Archive for December, 2007|Monthly archive page
What do I think of when I hear the name Brendan Behan?
* Dylan Thomas
* Woolly jumper
* Dexy’s Midnight Runners
By all accounts the man was an alcoholic for years. It certainly done him in. He described himself as “a drinker with a writing problem” (not quite Oscar wit, but amusing enough).
Fighting / Woolly jumper:
He looks like a brawler in the photos, even with those 50s Irish woolly jumper and tie arrangements. I’m not sure how much fighting he actually did – suspect most of it was with himself.
He seems to have got caught a lot but I suppose at least it gave him raw material for his writing. His first stretch, the time he did in borstal, was for republican activities, specifically a half-baked attempt to blow up Liverpool docks. His first writings, poetry and prose, were published in Fianna, the magazine of Fianna Eireann, the youth organisation of the IRA. (My first published photos were in An Phoblacht [it's a long story] but from there, besides our shared wild&windswept hairdo, our lifestories diverge.) I get the impression he eventually grew out of the IRA and came to doubt political violence.
There appears to be a number of close parallels between Dylan and Brendan – lionised to death in the US, hounded by the media, the drink, the woman they couldn’t live with or without (Caitlin and Beatrice respectively), the woolly jumper with tie look, money worries, New York, the White Horse Tavern on Hudson St. in Greenwich Village. My sister-in-law Bronagh is arriving from Dublin this evening and she knows about these things so hopefully I’ll be a bit more clued up about these connections by the time I hit the pit tonight. Poking around on the web I came across a bit of a spat in the mid-60s on this very point between Conor Cruise O’Brien and a certain Constantine FitzGibbon (a biographer of Thomas) – O’Brien made connections between the two and FitzGibbon denied them.
I stumbled across this rather neat link last night: “Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood, Brendan Behan wrote under Littlewood” – referring to Joan Littlewood whose Theatre Workshop put on The Quare Fellow at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1956, transferring to the West End and ultimately to Broadway, establishing his international rep.
It’s the last commonality on the list above – time spent in New York – which gives rise to this posting. A new play entitled Brendan at the Chelsea is coming up this month at the Riverside in Hammersmith (starting 15th January) written by Behan’s niece Janet and starring Adrian Dunbar (The Crying Game, The General, My Left Foot, Hear My Song – who co-directs) and Brid Brennan (Dancing at Lughnasa, Topsy-Turvy).
It’s set in the 60s in the “legendary bohemian bolt-hole”, The Chelsea Hotel (where Dylan Thomas checked out of this world in 1953 with alcohol poisoning – hang-out also for that other poet who adopted Thomas’ name, Bob Dylan, and his buddy Allen Ginsberg, not to mention writers ranging from Eugene O’Neill to Arthur C. Clarke [who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey there], and musos including Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead, and of course the ungrateful dead, Nancy Spungen, who had no fun in a room there with Sid back in 1978). So, fellow playwright Arthur Miller is just across the hall, the grooves of free jazzer Ornette Coleman are drifting down from a floor above and Brendan’s in his room, short of dough and inspiration – he’s hung over and way past the delivery date of his next book, not a line written. He’s been told to stop drinking or he’ll be dead in six months – and that was two years ago….
So all set for a lively night on 23rd Street. I’ll report back when I’ve seen it and if you fancy a night of drama, drink and the fascinating interaction of human Behans, you’re just a click away from the Riverside …
Dexy’s Midnight Runners:
I remember buying their first single Dance Stance and being intrigued by the litany of literary Irish (including Brendan who I hadn’t read but if he was in the same list as Oscar Wilde that was good enough for me)
Never heard about Oscar Wilde
Don’t want to know about Brendan Behan
Don’t think about Sean O’Casey
Don’t care about George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett
Won’t talk about Eugene O’Neill
Don’t know about Edna O’Brien
Won’t think about Laurence Sterne
You don’t undertand it
That’s not the way I planned it
Shut your mouth til you know the truth.
