Archive for October, 2013|Monthly archive page
I’m having a session with The Box tonight and its 50+ songs as I’ve just made an adjustment to the record-player set-up to increase accessibility (a crafty pull-out shelf) and to usher in a new age of black plastic – the Vinyl Frontier is crossed.
Here’s what I’m listening to and the thoughts prompted/verdicts. Going according to how they sit in the box, so pretty much random order.
Thin Lizzy – Emerald
Started with this B-side after which my friend Eddie named his production company, with which I worked for a couple of very happy years. The song is typical Thin Lizzy, a romantic view of the Hibernian past, epic battles turning green fields red. Phil Lynott was a fascinating character and I love passing his statue off Grafton Street in Dublin, with plectrums attached by fans in homage (I believe it’s been restored recently, though it’s not that old – probably been living the high life and taken plenty of abuse).
Pet Shop Boys – It’s a Sin
Always had a bit of an ambivalent attitude to the PSBs. Couldn’t take the Smash Hits roots seriously. This one has a touch of the A-ha synth sound about it but is none the less catchy for that. Jolly and not very sinful or dark.
Sinead O’Connor – Nothing Compares 2 U
How on earth can a vinyl single wow and flutter? – this one does! But nothing can obscure a unique, soulful and beautiful voice like this. It’s not flawless but it is perfect. This song is very difficult to separate from its video which sears itself into the memory with its simplicity and beauty.
Irish Heartbeat – Billy Connolly
Bit of an Irish theme so far (not that surprising given the mix of my friends). This is comedian Billy (who used to make me laugh the minute he opened his mouth, from his accent and attitude alone) doing a Van song, with a Scottish twist when he wheels in the band of bagpipers. It’s a live performance and he gets away with a larger than life approach. (But I’ll take the Van version if push comes to shove.)
Two meetings with Philips with one L. Firstly with Philip Dodd, formerly of Sight & Sound and the ICA, now a regular arts & ideas broadcaster on BBC Radio as well as a pioneer of British business & culture in China. He reads an awful lot of books so his guidance with this one was invaluable, some higher level perspectives to help avoid specific bear traps. We met where Fitzrovia meets Bloomsbury, the literary territory both Philips call home.
A midday interval in the grounds of UCL writing en plein air. Have Air will travel.
Then a long interview session with the second Philip – Philip Hedley, formerly artistic director of the Theatre Royal Stratford East in the wake of Joan Littlewood’s regime, joining as Assistant Director at the tail-end of that era around 1973. Philip talked with insight as the afternoon sun faded outside his art deco apartment building, the room darkened and his face became silhouetted. At the end of day 41 I was watching Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View which makes an art form of silhouettes in architectural frames.
Philip and I had begun chatting outdoors at the cafe opposite, his regular, in the cul de sac where GLO Productions was when I was setting out on my career. A fella called Gordon ran it til it went bankrupt; Tim Pope directed promos for them, produced by Lisa Bryer who went on to produce the likes of Film4’s The Last Kind of Scotland. I haven’t been in that streetette since the day of the winding-up meeting in the late 80s. A short stretch of the long and winding road…
The room we were subsequently talking in, home to Philip H for some 40 years, once housed a hastily convened meeting called by Joan to address the future of the Theatre Royal as Joan & Gerry’s time there was closing. Unusually she was taking the minutes herself. At the meeting she had strongly advocated the collective direction of TRSE, adamant that no leader was needed to succeed her. In the minutes she wrote that everyone turned their eyes to Philip when the issue of leadership surfaced but Philip made no response. The gap between her perception or recollection and Philip’s was Joan’s dramatic imagination, her romanticisation and theatricalisation of life which fuelled her creativity and characterises her autobiography, Joan’s Book, in which she recounts events in ways many struggle to recognise. As someone who ‘founded her life on the rock of change’ (a phrase she used to Philip in his five hour job interview for the Stratford gig) I suspect a book would be anathema, too fixed and rigid and not forward looking or moving…
I’m writing this post in the grounds of University College London (of which one of my forebears was a founder – I found out earlier this year whilst researching my family tree online) – opposite Birkbeck College where my dad got his PhD (having arrived in London from Leipzig in 1938). It’s a nice spot to write, with its air of bookishness and naively optimistic youth.
