Posts Tagged ‘Derren Brown’

Peter May - RunawayYou could play Swinging Sixties London bingo with Peter May‘s Runaway (Quercus, 2015), even if Del Shannon’s single of the same name doesn’t figure in the soundtrack.  Slightly unfair criticism, you might say, given Runaway is the tale of five Glasgow teenagers – a beat group formed at school called The Shuffle – trying to make it up in the Big Black Smoke in 1965, but the clincher was one of said merry band at a fashionable party, off his head on drugs, diving of a roof with the words “I can fly” not long left his lips.  Eyes down look in for, among other things:

  • a scene-maker and qualified pharmacist to the stars called (of course) Dr Robert
  • who has Bridget Riley originals hanging on his wall
  • picks up a demo tape en passant Abbey Road (“This is where the Beatles record, you know“)
  • helps Pennebaker with the filming of Dylan making that video in a Central London side street (“He seemed to me to be in need of a square meal“)
  • (more interestingly) is involved with a thinly veiled R.D.Laing and his experimental anti-psychiatry Kingsley Hall community
  • and climactically hosts a party where”The air was heady with the perfume of marijuana and simmering with unfettered sexuality.”

Basically Runaway has two timelines:  1965 (though it’s never quite clear who is being addressed with these sometimes very specific memories); something bad happened back there and then, and 50 years later one of the group, dying in a Glasgow hospital, sees a newspaper item that motivates him to gather the two other members of the band who returned to Glasgow to remake that journey (escaping from hospital in the process) in order to clear up what exactly happened back then and exact justice.

To be fair, the two journeys are quite eventful and not a bad read.  Before becoming a full-time novelist Peter May did a lot of television drama and the action sometimes reads more like a detailed shooting script than a novel.  Indeed, with a decent budget it would make a stunning TV drama wherein body language and motion and close-up shots would do away with the redundancy of, say, a discussion about road directions (p104) and various clichés like someone having “the startled look of a deer caught in headlights.”

Again, to be fair, it’s a pretty sour – and probably not without grounds – look at Swinging London, and there is some good stuff about friendship and growing old, but plot twists involving a). revealed adoptions and, b). an abortion that didn’t happen, creak mightily, though the resolution of the crime, of what actually happened on the fateful day in 1965, although a staple of crime fiction, is neatly done.  Which cannot, unfortunately, be said about then 17 year-old narrator Jack, for whom premature ejaculation was obviously never a problem, losing his virginity:

All my primitive sexual instincts wanted me simply to be inside her. But she made me wait for that, teaching me instead that we could give and receive as much pleasure with our mouths. Things I would never have known , or thought to do. But which, ultimately, led to the most heightened moment of release when finally I was inside her, feeling her grip me with her muscles as my hips rose and fell to the most ancient rhythm known to mankind.

Peter May 1955 HotspurI got hold of Runaway because of a recommendation in one of those year-end round-ups in a newspaper.  I discover that Peter May – with a lengthy back catalogue involving crime sequences featuring a Scottish/Italian ex-forensic scientist living in France and another set in Hong Kong – has lately become flavour of the month among crime novelists with his recent highly praised Lewis Trilogy (the island, not Morse’s chum) picking up all sorts of awards.  I’m afraid that for me, though, the name of Peter May will always first conjure up the Surrey and England cricketer of the same name, a big hero of my dad’s.

Ticket to rideHaving said that …

… I am indebted to the novelist Peter May for an insight that I find it hard to believe had never occurred to me before over five decades; the music had just floated by me.  There’s probably a moral to be had in that.  They are gathered at a record shop to hear the new Beatles single.  Yes kids, it really was that exciting.  Rachel has escaped a very bad relationship:

We joined the crowd … in time to catch Ticket to ride for the very first time. Hearing the first play of a new Beatles record was like sharing in a part of history. Our history. A seismic shift from the past and our parents’ generation.

But Rachel was listening to the words. ‘God, Lennon sounds just like Andy,’ she said. ‘Like it was all my fault, or hers in the song. Because, of course, he was bringing her down, and that’s why she had to leave. Couldn’t possibly have been because he was such a shit.’

[There are a couple of Kinks references in Runaway; I’ll write about them elsewhere, in the Kinks in Literature chronicle here in Lillabullero some time soon.]

Out and about

Scribal Feb 2016

For future cultural historians no-shows painted out.

Scribal had a birthday – its amazing sixth – and there was cake.  The Antipoet were doing new stuff, Paul Eccentric dashingly dressed as if – to these eyes – about to collect a well-earned Honorary Degree (“I’d refuse it,” he said).  Mr Hobbs made his debut as a qualified storyteller with a reworking of a traditional tale or two wherein bears did indeed shit in the woods.  [02.03.16: I would like to qualify that statement: after representations made to me by Mr Hobbs’ alter ego Pedantic Pete in the Comments below, I now recognise this was actually the first public airing of his first apprentice piece].  I came to a jarring halt in my stint when turning over the third page of a four page epic trilogy – large font size, mind – only to find a blank sheet staring back at me; last-minute revises freshly printed … and realising … as rationality defeated panic … placed straight off the printer the wrong way round in the plastic.  New Bard Vanessa was everywhere this month.  Another mighty fine show.

