My Year in Books, 2019 (via Goodreads)

I do get out sometimes

Went into the West End on Friday night to see the opening of A Long Way from Home, written and directed by Virginia Gilbert*. It was a bit like a less operatic, present day version of Death in Venice, except that the old guy Joseph (James Fox) here is besotted with a young woman instead of with an adolescent boy. I could well see how he might be beguiled by Suzanne (Natalie Dormer). Joseph is revolted by the sight of the old men who sit and watch games of boule in the French town where he has retired with Brenda (Brenda Fricker). He is old but still fit and clearly anxious not to “go gently” as Brenda exhorts him. He does not want to “go gentle into that good night”, perhaps. As a result he makes a fool of himself over Suzanne. Suzanne is on holiday with her boyfriend (Paul Nicholls), who is preoccupied with his own plans to establish some sort of wine business. The film centres on paradisiacal scenes round a vineyard, a swimming pool and perplexed, dream-like quests around local streets and the ruins of a Roman temple, where Joseph hopes to run into Suzanne. Brenda Fricker’s performance as Joseph’s wife rings very true. She knows more than she lets on and keeps her head when all about her are losing theirs. If you’re always wishing to see a film that is more akin to something by Bertolucci than to Batman, then “A Long Way from Home” is for you. I saw it at the Odeon, Panton Street.

* P.S. I forgot to boast here that we (me and the missus) met and had a chat with V.G. on the night.

Notes from Small Wonder 2012

Small Wonder 2012: Perspectives on China
with Fang Fang and Hilary Spurling

Fang Fang was asked through an interpreter at Small Wonder if China had literary festivals and live literature like this. By the way, we were a few dozen people, maybe 150 or so, huddled shivering in a draughty barn, in the back of beyond***. Fang Fang pointed out that they recently had a festival of poetry, where they had invited several British poets and bedecked a vast railway station with hundreds of large posters featuring poems by their guests and Chinese poets.

When asked about the epigraph to her story – it was a quote from Baudelaire – and what her influences were, she said that most Chinese writers could list you eight or ten western writers and that people recited Shakespeare and so forth. She wondered how many westerners could name ten Chinese writers? I thought Fang Fang was a bit defensive, and her prose (perhaps too literally translated for us on a screen) seemed to me to be full of allegorical sideswipes about smug outsiders looking in on a complex family society. (However, that might have been all in my mind!)

Her narrator is revealed to be a dead child at one point, looking on at its surviving family. This might be connected to her description of the move from social realism, which had been condemned by the party many years ago, to the current fashion (or was it policy?) for neo-realism, which had to contain no trace of the author’s feelings. She also described this as like glass realism or zero realism (but I am not quoting verbatim).

Despite the language barrier, Fang Fang managed to inject a few bits of humour. She is very prolific. They said 80 novels, but I think they might have meant novellas, it wasn’t clear. It might have been the questionable literal translation but her story came over as somewhat chaotic.

Tess chatted with her in Mandarin afterwards and I said “ni hao” and “xie xie”, which exhausted my usable Chinese vocabulary, as there was no call for me to count to five. Fang Fang’s contribution was only half the event. The other half was Hilary Spurling talking about Pearl Buck, the subject of her latest biography. However by happy chance, Fang Fang came from the same place as Pearl Buck and had a great interest and knowledge about her, and so that conversation (through translator) was very good.

Fang Fang recalled that when people in China first saw the Hollywood film adaptation of The Good Earth, they began by wondering why people with long noses were playing the parts of Chinese peasant farmers; but then as they got into the film, they forgot about that and were amazed to see their own lives portrayed there realistically for the first time.

Despite the technical difficulties with the simultaneous translation, and the heroic efforts of the distinguished chair of the discussion  (? Jacobson) and the translator, it was a bold and timely attempt at promoting cultural exchange in the short story world. It’s not before time we showed China and its people some empathy and respect, as I think they have cause to feel misunderstood, if not hard done by. I only mean in the cultural world, saying nothing here about politics, politicians or governance.

Steve Moran

Small Wonder short story festival

Fang Fang
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fang_Fang.
“Author of the year 2011” (womenofchina.cn

Hilary Spurling
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilary_Spurling
Guardian: “A Life in Writing”, with reference to “Burying the Bones” her new biography of Pearl Buck 

Self-Portrait – Sylvia Beach

RTÉ Player: TV50

Watching this. Archive interview from 1962 with Sylvia Beach, publisher of Ulysses, who talks about her life and Joyce, Hemingway and lots of interesting times and people.

