Archive for the ‘novels’ Category

Fundamental Flaw

children playing

The spirit of the law

The first words I heard this Easter Monday morning were Allah Akbar. They blared their way at 5am across the fields from Jisr az-Zarqa, across the stream from which it takes its name (bridge over the blue [stream]), along the Roman aquaduct which flowed right down to Caesarea, and through the flower-lined streets of Bet Chananya where I am staying. In my half-sleep I lay wondering: What did God actually ask? Presumably he never mentioned electronic amplification in the Koran. I suppose he said something along the lines of get up high and call the faithful to prayer. No speakers. No microphone in the Holy Book I’m guessing. Just the human voice. So why the need to broadcast beyond the call of the human voice?

I’m just back from the streets of Jerusalem, from the Via Dolorosa to the Wailing Wall. On Good Friday I saw the faithful carrying wooden crosses into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, site of Calvary. It coincided with Passover this year and of course shortly after the resonant hour of three o’clock the Jewish Sabbath kicks in. At the hotel where I was staying the electric revolving door was switched off for the Sabbath and you had to push it around manually. The reason the electricity was switched off is because switching on electricity has been interpreted as constituting work. Presumably electricity doesn’t get a specific mention in the Torah. But you end up with your shoulder to the heavy revolving door doing the bovine work of pushing your way into your temporary crib. So interpretation ends up achieving the opposite of the spirit of the law.

And anyway, what’s that Orthodox Jew doing carrying two bulging plastic bags across the lobby on Sabbath afternoon? He’s not even supposed to carry money in his pocket – that’s work too apparently. In North-West London near where I live, the Orthodox Jewish community tried to or actually built a network of thin, high wires around certain streets of NW11 to create an ‘eruv’ which seemingly constitutes some kind of enclosure which would permit Orthodox Jews to have money in their pocket or push a pram on the Sabbath within its near-invisible confines. Religions have this habit of finding ways and interpretations to get round their own rules.

Heading West to Holland Park you’ll find the sumptuous Arab Hall in newly restored and just reopened (yesterday) Leighton House, home of the prominent Victorian painter Frederic, Lord Leighton. He was a keen collector of Isnik and other Islamic tiles. On the walls of the Arab Hall, setting off its central fountain and latticed windows, are tiles depicting birds and natural beauty. But Muslims, like Jews (and technically Christians), are forbidden from creating “graven images”. It’s right up there as rule/Commandmant No. 2: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath”. So birds are a no-no. Look carefully at the tiles though and you’ll see a line has been scored across their necks in the glaze. Apparently that gets you off the hook with God.

So there’s the spirit of religion on the one hand, and the question of human interpretation and institution on the other hand; there’s the human voice and the cycle of work and rest, and there’s contemporary applications of religious rules and the predominance of the letter of the law or the interpretation thereof over the spirit of the law.

A few days ago – ironically on St Patrick’s Day – on Radio 5 I heard Steven Nolan interviewing a certain Monsignor Dooley, a senior representative of the Irish Catholic Church. He asked him whether he would report a priest to the police if he knew he was abusing  a child. His reply was that he had no legal duty to do so …nor, indeed, any moral duty.  This was from a close colleague of the churchman who was reading out that very day in Armagh Cathedral the Pope’s apology for the abusive and deviant behaviour of his Church in Ireland – the apology which ended up with a call on the (increasingly appalled)  Irish Catholic congregation to do a year’s peninence for the sins of… of whom … of  the representatives of the Pope’s rotten institution in their country.

In some religions to become a priest or community leader you have to be married, preferably with a family. The Catholic Church will remain rotten at heart as long as it enforces celebacy of its officials. Supressing sexuality and natural urges obviously just misshapes people, and wherever it finally bursts out of some resultant kink or deformation, like a hiss of burning sulphurous steam, it causes pain and stink. I’ve met angry Catholic priests. I’ve met obviously gay ones, who either don’t realise it or don’t want to be honest about it. I’ve met ones over the last couple of years whose faith has clearly been shaken by recent events. I’ve seen, I’ve smelt those whisps of suppressed and displaced feeling.