Vaultage Feb early 2016Vaultage mid-Feb 2016As per, there were two Vaultages, with the usual suspects and co-host Lois Barrett continuing to deliver up splendid fresh guests, new to most there.  Two thirds of the Roses and Pirates gals impressed with their own powerful songs and delivery; a pleasant prospect indeed to look forward to seeing them entire, with their ailing cellist in full flow.

And so to York House again … three times this February

Fire 350! was a series of readings from eye-witness accounts, including the context of the Great Plague the previous year and the spread of the Great Fire of London in September, 1666 – Sam Pepys, Evelyn et al – interspersed with period music played on period instruments by Mr Simpson’s Little Consort.  By turn entertaining, educational and moving;  surprised at the fire’s ferocity and extent.  The consort juggled lute, theorbo (a giant mutant lute, longer than its player), two viols and recorder throughout the evening, sometimes accompanying a cheerful soprano.  Ferocious indeed was their closer, a twin viol attack (it’s not just blues guitarists who use open tuning) on Purcell’s Ode to St Cecilia with a bass line straight outta AC/DC: “Wondrous machine!

Evie Ladin and Keith TerryEvie Ladin, with partner Keith Terry was a sell-out, and no wonder after their show a couple of years ago.  Can’t put it any better than they do on their website, where there’s plenty to see: ” Energetic and electrifying clawhammer banjo, bass, percussive dance, storytelling songs old and new, with nuanced, emotive vocals.  An intimate, robust evening of acoustic music and dance; a skilled hybrid of American folk arts.”  Great charm and fun too.  Raised in New York, her dad went to a bluegrass concert at Carnegie Hall and was converted; family legend has it he gave away all his Tamla Motown records.  Doesn’t stop her quoting the Stones and Badfinger (“English folk songs”) on one of the songs on the new album.  Which I bought, and holds up very well in the country miserabilism stakes, never mind the breakneck banjo workout on The cuckoo.

Clive Williams on melodeon. Photo (c) Andy Powell.

Clive Williams on melodeon. Photo (c) Andy Powell.

‘Twas another full and hugely appreciative house for S.S.Shanty! 4, and another grand evening it was of it too.  Less of the shanty overall this time, but plenty of maritime songs and hornpipes making up the slack, not to mention Bard Vanessa’s trip on the good ship innuendo and, of course, her paean to the men and women of the RNLI, who the gig was a benefit for.

Due to the pillar in the middle of the room I could only comfortably see four and a half of the six men who make up the lusty and infectious (in the best possible sense …) Five Men Not Called Matt (it’s a local thing) but I had no trouble hearing all those fine voices.  Melodeonist Clive Williams did a lovely tuneful set full of charm to belie what the Doxy from Liverpool (the distaff half of Trim Rig and a Doxy) said about melodeon playing methodology: “You depress the keys and every one within half a mile”.  Mind, she was sporting one herself.  It was to their fine selves that honour of leading the room in Being a pirate; their rendition of a poem about the decline of the Liverpool Docks set to music had a tendency to wet the eye.  Similarly Jenkinson’s Folly, with the sucker punch of a cello, also hit the tear ducts with a sad trawling tale.  Phil Underwood played another melodeon or two – was one of his the spectacular white and gold Russian one? – and sang from the perspective of a canal boat.  Another great evening.

DBDerren Brown …

… deserves a sub-head of his own.  We travel up city to the theatre for Miracle, his latest stage offering.  I think it’s probably fair to say that most of Derren’s audience these days have been to one or more of his shows before; I think this was at least my third.  Consequently there wasn’t so much of a noticeable buzz in the foyer for Miracle, and the audience did seem a bit older (self included).   Audience expectations of WTF moments can’t be easy for the man, but he continues to deliver all the same.  Dramatically, yes – but the WTFF moments weave a measure of contemplative wonder into the head-shaking spectacular.  He’s charming, witty, wise and serious as ever.  His demystification of his craft – the insistence that there is nothing supernatural going on – is a force for good (which is just as well considering his powers of persuasion).  The powerful core of Miracle, involving as per his usual modus operandi, several audience members, is the replication of an American tv evangelist healing extravaganza, in which he shows that something is definitely happening, while making it abundantly clear it has nothing to do with divine intervention; his motif for the evening was the power of the stories we tell ourselves and live by.  I was singing “Stealing in the name of the Lord” on the way home.


Book Group book for February was F.Scott Fitzgerald‘s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby (1925), a book I found I didn’t have as much familiarity with as I’d thought.  So nice to rediscover the book’s many qualities – as Hemingway said of his friend, he writes “like an angel” – and doubly delightful, at just over 150 pages, to have the luxury of reading something substantial in only a couple of sessions.  Just as Chuck Berry at his peak and his contemporaries  only needed 2 minutes 19 seconds for musical works of great profundity … Poignancy in that Jay Gatsby hardly drank while hosting the drunken revelry at his celebrated parties, while alcohol played a prominent part in his decline.  And I wondered when reading about those “blue lawns” of his … thuse enabling me to get a starter question on University Challenge on Monday.

