Thursday, August 25, 2005

Air Show

On Sunday morning, I meet up with Dick and Diana in town, and we talk about movies. Diana says that under the dictatorship in Spain all remotely suggestive scenes were deleted from American films. When the films were restored, after Franco’s death, it was often impossible to find the original voice-over artists, and the new scenes were re-dubbed by whatever younger actors were available. This means that watching a vintage movie in Spain can be a curious experience. Whenever characters become passionate, or excited, or swoonsome, suddenly their voices rise or sink, they lose their formal eloquence and slip into slang, they sound ten years younger; they could almost be our contemporaries. It feels as if the onset of real emotion has turned these characters into different people; giddier, more playful, and yet vulnerable too, with much more to lose. The love scenes, that were often perfunctory enough in the English original, have now become the enigmatic centres of the movies. If you turn on a vintage Hollywood film in Spain, you are not watching a western, or a melodrama, or a biopic, despite what the TV guide may say. What you are watching is a musical, with kisses instead of songs. I realise that when I was a teenager, this is pretty much how I imagined adult life to be.

Later that day, I go home and watch the Bray airshow. My parents live near the top of the steepest hill in town; from our station on the garage roof, the planes seem lost in the huge tank of the sky. There is something very nineteen-fifties about the whole spectacle; you feel that the display is supposed to be saucy, like a burlesque performed by technology. Each plane has its ten minutes alone in the sky; it wriggles, swoops, teases, rises, falls. Mostly rises and falls, to be honest. The only relief arrives when four jets fly across the town in tight formation. These aren’t exactly the Red Arrows. Not all the planes are the same colour, for a start, and they don’t really stay aligned all that well. Every so often one will slow down, or speed up precipitously, or veer in dangerously towards its fellows. But they try to keep it together, and you appreciate the effort. Everybody gives each other space. Of all the planes today, they alone seem lifted out of the 1950s and placed in a world where virtuosity counts for little, where the best you can do is look out for those around you and not fuck up. They alone seem like our contemporaries.
Then a jaunty, waspish plane arrives on the scene, and I go apeshit.
"That’s a fucking Spitfire," I say.
“Are you sure?” my dad says.
“Positive,” I say. Actually, I have never seen a Spitfire before, but this plane feels like one, and it suddenly seems enormously important that this little dancer is in fact an old fighter, that the nifty spirals and twists it executes are drawn from the most crucial hour of a country’s history, that we are standing on our roof and watching a true story about how grace kept the world safe, at least for a little while. Plus, it lets us pity the fools on the roof across the road, who are watching a small plane going up, then going down again.

The night before the show, I met up with an old friend and her new flame. It’s a routine everyone has gone through, and everyone knows the drill. You face off with the new boyfriend in the disciplines of politeness, generosity, arch humour and general knowledge. There’s payoffs for both of you. You get to demonstrate your crucial, planetary importance in the girl's life; he gets to go home with her. It's a win-win situation, you could say. Only this time it was different. This time was comfortable. Sure, it was sometimes a little achy, but in a bittersweet, dad waiting outside the disco kind of way. Everyone gave each other space. It helped a lot that the new guy was likeable- easy and confident and funny- and that the two of them seemed pretty good together. We met up again, much later that night, and it was a little more sloppy, everyone trying too hard for intimacy, all reaching at the afternoon’s wisecracks but never getting a hold on the punchlines, but this was cool as well, cool enough for rock and roll, and in the end we all shook hands and went our adult ways. There was more I wanted to say- and would have too, when I was younger, and thought that emotion came in packages like songs in the musicals, that nothing counted until you opened up your throat and just let go- but in the end I left it. You probably know the feeling too. You board the night bus and sit upstairs at the front, and all the way back to Bray you felt like the dad driving home through the sleeping streets, with your grown up children half asleep too in the back, Late Date with Maxi playing on the car stereo and a thousand questions racing through your mind, questions you could probably get answered too, if you asked them straight away; but as it turns out you like the calm too much, and the quiet comfort in each other’s company, and anyway, to tell the truth, it's really not your business anymore.