In Richard Price’s excellent novel ‘Clockers’ he describes in unforgettable fashion what his cop character calls “the Cycle of Shit” – basically how abusive behaviour and its consequent damage transmits from generation to generation in a vicious, downward spiral. Which begs the question, what in God’s name has been happening to those priests in the seminaries and institutions in which they’ve grown up and trained?

It turns out the voice that abused my ears this morning wasn’t even a real person. It was a tape recording. The officials of religion that feed these Cycles of Shit are steeped in the rankest of hypocrisy. Not that I’d have felt that much better if the lazy bastard had gotten out of bed to disturb me and make me this grumpy.

Can’t kid a kidmapper

cover by NC Wyeth (1913)

cover by NC Wyeth (1913)

Follow the Kidmapper: a literary blogumentary from Tim Wright

From 30th June to 25th August, Tim (who wrote MindGym with Ben Miller and me) is following a route across Scotland from the south-western tip of Mull to the outskirts of Edinburgh, as charted in Chapters 14–27 of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’.

You can follow his travels & travails at Kidmapper.

Tim considers ‘Kidnapped’ a fantastically exciting book – “the story of David Balfour running for his life across the Highlands, sometimes accompanied by tough and rebellious Alan, sometimes pursued by the English army, seemed so visceral and exciting to me that I wanted to try it for myself. So that is exactly what I am doing.”

From the blog you can read and discuss the book itself, listen to extracts being read out in the places the book describes and keep in touch with where Tim has got to each day.

“Perhaps there’s something you’d like me to do or think about whilst I’m walking. Perhaps you’d like me to visit specific sites and film them for you. Or better still, perhaps you’d like to come out here and join me for a walk, add your own responses to being on the Kidnapped Trail and have an adventure of your very own.”

If you want to start from the beginning, the first episode is on Tim’s YouTube channel and you can find him as ‘kidmapper’ on most popular web services.

So this is the latest chapter in Tim’s on-going exploration of web narrative, which incudes the outstanding In Search of Oldton whose launch I had the honour to host at Channel 4 way back when.

I’m feeling inspired now to handcuff myself to a blonde and run across the heather-strewn glens of ‘The 39 Steps’.

We seem to have a bit of a Hitch here, darling

We seem to have a bit of a Hitch here, darling

And on the subject of following…

You should follow me on Twitter here

Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) should follow Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) there

The English army should follow David Balfour there

Why all the following?

Rocky Road

Banff, Canada

Kim Cattrall of Sex and the City

High in his mountain lair, overlooking the snow-topped peaks of the Canadian Rockies, protected by the sheer stone walls of the looming castle, the cross-platform commissioner and his white cat reflect on the events of the past few days. The Banff Spring hotel, one of the barmy baronial piles built by the Canadian Pacific railway (I’ve seen two others, at Lake Louise and in downtown Toronto, all astounding in their scale), is home to the annual Banff TV Festival which follows hard on the heels of NextMedia, its toddler brother of about four which focuses on interactive media. It’s interesting to see this year that the two are beginning to overlap substantially, reflecting (a little late) the changes in TV over the last two years in particular.

The highlights for me of ‘the place great TV is born’…

My main speaking session this afternoon with Kate Harwood from BBC Drama (Cranford, Oliver Twist, etc.), chaired by Ed Waller, Editorial Director of C21 Media – really enjoyed rabbiting on about Picture This, Embarrassing Bodies and Big Art Mob to illustrate my approach to factual cross-platform (BTW “rabbiting” is one of various English words I found out this trip Canadians don’t understand). Sesh seemed to go down well. Mentioned the forthcoming 4mations and 4IP. It’s always fun demoing Embarrassing Bodies because you never know what gruesome video will be featured on the homescreen – my very own Russian roulette of public speaking (not sure what exactly we were looking at yesterday but the thumbnail featured what seemed to be a fifteen-day old mini cheese pizza growing on someone’s head) .