Good turnout of performers at the Aortas Sunday open mic at the Old George, now a monthly event.  Naomi did a new song in which she rhymes ‘queen’ with ‘nuclear submarine’.

Those who’ve made it this far may have noticed that I failed even to make the deadline imposed on self in the title of this post.  Talk about failed New Year’s Resolutions to keep it short …







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Quick, before they recede any further …

Evie Ladin & Keith TerryA dozen days ago now Evie Laden and Keith Terry at York House.  World-class Americana for a fiver less than half a mile down the road – aint life grand?  Even if the beer ran out early.  She was a clawhammer banjo player and step dancer tutored in the south Appalachian tradition and he was a jazz drummer when they met; when they moved in together they found there wasn’t a single duplicate CD in their both extensive collections.  Not that there was much evidence of jazz in this show.  Tunes old and new, of the tradition, in the tradition, and some amazing hand-clapping body-slapping rhythmic routines.  Near the end a speeded up breakdown version of Ewan MacColl’s The first time ever I saw your face which worked beautifully and has revived the song for me.  A great night, for which much and many thanks, Ken.

And the next day I turned up too late for the usual suspects but did witness and survive Barney and accompanying cajónist’s singalong rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s I Scribal April 2014will survive in the closing stages of the AORTAS open mic night at The Old George.  No, really – it was great.  Glad I bothered.

Tuesday saw the launch of The Box Ticked‘s actual CD – which I might well be writing about in a separate post – at the April Scribal Gathering.  They delivered a nicely judged and hugely satisfying set of originals from the album and gave us an accomplished cover of Bowie’s Five days as a bonus.  And apparently the righteous Xanadu, previously mentioned favourably in despatches, are actually called In Xanadu, which isa slight improvement (though I still can’t get the image of Dave Dee, Dozy, Mick and Tich out of my skull).  Another varied evening’s entertainment chaired this month by that man Ken (again).

Oxford to BletchleyO to B ticketIt’s a bit specialist, is Oxford to Bletchley including Verney Junction to Banbury by Vic Mitchell and Keith Smith in the Middleton Press Country Railway Routes series (2006).  Not particularly well reproduced b&w photos (with detailed captions) of stations on one of the many routes that didn’t survive Beeching, by far the best and most interesting photo for me – though there’s a good one of Bletchley station back in the day at the end of this post – is the days-of-futures-past shot on the cover of the rather stylish diesel railcar, that was introduced with no great success on the route in 1938.  Still, good to nostalgise a bit (on tracks I never rode on) and to think this is one of the lines that might rise from the ashes again in the future.

MoranthologyI could quote endlessly from Moranthology (Ebury Press, 2012), Caitlin Moran‘s entertaining and wide-ranging collection of pieces from her Times interviews and columns.  I like her a lot.  She has me punching the air – wit and wisdom: yes! – on many topics, and her serious stuff (with a potential guffaw never far away) on, for instance, what it’s like to be poor, deserve wider currency and to be out there in the political arena:

We’re all just monkeys using sticks to get grubs out of logs, really.  However.  There is one, massive difference between being rich and being poor, and it is this: when you are poor, you feel heavy.  Heavy like your limbs are filled with water.  Perhaps it is rain water – there is a lot more rain in your life when you are poor.  Rain that can’t be escaped in a cab.  Rain that has to be stood in, until the bus comes.  […]
But the heaviness is not really, of course, from the rain.  The heaviness comes from the sclerosis of being broke.  Because when you’re poor, nothing ever changes.

And she knows because she was brought up there.  Her notion that being taxed is a signifier of personal success – “What a seriously grown-up thing to be doing“- needs to be stated more often.  Some of the pieces here fill in some of the gaps in her memoir, How to be a woman.  Hence her passionate defence of public libraries, where she ‘home’ educated herself after primary school (and didn’t we librarians do a good job?).  Her Celebrity Watch columns are up there with Charlie Brooker’s take on all the nonsense.  Hard to shake off, too, her description of David Cameron, three months before he became prime minister, as the potential winner of a  ‘C-3PO made of ham‘ fancy dress competition: “His resemblance to a slightly camp gammon robot is extraordinary.”  Her TV criticism is usually on the ball, with a big ‘Yay’ to Sherlock and a classy demolition of Downton (easy, I know, but she does it so well), though her championing of The hour did give me pause.  But her summing up of Doctor Who certainly hits the spot:

It is, despite being about a 900 year-old man with two hearts and a space-time taxi made of wood, still one of our very best projections of how to be human.

