Archive for the ‘heart of darkness’ Category
I heard Solid Air performed live just last week at a performance of Nick Drake’s songs at Bush Hall in Shepherd’s Bush by Keith James and Rick Foot. It’s such a unusual song in that it’s equally associated with its subject, Nick Drake, and his friend the creator, John Martyn. What really struck me was what a warm, open expression of friendship it is, especially as I imagine the communication was rather one way.
The last time I saw John Martyn live was when he played the whole of the Solid Air album live at the Albert Hall. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the greatest albums ever. I went that night with a friend whose life subsequently took a bit of a nose dive due to drugs – a close-to-home illustration of how delicate we all are with regard to alcohol and the like. Watching JM decline from beautiful boy to one-legged survivor wasn’t easy but his unique voice and experimental energy was an enduring thread through his music-packed life.
The penultimate time I saw him was from a red velvet seat in the front row of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire with Una. The performance had a beautiful later life serenity.
Dyed in the wool Londoner that I am, I’ve never been a big lover of West London beyond occasional quick sorties to the All Saint’s Dinner (sic) and the Hammy Odeon, but West London seems to run as a skein through my life with John. One of the first times I saw him was in the Underworld/Westworld (? darn, what was that place called?) somewhere under the Westway near Portobello market. I just remember it as electric.
I saw him live around a dozen times – the Town & Country Club (Kentish Town), the Jazz Caff (Camden Town), the Mean Fiddler (Harlesden) – he struck a chord with me. We shared a birthday. Cooltide accompanied me down the Nile at sunset. One World has that special vibe of Jamaica which runs deep in me.
On the subject of Island, if I had to pick just one song to take to a desert one, it would be Don’t Want to Know:
I don’t want to know ‘bout evil
Only want to know ‘bout love
I don’t want to know ‘bout evil
Only want to know ‘bout love
Sometimes it gets so hard to listen
Hard for me to use my eyes
And all around the cold is glistenin’
Making sure it keeps me down to size
And I don’t want to know about evil
Only want to know about love
I don’t want to know one thing about evil
I only want to know ‘bout love
I’m waiting for the planes to tumble
Waiting for the towns to fall
I’m waiting for the cities to crumble
Waiting til’ the sea a’ crawl
And I don’t want to know ‘bout evil
I only want to know about love
I don’t want to know ‘bout evil
I only want to know ‘bout love
Yes it’s getting’ hard to listen
Hard for us to use our eyes
‘Cause all around that gold is glistenin’
Makin’ sure it keeps us hypnotized
I don’t want to know about evil
Only want to know ‘bout love
I don’t want to know about evil
Only want to know ‘bout love
Not much more to say after that. From the words of another great English bard, if music be the food of love, he satisfied us wondrously in his six decades – and I couldn’t love him more for it.
Today marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Seems like a good moment to republish it here as exhorted by the UN General Assembly at the time of declaration, to ‘disseminate and display’ the text. Its brevity belies its gravity and significance. How come no-one ever taught us about it at school? Do they teach it these days?
But first I’m going to pick up on one particular right – Article 5, the one relating to torture. I promised some time back (see Hunger) to write a few lines about Philippe Sands’ recent book (published this spring), Torture Team, on the subject in relation to Iraq and post 9/11. Philippe is one of the country’s foremost human rights lawyers – I know him a little through my best friend, a fellow lawyer, and from occasional encounters in local playgrounds with our kids.
To me, torture represents the very lowest the human being can descend to. Once you inflict that on a fellow man or woman you make yourself less than human. In torture the abyss, the heart of darkness, cracks open.