Kate showed a couple of interesting clips from forthcoming shows – House of Saddam looked fascinating as did Criminal Justice (in which Pete Postlethwaite and some other thesp heavyweights cropped up).

Looking up at the reception before the Rockies Awards to see Bill Murray of Where the Buffalo Roams and Ghostbusters fame. Stripes featured big in my teen viewing – especially the parade ground manoeuvres to the tune of Manfred Mann’s Doo Wah Diddy. He looked rather white and old. Buffalo I first saw at the Arts Cinema when I was at college so I guess he is getting on. (I’ve just finished reading Fear & Loathing for the first time – goddarn that book has great pictures!)

I’m carrying on writing this on Canada’s third greatest invention – after maple syrup and Neil Young – the Blackberry. We’ve just driven past the Banff Centre where Kim Cattrall trained. I had the pleasure of picking up 4 Rockies Awards on behalf of the Channel in front of said Sex in the City star to her 1 shiny little metal mountain range. Whilst she looked like a million dollars, I was more like a bad penny, coming back to the podium four times, which did however have the benefit of driving home how much above its weight Channel 4 punches.

Going to the hot springs after work yesterday with Jane Mote of UKTV, in their rather charming 1932 split-level building. 39 degrees in the outdoor water with views in all directions of snow-capped peaks. Steam coming off the surface, fat bellied men in old-style trunks, a row of French maidens posing in 1930s bathing costumes, it felt for a moment like we were in some Russian resort, missing only the wodka.

Running this morning, after doing a breakfast meeting with four Canadian writers and producers (including Jill Golick of scriptwriting blog Story2OH), along the Bow river past the falls. The epitome of Canadian Rockies scenery.

Having a proper chat at breakfast with Nick Fraser of Storyville (who has just execed a film about the aforereferredto Hunter Thompson) (and Mette Hoffman Meyer of DTV, Denmark representing the award-winning documentary Iron Ladies of Liberia) – last saw Nick when we were both speaking at Discovery Campus in Brussels but didn’t really get to talk – so a proper chat about photography (prompted by his commission What Remains: Life & Work of Sally Mann which also picked up a Rocky), new digital forms for documentary, sealing wax, cabbages and things.

Last year it was Mark Thompson I met at breakfast in that same dining room. We were discussing the fall-out of Celeb Big Bro and his verdict was “shit happens”. And the Richard & Judy phone vote balls-up – “Sometimes shit happens in a row”. Which in retrospect was ironic given the kind of year he had following that convo with one bit of shit (Blue Peter fix) after another (queen trail scandal) after another (BBC cuts).

Hooking up with Tom Perlmutter, President of the National Film Board of Canada, to explore possibilities about combining forces on 4mations. Canada has a great reputation in animation which seems in kindred spirit to what comes out of Channel 4 on the animation front.

Meeting an honest to goodness Mountie.

Being on the judging panel for iPitch from the Bell New Media fund, like last year. Not quite as exciting entries as last time but a worthy winner (a cross-platform teen court).

As I come down from the mountains, I come away with the impression that convergence is now more than the C word in TV – it’s the done deed.

Human Bonds

james bond Pan book covers

So I’m on the underground yesterday, reading the new hardback I’d bought the day before. Then this burn-out walks on and I have that feeling – I know he’s going to sit next to me. He’s very tall, lanky, drug thin. His fingernails are dirty. The driver has to warn passengers to stay clear of the closing doors. The burn-out calls them “fucking idiots” in the expected loud cockney voice. I shift rightwards in my seat, hope he isn’t going to smell too bad (which he doesn’t as far as my hopeless sense of smell can tell), carry on reading.

“Is that the new Bond novel?” he asks me gently, having glanced down at the page I was on. The book only came out the day before. The open page had few clues as to what it was.

“Yes, it is.”

“Do you think the film they’re making of it will be good?”

“I think it’s based on a different story.”

“So is that written by Fleming?”