One last quote that, I think, epitomizes her take on life beautifully.  She’s describing in retrospect the event – “having gone mad after having smoked a massive bong in front of Later … with Jools Holland“- that led to her leaving behind any mind altering substances other than alcohol:

… it’s obviously unendingly amusing that I lost my mind whilst watching Jools Holland playing boogie-woogie piano with The Beautiful South on BBC2.  If there’s anything that proves I have managed to ascend the class ladder from ‘working class’ to ‘middle class’ it is, surely, this.  Well done me.

After LiffI’ve been dunning After Liff: the new dictionary of things there should be words for (Faber, 2013), John Lloyd and Jon Canter‘s sequel to The meaning of liff 30 years on.  They get the words needed for those “perfectly common things around us that have somehow escaped having names” by “recycling the ones on signposts.”  Hence Dunning (a small village in Perthshire) is a verb, present participle, meaning “happily reading  a book in the loo.”  Which is where my copy of After Liff has lain since  it was bought as a cheap offer makeweight to get free postage when buying another book altogether, and because a friend had raved more than once – “funniest book”etc – about its predecessor.  I’m on my fourth time through now and it just gets better with each reading – more pennies dropping every time as some sort of sense emerges.  They range from the pretty obvious, from bad puns through decent cryptic crossword clues, into words that somehow sound just right and then we enter a zen or even an Ivor Cutler universe of fetching nonsense; with mild filth and not a few duds on the way too, of course.  So, not entirely at random, how about Nantwich (noun: a snack where the filling drops out, leaving an empty husk),  Stockleigh Pomeroy (noun: the manhunt that takes place after a murder, to find a neighbour willing to say the line: ‘He kept himself to himself”) or just plain Malmö (adjective: happily tired) for starters?  It’s cumulative.  I’m on the look out for the words on a signpost that will fit that sinking feeling and frustration when you get half the hazelnuts or dates in a kilo bag of Jordan’s Natural muesli falling into just the one bowl on one morning.

InfamousFinally, if Derren Brown came out onto the stage to the strains of This charming man no justification would be necessary.  And he works so hard.  Derren always asks people not to reveal what happens in the show so as not to take the element of surprise away from those who haven’t seen it yet, so I’m not going to say much about Infamous except, par for the course, we came out going not so much WTF? as How?  Vastly entertaining and good-natured.  The usual mix of the aforementioned charm, illusion,  manipulation, mental tour-de-forces, wit and demystification, with some autobiography thrown in for spice and inspiration.  Undoubtedly a force for good; so pleased he’s on our side.

And here’s that photo.  Never let it be said I don’t keep my promises.  Most of the time:

Bletchley Station in days of yore, the Oxford train awaiting the off (or having just arrived).

Bletchley Station in days of yore, the Oxford train awaiting the off (or having just arrived).

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Monday night to the theatre for Derren Brown‘s Svengali show.  The man is amazing.  Best for me this time was him doing something extraordinary at an easel, painting or drawing with one hand, while taking his cue from the arm of a randomly selected audience member (blindfolded?) whose arm he is grasping with his other hand as she thinks about a famous face, though that is but a small part of the show.  The audience is spellbound for well over two hours.  And yet.  The trouble is, the last show, Enigma, was so good it’s difficult to be have one’s flabber quite so gasted, though I’ve still absolutely no doubt that anyone coming to this with no experience of the man live would be more than impressed.  One is still charmed by the wit and in awe at his ability to hold and work a large audience so effectively.  Apparently he’s gone without his usual co-writer for Svengali; maybe there’s a bit of edge lost – a feeling maybe just be brought on by familiarity – but this is far from an exercise in Tony Hancockian hubris.

The stage set is steam punk, 1900s futuristic.  The centre piece segment of the show, the title piece, features an automaton doll called Svengali, a furtherance of Brown’s mission to replicate and demystify (even though he doesn’t explain how it’s done) Victorian era (and some) supposed occult phenomena.  The creepy – only word – automaton doll is given a back story with its origins in the late eighteenth century, including a tale of Catholic exorcism, for which, I can only say, I can find no concurrence on Wikipedia … but no matter.  The magician blogosphere suggests that much of the show is technically unexceptional misdirection and suggestion played out skillfully and at length, but again, no matter.  Long may Derren Brown thrive.  Attitude!

Andrea Gillies‘ book Keeper: a book about memory, identity, isolation, Wordsworth and cake (Short Books, 2009) is about Alzheimer’s, a condition I knew a bit about but had no direct or indirect – through friends or relatives – contact with.  I know a lot more about it now and it’s worrying, scary and, as Gillies says in her forward, a growing problem for society as a whole.  Keeper won the Wellcome Prize for lay science writing; I wouldn’t have been reading it but for the Reading Group, but I’m glad I did.  It’s well written and nicely paced, the story – as it unfolds – interlaced with medical and scientific explanation and discussion as to what’s going on in the Alzheimer’s sufferers’ brain.

