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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

One of the best books I've ever read

I've been reading The Warmth Of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.

It's the story of the Great Migration of black Americans from the South to the North and West told through the lives of three people.

There's Ida Mae Gladney, the wife of a sharecropper who leaves Mississippi in the 1930s after a family member is almost beaten to death by a white man over the disappearance of a turkey, and begins a new life in Chicago.

There's George Swanson Starling who gets out of Florida one step ahead of a lynch mob, moves to New York and then spends his life working the trains that conveyed millions of people between the New world and the Old.

Finally there's Robert Pershing Foster, a doctor who marries into the coloured aristocracy of Georgia but has to head out to the West Coast to escape the shadow of his father in law.

It's not a standard account of a journey from darkness to light. In fact the journey was from a life that was unbearable but simple to a life that was tolerable but increasingly difficult to negotiate.

If, like me, you've grown up absorbing ideas about the Great Migration through references to it in music, reading this opens up a whole world you never guessed at.

Every night when I put it down I said to myself "this is one of the best books I've ever read".

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The genius of Summer Heights High

I was introduced to "Summer Heights High" a few years ago. We were marooned by storms in an old farmhouse in Brittany. A friend had all the episodes on his laptop. I loved it. So much, in fact, that I've watched it at least half a dozen times since. Now it's on the BBC iPlayer, so I've been watching it again.

It's the work of Chris Lilley, a sort of Australian Steve Coogan. At Summer Heights School he plays three characters: break-dancing bully Jonah Takalua, 16-year-old vamp Ja'mie King, who's arrived there on an exchange programme with a local private school, and Greg Gregson, the drama teacher who convinces himself the kids adore him and know him affectionately as Mr G.

"Summer Heights High" was first broadcast in 2007. Lilley's done variations on this format since but nothing is quite as perfect as the original. What I love about it, apart from the richness and cleverness of the characterisation, is that it depicts perfectly the way that a school becomes a substitute for a real world and also takes such pleasure in describing what monsters both children and teachers can be.

Couldn't happen here, of course.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

In praise of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel

I like The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, the Amazon series which stars Rachel Brosnahan as the young wife and mother who scandalises her impeccably bourgeois Jewish family by making a name for herself as a comic in late 1950s Greenwich Village.

A lot of its exuberance comes from its use of popular tunes from the era in which it's set.  These might be Broadway musical hits like "I Enjoy Being A Girl" from "The Flower Drum Song" and Anthony Newley's "It Isn't Enough" from "The Roar Of The Greasepaint - The Smell Of The Crowd", curiosities like "Vyoch Tyoch Tyoch" from the Barry Sisters,  who were a kind of yiddish Andrews Sisters, scene-setters like Charlie Parker's "Scrapple From The Apple" and pop hits Mrs Maisel can twist to apply to her personal circumstances, songs like Blossom Dearie's "The Gentleman Is A Dope" or Peggy Lee's "Pass Me By".

All these contribute to its infectious sense of optimism. What makes it even more interesting is that at the end of most episodes the music breaks character, comes out of the fifties and universalises its point by using songs like Dave Edmunds' "Girls Talk", David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel" and, most effectively, "Dear Madam Barnum" by XTC.

I loved it. But then, as my daughters frequently remind me, I am a bit of a girl.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Thank God for Lillian Boxfish

The last new novel I tried to read was Lincoln In The Bardo, the Booker Prize winner. They say it's a masterpiece. I couldn't tell you. I didn't get past page fifty. And I speak as someone who's interested in Lincoln and rarely gives up on books. God knows what everybody else made of it. Since then I've just been reading non-fiction.

I picked up Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk by Kathleen Rooney from the table near the door at Daunts in Marleybone High Street. It was the week before Christmas and I was looking for stocking-fillers for my wife. I read the blurb and thought it was worth a go.

My wife loved it. I loved it too. Lillian Boxfish is a woman in her eighties who refuses to leave New York. During the Jazz Age she became the highest-paid woman in advertising for composing the clever light verse on the newspaper and magazine advertisements for Macy's.