Torture Team focuses on the contravention of Article 5 in Abu Grabe and Guantanamo Bay. Tracking a single memo, Philippe traces how Bush decided in the wake of 9/11 to undermine Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention to be able to use what are euphemistically called ‘harsh interrogation’ techniques; how the terms ‘torture’ and ‘abuse’ were redefined, giving rise to the sanctioning of a catalogue of 18 techniques in 3 catagories; how this sanction came from the very top, not the fallguys/gals like Diane Beaver but from Rumsfeld & co. The redefinition meant anything short of ‘the pain associated with organ failure’ no longer counted as torture. Of the 18 techniques No. 1 was ‘yelling'; by No. 3 you’re already at waterboarding, the infamous technique which creates the perception of drowning. In 1863 Lincoln confirmed: “the US military does not do cruelty”. A far lesser president a century and a half later inspired the Jack Bauer age which showed ‘torture works’. Beaver, who gave legal sign-off to the techniques, confessed that 24 – produced by Fox TV, no surprise the malign influence of Murdoch is not far away from human degradation – had “many friends down at Guantanamo”. Kinda scary, no?
On that cultured note, here’s the birthday boy…
“Adopted and proclaimed by General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) of 10 December 1948
On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Following this historic act the Assembly called upon all member countries to publicise the text of the Declaration and “to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories.”
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,
Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,
Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.
Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.
(1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.
(2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.
(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.
(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.
(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.”
In purely literary terms there are better declarations:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Irishmen and Irishwomen: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.
but this is the Universal one and a key achievement of the post-war period.
Update 13.12.08: Just been watching Oliver Stone’s W and there’s a good scene in the middle of the movie where Dick Cheney tries to sneak out the reinterpretation of Torture past W and the government by trying to get Jnr to sign it off without proper perusal so it can pass through the system when key politicians are in recess. When the torture techniques are explained in a glossed over way to him, W can only associate it with his frat house initiation (captured in an earlier, frankly horrific scene which clearly indicates how people can descend so low – the fraternity scene suddenly thrown into relief in the light of the later White House Bush/Cheney lunch scene) and W is relieved the paperwork gives him only 3 pages to read.
[written and published elsewhere shortly after the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony; published here the day before the closing ceremony including an 8-minute hand-over slot to London 2012]
I dreamt I saw thousands of people moving in unison in circles. I dreamt they were so numerous that the incredible spectacle looked as ultimately unconvincing as CGI. I dreamt I saw children singing songs so simple (so not made up by children) they were bland and charmless – We plant trees, we sow seeds, the land turns green. The air turns brown. We wear masks. I dreamt I saw teenage girls swaying for hour after hour as country after country filed past, filming the filmers on their made in China handycams. Getting tired? Keep swaying happily girls or it’s the labour camp for you. Meanwhile back in the labour camp, some months earlier: OK, lads, here’s the choice – break rocks or learn this little dance. I dreamt I saw some other lads goose-stepping in black boots. Tanks filing past, missile launchers, fly-bys. One world, one dream. One tank, one student. Meanwhile, some miles away: 150 tanks roll into Georgia. Georgian army 11,320 – Russian army 395,000. Georgian population 4.63m – Russian population 140.7m (though due to halve by 2050). Georgian annual military expenditure $380m – Russian military expenditure $59,100m. How much did this spectacle cost? How much does China spend on education per year? I dreamt I saw no flag from Tibet. I dreamt I saw unison not unity. I dreamt I saw bird cages in a bird’s nest. People moving in small circles. I dreamt of the Mordillo cartoon I cut out as a kid. “We’re all different!” shout out the identical looking mass of people. “I’m not!” shouts out one of them. One party, one line. I dreamt I saw something which sub-consciously summarised what others fear.
In 2012 to follow these people making a spectacle of themselves, partying to the tune of the Party, London must be itself, tune in to its idiosyncratic, eccentric, spirited creativity (one thing that cannot be manufactured); its rich mix of cultures and peoples; its unique, particular, genuine handmade in Britain talent; its individual dreams which thread the tapestry of its Jerusalem spirit.
As it turned out, some of it was CGI (the footprints across the city sequence as shown on TV across the globe). The ‘lovely children’s singing’ turned out to be voiced by the little girl with crooked teeth whilst the pretty little girl provided the acceptable face. And those various ethnic groups represented by children dressed up in various ethnic costumes turned out to be not very ethnically mixed at all. So after two weeks of great sport, it still looks like a bit of authenticity, eccentricity, diversity and deep-down creativity should go a long way.