Andrea and her husband decide to live the three generational model of family care.  Nancy, her mother-in-law has early to middle stage Alzheimer’s and Nancy’s invalided husband Morris has his own problems, so they can’t cope on their own.  Andrea and Chris have three children.  They decide the only way to buy a house they can afford to accommodate them all is to move into a Victorian semi-ruin on a remote Scottish headland.  Chris is the main breadwinner so most of it – the caring, though note the book’s title is Keeper – falls on Andrea.  In the end it can’t be sustained.  And the extreme weather is far worse than they’d ever expected.  You do have to wonder quite how they thought it could ever work.  There was also the notion of touching the Wordsworthian Sublime (capital S), being closer to the elemental and all that. Leading to:

A baby seal dead on the beach, and then a dolphin, part eaten before it was washed ashore.  I begin to feel an overwhelming, disproportionate pity for the sheep and the bullocks that watch me from their pasture as I pass.  It’s all suffering and cruelty out there, I think, stomping along the beach in a summer dress and raincoat and wellingtons; it’s cruelty disguised by landscape, by our fetish for views.  I blame Wordsworth for that.

Nancy’s disintegration – the deterioration of self (“What am I doing here”? when most cogent), her loss of memory and routines of even simple hygiene, the return to a state of toddlerdom but with all the retained physical adult strength of anger and temper, her uncomprehending rants – and the effect this disintegration has on Andrea and the family dynamics, is devastatingly, compassionately and honestly – she almost cracks – described.  Nancy doesn’t recognise her husband, nor son or daughter in law; grandchildren are hit. It is harrowing. Never mind the dealings with Social Services.  Sad, but what relief to discover that sufferers fare better in an environment away from their family, free of the frustrations of the residue of vaguely remembered details of a forgotten life with no coherence, and with all the tensions reflected back by the travails of their once nearest and dearest distant.

As the sub-title of Keepers suggest, there’s a lot more to the book than that.  For all that the quote above suggests there is some wonderful descriptive writing about the land and clime. There is humour and a more general contemplation of existence, a sense of wonder of what an amazing thing the brain is, what it can do (eh, Darren?), what we take for granted.  What becomes clear is that our identities are our memories.

I can hear her ranting about me next door, but she is in rant mode most of the time now anyway, so it doesn’t matter.  None of it matters in the least, I say to myself, turning the radio up louder.  The radio is on in the kitchen all day now, the radio or the CD player.  Hendrix turns out to be an excellent granny repellent.  Mozart brings Nancy in asking questions and Sinatra sparks something that has the tone of reminiscence, but is a random putting-together of words and ideas, presented as urgently true.

There are questions that linger at the back of one’s mind, unsatisfied: there is very little back story (though with that it would not have been the same book, a certain crucial element of neutrality lost) and you do sometimes wonder about the part Chris plays in all this.  The book has done its job, though; part-therapy it may have been, but we get the picture.

I was intrigued by one aspect of Nancy’s decline; strange to say, reassuringly so.  She retains the capacity – can one even say necessity? – to rhyme.  Long after the memory of the proper words of her favourite song – When Irish eyes are smiling – are gone, her own made-up substitutes, even when no longer actual words, still rhyme.   Maybe a good time then, to give a nod to Mike Scott‘s band The Waterboys and their setting of some of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats‘s works to music.  I’ve been listening to the CD lately and it works much better – for all that (because) I’m a fan of the Waterboys and Yeats – than I’d ever expected.  The track that has been sticking in my mind? – Mad as the mist and snow.

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Redecorating my study (well … slapping some paint around the shoebox I’m sitting in) involved moving the filing cabinet, which we tried to do with all the files in it.  So the wooden filing cabinet started to come to pieces.  So of necessity out come the files, crying out for weeding and treasures to find.  Like this gem of a ’70s period piece, a Leeds Postcards card from the late Ray Lowry.  Reproduced here because of an interview heard recently on Radio 4’s Today programme in the wake of the violence that occurred during the first student demonstration against the coalition government’s raising of tuition fees.  The interviewee, a non-student, was refusing , rather inarticulately, to condemn the violence and going on about students and working people coming together in a popular movement against the cuts.  Been through that movie before.  Is it reassuring that Private Eye have resurrected ‘The Alternative Voice’ of ex-student radical Dave Spart too, albeit this time around as Dave Fotherington Spart.

More crossword clues we have loved of late, courtesy of the Guardian.  Answers at the end of this post:

  • Fell having had internal haemorrhage (7) from the mighty Araucaria
  • Where someone lives, say, with lighter garment (6,5) another from Araucaria
  • Time when most strikes occur (6) from Rufus
  • Youthful pastime lost by us oldies (7) from Gordius
  • This is why, say, it’s impious (6) from Paul
  • Very proper request (7) another one of Paul’s
  • Beaten by uncultured Rod Stewart remix (7) from Shed
  • Explorer’s humble dwelling revealed secret (10) Shed again
  • & a nice pair to end with: Everyone expressed satisfaction with God (5) from Araucaria
  • A blessing for Professor Dawkins (7) from Arachne

I meant to mention in my previous post looking at his sort-of-autobiography, that Derren Brown makes great play of promoting individual  acts of kindness as a contribution to making the world a better place – it can spread like a virus.  And just lately there was social science research published saying that kind people are more likely to be happier and even healthier (sorry, no source).  It reminded me of an essay by Kurt Vonnegut arguing that the world would be a much better place if people were just a bit more polite to one another, extending that all the way up through politics and beyond.  Which nobody can deny.  Too easy?

