Glad to have gone to Paraffinalia in Milton Keynes’s Campbell Park on Saturday. Weather stayed dry and there were braziers to warm by if you felt the need. The Parks Trust and local community arts organisation Festive Road were running a Midwinter Fire Festival. Hope there were enough of us there to make it happen again next year, because as an event in the social calendar it could well grow. The lantern parades approaching from higher ground, the fire-play and the climatic conflagration, the music and modest fireworks made for some transformative psycho-geographical moments that will linger. Might have helped to have known more about what was going on. Was the Lords of Misrule tradition, apparently, with the phoenix arising from the ashes of the tall wooden figure of the Dark Knight – that’s the structure emerging from the fire in the photo. Clever stuff, how the Dark Knight burned from the inside up.
The music alone was worth the price of the ticket; it was free. Punning pathetically there, it needs to be said the music was improvisational and a delight. The Kettle Band, a brass, woodwind and percussion performance collective, describe themselves as, “The Bonzo Dog Doodah Band meets Steve Reich in a Balkan market place on Fiesta day.” No Viv Stanshall, of course, but otherwise a reasonable summation; I was thinking the more approachable bits (with a touch of New Orleans marching band) of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra – stirring and fun. That’s the tuba player’s illuminated instrument in the photo on the right (unless it’s a bassoon) (or maybe a sousaphone).
Now here’s a sentence I’d like to have written, whether it be Erudition (with a capital E) beyond parody or not: “Posterity’s immense condescension nowadays seems wearisome in return.” This from Vic Gatrell‘s fascinating The first bohemians: life and art in London’s golden age (Allen Lane, 2013). He’s talking about the dismissal by two centuries’ worth of critics of the coarseness of the subject matter of a lot of Thomas Rowlandson‘s work. That sentence is preceded by “Only very recently has there been serious discussion of the relationship between his erotic prints and the values of his age.” (p.320) We don’t get to see any examples of said prints in Gatrell’s book, but an easy Google search reveals material akin to Robert Crumb’s ’60s priapic underground output; I suppose I should put in an explicit warning here, but Rowlandson’s The concert would seem to marry the two eras and could have made a noteworthy album cover for someone if they’d dared. Such work was, of course, but a small proportion of Rowlandson’s work. Gatrell champions Rowlandson’s position in the pantheon of British art: “In a sense there was a magnitude to him that no other eighteenth century artist matched. He was rather like a Dickens before his time – a Dickens without sentimentality or sexual reticence.”
Scholarly though it is – with just over 100 pages of a list appendix, note apparatus and index – The first bohemians is a hugely entertaining and vivid take on English cultural history. His focus is one small area of eighteenth century London – Covent Garden – where, over a number of crucial decades, owing to the circumstances he outlines, there was a significant concentration of creative endeavour, no less than “the primary expressions of Georgian art and literature were hatched.”
The book is full of nice touches, looking backwards and forwards, not least in the sub-chapter heads. So we get subs of Distressed poets and Distressed artists for the chapter headed The first bohemians, while the chapter Real life kicks off with Fantasies; then there is Clubbing:
No less essential to the artist’s business – and the writer’s – were the friendships and rivalries that waxed or waned through meeting, eating and drinking at several levels of frivolity or earnestness. Artists, print-men, writers, actors, gentlemen or artisans, or all of these together would meet in coffee-houses, or Tom and Moll King’s in the Piazza, or in the Rose, or other taverns, to debate, argue, gossip or sing, cheered on by port, wine or punch. There was amusement to be had in these places.
It strikes me there is a potentially massive classy soap opera to be made from these lives – the high life, the low life, the bawdry, the scandals the rivalries – from this bohemian milieu.
Ah, yes … Bohemia. OK, Gatrell says: “Only in 1845 did Henri Murger’s stories for what became his Scènes de la vie Bohème apply to the creative demi-monde of Paris“, but look what was going down here long before. (Apologies if it’s coals to Newcastle, but this was news to me.)
His main men, Hogarth and especially Rowlandson, are set against the “fine art’s social pedestalization” of Joshua Reynolds and pals, the snooty and newly instituted Royal Academy crowd and their neo-classicism. Frowning on the real life approach of the Dutch school, the RA clique persisted with the notion that “… only the history painting of mythological, allegorical or biblical subjects could depict man at his noblest and most exemplary …” Though hardly triumphant in its time, here in the crowded streets was the development of a metropolitan aesthetic that “chimed better with Londoners’ deepening delight in their metropolis“, an English art “of such genial informality that was rooted in the here-and-now” and grasped the idea that “the common people’s joy in life, could become artistic subjects“. Though it is the artists and engravers that are the main focus of the book, literature and the theatre are not ignored.