Went to Trafalgar Square on Sunday to watch the Olympics hand-over communally. Within the 8 minute British 2012 intro perhaps the most interesting moment was when David Beckham kicked the football into the serried ranks of the Chinese performers (seemingly not where it was planned to go – how very England FC of him). For just a moment the fine-tuned order was disrupted as a lone individual nabbed the ball and showed a brief glimpse of genuine delight.
I’m sitting here in the James Joyce Foundation in Zurich with in front of me a copy of ‘Thom’s Official Directory of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland for the year 1904′ published in Dublin by Thom & Co. (Limited) of Middle Abbey-Street. 1904 is the year in which Joyce’s Ulysses is set. This big red volume is the reference book Joyce used to recreate the detail of Dublin from exile here in Zurich. Joyce came to the city on leaving Dublin in 1904 (hence the choice of date for the novel – it is Dublin as fixed at the point of exile) accompanied by his other half, Nora Barnacle. They moved on to Italy/Trieste, back to Zurich, and on to Paris. Much of Ulysses (1922) was written here in Zurich. Joyce left occupied France in 1940 for Zurich where he died in 1941 (aged 59) and is buried.
So I’m flying in this morning with my iPod Shuffle on and up pops Van the Man singing ‘Too Long in Exile‘ with the line “just like James Joyce, baby / Too long in exile” – one of those meant to be moments.
And on the subject of Abbey Street and occupied France, in my hands is a copy of a classy thriller ‘The 6th Lamentation‘ by William Brodrick whose two central characters are a monk and a victim of the occupation of Paris. Another key character is a refugee to Switzerland. So I’m psyched for the Stiftung James Joyce.
I’m welcolmed by a friendly American academic and by the Director and prime mover of the Foundation, Fritz Senn, a Joyce specialist and as near as a Swiss man can be to being Irish.
In the back of Thom’s is an advert for Uska-Slan – Water of Health – in the form of Cantrell & Cochrane’s Table Waters. Just the kind of ad Leopold Bloom would have dealt in. I’m fresh from a lunchtime conversation which included the benefits of Badoit and the insanity of bottled still water. There’s a wonderful passage in Ulysses about water I heard declaimed atop the martello tower in Sandycove, South Dublin on the centenary Bloom’s Day on 16th June 2004.
I can, for example, look up my sister-in-law’s street in Ballybough (PoorTown) and see exactly who lived there in 1904. Mrs Grace at No. 24. A draper at No. 1, a jeweller at No. 14 and Mr John Killen of the GPO at No. 16. It tells you where the pillar boxes were (“Pillar Letter Box adjoining Raglan-road”). I’ve just spotted my father-in-law’s namesake (Murphy, James, esq.) at No. 26 Clyde-road which was valued at 70 pounds – and a certain William McGee at Cobourg-place (next door to Jasper Monahan the spirit grocer, which I assume is a far more colourful name for an off-licence).
My wife has now lived in London – many miles away from the cemetry at Kilbroney, Co. Louth where James Murphy after James Murphy is buried – for more years than she’s lived in Ireland – she went past the mid-point a couple of years ago, very significant really.
When I was in Ireland for the summer holidays last year, staying at said sister-in-law in Ballybough, I picked up a copy (at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainham) of ‘That Neutral Island‘ by Clair Wills about the Irish home front in the Second World War. I often wonder what similarities and differences there are between the Irish neutrality and the Swiss. Joyce spent most of the First World War (July 1915 to October 1919) in Zurich, as well as getting the permit for entry from occupied France in late 1940.
A few weeks ago there was a big art robbery just outside Zurich from another Foundation – the Emil Buhrle Foundation. Buhrle was a Zurich-based, German born industrialist who sold arms to the Third Reich. After the war 13 paintings in the collection, which was raided in February by armed masked men, appeared on a list of art looted by Nazis from Jews and eventually he handed them over, getting some compensation from the Swiss government. The provenance of other works in the collection remains shady. Much like the Russian collection currently on show in the Royal Academy, London (in the From Russia exhibition), where the British government had to provide an official ‘safe passage’ document to insulate the dubious pieces from any chance of investigation and return to their rightful owners – Russia’s art galleries are peppered with works ‘nationalised’ after the Revolution or looted in the Second World War, many ultimately from murdered Jews. So one has limited sympathy for the Emil Buhrle Foundation as whose work the masked raiders with the Slavic accents actually stole is a moot point.
