Sunday, June 30, 2013

The best bit of parenthood

For the benefit of any parents currently enduring "the sleep-over years"  - when your kids have a high time staying over with their mates and are delivered back to you, grey-faced with fatigue and wired on computer games, ready to unload their newly foul mood on you - or the "under the duvet years" - when the only clue to their presence in your house is a trail of cereal bowls leading to an old Postman Pat quilt covering a snoring hulk who is unlikely to rise until the early evening - I feel I should hold out the promise of a better day.

In my thirty-year experience of parenthood the best bit of parenthood comes when they're young adults and they start bringing home boyfriends or girlfriends. These people are very often just like your own sons or daughters with one important difference - they're required by their upbringing and the peculiar etiquette of their situation to go out of their way to be nice to you. After years of having your every utterance greeted with a heavenwards look and a heavy sigh, or ignored altogether, this comes as a pleasant surprise. The sunniness of the guests has a lightening effect on the mood of the household. At the same time your own child, suddenly finding themselves in the unfamiliar position of host, has to raise their game to make sure it all goes as swimmingly as possible. This day, when it arrives, is one of the few moments in the child-rearing process when you feel like you might be getting your reward in this world rather than the next.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Metroland is the best listen in the history of television

Good news. Metroland, John Betjeman's 1973 film about the creation of London's north-western suburbs in the early part of the 20th century, is on the iPlayer.

When it first appeared Clive James predicted it would be repeated until the millennium. Miles Kington wrote to the producer and said it was "the most satisfying TV programme, on all levels, that I've ever seen". (These are both from its very good Wikipedia page.)

I watched it again last night and I think Miles Kington was right. It's remarkable what it gets from a combination of archive footage of the railways, commercial artists' illustrations of the suburban dream, old estate agents' adverts and shots of Betjeman wandering about, looking at contemporary suburbia and, very occasionally, addressing the camera.

In the end it's his script, intoned in a style unsuccessfully imitated scores of times since, which makes Metroland the best listen in the history of TV. That's what you get with a poet. Betjeman says "Hertfordshire" without the T. Instead of "golf" he says "gowf". As the camera looks up at the grandeur of the Victorian villas of St John's Wood his voice, down below, points out they were often used to house the mistresses of city men and wonders "what Puritan arms have stretched within these rooms to touch what tender breasts?" Another house belonged to a prominent clergyman "whose congregation declared him to be Christ, a compliment he accepted".

I'm going to listen to it again.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

I cannot tell a lie - but I've got lots of stories that aren't strictly true

Inspired by the late True Stories Told Live, advertising man Mark Waites has started a project called Supposed Histories in which people are encouraged to tell stories about themselves that aren't true. They do it on video here.

He asked me if I could do one. I don't think I could. I could never do those story-writing projects at school where you were encouraged to "let your imagination run wild". This results in the sort of writing that starts with an elaborate set-up, wanders a bit and then lurches to an end with "and then I woke up".

One of the advantages of True Stories being true is that people have taken them to heart and can tell them clearly and directly. They may well have been finessed or condensed in order to make them work better as stories but they are essentially true and what matters even more is the person telling them believes they are true. According to Garry Wills's Ronald Reagan biography the great communicator had spent so much of the war making propaganda films that he had come to believe that he had taken part in some of the events they depicted.

One of our True Stories turns, a journalist, said "if they're stories they're not true and if they're true they're not stories". I knew what he was getting at but I disagree. Just because something isn't strictly true doesn't make it a lie.

In fact if I was asked to tell a story that wasn't true I would be trying so hard to avoid anything that had ever formed part of my experience that I would end up with a hollow fantasy and it would probably end with "and then I woke up".

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Is factual TV made for people who don't know any facts?

Channel 4 ran a programme recently called "Spying On Hitler's Army". I watched it because it was about the bugging of high-ranking German prisoners of war at Trent Park, Cockfosters, in an old stately home where I spent four happy years at college at the end of the sixties.

