Saturday, 4 April 2009

James Lasdun reviewed in FT by RTK

I am, in footballing parlance, a massive, massive fan of James Lasdun, so it was a deeply satisfying assignment for me to be asked to review his latest collection of short stories, It's Beginning To Hurt, for the Financial Times, who have now run the write-up in today's 'Weekend' edition, online here. On a personal note, this is the first time I've written about Lasdun since I reviewed his previous collection Three Evenings for my college paper back in 1992... He gave a reading in the college bookstore not long thereafter, at which I was really pleased to chat with him, and yet more pleased that he had read and appreciated my 'notice'. He was already a highly-rated writer then, and has become only more so in the intervening years: unquestionably one of the finest in contemporary English fiction.

Thursday, 2 April 2009


A friend kindly invited me up to the Gods of the press gallery for yesterday afternoon's Prime Minister's Questions, and so I took the rarefied air of the Mother of Parliaments for the first time in 6 or 7 years. Not much changes, of course. This is England. The halls of the palace still have the feel of those uppercrust-if-slightly-faded European hotels. And the chamber remains an august bear-pit created for boorish 'adversarial' behaviour.
I should stress that I am no Hercules, and no Adonis, no Einstein neither, nor am I anyone's spring chicken; yet it does still seem to me that Commons debates and exchanges are a setting that permits a staggering number of paunchy, purple-faced, intellectually vapid specimens of manhood to hoot and bray scornfully from their seats as if they were ready for a principled punch-up in the street that very moment. When, in fact, it seems obvious that most of them could neither argue or fight their way out of the proverbial soggy paper bag.
It's still a bit surprising to my fragile ears how much noise gets made when people, such as the Prime Minister, are speaking. But this is what MPs have to get hardened to, and you see why women and other people with manners usually need a while to get habituated. I'm reminded though of what Christopher Hitchens habitually said when facing a tough anti-war crowd: if only you could hear how foolish you sound when you boo...
Gordon Brown is a seasoned and robust performer at the despatch box, and his scornful smiles toward the Opposition benches when on top are clearly deeply felt. But he's not nimble on his feet in any respect, and utterly rubbish at a number of the things that Blair carried off in his sleep, notably running away with the Leader of the Opposition's last question of PMQs, so as to rally his own benches. That said, Blair was never down so low in the polls, a fact that is possibly Cameron's strongest debating point. Cameron too is a very assured performer, though he's looking noticeably older all of a sudden: most likely this is the toll of grief for his son.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Alan Shearer: Banzai!

Opposing fans rather than Mags got to me first with the great and terrible news of late Tuesday, so I'm still wiping the spit off my face, figuratively speaking. It's a good job Shearer has broad shoulders and a stern face in adversity, as he'll need to summon both these qualities as and when we're relegated. But, fair's fair, it will now officially be recorded in the Book of Time that whenever Newcastle called then Alan Shearer always answered. If I were him, I'd have had the missus say I was out creosoting the fence and couldn't come to the phone, like. But that's why he's the fella who scored about 500 goals in his career, and I'm the fella who stood by, usually intoxicated, and watched him score most of them... Good luck then, Al. Or should I say, 'Banzai!'?

Roeg the Warlock

Last Friday night's Nicolas Roeg tribute at BAFTA was a very special and memorable evening - for all attendees, I hope, including the honoree, but certainly for me. It's probably sufficient to say that I got to meet Jenny Agutter and Julie Christie - wouldn't you say? But really the joy of the occasion just went on and on. It's one thing to share a stage with speakers of the order of Danny Boyle, Stephen Frears, Kevin Macdonald and James Marsh. Another to be startled and moved anew by extracts from Nic's inimitable body of work. And another still to enjoy the good drink and the good crack that tends to follow such a ceremonial. (As Nic put it succinctly after taking receipt of his honorary Bafta, 'Time for a large one, I'd have thought...?') But nights such as these remind you what it's all about. My speech was big on personal reminiscence, since I can't pronounce as Nic's fellow practitioners can about why his films are the way they are (though Stephen Frears still declares himself quite baffled on this score...) But when I think about what those films have meant to me, as I did unavoidably throughout the evening, well... life to date would have been an unenlightened experience without them. Eureka, indeed.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Unquiet Men: Martyn, Mailer, Zevon, Clarke