I recently came across this quotation by the writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner (and man behind another foundation, this one a Foundation for Humanity, which bears his name) Elie Wiesel (through A.Word.A.Day – a daily email with an interesting new word – might have been Joyce’s cup of tea [my philisophical Zurchner taxi driver earlier today was tickled pink by this British idiom]):
“Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
“It is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph.”
Reckon I’ll give the last word to Van the Man (not to be confused with White Van Man – the Buhrle robbery was carried out in a white panel van) and his collaborator on ‘Song of Being a Child‘, Peter Handke (not Swiss but Austrian like Adolf Hitler and Simon Wiesenthal, born in 1942, also a collaborator with Wim Wenders [Wings of Desire], a writer who has lived in self-imposed exile in Berlin, the US and for the last two decades Paris):
When the child was a child
It was the time of the following questions
Why am I me and why not you
Why am I here and why not there
Why did time begin and where does space end
Isn’t what I see and hear and smell
Just the appearance of the world in front of the world
Isn’t life under the sun just a dream
Does evil actually exist in people
Who really are evil
Why can’t it be that I who am
Wasn’t before I was
And that sometime I, the I, I am
No longer will be the I, I am
A little more magic from the Hiberno-Germanic melting pot.
Warum bin ich ich und warum nicht du?
Warum bin ich hier und warum nicht dort?
Just finished watching ‘The Candidate‘ – the 1972 movie starring Robert Redford as a Democratic candidate for senatorial office in California. I thought it may be fun to watch given what’s going on over the water. Jeremy Larner picked up an Oscar for his original screenplay. One of the taglines for the movie was: “Too Handsome. Too Young. Too Liberal. Doesn’t have a chance. He’s perfect!” The other was: “Nothing matters more than winning. Not even what you believe in.” The former clearly has resonance with regard to Obama. You can feel the presence of JFK throughout the film – I kept waiting for Bill McKay to cop some lead – as it happens the worst thing that happens is a fist to that blonde waspy jaw. Whether the second tagline says anything about Hilary or Barack – who am I to say…
It was the end of the film that struck me most. It reminded me of that thing about your twenties. You spend all that effort finding a mate, you get hitched and think you’ve finished something, you’ve arrived, you’ve made it …and of course marriage, it’s just a beginning. I remember a similar realisation when we arrived home with our first son. Just back from the hospital, we put him down in the middle of the living room in his Moses basket. Sat looking at him for a bit. I went in to the bedroom. Realised some kind of radar had been switched on in my head and I was constantly thinking about how he was – wherever I was. It wasn’t the end of nine months – it was the beginning of nineteen years, or twenty-nine, or forever.
At the end of ‘The Candidate’ Robert Redford momentarily escapes from his victory celebrations, ducks into a room in the hotel with his campaign manager (played superbly by Peter Boyle – veteran of Steelyard Blues, Taxi Driver, Where the Buffalo Roam and the unjustly overlooked The Dream Team) and asks him the terrifying question: “What do we do now?”
Which, of course, is the exact same sentiment as Roger McGough’s ‘The Leader’, indeed pretty much exactly the same words (just two letters difference):
I wanna be the leader
I wanna be the leader
Can I be the leader?
Can I? I can?
Yippee I’m the leader
I’m the leader
OK what shall we do?
I’m not sure whether McGough wrote the poem before or after the movie was made – I can’t see it in 1967’s The Mersey Sound nor 1983’s New Volume which exhausts my collection of his pomes and makes me wonder where and when I know it from then.
So with the words “What do we do now?” echoing in the room, McKay walks out and closes the door leaving an empty, blank, off-white room behind him as he goes to realise his ‘better way’ – “Bill McKay: For a better way”. An empty room – and the credits roll.