Day 40 was centred at BAFTA where I am No. 26 member of the Interactive branch. I don’t really use it often enough as a pied-a-terre. Maybe because it’s so close to Hatchards (est. 1797) which always costs me money. I went in there for a browse between meetings and came away with a signed copy of Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary. As I looked around the enticing book displays, the sheer volume of material published, the wonderful variety of subjects, I oscillated between: I can do this – No I can’t – I can do this…
My first meeting was a last minute addition through Alfie Dennen (who I’ll interview for the contemporary/digital strand of the book) with a TV producer from CCTV in China. I gave him a few ideas to help with a series he’s doing on European cities (London, Paris, Berlin).
As he was leaving he got to meet my interviewee who had just returned from a long stint in China as voice coach for Nicholas Cage on his current movie. Gaye Brown acted under Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal Stratford East as well as touring with Oh What a Lovely War around Britain. She was in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange as well as in some classic TV from On The Buses to The Goodies. She also worked in The Establishment, Peter Cook’s club in Soho, alongside Jason Monet, grandson of Claude and the person my youngest brother was named after. She’s the first person other than my mum (who was at art school with him) I’ve ever heard mention that name.
Chatting to Gaye was a delight – story after charming story of acting in the 60s and 70s in particular, and of hanging out in London during that era, all framed by a rich mix of a life.
The rest of the afternoon involved reverting back to the Advertising world and tapping away on Paul Arden as the autumn sun raked along Piccadilly.
Started the day in Leipzig, boarding the train early at the Hauptbahnhof (the biggest in Europe, reminiscent of Grand Central, New York in its grandeur). Arrived at Berlin Hbf and taxied over to Tegel airport. The local placenames of Berlin are resonant from literature in particular (Moabit, Kopenick, etc.) The city looks good in its autumn colours but not as good as Leipzig where the colour of the brick and stone is light and complements the autumn palette. Meanwhile, back in Blighty a storm was coming…
My younger son sent me a text last night from the NFL 49ers game in Wembley – “don’t get on the plane it is too dangerous and u will probs die the wind could go as fast as 80 mph have fun hope u get back back safe love form (sic) all”
My flight was cancelled which gave me time to plough back through a key Ginsberg/Beat book which I read just before deciding to write this book, in fact it was part of the inspiration. It was interesting to revisit it with a particular focus on openness and generosity. A number of the people I met at Leipzig Networking Days/DOK Leipzig found the subject interesting and were keen to get a copy of the book when it appears which was encouraging.
Yesterday one young film-maker from Chicago/Berlin gave me a copy of his last documentary film which was on William Burroughs, who of course features in the opening scene of my book. [William S. Burroughs: A Man Within (2010) by Yony Leyser] I’ll have a watch as a reward some time this week. He is about to embark on a documentary about gay punk which features an interview with Laurie Anderson whom I’m thinking of pairing with Jeremy Deller in the Art chapter. That meant we were talking about Lou Reed at lunchtime, only to find out a couple of hours later that he had gone to the Great Gig in the sky on the very day. He had agreed to be interviewed for Yony’s film too. Echoes of my Carolyn Cassady set-back.
I was only ever a moderate admirer of Lou Reed. The Ginsberg chapter has a little diversion into that scene via its film-makers, in particular Barbara Rubin. Lou and the Velvets played live in front of her film Cocks and Cunts. The Velvet Underground & Nico speaks to me most but he is always a challenging listen. The work he did with Bowie, including in South London, was also ground-breaking and bold.
So I ploughed through the Beat book only to notice from my annotations that I had been reading it the very same day last year in Leipzig (near the St Elisabeth Krankenhaus). These kind of skeins of coincidence and connection seem to weave through creative enterprise. As I was reading Harry Thompson’s biog of Peter Cook whilst researching the Comedy chapter over the weekend I rewarded myself with a peak at the photo section in the middle of the book. As I came to a picture of him at his daughter’s wedding I spotted a woman I knew yonks ago (went to her for the occasional aromatherapy massage when my back was sore from child-lifting) – I had no idea she was one of those Cooks, hadn’t made the connection, though looking at the photo the resemblance is obvious, she is clearly a chip off the old block in looks at least.
Managed to get myself on a Lufthansa home so disruption minimal and a reasonable amount of reading and research got through.
On something of a pilgrimage today. Read up about Peter Cook and The Establishment club in the square in front of where my grandfather lived when he came to livd in Leipzig as a young man in the home of his favourite sister and her husband. The smart apartment building gives on to Nordplatz, centred on an old church and made up of simple but attractive grassed gardens. I get a certain pleasure of continuity and return from standing on its stone threshold.