Friday, August 12, 2005

God Bless You, Mr Bywater

Read a newspaper for a year or two, and the columnists' voices will move into your head- discreetly, like Borrowers, making their homes in unused mental space. You don't have to particularly like them- you don't even have to believe in them. A friend of mine was convinced that Guardian cookery correspondent Heston Blumenthal was actually an April's Fools Joke that the paper had quietly continued for five odd years. Each week, she'd read about his explorations in food science at his quantum kitchen in The Fat Duck restaurant and chuckle fondly at the geekboy roccoco that resulted. Leather chocolates! Bacon and egg ice-cream! Sardine on toast sorbet! That byline photo! And each week she sighed to think of the drones who stumbled across this batshit monomania in the middle of the style section and just carried on as normal. Even when Blumenthal stories started to move from the supplement to the broadsheet, she was unfazed. If the Guardian reported on its front page that The Fat Duck had been voted the best restaurant in the world, this just meant the joke was moving on to another level- now Blumenthal had become a broader, juicier satire on the cult of celebrity, and it was no surprise that other newspapers were trying to get in on the act. All that was missing was the big punchline- if they'd run a story that Heston Blumenthal had started hiding golden tickets in bowls of snail porridge, she wouldn't have been surprised. It got to the stage where it would have been easier for the Universe to obliterate all traces of Heston Blumenthal than for her to admit he existed- and yet, through all of this, my friend had Heston Blumenthal's voice down.

So even the columnists you resist make an impact. But the good ones, they can end up moulding you. Reading a familiar columnist is a hazy and utterly useless pleasure; the closest an adult can get to requesting a favourite bedtime story. You know pretty much what they're going to say, and can hazard a fairly good guess at the stories they'll weave in and quotes they'll adduce- but still, you need to hear it, in their voice. Over time, you can build up a dependency. So when one of your favourites disappears, with no warning, a gulf opens up between what you're supposed to feel (mild irritation) and what you actually feel (as if you'd called round to a mate's house for a chat only to find the windows boarded up, the furniture ripped out and Dom Fucking Joly installed as tenant).

This is pretty much where I found myself when I opened last week's Independent on Sunday and saw that Michael Bywater's column had disappeared. True, Bywater had written an elegaic goodbye the week earlier, but he does that about ten times a year; you're not meant to take it seriously. The point of Michael Bywater is that he's always saying goodbye to something or other, perhaps with regret, perhaps with bitterness, but most often with a melancholy-mad blend of the two- a terse, conflicted wave out the back window as we speed away from the debris of our past. Towards the end he was producing too many one-note screeds, where the outrage was real and necessary, but he couldn't get purchase; it was like watching a toy car upended with its wheels still spinning. But when he had traction, he was unstoppable: acute, committed and hilarious. More than any other columnist I've read, he was pure voice; everything was done by tone, timing and rhythm. But it doesn't matter anymore; he's gone, wherever it is old columnists go (I wish him well there), and when I rang his doorbell Dom Joly answered instead. I lingered out of politeness, hoping he'd say a few words about the previous tenant, but he just mumbled a paragraph or two of Dom Joly shtick, where what initially appears as outright arrogance gradually reveals itself as good old fashioned self-disgust. After a while, he launched into a long joke about bears shitting in the woods, then broke off, asking loudly why this material wasn't good enough for the broadsheet. Only when I went to turn the page did he try to tie up the loose ends. "About those bears.." he began, but what with the dogs barking and the chainsaws revving in the back garden I couldn't hear a single word he said.

Actually, this is way over the top. Joly isn't the worst celebrity columnist by far, and even without Bywater I'm still a sucker for the Independent on Sunday. True the broadsheet is merely a decoy, a cheerful precis of the week slapped together by someone who's read Heat magazine and half of Wednesday's Guardian. But the arts review is a gem. I think this is partly down to the economy of the format (sure, there's room around the margins for round-ups and snap judgements, but the main article always covers just one film or just one gig), and partly down to the enthusiasm of the writers. Reading many arts journalists, all you sense is their engagement with their own review, their struggle to turn this film or album into a professional piece of writing. This is fair enough, but the crew at the IoS seem to have a different motivation; you imagine they're impatient to push off from their desk and throw themselves at the source material- to do it again, and do it better. This means their reviews never end tidily- they always fizzle out in a sputter of fixes, parallels, possible next steps. The difference between the Observer and the IoS is the difference between Blue Peter and Why Don't You? At its best, the Independent on Sunday offers a vision of a world where everyone is inventive, engaged, bubbling over with ideas; where everyone is Heston Blumenthal.