Barack Obama: Where’s the harm, huh?
Hilary Clinton: Let the bint* in!
[* UK slang: Noun. A woman. From the Arabic ‘bint’ meaning girl or daughter.] (Yeh, well you try rhyming with ‘Clinton’)
So let’s hope, once Bush has withered away, that the room’s not empty, the cupboard’s not bare, there’s hope and there’s care.
Notes for a movie by Albert Camus & James Cameron
We are biological machines programmed only to survive.
We are born condemned to death.
To survive we must not take that ludicrous condition lying down.
We must rebel against it with kindness (as in ‘mankind’).
We need to learn to live in the present to maximise our own happiness.
That happiness must be available to the whole of our kind as a context for our individual happiness.
Marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on 27th January 1945
I promised previously on Drinker with a Writing Problem to report back on ‘Brendan at the Chelsea’ at the Riverside, Hammersmith once I’d seen it. Well on Thursday I made a bee-line back from the rather sober Oxford Media Conference to get back in time for the press night of the play.
As I emerged from Hammersmith tube I bumped into Grant Dean of Eidos (home of Tomb Raider) and his sweet little daughter. Grant and I know one another from the BAFTA Interactive Entertainment Committee – he went on to chair the Video Games Committee while I went on to the TV Committee to try and make the rest of interactive entertainment beyond games part of the mainstream of the Academy. I remember trying to convey to the TV Committee a concept I called ‘New Television’ (you can imagine how well that went down) and introducing to them, among a selection of other emerging sites, this new thing called ‘YouTube’ (which I’d only come across two or three weeks before). A couple of years down the track and Malcolm Garrett, Martin Freeth, Terry Braun, Martyn Ware, a few other stalwarts and I are still fighting that particular battle.
And there I watched a barnstorming performance by Adrian Dunbar as the Irish playwright Brendan Behan. A charismatic, cathartic, compelling performance.
The play was written by Behan’s own niece – Janet, daughter of writer and playwright Brian Behan. I saw her straight after curtain-down in the foyer and I’ve never seen anyone so charged. It had taken her six years to get this very well written, tight, witty script staged. What a kick to see it realised with such skill and energy to climax in a standing ovation. What a kick to hear your audience join in the singing – “Fair fucks to yer!” responded Brendan (whether that was in the script or not – no idea).
In the bar after, the superbly talented, modest and warm Brid Brennan, who played Behan’s missus, told me and the Missus that, from her experience, the kind of reaction the performance prompted from the audience that night was something very special. My Missus reckoned the turning-point was the scene where a drunken Behan crashes on stage at a performance of his play ‘The Hostage’ on Broadway – in his naturally ebullient way, he breaks into song (Adie has a wonderful classic Irish tenor voice) and the Riverside audience joined in becoming the Broadway crowd.
Equally stunned on emerging was Anna Nygh, Adie’s wife, also an actor. She’d heard him rehearsing the lines around the house (a helluva lot of lines as he drives the two hours of dialogue) but had no notion quite how much he was inhabiting the character – or vice versa… She summed it up by confirming ‘It’s taken his acting up a level’.
The action is centred on Behan’s room in the legendary Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd in New York. He’s struggling to write a book about New York of which he’s already drunk the advance. It’s not only his publisher he’s let down but also his mistress and baby son. And his wife Beatrice is just about to show up from Dublin. With a tape recorder on his desk and a pint of whiskey under his mattress, he reflects on the journey that brought him from inner city Dublin to the weird&wonderful diversity of the streets of New York, through which the paparazzi pursue him. One of the highpoints of the play is a Berkoff-like set piece when Behan enacts the moment a journalist lured him out of sobriety by sending a free drink over to him at a bar, three fellow under-cover hacks watching from the shadows.
The show is punctuated with cracking lines. Like the one about the definition of an Irish homosexual – a man who prefers a woman to a drink.
