Monday, May 01, 2006

Saturday by Ian McEwan

A Day In The Life….Oh Boy!

Meet Henry Perowne, a brilliant brain surgeon and his wife Rosalind, a brilliant media lawyer for a national newspaper. Say hello to their son Theo, a brilliant blues guitarist (with lessons under his belt from the rather brilliant Jack Bruce no less), and daughter Daisy. She’s a precocious poet on the cusp of a brilliant career following in the footsteps of grandfather, John, who is arguably more brilliant than the lot of them put together.

Yes, it’s the everyday tale of Fitzrovia folk going about their business on a Saturday. For Henry that means a game of squash with his brilliant colleague Jay Strauss, a visit to the fishmongers ahead of a family get together in the evening and calling in on his ailing mother in her nursing home where she is lost to Alzheimer’s.

Well that’s the plan but as he stands in the pre-dawn gloom of his well-appointed town house, Perowne witnesses a stricken plane blazing a trail across the still-black sky like a comet. From the moment he sees this post-modern omen of ill-will, Henry’s day begins to go wrong.

This isn’t any ordinary Saturday. February 15th 2003 saw London gridlocked with a huge anti-war demonstration, blocking Henry’s usual route to the squash court, and giving rise to the book’s inciting incident - a prang with an opposing car full of people you’d rather not know.

Perowne seems certain to get a damn good thrashing. However thanks to a quick-witted street diagnosis of an incurable and terminal neurological condition, his hastily improvised bedside manner befuddles the oiky antagonist. With one bound Henry is free, niftily sidestepping the bruiser called Baxter for the cream leather safety of his Mercedes.

Putting some distance between him and the thwarted roughnecks, Perowne has to navigate his way around the anti-war demo before finally transferring his adrenalin to his game of squash. Here an altercation of a different kind is worked out as Perowne plays dove to his sporting opponent’s hawk when discussing the impending war.

If the pages lavished upon the squash game were a metaphor for the game of political hardball taking place between the UN and Washington at the time, it was laboured and vaguely ludicrous. If instead it was meant to symbolise Henry’s diminishing potency with the onset of middle-age then it was simply dull beyond belief.

When later, Henry flip-flops position on how best to deal with bad guys like Saddam, McEwan articulates the angst of many who believed that his regime had to go but didn’t think that the means justified the ends.

Yet the use of the demonstration, and the extent to which it impinges on Henry’s world, appears gratuitous, contextual padding to make a fairly thin tale more socially and politically relevant than it might otherwise be.

Perhaps the clinical way in which it’s dealt with is also meant to be a metaphor concerning Perowne himself. McEwan’s extensive research (shadowing a real neurosurgeon for two years) should have brought Henry’s day job of delving into other people’s cranium vividly alive but curiously fails.

Characters with flaws make for fascinating fiction. Yet it’s hard to get worked up about someone as dry and as bland as Henry, about whether or not, all things considered, his famous fish stew would be a success that night or not.

Where things truly come to life is with the two characters in the book who are clearly anything but brilliant; Baxter and Henry’s mother.

Both have in common brains afflicted by inoperable diseases, and both strip away Henry’s layers of emotional and intellectual insulation rendering him vulnerable and only then, interesting.

Chronicling the pitiful dissolution of personality and possessions as his mother’s Alzheimer’s takes its relentless toll shows McEwan at his heartbreaking best. Though it occupies relatively little of the book, the writing smoulders a palpable sense of loss. It’s no surprise to discover McEwan’s own mother suffered from the condition.

Which leaves us with the bad lad Baxter.

In his autobiography, Owning Up (first published in 1965), George Melly tells a good story about being cornered by a group of hard cases after a gig in Manchester back in the 1950s. Surrounded and desperate, the young jazz singer did the only thing possible in the circumstances.

From out of his jacket he brandished a copy of poems by Dadaist Kurt Schwitters.

Now it’s well known in self-defence circles that a rolled up newspaper can be a lethal weapon, but instead of using the poems to crush his opponent’s windpipe, Melly began loudly declaiming the onomatopoeic verse therein, causing his startled aggressors to back off.

If calming the barbarian at the gates with nifty ninja-style poetics worked for George Melly, then why not something similar for Henry?

This is exactly the device McEwan employs when Baxter and his simian chums invade the Perowne’s house later that evening, only here Schwitters is substituted for Mathew Arnold. Given the smog of smugness circulating in that room, I found myself frustrated that their nemesis didn’t cut through it all and wipe out the lot of them.