What do I take from the unexpected exchange? You can’t judge the book by the cover I guess is the obvious one we (certainly I) can’t be reminded of often enough. You can tell the price (but not the value). What I most took away was the Simple Pleasure that I had enjoyed the conversation and contact and there was real warmth in those human bonds.

The new Bond book is entitled ‘Devil May Care’ and has been written by Sebastian Faulks (of ‘Birdsong’ fame) in the style of Fleming. I’ve only ever read a couple of Bond books, but remember really enjoying ‘Casino Royale’ (the first Bond novel) for the surprising brutality of the man I had only encountered through the movies. The publication of a new Bond book felt like a bit of an event (I was one when Fleming died) so I bought a copy of this in advance on-line through Hatchards website and picked it up on the day of publication on the way to a meeting at BAFTA with Rob Bevan of XPT- we were working on the forthcoming website for 4IP, the new Channel 4-led fund for public service interactive media, announced at Next on 4 back in March and coming on-stream over the summer. Hatchards in Piccadilly – a book shop dating back to 1797 as it says on its rich green bags the colour of Bond’s customised Bentley with its Arnott supercharger – is one of London’s great treasures. It makes me feel guilty every time I buy from Amazon and I try to make amends by pulling by whenever I’m at the Academy at 195 Piccadilly and picking up a signed volume.

After having a satisfying creative session with Rob, my old collaborator from MindGym, I hooked up with Ivo Gormley of ThinkPublic to talk about his forthcoming documentary about the internet and democracy. We walked back Channel4wards through St James’s and St James’s’ Park where I had the pleasure of demoing Big Art Mob in its mobile incarnation [WAP site] to him in a small alley where we found a superb bas relief of Anthony and Cleopatra, which looks like it may once have adorned a theatre in the area but is now built into a wall opposite an old public house, and on a remixed sculpture which seems to have once lost its head in the park. Ivo’s dad, Antony, who he closely resembles, is one of the most popular artists on Big Art Mob, third only to Henry Moore and Banksy. I wonder what the ‘burn-out’ thinks about public art? what his favourites around the city are? Something to talk about next time…

Bond is back

Frock-coats and drama kings

Jason Isaacs

Sitting here in Carlingford, County Louth on a quiet evening in charge of sleeping children above, with my other half out with some of her dozens of cousins on the other side of Carlingford Lough in Rostrevor, County Down, with some godawful pseudo-american chatshow on RTE1 (Tubirdy Tonight – the name captures the height of shite it represents – a charmless, dull host behind a reproduction antique desk on the other side of which sits a fake nobody guest (the renowned Deirdre O’Kane?) with a D4 tango tan behind which are wooden window panes giving on to a fake cityscape unlike any part of Dublin I’ve ever seen, a lifeless photo devoid of dynamism or truth) and some two-bit boxing match on RTE2 with a ringside commentator with huge arched eyebrows and a forehead like the Mekon – jaysis, we’re blessed with our public service broadcasting back in Blighty, Ireland has much to offer the world but telly isn’t among its riches – I flick to a movie on Ulster TV, Joe Wright’s recent iteration of Pride and Prejudice with Ikea Knightley, as Mark Kermode (who popped up earlier this evening on the Culture Show) calls her on his weekly movie review show on Radio 5 with Simon Mayo. (How’s that, heavenly muse, for a Miltonian sentence?)

From this movie, which has somehow lost its appeal on a second, small-screen viewing, I drift off to an altogether more engaging gathering than the one before me with the dreadful Mr Collins showing off his lightness of foot. The other night I had the pleasure of meeting Mr Darcy himself, Matthew Macfadyen, and his charming wife Keeley Hawes (Cock and Bull Story, Ashes to Ashes, Spooks, The Bank Job) at the RTS Production Awards where he very deservingly won the best actor award for the excellent Secret Life in which he portrays a recently released paedophile striving for rehabilitation. This Channel 4 commission, written and (first-time) directed by Rowan Joffe (28 Weeks Later, Gas Attack), culminates in an astonishing scene in a fairground where the struggling ex-con brings his handsome Darcy-like features and non-Darcy-like charm to bear on an underage girl. Will he or won’t he? It’s painfully impossible to call.