In the often witty telling, final chapter – Turner, Ruskin and Covent Garden: an aftermath – Gatrell looks at what Victorian respectability tried to do to art history. J.M.W.Turner‘s great champion, John Ruskin, loved his art, had a big problem with his personal life, to the extent that after his death he abandoned a biography and put about the tale that he’d burned J.M.W.’s erotica – he hadn’t – to spare posterity’s blushes. (“… among the least titillating scribbles in the annals of erotic art,” says Gatrell, and he’s not wrong (not that I’m an expert, you understand)). Though he’d moved on with his landscapes, and moved across town, seems in matters of the flesh you couldn’t take the Garden out of the man. Unravelling the tale, with a side-swipe at “the windy tosh so favoured by Victorian sages” on the way, Gatrell writes with a flourish, “In short,” he says of the greatest English painter, “young Turner came to consciousness in the full razzle-dazzle of Covent Garden low living.” Which nobody can, now, deny. (For what it’s worth, I’ve not seen the film yet).
The first bohemians is a tremendous read, generously illustrated. The vacuum that was my knowledge of the eighteenth century slowly fills. Two more things before we move on, however. I was appalled by the inability of the publisher to correctly link plate numbers cited in the text with the numbers actually carried by the coloured plates – ridiculously inept. And in a lighter if similar vein, this, concerning an early episode in Sir Joshua Reynolds career in fawning portraiture: “He did the heads while another artist painted the bodies. Output could be hasty. Once he and his helper managed to portray a man with a hat on his head and another under his arm.”
Staying in London, but moving forward a couple of centuries, let us now consider Going off alarming, the second volume of Danny Baker‘s autobiography (Weidenfeld, 2014), which takes us up to 1996. The quirky chronology of its predecessor, Going to se in a sieve, added to the charm of what was basically laugh-out-loud anecdotage, a lot of it involving the ’70s music scene and life at the NME. Arriving as it did a year later than it first appeared in the publisher’s schedule, its successor seems laboured in comparison. And that skipping all over the place now strikes me as downright annoying. Not that there are still plenty of nuggets to appreciate, but for a narrative that leads up to the supposed cliffhanger end of his first ubiquitous cheerful cockney tv career – replaced by Dale Winton on Pets mean prizes – to suddenly reveal that he’s not bothered because all this time, as well as appearing, he’d also been script-writing for other much bigger names all that time, so no probs – well, to me that is just cheating. But here’s where you can never dismiss him and the sparkle in his eye: along with admitting one of those little earners was for Jeremy Clarkson (boo), within a couple of pages he signs off mis-quoting – well at least he’s giving a nod to – that fine Jerry Jeff Walker song Mr Bojangles. (Hooray – so many great versions).
Anyway, as he says more than once – financial planning, radio presenting – his great skill is his ability to wing it. Career path? – “if you are truly bright and peppy no amount of A levels ought to be needed to convince some dull-eyed job-Caesar on the other side of the desk … […] Sod the gap year – have a gap life. […] Personally, I consider university a fucking nonsense three-quarters of the time, unless you are after something quantifiable like engineering or medicine.” [his italics]. The man has a point; sort of, the right side of self-delusional, if you really can walk it like you talk it. This is then followed with some justice by one of many such entertaining rants – more are promised for the next volume – against the dampening spirit of the clueless organisation men who did follow the path most travelled and who seem to have taken over radio and television from the ‘golden age’ creatives.
So, winging it, we get many things, including some stories his mates asked him why he’d left out of the first book; a tangential chronicle of social change and the working class (particularly his dad’s) experience; five pages of other people’s stories about the lifts in the tower block where he started married life; other verbatim accounts of conversations and recitations that display a remarkable facility for memory; five more pages of his attempts at painting a bedroom ceiling which are not as funny as they should be; some stories illustrative of “this relentlessly farcical industry” that was his first radio and tv career; some great tales of encounters with famous people like Kenneth Williams (corroborated, he says with pride, in Williams’s published diaries), Frank Zappa (a disastrous NME interview), Frankie Howerd (and his ‘syrup’ or ‘old Irish’*), a corker of an experience with Mel Brooks and some insight into Paul Gascoigne).
Danny Baker: decent bloke, a quantum mechanic: gobshite, bar bore and brilliant raconteur – I’m pretty sure which part was which would depend on the eye of the observer. If he had a religion his philosophy (he does actually say ‘My philosophy’ at least twice) would be God/Allah will provide; if he were a character in a Dickens novel (what do mean, if?) it would be, Something will turn up. Of course I’ll read the next one.
(Oh, and that *: rhyming slang, both used in the same story, for a wig – syrup of figs, Irish jig.)
And here we are, back in one of those ‘golden ages’ of television, courtesy of Nick Hornby‘s new novel Funny girl (Viking, 2014), though here Lillabullero‘s run on bringing Dickens into the proceedings will have to stop. The prose is oddly flat, the characters never quite make it off the page, fail to transcend their non-fiction sources (in the works of Graham McCann on ’50s, ’60s and ’70s British comedy). Maybe Hornby is aiming for a documentary tone, given the text is occasionally supported by contemporary photos and ephemera, and there are some neat precise cultural moments captured like, “I’m Keith from the Yardbirds” – a failed pick up line in the Scotch of St James and a culture that our heroine never quite gets:
She’d wanted to live in a city that felt young, but now she was beginning to wonder whether there wasn’t something rather shifty about these people, as if they’d got away with something.