I turned off the programme before it was finished, frustrated by the things that increasingly irritate me about factual TV - the way it's presented like fiction, the artistically blurry reconstructions, the way the producer has to lay out all his cards in the first few minutes, the way it reminds you of the plot after each ad break as if even your short-term memory couldn't possibly have survived a few minutes of commercials, and, most of all, the implicit assumption that the viewer's knowledge of the subject of World War II couldn't extend much further than watching "Saving Private Ryan" and having done a project about Anne Frank at school.

In the weeks since turning it off I've read a few pieces which indicate I'm not alone in no longer expecting factual TV to tell me very much. There's Brian Sewell, who's even older and crustier than me, daring to suggest that even the sainted Michael Palin's travelogues no longer pack much in the way of content. (I watched some of the latter's "Brazil" while our son was living there, hoping to get some picture of what normal life looked like and felt like for people who weren't footballers, carnival queens, picturesque German exiles or favela dwellers. I didn't get one. In "Scoop" Evelyn Waugh describes news as "what a chap who doesn't care about anything wants to read." Factual TV doesn't even require the chap to read.)

Then Tom Archer, a former senior BBC programming executive, made a speech in which he pointed out that all the power in television now is in the hands of the commissioners, who understand audiences, rather than the people who make programmes, who understand the subject.

And in case you think this is the predictable sourness of old men whose time has passed, I also read an excellent column in which Howard Jacobson, in the course of making the fair point that grumpy old men are right at least as often as any other segment of the population, posed the following question:
Why is dissatisfaction taken to be a mark of failing powers and patience, when it might just as easily be understood as a proper judgment on a foolish world?

Friday, June 21, 2013

In long-form TV there aren't any bad actors

Actually, there aren't many bad actors anywhere, in spite of what we all say when we think we're being clever. There are plenty of things which make actors look bad, which is a different thing.

The Sopranos provided James Gandolfini with the opportunity to look great. It's an opportunity that wasn't open to actors of earlier generations, no matter how talented they might have been. Long form TV takes actors who are vaguely familiar rather than recognisably famous, provides them with characters whose back story probably isn't even known to the writers at the time the show starts and then allows them the time and space to create - and for once create is the right word.

I can't think of any film performance of the last ten years which lives on in the back of our heads the way Gandolfini's turn as Tony Soprano does. That could be because most films are dumber than The Sopranos. It's also because films don't unfold the way The Sopranos did. We can close our eyes and see Tony. We can't remember a particular line. There's no "do I feel lucky?" We just see him mooching about, looking, hesitating, rubbing his nose, smiling, covering up his feelings, being a person, behaving

James Gandolfini was obviously very good. But long form TV gave him the hours, days and even weeks of screen time it took to be great. His life was cut short and that's something we should leave to his family and friends. In purely professional terms very few people get the chance in life to do one thing which is both big and clever. In that sense he was lucky.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The greatest picture ever painted of the greatest record ever made

This giant painting of Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell" is the work of Morgan Howell. Morgan paints 45s. Actually, he does a bit more than that. He paints them on canvases tweaked and treated to reproduce all the creases, dedications, cigarette burns and abstruse love marks a black vinyl seven-inch picks up in the course of the kind of full life much-loved records tended to live. He sculpts them to look as three-dimensional as the original one, which might have been picked up for pocket money decades before and is now beyond price.

The original paintings are immense and sit on the office walls of moguls or above the fireplaces of successful entertainers. He's just finished Blondie's "Heart Of Glass" for Chrysalis Records founder Chris Wright. Al Murray has a reproduction of the original Charisma single of "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)" by Genesis on his wall. A couple of Morgan's paintings of classic singles have gone for sums in the region of twenty thousand pounds at charity auctions. His operation is called Super Size Art and in August he's exhibiting his work at Snap Galleries in Piccadilly.

It's a labour of love which he'd like to make a living from. "When you take a single and make it huge you do justice to its significance," he says. He never does any record twice. His next big task in this labour of love is "She Loves You", which he intends to begin on the 50th anniversary of its release.