When Adie emerged from the dressing room afterwards, I had to congratulate him for making such a good fat man. He’s so slight in real life but with just a bit of a belly added beneath his shirt he played Behan’s drinker’s bulkiness with such conviction you saw it in his restricted diabetic movements and bloated lumbering.
What ‘Brendan at the Chelsea’ showed above all was the paradox of a man who clearly loved life and spent every day trying to kill himself. He expressed a great fear of just being an ordinary human Behan which was why he disappeared to New York in the first place – he loved being immersed among the extraordinary flotsam of a big city.
The play is on until 3rd February – do yourself a favour…
This is the end, beautiful friend
This is the end, my only friend
The end of our elaborate plans
The end of everything that stands
The end, no safety or surprise
I’ll never look into your eyes… again
Can you picture what will be
So limitless and free?
Desperately in need of some stranger’s hand
In a desperate land
In the beginning
And the earth
And the earth
was without form
and darkness was upon the face
of the deep
Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain
And all the children are insane
All the children are insane
Waiting for the summer rain
And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters
There’s danger on the edge of town
Ride the King’s highway, baby
Weird scenes inside the gold mine
Ride the highway west, baby
Ride the snake, ride the snake
To the lake, the ancient lake, baby
The snake is long, seven miles
Ride the snake
He’s old, and his skin is cold
And God said: Let the waters bring forth abundantly
The moving creature that hath life
And God created every living creature that moveth
Be fruitful and multiply
And God made the beast of the earth after his kind
And cattle after their kind
And every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind
And God saw that it was good
Now the serpent was more subtle
Than any beast of the field
Which the Lord God had made
The Lizard King
King of the universe
So God created man in his own image
In the image of God created he him
Male and female created he them
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the East
And there he put the man he had formed
The West is the best
The West is the best
Get here and we’ll do the rest
The blue bus is callin’ us
The blue bus is callin’ us
Driver, where you takin’ us?
And God said: Behold
I have given you every herb
And the earth brought forth grass
And God said: Let there be light
And there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good
And God divided the light
From the darkness
And the evening and the morning were the first day.
Divide the light from the darkness
The killer awoke before dawn
He put his boots on
He took a face from the ancient gallery
And he walked on down the hall
He went into the room where his sister lived, and then he
Paid a visit to his brother, and then he
He walked on down the hall
And he came to a door
And he looked inside
“I want to kill you”
“Mother… I want to… fuck you”
And God blessed them
And God said unto them
Be fruitful and multiply
And replenish the earth
And subdue it
C’mon, baby, take a chance with us
And meet me at the back of the blue bus
Doin’ a blue rock, on a blue bus
Doin’ a blue rock, c’mon, yeah
Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill
What have you done?
In the middle of the garden were the tree of life
And the tree of the knowledge of good and evil
The voice of your brother’s blood
Cries to me from the ground!
This is the end, beautiful friend
This is the end, my only friend
It hurts to set you free
But you’ll never follow me
He made the stars also
Let me tell you about heartache and the loss of God
Wandering, wandering in hopeless night
Out here in the perimeter there are no stars
Out here we is stoned
The end of laughter and soft lies
The end of nights we tried to die
This is the end.
What comes between fear and sex?
Geddit? Vier Funf Sechs. More of a verbal than a written gag i guess and one that probably appeals to the Modern Linguist in me (French and German with subsidiary Norwegian – but that’s another story). I’ve been thinking quite a lot on and off about Fear over the last few years and have a sense it’s a massively important subject.
Nick Baylis of the Well-being Institute at Cambridge spoke about it the day before yesterday at the Channel 4 Education spring conference entitled In the Wild, exploring informal learning from the starting point of the current state of well-being of children in the UK.
The conference got off to a cracking start with Richard Reeves, author of Happy Mondays, who writes and presents on making work more fun. Smoothly and entertainingly he presented a couple of graphs indicating that beyond a certain relatively modest point money doesn’t make you any happier (apparently the modest point being about the average wealth in Portugal) and showing the comparative duration of happiness prompted by different life events (marriage, etc.).