Anyway, nice cup of tea will often serve as act of kindness but certain niceties must be observed.  I’ve (& my mother before me, hence…) always maintained that the milk goes in the cup first because that’s the way to judge the quantity of the milk you’re putting in and I aint gonna change now.  Even if two of my favourite published tea drinkers disagree.  George Orwell‘s famous essay ‘A nice cup of tea‘  (from 1946) goes into the whole process in some detail.

Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.

He at least acknowledges an alternative, while Ray Davies, who has actually written a song, in praise of tea as panacea (‘Have a cuppa tea’ on the great ‘Muswell hillbillies) is adamant in this passage from ‘X-Ray’ his “unofficial autobiography”:

I diligently obeyed the ritual of the tea-making ceremony, knowing full well that any slip on my part would bring about the severest of reprimands before the final rejection and eventual dismissal. I poured the hot tea into the mugs, then added just enough milk to bring it to a rich, watery brown. I knew it was important to ensure that the milk was added while the tea was still moving around in a whirlpool. This would guarantee that the milk blended with the tea in a natural flow, rather than with the aid of a spoon. That would have been vulgar, according to Ray Davies’ book. A slip in etiquette. Spoons are only used as a last resort.

No help at all from tea specialists Whittards, whose very fine English Breakfast tea – loose leaves, of course, full of tastes – always kick-starts our day.  Their latest re-packaging sits on the fence:

At least, I thought, there is – surely – a consensus on how the brew starts.  Until I read Yoko Ono’s tribute – ‘The tea maker‘ – to Long Lost John in today’s New York Times.  Wherein she recalls John Lennon insisting that you put the tea bag in the cup first and then poured on the boiling water.  As any normal person would.  But:

One night, however, John said: “I was talking to Aunt Mimi this afternoon and she says you are supposed to put the hot water in first. Then the tea bag. I could swear she taught me to put the tea bag in first, …

Yoko touchingly describes how they laughed.  No John, should have trusted yourself.

Crossword answers to cherish, some delicious wordplay:

  • Tum-bled
  • Summer dress (some address)
  • Twelve (clock striking)
  • Marbles
  • Here’s-y
  • So-licit (shades of Ray Davies singing Apeman – so-phisticated)
  • Worsted (artless anagram)
  • Shack-let-on
  • All-ah
  • Gods-end

Two indispensible websites for stuck cruciverbalists: the site formerly known as Jumble gives you all the possibilities in the spaces left when you’ve only got a few letters filled in (and indeed does anagrams too but I’d call that cheating) and Fifteen Squared (‘never knowingly undersolved’) – aka 225 because of the 15×15 grids of conventional cryptic crosswords – has a dedicated band of top solvers who post solutions for the Guardian, the Indy & the FT with explanations for when you’ve finished it but don’t understand why.  But if you only want to know one clue’s answer, the Guardian, at least, has an online cheat mode …

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Derren Brown is an annoying bastard.  Many will be hard pressed to get past the verbal diarrhea of the opening chapter of his sort-of autobiography, Confessions of a conjuror (Transworld, 2010).  The book is one huge shaggy dog story, structured around one single performance of a card trick at one table of three guests in a restaurant that has hired him at the start of his career.  He explores what exactly is going on in his mind and in that of the subjects of the trick, which trigger him to go off at tangents and the tangents have tangents and they have lengthy footnotes spanning the bottom of up to four pages.  You see what I mean about annoying?  In the opening he goes into excruciating detail of his preparation, his nervous state , his observations of the guests and how he goes about choosing who to approach.  But it is, of course, precisely this attention to minute detail that is crucial to his craft.  Which, if you’ve ever seen one of his performances, is formidable.  And full of charm.  Sometimes smug charm, but charm nevertheless.

In the end we have been charmed too by the book, and have somehow learnt an awful lot – almost in passing – about the man, his childhood, his development, his career, his atheist beliefs and his craft.  And even about ourselves, given that the way people behave is crucial to that craft.  His discussion of his mission and moral stance – the debunking and yet maintaining of ‘magical’ illusion, even in the recreation of spiritualistic events, making people think they have experienced something special – is nicely done.  There is class too, in his discussion of the popular press, where he scorns the Sun for claiming a ‘coming out’ exclusive for a story that had appeared elsewhere weeks before, but saluting the headline – ‘Mindbender’ – that they used.  Overall it is, like his act, a motor-mouth performance with the occasional self-deflating (for him – embarrassing for me) descent into schoolboy humour and purility.

There are audiobook versions read by the man himself which might be easier to absorb, but if you go for that you are robbing yourself of what is a rather lovely physical object, the book featuring, as it does, laminated boards and a design using a playing card and variety bill poster lettering.

