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Monday, July 16, 2018

Honestly, where would I be without Wikipedia?

I can't say I'd taken much notice of Alvin Stardust before yesterday, when I read that his son, the Headmaster of Reigate Grammar School, was the new chair of the Headmasters' Conference. When I did take notice I was glad his Wikipedia page was there to provide the level of detail that even the nosiest newspapers don't get involved in. Here's what I learned and what I already knew.

Real name: Bernard Jewry. Knew that. Born in Muswell Hill. Didn't know that. Mother a theatrical landlady which meant he was on stage as an infant. Didn't know that. First tasted fame in the sixties as pop singer Shane Fenton. Knew that. He took on that name and persona when the original Fenton died. Now I didn't know that. By then he had married Iris Caldwell, the sister of Rory Storm and former girlfriend of both Paul McCartney and George Harrison. I knew about Rory Storm but not the rest. They had a child who they (bizarrely, to my mind) christened Shaun Fenton. He's the guy who's now the senior head master. There is another son who was called Adam Fenton who grew up to produce dance records under the name Adam F. Knew that. In the early seventies Jewry became Alvin Stardust. Obviously knew that. Stardust was the invention of one Peter Shelley. Knew that. Shelley appeared as Stardust promoting his first hit and then handed off the job to Jewry (didn't know that), who became Stardust for the rest of what Wikipedia calls "a chart span lasting twenty-five years". In 1981 he married the actress Liza Goddard (knew) under his original name Bernard Jewry (didn't know). He was married to his third wife when he died in 2014.

There's nothing there that's particularly outlandish, nothing that would excite a headline writer, nothing that would justify me devoting the time to read a book about him, but I found it all fascinating and I was glad Wikipedia was there to provide those facts in its flat, dispassionate style.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

In praise of Schitt's Creek and Daniel Levy's millennial face

I've only just discovered Schitt's Creek, the Canadian comedy devised by Eugene Levy and his son Daniel and I love it.

The Schitts, a super-rich family, lose everything overnight and are forced to take refuge in Schitt's Creek, an unremarkable town in Trump country which they had bought in their previous life for a laugh. They live in the local motel and take whatever work they can find.

Dad sets up his office in a local garage, son David tries to apply his background in high-end fashion to the town's only ladies outlet, the Blouse Barn, daughter Alexis, whose usual boyfriends are Middle Eastern potentates or movie stars, sets her sights on the local vet and Catherine O'Hara as the mother Moira, a superannuated soap star, teeters round the town in vertiginous heels and a series of black and white outfits that must have been modelled on some of the more extreme items from the wardrobe of Diane Keaton.

The most striking characterisation is Daniel Levy's portrayal of David (above) as a sly, sexually flexible young man who has absorbed many of his mother's preposterous airs while also retaining some of his father's enterprising spirit. When the plot presents him with a dilemma, which is just about every week, you see a succession of expressions flit across his face from condescension through suspicion to an amused sense of possibility. I call it Millennial Face.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

What was Gareth Bale thinking of?

Obviously top athletes have bodies that don't work the way ours do. But what interests me is how their brains must be wired differently too. The Gareth Bale goal against Liverpool on Saturday has had me puzzling ever since. He'd just come on the pitch and as far as I could see had only touched the ball once, to ship it from the middle out to the left, before jogging to the edge of the box, more in hope than expectation. When Marcelo's ball came in it looked as though the deflection it had taken off the defender's boot meant  it was going to land too far behind him for him to be able to do anything with it. So, a microsecond after it had begun spinning, he launched himself in the air with his back to goal thinking....what?

I know exactly how I can connect with this and put it in the top corner?

I may as well do something?

It's worth a go?

Nothing at all. He was just doing what his body told him to.

We've no way of knowing. The only thing we do know is that, unlike the rest of us, he couldn't have been thinking of the consequences of what would have happened if it had turned out the way most bicycle kicks turn out – with the ball in row Z and Ronaldo looking at him with disgust as they all trooped back to the halfway line.

It's here for those who have been living in a cave.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Philip Roth's invaluable advice to writers

I like the story about the young novelist, still waiting tables, who approached Philip Roth, proffering a copy of his newly-published first book.

It was called "Balls". Roth admired the title. Said he couldn't believe he hadn't used it himself. Then he advised his fan to "quit while you're ahead". He explained that writing was torture, that you had to throw most of it away because it wasn't any good and the young man really should stop now before he did lasting damage to himself.