I watched the drama as one of the twenty hours I went through as a judge in the Scriptwriter – Drama category in the company of the likes of Simon Cellan Jones (Cracker, The Trial of Tony Blair) and Kudos’ Derek Wax (Sex Traffic). For me it was the best film, alongside Mark O’Rowe’s Boy A, but the BBC’s adapted screenplay for Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford eventually won the category. Brilliantly crafted of course and a wonderful cast to deliver the lines with the greatest of expertise – but not brave in the Channel 4 way of Secret Life and Boy A. Too much Pride and Prejudice, too little Shameless for me.

I’d been introduced to the self-effacing (for such a tall man) Matthew Macfadyen by Jason Isaacs, who I hadn’t seen for some twenty years. On occasion we traveled together to school on the bus when he was a big boy and I an insignificant underling. I remember him being warm and open – most bigger boys just ignored you at best. He remembered himself as being unpleasant at that age and “driven by fear”. Mark Kermode – who says hallo to Jason Isaacs and David Morrissey every week on the aforementioned review programme – recalls Jason (who was in the same year as him) as very cool and collected. Jason recalls Mark as the cool one to be looked up to with his quiff and rockabilly persona. Which all goes to show the gulf between our perception of ourselves and how we actually come across to others, as well as the role self-confidence and fear plays in our formative years and beyond. Darcy has just walked out suddenly on a confused Elizabeth for just such reasons.

It was lovely catching up with Jason after so long, last time we met he was still in Capital City with Clive Owen et al. [Correction - see comment below: Make that Douglas Hodge - Clive Owen was in Chancer which aired the same year with Peter Vaughan and Leslie Phillips, written by Tony Grounds.] Since then he’s been to Hollywood (Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, Armageddon, Harry Potter, etc.) and back (to be able to raise his daughters properly) and the night of the RTS was playing Harry H Corbett in The Curse of Steptoe and Son on BBC4 to enthusiastic reviews. We chatted about the urban myth that was the Edgware Walker (as brought to the screen by the maverick Lee Kern), about mutual schoolmates including the legendary Laurence Gould, broader than he was tall, famous for launching two skinheads down the stairs at Stanmore Station, and that was another subject of conversation, the neo-nazi violence of the mid-70s which Jason recalls much more vividly than I can. My first gig was the Tom Robinson Band at the Hammersmith Odeon – TRB introduced me to Anti-Nazi League activism, as well as the notion of gay rights – but it was all a bit theoretical for me. It seems like the couple of years age gap between us made it all much more real for Jason. He also spoke insightfully about his own craft. Producer Vadim Jean (Leon the Pig Farmer, Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather) joined us for that bit of the convo – he held up Gene Hackman as one of the most consistently excellent screen actors. Watching Donald Sutherland as Mr Bennett does make you think about consistency – the man from Mash and Klute is also the winner of the all-time worst accent award for his role in Goldcrest’s disasterous Revolution. But in the end it’s all just make-believe. Jason’s older brother, a doctor, it turns out saved a man’s life by performing an emergency tracheotomy (with a biro!) on a plane heading to North Africa. In the light of that, Lydia running off with the perfidious Wickham seems to pale into insignificance.

A few years ago I was filming in Northern Ireland with Eddie McCaffery of Joose TV (then Emerald Productions) and Roddy Gibson (now a TV specialist course director at Middlesex Uni). We had a break from filming and headed up to Horn Head in Donegal. Whilst walking out on the bog of the headland we came across an older man collapsed with blood coming from his mouth, his distraught sister kneeling at his side. The three of us had recently spent weeks in an edit suite cutting a scene involving first aid and so were quite up on our life-saving. We did all the right stuff, got blood all over Roddy’s new jacket which served to cushion the old fella’s head, ended up carrying the prone body (surprisingly heavy) by stretcher back up off the bog to the ambulance which took him to Letterkenny hospital. We never heard a word from the man or his sister. Jason’s brother was given an airline voucher for £30 for his trouble. Elizabeth Bennett may be struggling a bit with her values here but those are both seriously out of whack. Jason’s brother was, however, invited to his emergency patient’s subsequent wedding where he came to see for himself what the act meant to the young man’s parents. Lady Catherine de Burgh (Judi Dench, who also featured in Cranford) has just been shown the door by the feisty Elizabeth, a frock-coated Matthew Macfadyen is striding through the mist, so wedding bells are just around the corner now as things trundle to their happy ending.