I am writing this post sitting in the gardens of the St. Elisabeth Krankenhaus in the Connewitz area in the south of the city, the hospital where my father was born in 1937, two years after it opened.
From Nordplatz I walked through the adjacent autumnal woods round the zoological gardens. I stopped for a bit to do my daily German revision with the Duolingo app (keeping in touch with my linguistic roots) then headed on to Kathe Kollwitz Strasse where my grandfather and his young bride moved in. Where their flat was has been blank ground for a long while (a car park with trees) but by the time I get back here it will have been built on, laying to rest the vestiges of their home here.
I read some more Cook book on the back chair of this resonant memorial which feels like the hub of my Leipzig.
Before I left for my trek I had reviewed my master document to get a feel for what progress I’ve been making on the book and had a pass at the nascent Theatre chapter which needs a number of interviews transferred into it. That’s looking like a laborious transcription task though I will see if it can be automated at all.
Once back at the hotel after a dinner out at Leipzig Media City, about two clicks from my father’s birthplace, I did some more online research about Jeremy Deller, making me even more reassured that he is a good subject for the Art part. In particular I was reading about his work Procession for the Manchester International Festival. I’ll think of my pilgrimage around the city as a fusion of that and Richard Long’s work with some spirit of Picasso in its triangularity since today is his birthday.
I’ve just boarded a train at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof heading for Leipzig, the city in which my father was born. It’s a modern glass-doored version of one of those old-fashioned railway compartments. The only other occupant is a rotund German, balding, pot-bellied, bespectacled, avoiding eye contact, ignored my Guten Abend. So straight out of Emil and the Detectives (albeit travelling in the wrong direction) which is as it should be. Alles in Ordnung.
This will be my third time in Leipzig. The first time was a great adventure with my own gang of urchins which you can catch up on here and here [written 3 years ago to the very day]. And here’s a poem inspired by that trip.
What with the packing and generally getting my shit together, not that much accomplished book-wise before hitting the trail. My focus today has been on the Comedy chapter – sussing out whether Peter Cook is a potential candidate for the protagonist of the case study. I consulted comedian Gordon Kennedy of Absolutely Productions (with whom I once shared a train carriage to St Helens on a research trip) and he was uncommitted regarding Cook as he hadn’t really encountered him much. My friend author Doug Miller who is really good on the Ingrams/Cook/Private Eye circles felt there was real potential so I’m following his guidance and embarking on Harry Thompson’s quite fat biog of Cook. From memory he was Daisy Goodwin’s business partner who I’ve been working with recently on a TV project to do with Facebook. I liked his biography of Herge and this one seems an entertaining and informing read.
Apart from that I set up a meeting with entrepreneur James Laycock (mentioned yesterday) and a call with Mark Brown, writer on Creativity, with whom I made The Blue Movie in 1994, winner of the Grand Award at the New York International Film and TV Festival, a large chunk of silver I was holding when I first met Peter Fincham [story here], now one of the grand fromages of ITV, who is one of a panopoly of UK comedy movers&shakers interviewed by Thompson for the Cook book. (Thompson and Goodwin worked at Talkback before setting up on their own.) I’m meeting another one, an actress, next week to talk about Joan Littlewood. [I just noticed in that post which tells the New York award story that Allen Ginsberg was already entering my consciousness, six years ago – how these things brew…]
I’m rather tickled with the idea of writing part of this book in my grandfather’s city, hence this trip now.
Went for my second session at the Joan Littlewood archive over in Hackney. Took actor Adrian Dunbar with as he has just finished playing Brendan Behan in New York in the play ‘Brendan at the Chelsea‘ by Janet Behan (niece), and is about to take the play to Dublin, Belfast and Derry. (“His performance alone makes “Brendan at the Chelsea” a must.” NY Times) He ploughed his way through all the The Hostage and The Quare Fellow material. Meanwhile I picked up from 1963 and the Oh What a Lovely War scrapbooks and worked my way via Mrs Wilson’s Diary (set designed by Damon Albarn’s mum) and Lionel Bart and the like through the 60s and 70s until 1974 when the archive ends and Littlewood’s Theatre Royal hits the buffers.