So the time is the early ’60s, the black and white tv awakening from the ’50s that preceded the youth explosion – treated fairly sourly by Hornby – that changed everything. Interestingly, one of the key plot moments is attending the opening of the musical Hair in the West End – when the counter-culture broke into the mainstream arena. To place things more specifically, the writers of the sitcom that briefly rides the early wave – about a socially and politically badly matched young couple – fear they have been overtaken by the cultural relevance of Till death do us part.
Funny girl is the story of one woman’s career in show business and ‘Barbara (and Jim)’, the fresh situation comedy that makes her name. Barbara Parker wins Miss Blackpool, but resigns when she discovers it means she has to stick around Blackpool for another year, while she wants to be Lucille Ball. Agent humouring her before setting her up as another Sabrina (shows your age if that means anything, but there’s a photo if it doesn’t) sends her for a tv audition. Right time, right place and we’re off – almost instantly enthused by her northern ways the writers shed their old school radio skins. She (now Sophie Straw) seemingly doesn’t have to worry about getting an Equity card; or it’s taken for granted, even though it was a big thing in those days.
The older writers, Tony and Bill, are an interesting pair, and their ultimate split – living on the creative (and gay) edge as opposed to a safe marriage – is the most compelling element of the plot. The cynic Bill’s take on an invitation to 10 Downing Street in Harold Wilson’s occupancy (one of the show’s characters works there)? – “How many Beatles records do you think he’d heard before he gave them MBEs?”. There’s a lot of interesting stuff about what happens in successful character-built shows and the confusions that can arise with public perception and off-screen lives of the actors – actress becomes pregnant, write it into the plot and so on. It made me think about the difficulties involved in keeping a tv show going when, really, all the potential angles have been covered and the story lines inherent in the establishing situation have run their course. (So I do feel The big bang theory‘s team’s pain; and, no … that haircut isn’t working).
The book ends in the present with BAFTA lifetime award ceremonies and a stage revival. Given the flatness of much of what has gone before, it is curiously moving.
Belatedly, December’s Scribal Gathering deserves more here than just Stephen Hobbs’ previously posted Poetry Top of the Pops. Tasmanian poet Erfan Daliri took us into a dreamtime web and out again into his life. With an incantatory delivery that brought to mind the didgeridoo played with the hands, lungs and mouth of a master, and a loving message that I paraphrase as being not far from John Lennon’s Walrus – “I am he as you are he as you are me /And we are all together” – but without the yellow matter custard and with a broadening of the gender parameters, he cast a spell. We were also treated to a marriage proposal, read from his smartphone – to a special someone who hadn’t been sent it yet – that riffed on pigeons being faithful to their mate; thinking of the randy bastards we regularly see in the garden at that time of year I somehow doubted this, but subsequent googling proved that it was indeed another instance of me of little faith. Here’s a link to Erfan’s website.
Featured singer was Sian Magill, whose original approach to writing and a delivery that integrated her extraordinary voice (yes another one!) and guitar playing into a bit more than singing with guitar accompaniment. Here’s a video of the actual performance of her song Dressmaker. Another song caused me to make the note “the missing link between Gilbert & Sullivan and Joni Mitchell, but that was probably the beer. Pat Nicholson and Monty performed under the band name G.O.D. – growing old disgracefully.
I’ve mentioned Dan Plews’s AORTAS Open Mic sessions at the Old George in Stony in passing a couple of times here at Lillabullero, but I’ve had some really good Sunday nights there this year – good company, good music – so here’s a fuller appreciation. That’s me centre left, in thrall to something Naomi is saying in the photo-collage Dan makes of each evening. So, without further ado, consider them mentioned in despatches:
- our musical host, Dan Plews, is an accomplished singer, songwriter and guitarist in his own right, fluent and well-seasoned (that herbs and spices, not necessarily maturity). Here be links to just a couple of his fine compositions, Apples and Pears, and the outstanding Books and hearts/Hearts and books. Earworms have lurked in those waters. And he can get away with a more than respectable take on Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning.
- Earworms aplenty in the songs of Naomi Rose too, a real original voice both in the writing and timbre. She always performs her sad songs with great charm and a smile never far away. Here, give them a listen for yourself on her Soundcloud postings. Fire in the garden is a great Milton Keynes song. Yes, I did say that; and it’s not the only one (cue Vodka Boy’s Drunk poet blues, but that’s another story).
- I’d give you a link to some of Nicky and Mark’s Last Quarter songs too, but it seems another Last Quarter has usurped them on Soundcloud, so here’s an untypical photo instead. Mark’s been good on his own too this year.
- Can’t not mention Chris Wesson and in particular his song, Guiding star. Just don’t ask him who wrote it (he did). Now an established singalong favourite. Needs to be on out there somewhere on the interweb.
- Ernest Herb, mesmeric keyboardist of this parish, has lately also been channeling the blues to great effect (and looking a bit like a Poacher-era Ronnie Lane).
- and here’s to the poetry of Steve Hobbs and Pat ‘the Hat’ Nicholson in various hats and guises. And his dog. And The Plucky Haggis. And all the (well most of ’em) others.
- Not forgetting the pub and its well-kept selection of real ales. Cheers.
Happy New Year