Click to enlarge

No disputing the charm and wit that oozed out of Keith Richards in the hour-long tv interview he did to promote his autobiography (written with James Fox) which is simply titled ‘Life‘ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010).  But the book is written in Keef-esque vernacular, which might have worked in a novel but this isn’t a novel, so that charm rather palls over 500 plus pages of, basically, unnecessary (as the parents used to say) “language”.  Now I’m all for the judicious placing of an expletive, but when it comes down to, for example – in a recipe for bangers and mash – the sausages are called “the fuckers”, the repetition becomes a little tedious, no matter how affectionate.  Tedious too the bravado of him going on about carrying knives and guns, never mind the tedium of junkiedom, which, to his credit, he does nothing to hide or glamorize – to quote, the “mundane fucking junkie shit”.  But you still can’t deny, for all the casual flaunting of wealth, a certain magnificence, integrity and generosity of spirit grounded in a rebel love for the music.  And for all the issues around parenting a social worker might flag, the kids do seem to have turned out all right.

Indeed, the book could stand as a useful text for a course in moral philosophy.  “My life is full of broken halos,” the man says.  But also: “When you talk of a folk hero they’ve written the script for you and you better fulfil it.” (p365)

I only picked it up to see if he had anything to say anything about the Kinks – it was seeing the Stones at Eel Pie Island that changed Ray Davies’s musical direction – but he has very little to say about his beat group contemporaries at all.  He gives Kinks’ Mick Avory a namecheck as the drummer at one of the Stones’ first gigs but has no more to say on that account.  Like Ray he has an art school babe in his past (“an outstanding beauty who wore a long black sweater, black stockings and heavy eyeliner a la Juliette Greco“) and attests to the impact of ‘Jazz on a summer’s day‘, the film of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival; it was a revelation for Keith to discover Chuck Berry was black – me too, as it happens, one of those moments.

He is most lyrical in describing the origins of the Rolling Stones and the blues scene they emerged from, the Stones soon being regarded as tainted with the spirit of rock’n’roll:

Blues aficionados in the ’60s were a sight to behold. They met in little gatherings like early Christians, but in the front rooms in south-east London … playing the new Slim Harpo and that was enough to bond you all together. (p81)

He stresses the importance, never acknowledged in the early days, of the slightly older pianist, Ian Stewart, to the band (despite being a purist to the end, refusing to play minor chords: “fucking Chinese music”) and describes the early days living in squalor as a mission:

It was a mania.  Benedictines had nothing on us. … Mick, Brian and myself. It was incessant study. (p110)

I could go on, but I think you get the gist.  Lots of interesting stuff about guitar playing and songwriting.  Some great anecdotage, from his childhood on, some nice asides. A taste:  “The best rhythm guitar playing I ever heard was from Don Everly. Nobody ever thinks about that … “(p133); “Allen Ginsberg was staying at Mick’s place in London once, and I spent an evening listening to the old gasbag pontificating on everything” (p200); on  John Lennon, “I liked John a lot. He was a silly sod in many ways.” (p207); and “Gram Parsons: “He could make bitches cry” – by which he means his music  (p249).  (Which reminds me: bitches, chicks, poofs, poofters – repetitive period detail palls after a while;  no thanks.)  He calls Sir Mick a brother these days, by which he means sibling stuff, says he misses his old friend; diagnoses LVS (“lead vocalist syndrome“).  I like his pride in his claim, “I have never put the make on a girl in my life. I just don’t know how to do it.” And that, “Sometimes a kiss is burned into you far more than whatever comes later.” (p69). (If, indeed, it ever happens, I would add.)

It’s not a bad bit of book design either.  The illustration I’ve used is a small part of the handsome end papers – a nostalgia feast of KR’s timeless vinyl LP collection (including the first LP I ever bought) – while the jacket photos tell the tale of what’s inside.  On the back, in a neat handwriting, full of character, we are told:

This is the life. Believe it or not. I haven’t forgotten any of it. Thanks and praises.

This I cannot resist:

  • P322: I don’t remember it but …
  • p417: I can’t even remember much of it
  • p429 Stash has the story on this. He remembers it better because I was already pissed out of my brain …
  • p434 After that I don’t really remember much …

Nor does he mention the Live Aid debacle with Dylan.  Oh yes,  I can do churlish.  But I never meant to read the book through to the end and I did and it’s got me listening to the early and middle Stones again and they were amazing.

Final word: “But then there’s that word “retiring”. I can’t retire until I croak,” he says, 67 years old later this month, and good for him.  Apropos of life and life only, earlier this week, watching William Boyd‘s deeply tedious tv adaptation of  his own novel ‘Any human heart‘ I am suddenly made aware that I’m older now than Ernest Hemingway was when he died, aged 61.  A slightly bemused shaking of the head seemed in order.