‎”Joyce was sitting at table and Ezra Pound was teasing him…” You get the idea of the calibre of her friends!

Good to know he pronounced “book” properly! I mean in the Dublin way.

Fascinating about Hemingway arriving in her shop with wounds still not healed from the war. “Would you like to see my wounds?” “Very much.” So he showed her. … She organised a boxing match … Hemingway broke his thumb in the course of it. His opponent was subsequently killed fighting for the resistance. … Now she’s talking about Austin Clarke. …

Onto Beckett now. Scott Fitzgerald. Thornton Wilder. … What an interview. Louis Aragon.

Joyce would recite Walt Whitman to her, an enthusiasm he shared with her when Whitman was not liked at the time.

She watched the Germans arriving … “The tears were streaming down our cheeks.” A German soldier demanded her copy of Finnegans Wake from the window of her shop. She refused. He came back later and threatened to confiscate all her stock when he found that FW was no longer in the window. She moved everything out and hid the stuff in an empty apartment. Very brave! They came back and found the shop gone, name removed, shelves removed. shuttered.

She got a writer called Gordon Craig out of detention by appealing to the Gestapo. Later they arrested her and took her away, complained about her having a Jewish assistant in the shop and so forth. They were rounding up all Americans in the city and detained 400 of them at the city zoo. There were armed guards up above us and we were below in what we called The Monkey House…(not verbatim).

‎…moved to another prison for 6 months. … on and on, fantastic interview. Retreat of the Germans – “shooting at us”.

They machine gunned the people in the town while retreating. “We had to lie on our stomachs” … later stretchers taking wounded away. “We were liberated by Ernest Hemingway …. I heard this big voice shouting Sylvia, Sylvia!”

…and he wouldn’t stay for tea. He said, “Oh no, I have to liberate the cellar of the Ritz!”

Watching the Late Late Show – 1971

RTÉ Player: TV50 – celebrating 50 years of Irish television

About 11:00: Eamonn Andrews is dead wrong about the BBC being above censorship during the war. George Orwell was one of the censors, as point of interest. His war diaries about his work in censorship are quite interesting.

If you want to see Sir Matt Busby, the famous Manchester United manager, he comes on after 14 mins. Talking about George Best etc. ‎”a secular saint”.

He has an idea for a transfer window (there is now one) but in the closed season to create more stability and less panic. Does the present transfer window mean players play for one team at the start of the season and a different one at the end? I don’t know enough about it but that sounds wrong.

“Air-ay” is Éire. Nostalgia for people being able to smoke on the panel. I know it’s bad but there is also something good about it, something, I don’t know what. You will say, “no, nothing” and you’ll be right.

Next up Trevor Howard criticising David Lean very wittily but acerbically.

Matt Busby and Trevor Howard looking for a match to light up. “Dingle had 52 pubs and nowhere to eat.”

Gay Byrne to Trevor Howard: “Did you or did you not say that Irish people are only interested in drinking?” “No they are interested in other things.” “Like what?” “Well, you should know.”

A funny lady. Real trooper, type you hardly get now. a. days. Barbara Kelly

At least these interviews are getting somewhere, not the utter tripe you get now with Graham Norton etc.

‎”Helen threw a bicycle at me when we were at Cambridge and I said that’s the girl for me. I had to marry her and get my own back.” Trevor Howerd

Gay does ask some tactless questions. “Would you believe your husband Helen, if he turned to you and said you’re beautiful?” Ouch. But wait for this. Wait till you hear Matt Busby. Gay: “What about you Sir Matt, do you ever tell your wife she’s beautiful?” “Yes. Every morning. You have to use tactics as well!” (And he goes on to conjure the whole morning conversation.)

Next up Jack MacGowran, Beckett’s favourite actor. Both Eamonn Andrews and Jack MacGowran left working for Hibernian Insurance in Dublin on the same day. (!)

Aw man. Best art story ever.

Three smokers out of four on the panel. Man oh man. Jack too.

Brilliant mime by Jack MacGowran, under protest. It’s sewing. You have to see it. Hard to explain. Hilarious.

We may get a song from Jack from a Sean O’Casey play. And now Peter Sellers. It’s unbelievable.