I don't know "You Never Can Tell" as other men know it. I'm the only person in the world who hasn't seen the scene in Pulp Fiction in which it features. I don't want to either. Films colonise your imagination and ever since I was 14 my head has been so content with the pictures the record evokes that I don't want anything to get in the way of the coolerator filled with TV dinners and ginger ale or the souped-up Jitney, the cherry red 53. And what space there is left is taken up by that red and yellow Pye International R&B series label, surely the most beautiful of record labels. We forget this. Before pop was on TV the label was the visual focus of the pop experience. There was just that perfect circle revolving its way into your heart. That's why nobody cares about labels anymore. Because records don't have them anymore.

You really love the records you really love because they appeal to your prejudices. I love "You Never Can Tell" because it doesn't fit into any of the established orthodoxies of pop. Chuck Berry wrote plenty of great songs. This was his greatest record. A record captures what happens on a particular day when a set of musicians gather round a certain song. If they'd reconvened the following day it wouldn't have been the same. Records are accidents which take place in air. "You Never Can Tell" is a sublime example.

It doesn't belong to a movement. It was separated from Berry's golden period by a jail term. It doesn't anticipate anything that came next. It's probably not even his in the way the writing credit claims. Although nobody else could have come up with the lyric, which is so well-chiselled it sings itself, the pianist Johnnie Johnson, whose band Berry had hijacked back in St Louis, probably came up with the tune. Certainly it's Johnson's honky-tonk piano that makes this also Berry's poppiest record.

Finally it belongs in that select bunch of records celebrating young marriage, which is amazing when you consider it was the work of such a misanthrope. "C'est la vie, say the old folks. It goes to show you never can tell." And you never can. When I did a radio programme I would play it for anyone who was getting married. My daughter had it played at her wedding last year. A couple of seconds of that pealing guitar figure at the beginning and no matter how old you were, for the next two minutes and thirty seconds you were gone, solid gone.

Chuck Berry – You Never Can Tell

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

You only truly look up to your first idol

Paul McCartney's seventy-one today. I was looking at this clip of him playing a couple of numbers with Bruce Springsteen at the end of the latter's show in Hyde Park last year.

What I was really looking at was the grin all over Springsteen's face, a grin which clearly announces "Look! I know I'm an immense star in my own right but this is different because I'm singing with a Beatle!"

If you're under fifty all rock stars who made their name before you were born probably merge into the same pantheon. If you're from Springsteen's generation, who sat as teenagers and gawped at the The Beatles on Sunday Night At The London Palladium or The Ed Sullivan Show, then whatever stardom you happen to achieve in your life will always be nothing more than a base camp compared to the Everest that is Beatles fame.

This doesn't just apply to rock stars, who instinctively defer whenever a Beatle or a Stone heave into view. We all feel versions of the same thing. You can never be truly, knocked-sideways impressed by meeting people unless they were big stars when you were young. That's the point, when you were a child and they were just a few years ahead, at which you establish a way of looking at the world which never really changes.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The best day's work I ever did

"All families have a secret. The secret is that they're not like other families." Alan Bennett.

Yesterday I found the interview I did with my elderly Auntie Lily in 1989 and spent hours capturing it digitally. It's done now so I can email it to any relatives who are interested. I'll be relieved not to have the sole responsibility of hanging on to it. I half-feared I might have lost it. It's the best day's work I ever did.

Lily was the doyenne of the family. The oldest of six and the longest-lived, she was also the company secretary of her father's business and a pillar of the local chapel so there wasn't anything she didn't know. (She also worked as a nanny in Germany in the 30s. We got round to that in a later chat.) She went through all the generations and talked about stuff that in my experience families only ever talk about when somebody has died and it's time to open the tin trunk full of documents. I suspect even my parents didn't fully know some of the things she told me about them.

Afterwards she would proudly tell other members of the family, "David's been to record me". She knew I was recording her because she was getting on ("I don't want to be in my nineties - when you're in your nineties you're just under t' feet") and she wasn't remotely squeamish about it. She was delighted that anyone was bothered about her experience. In our more pretentious times we would say it validated her contribution.