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At the theatre two weeks running.  Week before last, mentalist Derren Brown‘s ‘Enigma‘ show was just remarkable from start to the amazing finish.  How did he do that?  I’m respecting his request not to say exactly what that was.  A great showman and educator.   The Victorian séance with the randomly frisbee picked trance subjects was fascinating and instructive, as was the cold reading of a young woman’s childhood memory (spiritualists be damned); he had another young woman drinking a full glass of vinegar.  Son Peter twittered about that and she twittered back saying the only thing she knew about it was her mouth was dry next morning.

And this week was Alan Bennett‘s play ‘Enjoy‘, with outstanding performances from Alison Steadman (I kept wondering when she was going to come on, she was that good as a northern lass; she was there from the start) and David Troughton as an old working class couple living in a Leeds back-to-back in a street about to be demolished, beset by non-participant observing sociologists.  Originally written and performed in 1980, it was apparently Bennett’s least successful theatrical venture.  Which was probably down to the well judged swearing they weren’t used to back then, and the fact it’s a right old mixture of slapstick, low humour and dark family drama, not to mention satire, consideration of the ambiguous freedoms of modern life and failing traditions, northern pretensions and customs and the idea of heritage.  In the washing and laying out of the dead, the quick and the dead given a whole new meaning – not dead and rising to the occasion.  Some very funny lines, Bennett-isms abounding, and some shocking – theatrical in the best sense – stunned moments.  “Sweden?  No, Swindon, you daft bugger!”

Christopher Fowler‘s ‘Paperboy: a memoir‘ is a book to cherish.  He was born in 1953, half a decade later than me, but he started  his cultural consumption early so this memoir of growing up in the late ’50s and early ’60s – the sights and sounds of a London suburb, the sweets, the radio and cinema, the comics, his early obsession with books (“Ideally, I wanted to read every book in the English language …”) and stories, the intro of tv into our lives,  the growing importance of the music – hits the spot well enough for me.  And pretty hard too.  Here’s a taste:

“It was a mysterious world all right, and better to stick with what you could understand.  After nursing my wounds by removing a knee-scab with surgical precision, I lay on the bed and opened my Jamboree Bag, so-called because it had a poorly printed picture of the Scouts on the cover.  Inside were:
A handful of tiny round pastels as hard and tasteless as coat buttons.
Two of the ugliest, most utilitarian toffees in the world, wrapped in thin wax paper that proved impossible to separate from the toffee.
A sherbert fountain with a bunged-up stick of liquorice in it to act as a straw.
A toy so poorly assembled that it was impossible to figure out whether it was a submarine or a farmyard animal.
A joke.  Sample: Q. Where does Mr plod the policeman live?  A. 999 Letsby avenue.
The only quality the Jamboree Bag possessed was its mystery, and it therefore remained far more interesting if left unopened.  Things invisible to the eye contained hope.”

So it is laugh-aloud-feel compelled -to- read-it-to-someone-else funny (it’s one of those books with delicious footnotes) but it’s a lot more than that.  It brings home just how much things have changed (yes, I remember when boys and girls were just “interfered with”), how much we have lost and gained. There is a poignancy throughout.  Christopher’s family home was not a happy one – an unhappy marriage, a father who just didn’t understand his wimp of a head-always-in-a-book son – and there are heart-breaking (and heartening) revelations.  It has taken me back to my childhood in many ways, opened up areas to revisit.  It’s a lovely book. And there is a marvellous paen to the public library at the end.

Less cherishable and no enigma is Tony Parsons.  I got hold of his novel ‘Stories we could tell‘ (2005) because Nick Kent mentioned his being a character in it in it in his book; it’s not a pretty sight.  The novel details events in the lives of three writers from ‘The Paper’, a thinly veiled NME (where Parsons was famously one of the ‘hip young gunslinger’ recruited in the early wake of punk), in the 48 hours surrounding the death of Elvis Presley.  Between them they crammed an awful lot in is all I can say, including beatings, unlikely beddings and all sorts of other old bollo (like an interview with John Lennon and the conversion of the political one to the delights of disco).  He did some decent think pieces in Arena (not least one on the decline in the quality of English swearing), but Parsons has always been an annoying writer.  Most of the time he’s just not a good enough scribbler to transcend his romantic posturings, however honourable – working class dignity, anti-racism, family values – they may be.   You can always see the tear forming in his eye, hear the violins swelling.  He’s obviously aware of all the contradictions – his career in music journalism minus La Burchill telescoped into 48 hours, the disillusionment with punk – but in the end, for all its occasional vibrancy, this is sentimental second division rites of passage stuff.  There are a couple of Kinks references, so more about ‘Stories’ will doubtless appear soon in ‘The Kinks in literature’ part of this website.

Briefly – more engrossed in the Election than I expected.  Maybe I’m not so jaded after all.  Great Eddie Izzard party political broadcast for Labour.  I’ve long been saying it would be the comedians would save us.  Still all to play for, it would surprisingly appear.  The aptness of that Guardian April Fool to one’s gut feeling – the ‘Step outside posh boy’ poster – may well prove  to be prophetic.

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