When fortunes are reversed and Baxter’s life hangs by a thread, literally in Henry’s hands, the leading man does the decent thing. The trouble is by showing his credentials to retain the moral high ground remain impeccable, the low-brow tedium that might be provided by offering some nail-biting tension or honest to goodness conflict is missed.

There’s no doubting that McEwan’s more than a bit brilliant himself but Saturday suggests he’s cruising.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Out-Bloody Rageous by Graham Bennett

A Band Of Two Halves...

The short version is that Graham Bennett’s book is an indispensable guide to one of the most intriguing and largely underwritten experimental pop / rock / jazz / jazz-rock outfits ever to have trodden the boards.

The longer version goes like this.

Bennett makes no apologies that he approaches his subject from a rock perspective and this he does with considerable success. His detailed account of middle-class bohemian post-war life in England is first rate and authoritative. The cultural and social milieu is lovingly documented and the names of Wellington House, Tanglewood, Deya, UFO, Burroughs, West Dulwich, Wilde Flowers et al glitter brightly in the firmament of the Canterbury sound just as they should.

Similarly, the excitement of the period and the early recordings are explored, investigated and assessed in a clean style which clearly transmits the author’s enthusiasm for that era

It’s when the band part company with Robert Wyatt and Elton Dean that Bennett’s account begins to loses some of the heat he has been careful to generate. If the early Wyatt-era Soft Machine is portrayed in loving and heroic terms, the latter part of the story has an equivocal, pragmatic feel to it in places.

It barely alludes to the creative crisis which gripped the band between Fourth and Six, presenting it more as a series of relatively benign comings and goings rather than the artistic watershed that radically redefined who and what Soft Machine was. As a principal composer, Ratledge was by now largely a spent force yet had paradoxically rejected the moves towards a freer playing style which resulted in the sacking of drummer Phil Howard and in turn precipitated Elton Dean’s departure.

It is Ratledge’s decline as a writer that is the most important factor that led to the recruitment of Karl Jenkins rather than the need to bring in a new soloist.

There must have been a dozen soloists who could have filled Elton Dean’s shoes at the time. What was needed was someone to come up with the tunes to keep the Machine ticking over and it was, rather than Jenkins’ capacity as a soloist, that attracted Ratledge’s eye and ear. With Hopper sulking on the sidelines, the good ship Soft Machine had badly run aground. Jenkins wasn’t so much a new member of the crew but rather the lifeboat for those floundering out at sea.

Jenkins himself has always been clear about his limitations as a soloist but what he did have in spades though was a talent for riff-based composition. He came to dominate Soft Machine so quickly was because there was precious little else on the table from its original members.

Whether the absence of detailed commentary about Jenkins’ tracks is due to the lack of participation by their composer or indeed the preference of the author is unclear, but it does flaw the direction of the narrative at certain points.

For example, an important signature composition such as The Soft Weed Factor (from Six) is dealt with in a mere seven lines (and without reference to John Barth’s novel on which the title is a pun), which given its importance as the future template of the band’s sound seems scant compared to the degree of space spent referencing 70s TV comedy team, The Goodies whose input and influence is at best tenuous.

In the blurb on the jacket Bennett is cited as having “witnessed many of Soft Machine’s concerts in their peak years”, implying perhaps that by the time Jenkins joined, the band had seen better days. In reality it was a completely different beast compared to the avant-pop of 60s London and needs to be assessed on its own terms rather than as a terminal adjunct to rock group gone wrong.

Viewed another way this period was something of a renaissance for the jazz-rock version of Softs; they topped the polls, played to packed, enthusiastic halls of weekend Hippies right up to the end. I know because between 1974 and their demise I was hitching up and down to gigs when they weren’t appearing in Newcastle.

Bennett makes the point that Soft Machine’s commercial success ended after Third but emerging from the creative doldrums and personnel difficulties characterised in the Fourth and Six period was a music that was intelligent, visceral and on the concert platform packed a punch not quite conveyed by the albums of the day. Like its 60s precursor this has only recently begun to be fully appreciated with the release of many archive recordings not available to the listening community at the time.

None of these observations should detract from Bennett’s considerable achievement in having written this book nor imply that his assessments of the post-Wyatt period are necessarily flawed. He is right to point out the many shortcomings which occurred under Jenkins’ stewardship such as the pale disco filler of Soft Space and the entire Land of Cockayne debacle.