Sellers is on fire. His Italian is a masterpiece – a story about the Pope…

He was first one to be defibrillated – in the world – dead for 2 minutes in L.A. Oh man he’s so funny. i rate him with Milligan now.

We’re promised mind reading and quick change act from Sellers in the next part. Can it get any better?

MacGowran on Lorca … and Polanski

Vaguely remember seeing this quick change before

I probably saw that whole show before when it was on. I was 17 in 1971. But the only thing that produced the smallest atom of deja vu was the quick change setup.

Listening to The Beatles

Update: The video has disappeared. Here is a link to Cry Baby Cry on Spotify.

“Cry Baby Cry” from The Beatles eponymously titled album (“the white album”) is a good track for headphones. There is a lot going on in it, not least the wonderful way the it goes cry-ahy-ahy-ahy-ahy with echo at the end of the lines in the chorus. Even in the first 10 seconds, it’s magical the way guitar on the right, voice on the left and then some gorgeous noodling synth comes in the middle. It’s worth listening just for those first 10 seconds. There are birds chirping and all sorts of things. The annoying double ending has been edited off the version above but now that it’s gone I sort of miss it.

The way the different parts come in is marvellous and it then goes through all sorts of phases. Guitar plus voice, then synth, then bass drum, cymbals all coming and going, echo, etc. Most crummy songs just start with a setup and stick with it all the way through but this, although not classical music or instruments, has a lot of musical art in it. It’s a long way from skiffle.

The progress of the arrangement is approximately:
00:00-00:05: Acoustic guitar (right) + vocal (left) simultaneous start (chorus)

The chorus is always in the left ear in a sort of sly or whispered mode; “cry baby cry, make your mother sigh, she’s old enough to know better”. Thinking about it, it’s a taunt, a childish “your mother is old” jibe.

00:05: Add synth for a few seconds (middle)

00:11: The first verse starts.
The verses are all in the middle in a slightly bolder narrative voice. They are alternating with the taunting voice in the left ear, which sometimes has added faint two-part harmony over to the right middle, perhaps a metaphor for the playground gang?

00:18: Add wowy bass line (left) for a few seconds
00:27: Add piano highlighting lyric “playing piano…”
00:30: Add heavy bass drum beat – we’re now in full flow
00:41: Add high hat cymbal beat for the first time
00:45: Classic Ringo fill (he said all his contribution was in the fills)
00:50: Start of a sinister high pitched synth sound. We’re fully underway now with all the elements coming and going. There are rhythm and lead guitar parts blended as well.

01:15: The arrival of “the Duchess of Kircaldy” seems to be accompanied by something like birdsong that ends in a burbly warble. [From comments: I think the birds chirping are there because with the queen being in the parlour and the king somewhere else, what else to expect but four and twenty blackbirds.]

The sigh-like echoing of the the cry-ih-ih-ih-y is keyed to the “make your mother sigh-igh-igh-igh” as it is a kind of sighing. It seems to increase as the song goes on.

Notice how all the time there are superb dynamic changes to where there is a quieter spell and then the heavy drum beat makes the main thrust of the song come back with great energy, with a thrashing effect almost. There is also a strange slightly harsher turn of voice at the ends of the verses, a sort of wilful insistence on the narrative that adds to the effect and enhances the dialogue between the verse narrator in the middle and the taunting chorus on the left.

01:35 We’re now getting added two-part harmony vocal in the middle, an octave higher.

And so on, and it’s only 2 minutes 34 seconds long this video. There is actually a false ending to the song and it has a coda on the LP that is not on this YouTube version. There is that sense of something missing at the end of the song. However, it could be argued that it is better this way than with the somewhat annoying “Can you take me back?” little ditty that has been edited off here.

Whoever made the video adds another layer of interest by equating Mai Pang with “the friend who came to play” though the White Album was made long before John Lennon decamped to the US. John was always worrying away at his problem childhood, so I suppose that might be a starting point for working out what the hell the lyrics are about. I know he said that they just made up nonsense but he was being a little disingenuous I think. He was not one of those totally open people like McCartney who seem to have no “side” to them, Lennon was all side and everything was said for effect, I think, rather than in service to some simplistic idea of truth. No doubt I have it all wrong but luckily it is of no more consequence than a gnat’s gnibble.