Too Long in Exile

stolen paintings

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.”

And this popular one attributed to Edmund Burke also comes to mind from the Last Message SMS competition on Lost Generation:

“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?

Find Our World in Yours

Big 4

On Monday the artist Mark Titchner pulled by Channel 4 HQ to give some background to his new work, unveiled that day in front of the building, Find Our World in Yours. It is the latest incarnation of the Big 4, a 40 foot high figure 4 marking the 25th anniversary of the Channel and the advent of the Big Art Project, a bold cross-platform (TV, web, mobile, real-life) initiative focused on Pubic Art. Each quarter the Big 4 is reskinned by a different artist and this quarter it’s Mark‘s turn.

His approach involves punctuating the metal skeleton of the 4 with slogans in a style derived from trade union banners. Into the upstroke of the 4 is built a video booth, with echoes of the Right to Reply one at 60 Charlotte Street back in the day. Passers-by, staff or anyone who wants to can pop in and leave a message with their thoughts about Television. A selection of these is played out each week on the TV screens that pepper the framework. The main slogan reads: Find Our World in Yours, Find Your World in Ours.

What was most inspiring about hearing Mark talk was the eclecticism of his inspirations. In art history these ranged from Renaissance depictions of religious ecstasy to Duchamp op-art, from 60s psychedelia to contemporary advertising. And then beyond the art world he used everything from record labels to the aforementioned trade union banners, from the Black Panther movement to corporate mission statements from which to springboard ideas.

I’m a great lover of such eclecticism. At school I remember being given a book by velvet-jacketed Mr Fitch RIP (think Rob Newman’s Jarvis meets the Cyril from That’s Life) – it was a copy of Paradise Lost edited by someone called Broadbent (or similar) which had the most fantastically eclectic footnotes, from the biblical to the scientific, from the geographic to the historical, and all points between. Apart from turning me on to literature (I ended up studying English, French and German literature), it made me realise how interconnected all these disciplines are and how essential those connections are to creativity.

Which brings me to a peak of creativity, my favourite book, James Joyce’s Ulysses. One of the things I most love about the book is the fabulous ecelecticism of the novel – whether you want to know about the water supply of Dublin or the dynamics of grief, the family life of Shakespeare or the history of Irish Republicanism, it’s all in there. And, of course, the art of advertising (Leopold Bloom is in the business) which brings us full circle back to Find Our World in Yours which, like Channel 4, has advertising in its life-blood.

Drinker with a writing problem

brendan behan

What do I think of when I hear the name Brendan Behan?

* Drink
* Fighting
* IRA
* Dylan Thomas
* Woolly jumper
* Dexy’s Midnight Runners

Drink:
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.

IRA:
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.

Dylan Thomas:
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

Shut it
You don’t undertand it
Shut it
That’s not the way I planned it
Shut your mouth til you know the truth.

Oscar’s on the night train

Bon voyage to jazz great Oscar Peterson

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.

Godspeed, Oscar…

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.

the clash
Oscar Peterson photo – courtesy of Tom Marcello

Meta more thesis

kafka

Dale Hergistad of Schematic kindly pulled by the Channel to show us some of their recent work. He’s based in the LA office and looks like a (very nice version of a) baddie from a Hollywood movie, one of those peroxide blonde ones (can’t quite pin down which Die Hard or Lethal Weapon or whatever I’m thinking of).