However, those later chapters do lack the analytical clout and weight of the earlier sections, where his clarity and command of 60s Softs adds significant and complimentary depth to Mike King’s Wyatt-centric account of the same period, Wrong Movements.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Briefing for a descent into hell. . .

Despite living a world in which we are daily exposed to the news and images of death, nothing it seems can prepare us for the up-close loss of a loved one.

Even where this occurs after a period of illness, where in theory affairs are put in order and appropriate provisions made, the consuming void of grief is enormous, devastating, and nearly always underestimated by those caught in its maw.

It is sometimes said that how we react in the face of real adversity is the key to knowing our true character. No matter how we present ourselves to the world in life, our bearing under the weight of such finality is who we really are.

The sudden death of Joan Didion’s husband, the writer and critic, John Gregory Dunne, in their New York home and the devastating impact of its aftermath is forensically documented in The Year Of Magical Thinking.

The facts are starkly presented without dramatic device or adornment. Married for nearly forty years and occasionally collaborating on screenplays, they lived and worked in the same apartment and had barely been separated for more than a few days in that time.

Their daughter Quintana, a grown woman in her thirties, had been admitted to hospital suffering from what appeared to be flu but accelerated into pneumonia, septic shock and coma.

After visiting Quintana in the intensive care suite of their local hospital, Didion describes the moment when the world she knew abruptly halted after Dunne suffered a massive heart attack and died.

“Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.”

From these opening words of her book, the first words she wrote some five months after his death, Didion recounts how she was hurled from the rational world of certainty into the chaotic anguish of loss, grief and mourning.

Her journalistic instincts to get on top of the facts to rationalise what happened quickly come unstuck. No amount of medical research about the heart condition that felled her husband or the chronology contained in the coroner’s report nor still yet, the weighty academic studies of loss and mourning and its psychological repercussions, gain her a toehold back to the “normal” world from which she had been irrevocably dislodged.

Assiduously combing through the facts, trying to control the information becomes an ever more desperate scramble; fingers clinging to the ledge of reason.

If knowledge is normally equated with power, in the face of death, its usefulness is overrated. No amount of understanding the cause and effect can change the outcome or lend “meaning” to her partner’s absence.

In trying to restart her life she attempts a conjuring trick, creating an illusion that her husband will be coming home. The trade-off for this precarious navigation between “moving on" and confabulating a twilight world in which she refuses to dispose of her husband’s shoes because he will need them when he comes back, is that she must avoid or block out the myriad reminders of what she’s lost.

Like a tightrope walker fearing to look anywhere but straight ahead, streets, restaurants, dates, books and people are rendered off limits lest she be sideswiped by what Didion calls the vortex. Happier times are now too painful to bear, once cherished memories now a desolate territory tainted by “what if?” and “if only…”

Naturally, the demand of caring for her gravely ill daughter occupies much of the narrative. Didion’s smouldering rage at being unable to do anything to help her husband adds to her determination to see her child pull through.

In doing so, she swims against the undertow of the medical profession’s detachment, feeling resentment at what she sees as a high-handed, closed ranks approach to decision making for her care. The passages where mother sits with her unconscious offspring tethered to her life support are charged and incredibly poignant. Any reader who has a child will appreciate the utter nightmare of this situation and hope it's somewhere we never have to be.

When she tells an unconscious Quintana “You’re safe. I’m here” Didion reluctantly recognises with a sense of rising panic and horror that such instinctual words of comfort and reassurance are emptied of their promise, rendered meaningless when up against the prospect of death. Nothing is guaranteed anymore.

The tremendous effort involved in writing such an account, with its raw, honest clarity is obvious. Her constant gnawing over facts and potential portents of what was about to happen to both her husband and daughter becomes obsessive bordering on the deranged.

Didion acknowledges her reluctance to finishing the account. Whilst writing it she is able to keep Dunne from being dead. Finishing the book begins the process of letting go, of moving on with her life but not his.

The unbelievably cruel postscript not mentioned in these pages was that although Quintana apparently recovered, she would later die following complications from acute pancreatitis.

Didion quotes poet Delmore Schwartz:

“Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.”

With a book so firmly rooted in reality, there can be no neat happy ending, no reconciling force that makes it all fall into place, no defining epiphany to bind together the unravelled threads of Didion’s family life. Instead, there is only the unforgiving forward motion of time and those it leaves behind.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Pete Doherty

Catch A Falling Star. . .

