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Monday, September 24, 2018

By looking at what happened in the Clinton years "Slow Burn" explains what's happening now

The Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton scandal was just over twenty years ago. Listening to Slow Burn, the podcast devoted to recounting it, I realise how many of the details I either never knew or have since forgotten.

The same could be said of the previous series of Slow Burn, which was about Watergate. What's most striking about the Clinton one, apart from his breathtaking recklessness, is that the Democrats were every bit as quick to close ranks around him as the Republicans are to get behind Trump today.

In both cases there's a lot of moralising in public while the decisions are made purely on the basis of legislative arithmetic. It's not a matter of what's right. It's a matter of what they get away with. It's a salutary illustration of the truth of Lyndon Johnson's dictum that the thing that matters most in politics is the ability to count.

Friday, September 21, 2018

If you're not nervous, you're not trying

Our guests at Word In Your Ear this week, Mark King and Mark Kermode, have the same initials and play the same instrument. You can hear both conversations here.

Kermode was talking about his adventures in a succession of semi-pro bands, which are recorded in his new book "How Does It Feel?". King was talking about his time at the top of the tree with Level 42 in the 1980s.

Both had interesting things to say about nerves and stage fright. Kermode realised after he was on the receiving end of a particularly savage audience reaction when trying to work as an alternative comedian that anything that didn't kill him made him stronger. King realised, when he was about to take part in a star-studded Prince's Trust show in the mid-80s, as he looked around and saw the ashen faces of Elton John and Eric Clapton, that nerves are something that never goes away.

My kids always say "it's all right for you - you've stood up in front of people lots of times". And I have. It doesn't mean I don't get nervous, just like the other three show-offs in the picture above.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Everybody should read Craig Brown's book about Princess Margaret

Ma'am Darling, Craig Brown's book about Princess Margaret, is a simple idea, brilliantly done.

Everybody who ever met Princess Margaret remembered the experience, in the same way they might remember bee stings and other unpleasant experiences. Furthermore they all mentioned it in their memoirs. Therefore you can put together an interesting biography from all these encounters.

For instance?

Cherie Blair, trapped with PM at some do, reaches for Chris Smith, Culture Secretary and first openly gay government minister. "Have you met the Culture Secretary, Ma'am? And this is his partner."

PM: "Partner for what?"

CB: "Sex, I suppose, Ma'am."

You'd be hard-pressed to find a book more choc-ful of awkward silences, deliberate misunderstandings and "get your coat" moments than this one.

I also like the fact that it's a reminder of how there's nobody more star-struck than the stars.

Alan Bennett goes to visit Russell Harty on his death bed. The nurse has to laboriously remove all the tubes and breathing apparatus that are keeping him alive so he can tell his friend something. When she does Russell gathers all his strength and says "Ned Sherrin had lunch with Princess Margaret the other day and she asked about me. Twice."

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.