Bon voyage to jazz great Oscar Peterson…
I only saw him once live, opening the show the first time I saw Buddy Rich, so he was instrumental in my intro to live jazz.
Apparently he came to jazz through listening to Benny Goodman – same for me, it was hearing ‘Sing Sing Sing’ and the drumming of Gene Krupa that got me hooked.
I remember seeing Martin Amis at a book reading in 1997 and him describing how he had written the whole of his eponymous novel listening to ‘Night Train’.
So all abooaaard to the Big Jam in the sky – where he can hook up again with his Montreal high school pal, trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, a regular at Ronnie’s in his latter years with fantastic young bands (including the superb Stockton Helbing on drums who I had the honour of meeting there on a boys’ night out with my step-dad and younger brother), Maynard Ferguson who took an earlier train last year.
Now on the subject of jazz things passing, I’ve just watched a charming documentary on BBC4 about the sad demise of the Hammersmith Palais. I was only in it once but according to ‘Last Man in Hammersmith Palais‘ (specifically, a music promoter called John Curd) it was one of the best nights ever. It was 1980. I went to see The Clash. It was the first outing for my middle class black bondage trousers. It was with Nick Golson (who I’ve recently reconnected with thanks to David Baddiel, Nick’s an archaeologist now apparently) and Simon Hollins (who I’ve no idea where or what he is though I did bump into his younger brother Johnny a few years back at some publisher’s do). We pogoed. We heard ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’ – probably the best Clash song – right there in the Palais. At the end of the gig Paul Simonon chucked his towel into the crowd and I went home with a piece of it, presumably infused with the sweat and tears of the great man. It lived under my bed as a relic of The Greatest Era in Music History for a good while but probably got lost in a move. Or maybe it still lurks above my head right now in a box in the attic. The Clash only ever played two nights at the Palais.
Ian Dury mentions the Palais in the first verse of his wonderful ‘Reasons to be Cheerful part 3′, sandwiched between the Bolshoi Ballet and boats. This blog ultimately has its roots in that song as Simple Pleasures part 1 was a list of reasons to be cheerful.
Summer, Buddy Holly, the working folly,
Good golly Miss Molly and boats.
Hammersmith Palais, the Bolshoi Ballet,
Jump back in the alley and nanny goats.
The Palais de Danse started as a dance and music venue in 1919 taking over from a roller skating rink. The first stuff played there was some new fangled import from the States called ‘Jass’. The last gig there was The Fall on 1st April 2007 – a day when the fools triumphed. It’s an office block now. But deep below in that West London soil lurks dance, romance, energy, punk, roots reggae, spirit, love, youth, cultural mix, sex, laughter, London pride, simple pleasures and jazz.
Inside some of Channel 4’s new media projects
Channel 4’s latest cross-platform project rolled out quietly this week. Picture This uses the talent show format to follow a group of digital photographers with Magnum’s Martin Parr, Alex Proud of Proud Galleries and Brett Rogers of the Photographers’ Gallery as judges.
The common theme with all of these is that they are thought of as “living projects”, pushed into the world by Channel 4 but then taking on a life of their own. For as long as new media departments are given the space to create those kind of projects without too much over-analysis of the market or preoccupation with a fixed end result, we might just end up learning something.
With Channel 4 Radio coming over the horizon, what better reminder of why it’s sorely needed than Radio 1’s sacrilegious censoring of Shane MacGowan’s lyrics in the best Christmas song ever – Fairytale of New York. The people who failed to censure Fatboy Moyles’ dodgy use of the word “gay” have had the bare-arsed cheek to clumsily cut the word “faggot” from that bit we all love to sing-along with:
You’re a bum
You’re a punk
You’re an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last
And while we’re celebrating the genius of Shane’s lyrics (difficult to reconcile with the figure who showed up like a benign Bill Sykes at Adie Dunbar’s last gig at the Boogaloo in Highgate with the Jonahs), let’s wheel out the title track from his first post-Pogues album, the Snake:
The Snake With Eyes Of Garnet
Last night as I lay dreaming
My way across the sea
James Mangan brought me comfort
With laudnum and poitin
He flew me back to Dublin
To a public execution
Being held on Stephen’s Green
The young man on the platform
Held his head up and he did sing
Then he whispered hard into my ear
As he handed me this ring
“If you miss me on the harbour
For the boat, it leaves at three
Take this snake with eyes of garnet
My mother gave to me!