Then things really took off with a fabulously disheveled, natural, impassioned semi-rant from Nick Baylis. He spoke with great conviction about the way just keeping your head above water is the default state for most of us these days; how the pursuit of happiness (as per the constitution of the good ol’ US of A) is a misleading goal – it’s a question of living life well; how emotions are neither intrinsically positive or negative – it’s how we ride them that counts, pain and anger being rocket fuel for creative expression, by way of simple example; how loneliness (stemming from rampant individualism) and exhaustion underly so much of our being; and how at the core of all this is Fear.
One of the principal antidotes to this fear and isolation he identified as “Beautiful Partnerships”.
His study of Positive Psychology focuses on lives that go well and he encourages us to get better at living life.
“Beautiful Partnerships”. The distance between people within which they can touch, embrace, kiss – really connect. A phrase and space that were the inspiration and focus of the day for me.
A few hours later I found myself only slightly further away – about 12 to 15 feet – from John Paul Jones of Led Zep, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Captain Sensible of The Damned and the great producer of Nick Drake et al, Joe Boyd. A few inches to my right was my best friend from school (from the days when you had a few less than 864 ‘friends’). [The photo above was taken on a phone with no zoom – we’re talking close.]
Before I get sucked into psychedelia let me swing by a man who loathed rock’n’roll – Frank Sinatra. He had this to say on fear: “Fear is the enemy of logic. There is no more debilitating, crushing, self-defeating, sickening thing in the world – to an individual or to a nation.” Ol’ Blue Eyes had some real insight (Pete Hamill’s Why Sinatra Matters is a recommended read).
Back on Planet Syd, Madcap’s Last Laugh was a tribute to Syd Barrett who died last year. Joe Boyd (whose Whitebicycles is also recommended reading) helped pull the gig together with added enthusiasm from Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders fame.
The connection, beside the circle of 12 feet and the Cambridge base of both Syd and Nick, is several references during the course of the evening to Syd as “fearless”. He was the experimenter and catalyser of creativity. Roger Waters appeared solo and said without the inspiration of Syd’s fearlessness he would probably have ended up as a property developer.
Dave Gilmour, Nick Mason and Richard Wright also pitched up to sing Syd’s Arnold Layne. I remember being introduced to the Relics LP by same said friend on my right in our school daze.
Damon Albarn provided one of the highlights of an evening that still has me high after three days with a rendition of Words from Syd’s Opal record. At the end of the song he handed me the lyrics he had been using – which was nice! The Enfants Terribles were well impressed the next morning – they love Blur.
Among the gals, Chrissie Hynde was her usual charming, laid-back self; Vashti Bunyan had a delightful delicateness as she re-emerges into music (I only came across her a year or so ago at an IDEASFACTORY Northern Ireland workshop on music & film, thanks to Kieran Evans); Kate St John (who I first came across thanks to Van) provided spot-on oboe accompaniment on Words and one or two other songs; Martha Wainwright and her mom (Kate McGarrigle) did a fine See Emily Play, all the more impressive as the former had been on the raz since her gig the night before and the latter only learnt it a couple of hours before coming on stage.
John Paul Jones played mandolin (cue flashbacks to Led Zep 4) – I’m now in awe thanks to having had my eyes opened to the sophistication of Led Zeppelin by Chris Cawte, the Jimmy Page of the impassioned Letz Zep tribute band and the composer of the music on all my films and productions from 1993 on – I never fully realised how talented he is as a musician until I first saw him as Jimmy.
Captain Sensible clearly found Syd a huge inspiration and paid tribute with gusto and joy. Since my sid is more Sid (Vicious) than Syd (Barrett) his contribution was a thrill.
During the In The Wild conference I chaired a session including Pat Kane of Hue & Cry, who in talking about play and its importance in learning invoked the spirit of Punk. At its heart Punk had a wild fearlessness which has provided me and Pat and the Captain with inspiration and Simple Pleasure for 30 years (1977 was the Big Year for me thanks to The Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and The Clash). Next time I hear See Emily Play I’m going to think Syd and Sid – a beautiful partnership free of fear.