Pete Doherty: on the edge
Nathan Yates & Pete Samson
John Blake

In an age when people are famous for being famous rather than actually doing something, there’s an pronounced tendency to tout the latest flavour of the month as a being genius. This is true of the rock press and even more so in the tabloids. It’s no surprise then that Yates and Simpson of The Daily Mirror should find Pete Doherty to be not only a genius but that most overused cliché, a troubled genius.

From this bottom of the Doherty barrel scraping, we can all agree he’s troubled but we see scant evidence of much else. We learn insightful gems such as Pete read voraciously, that he was prone to Byronic brooding and that Lady Caroline Lamb was the Kate Moss of her day.

Oh and he was a bit like William Blake because of his fondness for referring to England as Albion. Whereas Blake’s Albion was full of mythic archetypes involved in a titanic and allegorical struggle against orthodoxy, Doherty’s Albion is populated by Leonard Rossiter, Billy Liar, Tony Hancock and Sid James, i.e. not really the same at all.

Dodgy comparisons are tossed about like so many used syringes. Orwell, Dickinson (Emily not David), Wilde, de Sade and other literary heavyweights are frequently invoked although the authors never quite explain how Pete’s writing as opposed to his lifestyle, gives them a run for their money.

After wading through endless pages of tittle-tattle about his drug habit and sex life, one begins to empathise with Libertine Carl Barat’s decision to injure himself by repeatedly smashing his skull off a sink when forced to hole up with his ex-mate in order to write songs for the next album.

Music is not what this book is concerned with. The merits of The Libertines and Babyshambles are barely alluded to, reduced to walk-on parts in a stupefied trail from one score to another. Rather it revels in, and by implication applauds, Doherty’s appetite for self-harm. The boy who once spent time as a grave-digger has been steadily digging his own grave with the collusion of the music industry and their apologists in the media. If Pete were a bus driver, a doctor or a member of any profession dealing with the public, he would be compulsorily retired.

Reading this tosh brings it home how someone somewhere in the industry is probably itching to put together the Pete Doherty “best of” compilation. Posthumously of course. Then the hacks will really be able to go to town with the superlatives, adding “tragic” and “legend” to the already overlong list. I bet they can’t wait and if Doherty carries on like he is, then they won’t have too much longer to hang about with those cliché-ridden obits.

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Inner Mounting Flame

Deeper by John Seabrook

I first read John Seabrook’s account of life online when it first came out in paperback in 1998. I was still pretty new to the web myself back then and Seabrook acted as a travel guide to this weird, often wonderful world and more often perplexing world. His account was couched in a homely, non-nerdy style that avoided any lofty digressions that would lose me in an undergrowth of footnotes and technical details.

His cleverness was to be able to view the subject with the eyes of an innocent, bringing a disarming naivety to sometimes difficult and complex questions such as ethics and implications of the web for the off-line world.

The chapter that really caught my imagination first time around and continues to resonate is My First Flame. This is his description of his first time of being abused online.

“I knew something bad had just happened to me, and I was waiting to find out what it would feel like. I felt cold. People whose bodies have been badly burned begin to shiver, and the flame seemed to put a chill in the center of my chest which I could feel spreading slowly outward. My shoulders began to shake. I got up and walked quickly to the soda machines for no good reason, then hurried back to my desk. There was the flame on my screen, the sound of it not dying away; it was flaming me all over again in the subjective eternity that is time in the on-line world.”

I suppose it’s the relative anonymity and almost no “real” comeback that makes them feel like they can badmouth people in ways that would never occur to them when out in day world. Online they get throw their weight around, show how witty they are with cutting remarks, quips and quick putdowns.

They get to be a big guy, a wise guy; in fact, and this is perhaps the nub of it, they get to be one of the guys. And make no mistake – this is a macho thing we’re talking about. Online testosterone makes up for the paucity of it in their real-life interactions.

Were they to try acting this way in the pub or supermarket or in any other public place they’d get their block knocked off. Of course it would never come to that; in the real world they’d merely fumble their words, blush a lot and most likely not have the balls to say anything at all in the first place.

One recent example of truly clueless online knee-jerk mentality I witnessed was someone criticising an album that they hadn’t even heard. Far enough to say that they don’t like the artist in question but to slag it off and attribute speculative motivations that lay behind the making of an album without ever having heard a single solitary note seemed to be spectacularly dumb.

Why might a person say such things? For effect? For a laugh? To get some discussion on the board? Perhaps they might regard such activities as challenging the orthodoxy of group thinking; an irreverent iconoclastic bent on upsetting the applecart to make life a bit more interesting? Who knows.