I've become quite a fan of John Martyn's, albeit very belatedly, since the poor beggar had to die first to stir me out of 25 years of paying the barest attention to his musical gift. What finally grabbed me was BBC4's very fine documentary about Martyn, made in 2003-4, first aired a couple of years ago, but screened again in recent weeks to mark Martyn's passing in February. BBC4, it should be said, have set the bar very high for excellence in the making of docs about rock, and the Martyn film is among the best for the advantage of access to its subject, not least at a time in life when he was about to suffer the amputation of one of his legs. As the doc showed us, 'health problems' dogged Martyn through his life, because he habitually raised hell: he wasn't sufficiently kind to himself, and - though ostensibly genial and lively as a person on top of his creative gifts - he wasn't always kind to others either, including loved ones.
In the doc Ralph McTell spoke feelingly about the emotional content of Martyn's music, and Martyn confirmed the intention, speaking of 'an intrinsic sadness in any creature.' Fine words. But McTell also winced when he referred to some of the things he wished he didn't know about Martyn's personal life, and wasn't going to share with the viewers. And Martyn's ex-wife and collaborator Beverly, mother of his kids, was also on hand to prick the mood of male soulfulness: 'You can sing the blues and make people cry', she remarked with a certain rising anger, 'but it's what you do as a human being that counts.'
Of course, the lives of many eminent creative men are littered with instances of dismal and disreputable behaviour, domestic heartbreak and discord; and critics and biographers tend to require that these be dragged into the complete reckoning of the individual. And readers, listeners, audiences - they, we, want to know this stuff too, understandably. We're only human, right? So are our heroes - human, all too human, whatever their access to higher powers.
Martin Amis once (in the mid-80s) took Norman Mailer to task across a sequence of interviews and reviews, commenting in a dismissive write-up of Peter Manso's brilliant oral history Mailer: His Life and Times that the 'common background noise' of the book during accounts of Mailer's stormy conduct in the 1960s was that of 'screaming children'. Fair comment, maybe. But Amis has surely now lived long enough to realise that judgement of one's fellow practioners in these delicate matters should be exercised with a little sympathy and self-awareness.
Of course, women, ex-wives in particular, can be piercingly acute dissecters of masculine boorishness. As a longterm admirer of Warren Zevon's music, I have never quite gotten over reading Crystal Zevon's oral history I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, which she compiled at her ex-husband's request following his death in 2003. I had known Zevon was a very bad drunk during his lowest personal ebb, and yet his gift for a rueful love song and the melancholy beauty of his turn of phrase tended me to see him as a man who had been more often ill-used than using, more hurt than hurting. Well, Crystal's book sure turned my head round on that score, notably from the point where she first describes Warren punching her in the face... She forgave him, at length and over time, and of course the credit and debit sides must be carefully balanced by those who weren't there. But still - talk about a nail in the coffin of the myth of the romantic troubadour...
One of the best insights into this vexed matter of male-female relations as complicated by the call of the creative life came to me back in 1998 when I interviewed the poet Jehane Markham for my book on Alan Clarke, with whom she had a relationship in the wake of the breakdown of his marriage. For Jehane this was a romantic transport that turned sour somewhat once she realised the extent to which Clarke required the company of male friends/accomplices and was unwilling to ever put his work into second place. Moreover, the milieu of Clarkey and his mates was boisterously proletarian, very different to where Jehane came from. She can say the rest in her own words, and I think she sums it up:
"It was old-fashioned, working class, patriarchal, it wasn’t good. And I was a silent woman, a young woman. There was a lot of anger that would come out of Alan, often when he was drunk. So I didn’t enjoy all that, it made my life with Alan quite separate, and that isn’t a good sign. Because if someone is going to be part of your life, you kind of integrate them with your friends and family, and I couldn’t. He did love his work, he was a workaholic, maybe too much so. In my dreams of him he was always working and I would think, ‘I can’t reach him’. When we worked together years later on [the BBC play] Nina, that was resolved. But I think he knew the balance of his life was wrong, he couldn’t get the personal thing right. Obviously, he was very scared of being trapped and contained and held back by a woman or women, he had to be free and unencumbered, and I think that was a battle within him. I don’t know if he regretted that, whether he felt we could have shared a life together while also being independent artists. It’s a lovely idea, but it takes a bit more than wishes, and it wasn’t to be."

Jacqui Smith: at the point of Nick Robinson's stiletto

I don't doubt for a moment where Nick Robinson's instinctive political sympathies lie, any more than I doubted what side Andrew Marr or Robin Oakley would take on certain issues of the day when enjoying a drink with friends. Robinson himself seems to have gradually taken onboard the extent to which the public have got his number, certainly in the time since his early months in the BBC Political Editor job, when his slip was continually showing, and he didn't seem to have the nous to tuck himself in.
Still, a measure of how he's come along is in today's BBC blog entry on the Jacqui Smith debacle, in which he strikes a tone that is also increasingly present in his to-camera stuff: reasonable and rounded and personally sympathetic, to some extent, you'd have to say.
"She is not, after all, just a minister or an MP but the mother of two school age boys who may now come to hate the day their mum went into politics."
And yet, what is the quintessence of dust...? Because what one truly takes away from the piece is the unmistakeable savour of a career and a government consigned to the rubbish-bin. Get to the end and you'll see the cleverness of Robinson's construction.