There’s a nice line about Joan in the play: “Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood, Brendan Behan wrote under Littlewood” – there’s more about how he wrote under her here [murray-melvin-on-brendan-behan] and more on the play, which Adie directed as well as strarring in, here [human-behan] and here [drinker-with-a-writing-problem]. It would be great to see the play on at Stratford in Joan’s anniversary year next year.
Our generous host again looked after us very well with cake, coffee, chat and fascinating insights and titbits from the world of Joan & Gerry. One of my favourite clippings that I came across during the afternoon was one telling of how she’d been arrested for what would now be called ‘Stealth Marketing’ or something, for painting pawprints from the high street and the station to the theatre as a means of piquing curiosity. So a gorgeous, chilled out afternoon was had by all.
On the way to pick up Adie I went to a brief Channel 4 meeting about a game I was working on prior to sabbatical. It’s a really exciting project because it is a game That Does Good.
On the way back I went to a very interesting discussion held by YouGov and the London Press Club at the Stationers’ Hall (which is on the same street as my home livery hall Cutlers’ Hall). The theme was the future of Investigative Journalism and the participants were:
Chair: Andrew Neil, journalist and broadcaster.
Panel: Alan Rusbridger, Editor-in-Chief, the Guardian; Tom Harper, investigations reporter, The Independent; Tom Bower, author and journalist; Heather Brooke, investigative journalist; and Andrew Gilligan, investigative journalist.
I’d been kindly invited by Carole Stone who I’ll be interviewing shortly for the book on the subject of personal networks.
My Other Half chatted to Gilligan and Rusbridger after the debate. I bumped into journo/writer Christina Patterson who recently left The Indy (to coin an Ardenism: It is. She Is.) after first meeting her at Julia Hobsbawn’s network-driven event in Portland Place the other week, the London launch of Names Not Numbers 2014. I also ran my thought-up-on-the-night notion of a Kickstarter for Investigative Journalism past Simon Albury who recently left the Royal TV Society (It may be. He is.). He had raised an interesting point about the potential charitable status of some IJ activities. I reckon the Storystarter idea has legs, driven by the issues people care passionately about and the institutions they distrust – doesn’t yet exist as far as I know…
I’m writing this one from BBC Media Centre while getting ready for tonight’s broadcast of Health Freaks, a new series I have been working on, the only Channel 4 work I have carried in to my sabbatical.
I have spent most of the afternoon writing happily away outside a cafe on the King’s Road, Chelsea within spitting distance of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s SEX shop. May the spirit of Punk rub off on me. I’m writing away at the Paul Arden chapter and in his contrariness is at least something of punk appeal. In a distinctly non- punk vein, for mid-October a remarkably mild afternoon which I thoroughly enjoyed sitting out in.
Prior to my writing burst, I was round the corner at The Chelsea Arts Club interviewing an advertising photographers’ agent, David Lambert, who worked with Paul Arden from 1974. As I walked into the club I saw a notice on the board announcing the death of Carolyn Cassady, who had been a member – reminding me of my lesson from Carolyn: strike while the iron’s hot when it comes to interviews.
While sitting outside the cafe at the Bluebird I organised a meeting with actress Gaye Brown who, apart from working with Joan Littlewood, was in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (in that magical year, 1971).
David was very generous with his time and stories, and seemed to be enjoying recalling these tales which linked one to another as he hauled them up from the 70s and 80s. He stars in my opening emblematic scene in the Advertising chapter so it was good to get the story direct from him. The version I’ve already written is very accurate it turns out, I just got one extra telling detail from the from-the-horse’s mouth version as well as the chance to compare notes on what it actually means.
The Chelsea Arts Club was a strange affair on a weekday afternoon. Some ladies who lunch, some ageing types with no pressing need to work, the ubiquitous newspaper reader. It felt full of heritage with people on the past chairmen list like Whistler, Philip Wilson Steer and John Lavery but I didn’t recognise any of the last decade’s lot and only Sir Chris Powell was known to me on the current officials photo- board. Not the friendliest place I’ve ever been – CAC? we’ll leave the jury out on that.
As I walked back down Old Church Street Adrian Dunbar rang to confirm arrangements for tomorrow’s trip back to the Littlewood archives. He wanted to bring Janet Behan with, Brendan’s niece (author of Brendan at the Chelsea), but the times wouldn’t work out so that will have to be a separate visit. These little chains of connection are fascinating and the root of the excitement of the project – as well as the very essence of Creativity.