When I tell people I did this they say they'd love to do the same but they don't dare broach the subject in case it seems in bad taste. Everything important in life is. My advice is get on with it. Ring up the most reliable witness in your family and set a date.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Reading a 19th century novel on a 21st century phone

When I first got a Kindle I used it a lot. I was on the tube every day and it was a convenient way to read on a crowded train.

Then I stopped using it except when I was travelling. Just wasn't inspired. At the same time I was discovering the joys of secondhand book shopping.

Now I've bought the Eucalyptus e-reading app. It uses a more readable font than the Kindle and the appealing way it turns pages has been described by Nicholson Baker as "voluptuous". None of the jerkiness of the Kindle.

You have to buy the app but then you get access to 20,000 copyright-free works for nothing. So it's Dickens, Austen, Trollope and so on but not Dan Brown. It downloads them to your phone in a second.

I'm finding shortcomings. Unlike the Kindle it doesn't sync across devices so that you can pick up on your iPad at the same place that you left off on your iPhone. Not all the books listed by the Gutenberg Project are actually available to UK users, thanks to the usual copyright jiggery-pokery.

Nevertheless it's a small joy to use and it's been a great help as I plough through Middlemarch while waiting for the bus. Worth a look.

P.S. I'd tried Middlemarch years ago and given up. Shamed by a Brazilian friend of my son who'd read it at the age of eighteen - in a foreign language - I took it up again recently and enjoyed it. Talented bloke, George.

Friday, June 14, 2013

I think I'm blogged out

I've been doing this since 2007, which means that sometimes when I'm writing in it I stop and think 'hang on - haven't I written this before?'

Prompted by Spielberg's admission in an interview that Lincoln was almost on HBO I was going to write something arguing that it would have been better that way. Then I realised I already had done.

With Father's Day coming up I felt moved to argue that people should stop patronising Dad, before I realised I already had done.

Then I was suddenly excited about the fact that we'll have been in our house twenty-five years this weekend, something that seemed worth marking. Of course I did that when we'd been here a mere twenty-one years.

I think I'm blogged out.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

There's nobody as star-struck as a star

Intrigued by The Bling Ring, a new film based on the case of the star-struck Californian kids who burgled the Hollywood homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and others, making away with designer clothes and jewellery.

Although the victims felt as invaded as any of us would, certainly according to their original grand jury testimony reproduced in the Daily Beast, that didn't stop some of them taking part in the film. Paris even let them film in her house. Attention's attention after all and the fact that these people chose to burgle your house rather than your neighbours must give you additional cachet in the members-only clubs of Hollywood.

You can see why the film was made - rich kids burgle the cool apartments of rich and famous kids - and you can also see how the people who made it will justify it to Jonathan Ross's sofa - exposé of the hollowness of celebrity culture etc.

It stars Emma Watson, the face of Lancome, and is directed by Sofia Coppola, formerly the face of Marc Jacobs. Young movie people are so beholden to the luxury brands who subsidise them that any moralising about "celebrity culture" ought to embarrass them. The opportunity to pretend to be the people who dream of being them is the ultimate confirmation of their own place at the top of the mountain.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

First rule of being interviewed: ignore the question

Rhys Ifans gives the interview from hell to Janice Turner in The Times in the same week the nation's football hacks form a guard of honour to welcome Jose Mourinho back to English football. Compare and contrast.

The former complains about the questions before tortuously trying to turn them to his advantage in a way that makes him look like a pillock. The latter cheerfully ignores the questions and just takes the opportunity to ventilate some riff that he's had in his head for a while.

Like him or not Mourinho understands the first rule of being interviewed. All the interviewer wants you to do is SAY SOMETHING NOTABLE.

Etiquette demands the interviewer starts with a question, as if this were about a job or a crime. It's not. It's a process which is supposed to result in quotes. If the "subject" doesn't volunteer anything then the writer has to write about how difficult they are.

And of course all the really agonising interviews happen because their subjects have paid PRs to arrange those interviews. It's not as if The Times are sitting there thinking "if only we could get Rhys Ifans".

One of these days an interviewer will have the nerve to turn up for one of these encounters, get out their recorder, say "now, how can I help you?" and then sit back.