This snake cannot be captured
This snake cannot be tied
This snake cannot be tortured, or
Hung or crucified
It came down through the ages
It belongs to you and me
So pass it on and pass it on
‘Til all mankind is free.”
Now there’s a song that will be sung in a hundred years time, long after Radio 1 is history. There’s echoes in there of the greatest London-Irish poetry…
I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
“That fellow’s got to swing.”
Dear Christ! the very prison walls
Suddenly seemed to reel,
And the sky above my head became
Like a casque of scorching steel;
And, though I was a soul in pain,
My pain I could not feel.
Here’s to the wilde men of words! Mess with genius in your hole! Happy Christmas your arse! Slainte
Walking into work the other day I was delighted to be confronted by a proper demo. Not just a common or garden demo but a demo by a full-on, fully paid up Cult. The Moonies were outraged by Channel 4’s indelicate portrayal of their romantic mass wedding in My Big Fat Moonie Wedding. I stopped for a minute to talk to a boy who said he was 16 but looked less and asked him why he wasn’t in school – apparently he was on study leave. Yeah, chin Jimmy Hill chin – some people will believe anything …and others won’t. So I trotted up stairs and my colleagues in the immediate vicinity of the pile of papers formerly known as my desk were talking about the demo. Michael Palmer, business affairs man and fellow wearer of Adidas Chile 62s (fast becoming the unofficial uniform of the department), came up with a fabulous definition of religion: Religions are just cults that got lucky.
A couple of days earlier I’d gotten back from New York where I was speaking at the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers, presenting the Big Art Project to an international audience of telly-makers. I didn’t get down to Ground Zero (which I’ve never seen, haven’t been in NYC since before 9/11) but I was thinking about it and the absence on the skyline.
Just before I left for Noo Yoik, my very old friend Judyth Greenburgh was back in her native London for a few days sorting out her old pad in Camden Town. She now lives on a houseboat in Sausalito, California where we enjoyed a fabulous holiday stop-over the year before last on our way down Route 101. When Judyth worked at Saatchi & Saatchi, long, long ago before she headed West, her boss was a certain Paul Arden.
Yesterday morning I was at an engaging, lively facilitated discussion session on Blogging. It was chaired by James Cherkoff who I first encountered a couple of years ago at a New Media Knowledge conference at the Royal Society of Arts. Here is his Twitter picked up within moments of the finish by the organisation who’d employed him:
“I’ve just moderated a 4 hour session where I said four things and had to fight to get those in.”
Imagine there’s a salutory blogging lesson there somewhere.
So I’m walking out of said sesh at the Old Laundry in Marylebone and wander past the very cosy Daunt Books, can’t resist a quick pop-in and come across Paul Arden’s latest by-the-counter tome (the bookshop equivalent of supermarket check-out chocs). Since leaving Saatchi’s he’s been writing rather minimalist bookettes on Creative Thinking such as Whatever You Think Think the Opposite and It’s Not How Good You Are It’s How Good You Want to Be. When I was approached by some bizarre nascent outfit at ITV called Imagine about 18 months ago I read a couple of these to get me back into that zone (creative thinking theory) with which I hadn’t actively engaged that much since writing MindGym (with Tim Wright and Ben Miller). Arden’s latest is all about the Creator rather than creativity – God Explained in a Taxi Ride – and I was quite taken with the first page I opened it at – he suggested the best thing to put on Ground Zero was a big mosque. And I’m inclined to agree. And it really makes you think how thin on the ground Creativity is in political circles. I’ve no idea what Arden’s politics are and whether he’s of the ‘Labour isn’t Working’ era at Saatchi but you can’t help wondering how the world could be with a bit more left-field (whether left wing or not) thinking applied to the pressing problems (and opportunities) of our age…