When this story made the rounds some said that a successful old man like Roth had no right to be putting off anyone young and up and coming.

I don't agree. Roth said what he thought. That most novelists, like most musicians, are never going to achieve anything like the acclaim they feel they're entitled to and they really might be better off doing something they can succeed in.

And the more important point is that if the fire to write novels really burns inside you, rather than just the desire to become a successful novelist, then nothing Philip Roth says is going to make any difference.

As Laurence Olivier used to say, if you want to be an actor, you are an actor. If you're not an actor you didn't want it badly enough.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

It must have been a posh girl who drew Van Morrison to Cyprus Avenue.

Last night I was in Belfast talking about Uncommon People in a pub called The Dark Horse at the Cathedral Quarter Festival.

After we'd finished local music boffin Stuart Baile took me on a quick tour of Van Morrison's Belfast. We went past the modest terraced house on Hyndford Street where he grew up, through the Hollow, the small park round the back of the house named in "Brown Eyed Girl", and up to Cyprus Avenue (above), a broad thoroughfare with beautiful old stone houses either side.

Cyprus Avenue is clearly a cut above. There's probably a Cyprus Avenue near where you live, the faintest dropping of the name of which would send clear messages to the people you grew up with.

Stuart and I were picturing Morrison as a young teenager taking the long way back from school to have an excuse to dawdle down Cyprus Avenue. Maybe it was in the hope of seeing some posh girl living in one of the grand houses.

Always seems to me one of the most powerful things that drove people to want to be rock stars: the desire to impress posh girls.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

The Wanstead Tap is almost enough to tempt me to move East

I had fun last night talking about "Uncommon People" at the Wanstead Tap. In fact it was the world premiere of my magic lantern show, which I was pleased about.

The Wanstead Tap, I discovered, is not in Wanstead but in Forest Gate. It's not a pub so much as a beer shop/performance space/cafe/bar.

It was started three years ago by local TV producer Dan Clapton when he took over a building in a railway arch at the bottom of a cul-de-sac, equipped it as a bar and started putting on spoken word events. Its full story is here.

They only open three evenings a week, usually when they have entertainment. Turns coming up after me include Viv Albertine and Michael Rosen. They do a lot with the local book shop so authors can sign and sell.

It's fully seated, everyone can see and hear and it's got A/V facilities. All the locals I talked to said the same thing. They're very lucky to have this nearby.

They are.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Going back to my old school after fifty years

I left school after my A-levels in the summer of 1968. I hadn't been back since. When, in recent years, I'd been up in Yorkshire visiting family I'd driven past the place and toyed with the idea of just asking if I could have a look around. I never got round to it.

Then somebody from the school got in touch with me after I'd appeared on a recent BBC show about Whistle Test. I told her I was visiting the area on book promotion duty and I would like to drop in. She arranged it all. It was a fascinating experience.

When I went there it was a classic northern grammar school of a certain vintage. The stern central building was designed to look older than it was. They began adding modern buildings in the 50s and 60s. The boys who showed me round assumed that the one that housed the school hall had been there for ever. Actually, the foundation stone was lain in 1958. I know because I was present, in short trousers, at the ceremony.

Lots of it had changed, obviously. What used to be the library was now a reception area. The headmaster's office was in the room where I did English. The rooms that used to accommodate an entire class were now used for small tutorial groups.

People asked me if it seemed smaller than I remembered it. No, it didn't. Did it smell the same? No, it didn't.

The boys in the music room were learning to play "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses. I can only hope they are as rigorous in punctuating that correctly as we were encouraged to be by Mrs Ellis back in 1962.

I told the headmaster that the thing I most often thanked my education for was what Mrs Ellis used to call "clause analysis". This involved taking apart sentences and identifying the different parts of speech. The headmaster, who is of course way younger than me, told me this was coming back into fashion after thirty years in the cold. "There's nothing new in education."

Every now and then on my tour I turned a corner and found myself whisked backwards. Different things triggered it. The corner of the playground where I once put my hand in my pocket and discovered half a crown I didn't know I had. The feeling of an 19th century bannister worn smooth by the hands of decades of boys. A leaded window though which you could look out at the same sky. The steps up to the Lecture Hall where I first recited Wilfred Owen's "Strange Meeting", a poem I still know by heart. The parquet floor of the school hall (above) where I played Troilus in "Troilus And Cressida".

I'm glad I did it.