous disparaging accounts of this new breed of man, and his close associate, the typist. Eliot's description of the sordid sexual encounter between the "young man carbuncular" and the "typist home at tea time" in The Waste Land has always struck me as gratuitously snobbish, but I now see how widespread was this level of revulsion at the very thought of these working people, who consumed tinned food and lived in flats. Much better that they should all be done away with.

Carey's book is an eye-opener. Not only does he expose the vile attitudes of the modernist elite, he also makes a very persuasive case for the work of Arnold Bennett, famously rubbished by Virginia Woolf in "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown." Bennett emerges as a thoroughly decent man, a champion of education and improvement. To my shame, I haven't read any Bennett, and my only knowledge of his work is of a  dimly-recollected seventies TV dramatisation of Clayhanger. More volumes for the To Be Read pile...

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

One Hand Clapping

To the Burgess, for an excellent adaptation of the master's rather obscure early novel, the film rights to which were once held by Francis Ford Coppola.
Here's my review, posted at the IABF site.