Even in her eighties she believes in walking everywhere. Solvitur Ambulando is one of her mottoes. "It is solved by walking." Which explains why on New Year's Eve 1984 she walks all the way from her place in Murray Hill to Delmonico's down in the Financial District and then on to a young people's party in the yet to be gentrified Meat Packing District.

On the way she encounters New Yorkers who all enquire what an old lady is doing out on the streets alone at night. In her mind she recapitulates her life and career. And that really is the sum total of what the book's about. Lillian Boxfish believes it's her duty to be bright and entertaining without taking up too much of people's time. The book's the same.

It doesn't play brain-scrambling games with the structure of The Novel so it's never going to win the Booker Prize. It is however readable. I got up early this morning to finish it. If being readable sounds like damning with faint praise I don't mean it to.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

There's only one thing you can ask of a ref and it's not being right

I'm not in favour of the video assistant referee (VAR) system being tested in British football at the moment. What drives me crazy about the arguments about football and technology are the football pundits (who are all in favour because they like the idea of anything that turns it into more of a TV show and less of a sport) saying something along the lines "they've used it in rugby and it works fine".

This fails to take into account the facts that:
1) rugby only consults the video replay on the many occasions when there's a break in the action;
2) an awful lot of time the evidence of the replay is inconclusive;
3) the coaches are up in the stands, not bellowing in the ear of the touchline official.

I can't believe those pundits who argue "if it can help us get a few more right decisions we should do it". This is a particularly daft argument for them to promote. If there's nothing to argue about there's even less reason for them to be handsomely rewarded for their services.

And what has being "right" got to do with sport? There's only one thing you can ask of referees and that's that they be fair. The more that you open up the process of decision-making to discussion the more you hasten the day – and I am confident this day will arrive –  that Jose Mourinho will have a QC on the Manchester United bench.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Two old gits push back against the tyranny of now

I've forgotten exactly how we got on to it but at some point during my conversation with Danny Baker at this week's Word In Your Ear he talked about the misconceptions about pop music lurking in the breasts of most of the people who make programmes about it. The recording's here.

A certain amount of this is only to expected – what with some of them not having been born when most of the events they're documenting were taking place – but it's made more misleading by a view of the past which can't help being condescending.

In this linear view of events each chapter of pop history has to be another staging post in a journey towards our present state of enlightenment.

In this view progressive music (boo!) must always be slain by punk rock (hooray!).

In this view nobody is permitted to have heard of reggae until the arrival of Bob Marley.

In this view all TV comedy in the seventies is an orgy of -isms which we blush to think about.

All the trousers must be either tight and narrow or extravagantly flared.

It's what somebody called the Tyranny of Now.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The podcast way to do history

I read about the Sharon Tate murders not long after they happened. I followed Watergate as it unfolded. I've clearly forgotten enough of what I picked up back then or missed enough of what memoirs have subsequently brought into the public domain to be fascinated by two recent podcasts devoted to them.

You Must Remember Manson is a spin-off from You Must Remember This, Karina Longworth's acclaimed series of looks at the seamy side of what she calls "Hollywood's first century". Recited by the author in a characteristic style, as if from the depths of a chaise longue situated beneath a slowly revolving fan, Longworth's Manson series devotes whole episodes to looking at people like Dennis Wilson and Terry Melcher who were more than incidental figures in the story. It's fascinating to hear the story told from a showbiz point of view.

Slow Burn is a newly-launched podcast about Watergate which sets out to tell the story in pieces, which is the way it first came to light. It starts with the amazing and sad story of Martha Mitchell, the loose-tongued wife of Nixon loyalist John Mitchell, and continues with the saga of Wright Patman, the Texan populist whose committee first set out to prove a link between the money found on the Watergate burglars and CREEP, the Committee To Re-Elect The President. Where there are parallels with what's going on at the moment with Trump and Robert Mueller, let's say they don't resist them.

This is obviously the way to do history via the podcast medium - not so much by drawing the threads together as by separating them, seeing where they lead back to and treating them as a collection of life stories.

It seems to work.