The presentation kicked off with some interesting analysis of our evolving relationships with different size screens – from the personal mobile to the massive public display a couple of hundred feet away – and how this relates to the journey from viewer to user. So far so good. We moved on then to look at a range of implementations and mock-ups of next-generation navigation, mainly TV-based.

Fast forward twenty minutes and these are the notes on my page, reflecting I think something of the culture gap which still exists between the US and UK:

* the navigation’s all well and good but look at the crapola content we’re navigating through
* the interface experience is over-complex
* (with regard to some of the game-type implementations like Battlestar Galactica or whatever it was) people are fiddling while Rome burns – the world is coming apart at the seams while people fiddle with their joysticks
* pretty much every example is driven by buying and consumption
* who the fuck wants to interact with a car advert? haven’t they got better things to do?
* there’s an incredible greed not to miss anything, with screens within screens and the like.

So, nothing to do with Dale personally – he was very generous with his time and clearly enthusiastic about his work – more to do with the kind of project that was being illustrated, I left feeling uninspired and couldn’t get back to my (rather British) neck of the woods quickly enough.

I’m sitting writing this in Prague airport coming home from the Eureka Mobile Awards with Alfie Dennen of Moblog UK. Big Art Mob was one of six finalists. It was pipped at the post by some porno service which gets its average punter to part with $55 a week to interact via their mobiles with Russian girls (live on webcams) whilst playing with their joysticks or whatever. Kafka would have loved the scenario, and he might well have had a word or two to say about the kind of Amerika reflected in the bloated, greedy world implied by the kind of television/media Schematic find themselves engaging with.

As Alfie and I supped a mojito with a TV producer from Cologne last night in the backroom of a Prague cellar guarded by a smileless skinhead, a ‘TV producer’ hot from a shoot of “erotic sports”, my first experience of Prague was shaping up nicely. Alfie and I were fuelled up with dumplings and heavy meat – consumed just before in a restaurant decorated with copulating Czech cartoon couples (4 Cs copyright Alfie’s mum, Head of Stats at Young & Rubicam) – while Alfie’s long lost and newly rediscovered old flatmate Stormin’ Norman was fuelled with something altogether smaller and rounder. He was kindly leading us to the main event but unfortunately got sidetracked by the other pornographers by the exit.

So Alfie and I had to hijack a cab which pulled up beside the awards venue. It happened to be set in a bar adjacent to the Kafka Museum. A huge K stood in the courtyard beside two statues of naked men holding their joysticks and pissing at each other (I hesitated for some reason to snap it for Big Art Mob, I’m not sure whether that was more about aesthetics or light conditions). So a dark surreality was the dominant atmosphere with Das Schloss looming above us.

The Eureka Awards, run by World Telemedia, had a certain Kafkaesque quality about them, like playing a game whose rules nobody has explained, Byzantine, 1,000 Russian sex-workers voting online, bizarre voting patterns worthy of Richard & Judy, Ant & Dec, Blue & Peter, text votes too for no clear purpose, and a panel of journalists expert in joysticks and other mobile stuff. Big Art Mob, an innocent abroad, a naïve player in a dark game of intrigue.

As I walked home over the unlit Charles Bridge, past shadowy lovers and silhouetted lone men, my long black coat was just right for the Third Man atmosphere of the famous landmark and adjacent streets. The meter on the cab home whirled as if possessed – “it’s night” explained the lugubrious driver. As I crossed the hotel lobby two blondes sat by the lifts ready for the simple pleasures. Who the fuck wants to interact with a post-Communist cliche? Is everything driven by buying and consumption these days? Josef – as one letter (G) to another (K) – any advice on how to navigate our way out of this dark, consuming maze?

I headed up to my (rather British) neck of the woods. My Agatha Christie novel (4.50 from Paddington) where the only thing two ladies do is walk around Miss Marples’ garden admiring the planting. Announcement of a two-nil victory to Spurs on Sky News, a crack of light in the dark surreality of this season? (Kafka may not be a bundle of laughs but following Tottenham is only just the right side of waking up as a giant insect).

Image designed by Liv Ducci – Creative Studio – http://www.kafkamovie.com

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