The missing coda is a wistful repetition in a different but strangely backward sounding tune of “Can you take me back where I came from, can you take me back? Can you take me back where I came from, brother can you take me back, can you take me back? [etc.]”

thoughts on listening to songbird by fleetwood mac

http://youtube.com/v/c8Vz5ZmJCJ4

the helplessness in fugue between fleetwood’s late drumbeat, mcveigh’s unrequited bass drive and christine’s prismatic love

Fleetwood is an archetypal English character and John McVeigh is a hero for carrying the torch for Christine through it all, even when she sucks up to that abominably cheesy guitar virtuoso interloper. It’s a “blues Abba” with Mick, John, Christine and Stevie. I love the way John clutches Christine at about 1:04 into this. You have to realise he’s carried a torch for her forever and she’s in with the glib mother’s boy guitarist interloper whose name I’ve happily forgotten. She’s the biggest eejit for that but she’s also mother earth and all the rest.

John McVeigh’s explanation of the pull of their music is that the bass leads the way and Mick Fleetwood’s drumbeat follows a couple of microseconds (or whatever) behind, which gives it that distinctive flavour (drum usually sets/is on the beat) and empathy with a love scene in the court of a jester king (Fleetwood). (I don’t know if I’m making any sense.)


2011: I should add I know nothing about them really, the above is just the way I imagine things might be.

Harold Pinter (1930-2008)

Video of Harold Pinter’s lecture on the occasion of being awarded the Nobel prize in Literature (46 min.)

Text of Harold Pinter’s Nobel lecture

I remember seeing The Caretaker at the Tricycle in Kilburn last year and being duly impressed by it. The production was taut and somewhat reminiscent of Beckett in the rundown sets and characters. There was a continuous sense of imminent menace or violence, and a sort of case study in bullying. [After I posted this I remembered thinking that three or four of the lines clunked a bit in one scene, where there was a sense of the voice of the author coming through rather than a particular character.]

He wrote about power, its fluctuations, development and interactions. In the film the Servant, power migrates with feeble resistance from the ineffectual employer to the butler, through his inexorable and merciless coercion.

Those are the two productions I remember. There were those late, angry political essays and poems that I saw as well from time to time, in Granta for example. You can find examples of his poetry and make your own mind up about it: here.

His Nobel lecture is fascinating both in the introductory remarks about the inspirations for his literary work and separately, when it turns to politics. Others are far better qualified to comment on what he says, and have done and continue to do so. All I will say is that he has me convinced, and I was convinced anyway from bits of what Chomsky and others had already said. For all the good it does.

From one of the Dublin Fusiliers

To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God

In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your mother’s prime,
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To dice with death. And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,—
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

— Thomas Kettle

(Born 1880. Died 1916, battle of the Somme. Ref:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Kettle)

I used to have a book of poetry by Thomas Kettle, which I was given as a gift, and it had its pages uncut. I wish I knew where I left it. I must have given it as a present to somebody. I think I know who. It can’t be found now for love nor money, just the exact one. It’s possible it was never properly published. Of course I did cut the pages, and it had this poem and one of the others I remember I used to like was called “Ennui” – it wasn’t mainly war poems.

Thomas Kettle was an interesting character, a leading nationalist who followed John Redmond’s decision for his Irish Volunteers, a nationalist movement, to enlist in British regiments to fight “for the rights of small nations” after Belgium had been invaded. It was on the promise of Home Rule for Ireland, which had been passed by Westminster in 1914, at Gladstone’s third attempt, but then suspended because of the outbreak of war.

Whether it would have followed had not Pearse et al struck in 1916, who knows? Even in the treaty negotiations later an offer of dominion status similar to Canada’s, was spurned. Wouldn’t that have been far better though, even from a nationalist point of view, because afterwards they might have voted away the link anyway, like Australia keeps threatening to do? [The treaty did give the 26 counties dominion status, which continued till the declaration of the republic in 1937. It was perhaps never going to be for the 32, I don’t know.] Oh well. Let’s invite the Queen to Dublin, it’s past time. Let the dead bury the dead. I’m not very sure what it means, but it’s something a little short of letting bygones be bygones, perhaps.

The following, if it’s still there (they come and go on YouTube) is a lament for a son going off to war, “Oh Danny boy, the pipes – the pipes are calling…”

(Diana Krall with the Chieftains)