Now, about those bears...

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Wireless Brooklyn

I'm normally suspicious of name writers with blogs or websites; half the time these are barren publicity tools, taking advantage of a ready audience. But Jonathan Lethem's new site is classy, well-stocked and completely the reason I haven't posted yet tonight...

Monday, August 08, 2005


What do you look like, walking around London in your hat?

You look like a travelling evangelist; you look like you play for Jesus’ team.

You look like a juggler, or busker or street magician. When you walk onto the tube, you look like you have strange vaudevillian designs upon everybody in the carriage.

You look like you’re waiting for comments. A teenager in a stretch limo sticks her head out the window to yell at you.
“Nice hat!” she yells.
“Nice car!” you yell back, and though neither of you means a word of it, this brightens up the day considerably.

You look like a rocksta… no, you don’t. You look like a backing musician, and one of a particular stripe; you look like the pixie-faced keyboard player in an indie-revival festival stalwart, still touring Europe on the back of a freak mid-nineties summer smash, grinding out fifteen minute sets in the noonday heat in Roskilde and Rock Am Ring, wearing the hat to at least partly disguise all the damage and the depreciation that’s set in since your starring appearance in the video, you’ve got to remember, it was on heavy rotation on MTV from June until October, you couldn’t get away from it, with the chopper bicycles and the outsize sunglasses and you in your hat floating away over the English countryside, and, strange to say, that’s what life felt like back then, when you had youth and cash and style and a relationship with one of the girls out of Kenickie, and plans too, ambitious plans that stood a pretty decent chance of working out, and now that you think about it, it really is a remarkable fact that all you’ve managed to hold onto is the hat.

You look like a wanker.

You look like you know precious little about hats. You look like you don’t know if you’re wearing a trilby or a fedora or a derby. You look like you picked out the hat because it was the first item of headgear that ever fitted your oddly anvil shaped head, and you continue wearing it out of gratitude alone.

You look like Dr Gunther Von Hagen.

You look like a shy person who’s worked out that the best cure for self-consciousness is giving people a genuine reason to stare at you. And it’s surprising how many do. People stare and send out smiles with the stare, to reassure you the stare is benign, that they’re generally in favour of whatever it is you do. None of the attention is malicious. You’re not going out on a limb here, frankly. It’s not like anyone objects to hats.

You look like someone from the eighties, but you can’t remember who. “REM!” yells a black kid outside Leicester Square tube station, and you realise with a start that he is right, your hat (and what is it anyway? a homburg? a trilby? a hornby?) is practically identical to the one worn by Michael Stipe in the video for “The One I Love”, the one where he washes the feet of or nestles into the breast of a dark haired woman in a rocking chair while stop-motion flowers go off like roman candles, the first iconic “I am Michael Stipe, so suffused with pain it makes me numb” moment; in retrospect, the moment it all started to go tits-up for REM.

You look like everyone else, apart from the stupid hat you’re wearing. This is London, not Bray Main Street. And you’re nearly thirty-two! Why are you still looking for approval through your clothes? Do you think you’ll change history by being that bit less conformist, less conventionally stylish? Give it a rest, for all our sakes.

You look like your grandfather. You look like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Nikolai Khrushchev. You don’t look like John F Kennedy. JFK is, in fact, the reason you stand out. The story goes that JFK’s refusal to be photographed in a hat at his inauguration triggered the total collapse of the US hat industry (based in Dantford Connecticut, and exemplified by hubristic sounding companies like The Hat Corporation of America). When you get home, and throw your hat down on the chair, you read a review in the Independent on Sunday of Hatless Jack by Neil Steinberg, a social history of hat-wearing in the States, which examines and at least partially endorses this story. You wonder whether Kennedy got the same thrill as you just did, whenever he got up at the weekend and walked hatless through Washington. You also wonder whether it’s too tasteless to bring up the fact that the first hatless President was eventually, you know, shot in the head. Surely a wide-brimmed stetson would have easily outfoxed the gunmen. History would have changed completely if only the President had been that bit more conformist, more conventionally stylish. You wonder: did the Warren Commission call witnesses from the Hat Corporation of America?