On the question of anonymity Seabrook makes this observation.

“Crucial aspects of your identity--age, sex, race, education, all of which would be revealed involuntarily in a face-to-face meeting and in most telephone conversations-do not come through the computer unless you choose to reveal them. Many people use handles for themselves instead of their real names, and a lot of people develop personae that go along with those handles. (When they get tired of a particular persona, they invent a new handle and begin again.). . .On the net, people are judged primarily not by who they are but by what they write.” (my emphasis)

That last point whilst applicable to all who use the net seems especially apt in relation to the post-now, think-later flamers. The truth is that kind of behaviour says more about the poster rather than the subject they’ve posted on. It reeks of someone desperately craving attention and who will go about getting it in any way they can. As the wise old saying goes "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt."

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Swinging Sixties And All That Jazz

Revolt Into Style by George Melly

George Melly is probably best known in this country as an aging jazz singer with a penchant for loud suits that could double as a pair of gaudy curtains in full sail. Whether as a satirical writer of Wally Fawkes’ satirical cartoon strip, Flook, art historian or author of the hilarious Owning Up series of autobiography, the lugubrious Melly has always brought an extra large personality to his work.

During the early 60s he began reviewing the trends in the emergent pop scene for the quality Sunday newspapers who wondered if their might be any cultural significance in this new fangled pop music. The domestic UK music scene was still a stodgy mixture of polite variety acts and clean-cut beat groups singing whatever Tin Pan Alley could palm off on the industry. As the aftershocks of Elvis Presley’s hip sway vibrated through an innately conservative post-war Britain, a shockingly fast transformation had been set in train.

No stranger to wiggling various parts of his anatomy on stage himself, Melly embraced the role of poacher turned gamekeeper, ideally placed to fire off dispatches from the fast-moving frontline of pop culture from those early buds to its resplendent bloom.

His descriptions of the London clubs in which the great and good were rubbing shoulders with the bad and the ugly reek of the stale cigarette smoke such is the first-hand, first rate nature of his prose.

He’s grappling with all the inherent contradictions and tensions of the era and understands he’s attempting to document something fickle, something that’s transient.

Whilst welcoming the pop arts and positing their impact on art and literature as well as music, he also recognises the difficulty of coming up with a precise definition of the movement; the zeitgeist is a slippery customer at the best of times.

Melly recognises though that the pop arts, at a particular juncture in the period, are in part the product of an increasingly educated and ambitious working class rather than from the usual arts hierarchy (i.e. the middle and upper classes). Effectively this means The Beatles.

Welcoming and approving of their transition from mop-top entertainers to cultural agent provocateurs, he sees past the electrifying novelty of Sgt. Peppers (which was new at the time of his writing) viewing it not so much as an indicator of the future of pop but rather a celebration of what had gone before, concluding “They display little enthusiasm for the way we live now”

If Melly is right, this surely explains their ability to traverse the generations in terms of popularity.

Dismissive of the psychedelic boom as something more to do with marketeers rather than “something in the air” as the propaganda put it, he applauds Pink Floyd and The Soft Machine for their attempts to cross the divide between the dance hall and the art gallery. The rise of the underground music scene predicated on the UK blues boom and the elasticity of American acid rock which in turn is rooted on authentic principles of musicianship and finesse is welcomed.

Even here though he detects the pervasive stain of fickleness and fashion “Here, as always, the old dilemma remains; to succeed you need a powerful individual image (gimmick is the less friendly word for it), and inevitably, with the passing of time, that image seems dated, ossified, out. In consequence the heroes come and go. Currently (August 1969) they include Jethro Tull, the Family and this month’s big deal, King Crimson; but in six months?”

Revolt Into Style: The Pop Arts In Britain, is an quick-witted eye-witness account of what was going on as it was happening without recourse to sentimentality or sensationalism. Throughout these pages, one senses that Melly had his sleeves rolled up and was getting stuck in. It’s this aspect that gives the book the frisson of authenticity that steers it clear from being a dry stand-offish academic survey that it could so easily have become.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Ich bin ein Berliner

And here is the news. . .

I well recall the controversy when The Gaurdian last changed its design – what was it, ten years ago?. After all the hoo-hah everyone quickly got used to it. So it will be with their latest design. The size, which I heard Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger refer to as a half-Berliner, feels and looks good to me. Truth be told it’s very rare for me to buy a newspaper during the week. Mostly I do my news-grazing online in between mouthfuls of cornflakes and Earl Grey in the mornings.