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Dead Guy: Part Three

Read parts one and two first.

The audience, for the most part, was a treat. In the front-row, a clutch of Duke Montana wannabes, clear-faced psychology graduates primed for a career in trash TV. Behind them, a larger than normal delegation from the local Active Retirement society- a gang of lean-jawed old Americans who rattled with laughter at every mortality gag. And at the back, your regular smattering of minor Goths. Nothing to be scared of, in other words. And I was in fine form. My opening remarks were solid, though that piece of business with the coffin and the dry ice needed re-structuring. Rapport was established early on. Eye contact was main-tained and re-tained. The Ten Top Tips were conveyed reasonably well. At a push, I could do more workshopping on Top Tip number five ("Just Because Your Job is Heaven Doesn't Mean Your Boss is God"). But overall I'm pleased with my performance. No, the only troubling event of the evening, the only time I really felt my world cave in, was when I opened up to questions from the floor.

The first question came from one of the retirees- a weathered, skinny broad, with astonishingly ample breasts, which she wore proudly, like water wings. She spoke into her bunched fist, which doubled as an ersatz microphone.
"My question is this. Would you term yourself a zombie? And my second question follows from that. I want to ask: what do you eat? More specifically, do you eat, or have you ever eaten, human flesh?"
"Am I a zombie?" I said. "Well, let's see. I run my own company- and run it well. I make complex business decisions on the go. I recently published my life story- and, believe me, the only ghost-writer on board was myself. I tour the nation, speaking to over a hundred people every night. I like to think I motivate them to go out and change their lives. So, if I'm a zombie, what does that make our President? (Some laughter here.) As to your second question, what I eat- I eat chiefly sunlight, as I explain in my memoir. Of course, up here in Washington State I'm feeding from scraps. That's what I'll say when I get back to LA: the people were lovely, but the food was… terrible."
Laughter, of course; when it abated a young woman raised her hand.
"Mr Neville. I have a question. How did you in fact… You know," She blushed and rolled her eyes. "Mr Neville, sir, how did you die?"
"It was a routine operation," I said. "And I'm not blaming the anaesthetist. I hear he's very well regarded in his native Turkmenistan. And this was his first operation on American soil, so there were bound to be some complications. Some say it was jetlag. Some say the language barrier. Maybe he had problems converting from metric. All I know is, he gave me 27 times the required dose."
"Holy moly," said a pale, unwieldy gent in the front row.
"27 times," I said. "People who've had a near-death experience talk of floating up a tunnel. I sped up it. Hit that bright white light at ninety miles an hour. I was electrocuted, double-terminated, killed again. When the mist cleared, I saw a door in front of me. Recognised it. It was the door to Gerry Daimler's office. My boss. As I'd been laid off three days previous, I should say: former boss. And when I opened, there he was, eating a pastrami and cream cheese on rye.'
"You're dead," he said.
"I am not," I said.
"I went to your funeral," he said. "Yes, you are."
"I don't feel dead."
"How do you know how dead feels?" Gerry said. "I buried you. I shook hands with your mother. Her name is Annie May."
"What was she wearing?" I asked.
"She was wearing one of those pink suits with black edges that used to be in fashion way back when," he said. "I'm guessing Chanel, but don't quote me on that."
"That's my mother alright," I said.
"It suited her," he said. "Don't get me wrong."
"No offence taken," I said. "So, Gerry when do I start back?"
"Henry," Gerry said. There was a new astringency in his voice, a cautious flattening. "You've died. You've crossed the river Lethe. You've accessed hidden knowledge. So tell me this straight: have you learnt anything along the way?"
To be continued