We have just bought a couple of new pictures by someone called Ron Lawson, a Scottish artist I am afraid I have never heard of before. He is very popular, I think: could be the new Jack Vettriano. Hated by critics, loved by the public.Whatever. The first one is called, Fidden, Mull and the second one is titled, Cottage at Malacleit, North Uist [which must have taken some finding, by the way, when we were on North Uist, we never saw any house anywhere on the Island that looked anything like this image]. I guess that’s the attraction, an artwork of somewhere you have been; somewhere you were uplifted by and you want that memory on your walls. For a while anyway.
Thursday, 18 May 2017
I was ill in April with a virus called CMV unfortunately and missed the fact that Robert M Pirsig had passed.
He of course wrote the cult bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Wasn’t a cult bestseller when I bought it; in fact I have met hardly anyone who has read it or even knows what it is about, certainly never met a woman who has read it. Forty-three BTL Comments in The Guardian Obituary section, compared to one-thousand four-hundred [so far] for Ian Brady; sounds about right.
He is supposed to have noted that in the English language, it only takes 26 letters to describe the whole universe. I only read that today but what a singular, insightful remark it is. He left school with an IQ of 170 apparently. He doesn’t seem to have done very much with it however; wrote papers, lectured, argued, got married, got divorced. His son, around whom the book is structured, died tragically young. An IQ of 170 isn’t going to help with that. Then he wrote ZAMM, his life’s achievement.
My Dad didn’t pass much on and he certainly wasn’t ‘Wan o’ they Intillectyuals’, as his Glasgow family would have said but as a teenager I vividly recall him telling me once that, ‘if a job was worth doing, it was worth doing well’. I had agreed to clear out the garage for some extra pocket-money but it was a hot day and hard work and . . . and I didn’t do a very good job; didn’t finish it in fact. I had not realised at the time but his words actually changed the way I saw the world.
So, ten years later when I came to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I had effectively been briefed on its central message: ‘if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well’. Try your best, aim for quality, every time.
I think it came along at the right time for me. Not that I had forgotten my father’s advice but God, was it hard to implement especially since I seemed to be the only one on the team trying to do things the right way. It works in Japan where everyone is on the same wavelength, you aren’t pushing water up-hill all the time but here in our greedy me-me-me society it is near-impossible to actively practice what you preach.
And of course that led in a very few years to doing my own thing: starting my own business where I could achieve the standards, the quality that I held to be important. It wasn’t easy it was hard, everyone ripping off my ideas but life was/is hard and I could cope with what was thrown at me because I wasn’t having to adapt constantly to someone else’s rules.
At Nissan, where you are expected to embrace the work ethic and I quote here from their website:
Diversity of backgrounds and perspectives, teamwork, motivating each other to do our best, and having a willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve our goals, are all hallmarks of what it’s like to work at Nissan.
It’s so much more simple. Everyone is on the same page. If personal growth, creativity and working alongside colleagues in a team are not your thing, then leave.
I’ve just gone downstairs and yes, of course I still have my original copy, and yes it’s a First Addition Corgi 1976. That was the year I met my wife. That was the year I travelled overland to Kathmandu in Nepal. That was the year I almost died of Typhoid Fever. Driven by Pirsig? I don’t think so but for sure, influenced deeply by ‘if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well’. I’ve frequently wondered if one thing led to another: I always went the extra mile it seems to me now. If we stopped at an Oasis, I would climb a nearby hill or range to see what could be seen while my companions would shelter under any available structure to get out from under the sun and the 120deg F temperatures. What a pain in the arse I must have been but I knew I would never pass this way again and wanted to taste everything, see everything, devour everything.
And as a result, I almost killed myself.
When I came back, I became interested in Zen philosophy and wisdom and read everything I could about its belief systems. Went to classes and groups; meditated. Again, one thing leads to another; it is only now that I see looking back that I wanted Kiri and her family to be Zen Buddhists. I didn’t make it up: for years I was pretty taken by the whole of dualistic religious thought and of Taoist philosophy and belief systems.
But not now. Life overtakes you.
Monday, 15 May 2017
This is the Shah Cheragh Mosque in Southern Iran; I went there once. I still have a photograph . . . two, I think . . . but they were taken on my Instamatic Kodak camera and are pasted into my photograph album and I have no idea whatsoever of how to scan them into here. The mosque is actually down a backstreet. In my images the side-streets outside are heaving with people, mainly but not entirely young men in jeans and t-shirts with lots of improvised market stalls, selling stuff. A lot of the things they are selling are cassette tapes of radical Islamic sermons, I think but am not certain, by Ayatollah Khomeini who at that time lived in exile in Paris. In these 2017 pictures not only are the streets empty, the interior is almost totally devoid of people.
I am honestly not sure what is going on here. Shah Cheragh Mosque is known in Shiraz as the mirror mosque because the interior surfaces are entirely covered in cut glass, such that although there are no windows or other external light sources, the dazzling interior glitters like a mirror. It’s beautiful in a way albeit a little overwhelming and when I was there in 1976, pretty scary. It is a Shi’ite shrine built and then rebuilt in the 14thC when Persia was a wealthy, culturally dominant Asian country. You take your shoes off at the entrance, as one does at any mosque then you are supposed to kiss the solid gold entrance doors, then you enter and if you are a woman, you must cover your hair of course. I think I was the only European there that day and was very clearly not welcome judging by the glares and body-checking I was subject to from the clerics within. You then walked around and around generally anti-clockwise most people trying, I think, to get closer and closer to the shrine in the centre where the remains of the martyrs are supposed to lie. Why is it empty now? Less zeal amongst the faithful? There was certainly plenty of zeal around when I was there; is it that the fact that the reality of rule-by-zeal has turned the Iranian people into anti-Islamic? The fact that nowadays it is open to sightseers must be tied up in why it has evolved from sacred tomb to tourist stop-off.
Don’t know the answer. Progress does everything but straight lines . . . one hopes that the Iranians can persist in pointing in that general direction. It was certainly one of the most remarkable occurrences culturally, that I have ever experienced and at an extraordinary moment, just before the overthrow of the Shah.
I seem to be in a very Iranian tessellation just now. The notes about my own experiences in Shiraz were prompted by a travel article I had recently read on the theme of out of the way must-see places to visit. I was actually astonished to see Shah Cheragh Mosque on that list since my own encounter had been so frightening and the fact that Iran appears to be such a hostile country these days.
As it happens I am reading a book at the moment called The Revolutionary Ride [By Lois Pryce] which is about a woman, Lois who makes an overland journey across Turkey into Iran by motorbike and rides from Tabriz in the North West across to Tehran then down to Shiraz. I made the same journey myself not by motorbike however, and I didn’t visit Tehran. The book is currently number one in Travel/Adventure and No2 in Non-fiction on Amazon with a red sticker on the cover indicating Best-seller. I haven’t got to Shiraz yet so I don’t know if she goes to the Mosque but she finds most Iranians friendly and enlightened. Will report in due course.
Then there is A Girl Walks Home at Night Alone which we recently watched on DVD at home, an Iranian vampire film with only one act, shot in B&W. Will report in due course.
Tuesday, 9 May 2017
No, not this police procedural melodrama with its plot-holes, reversals and plot twists but Nordic drama The Legacy, now in Season 3. I love it. Filmed entirely on location, in the sun, wind and rain on a fixed set within the rooms of a large, old and unmodernised house; no soundstage anywhere in sight and with a fixed and established cast of real, complex characters it follows the lives of six young-ish to middle-aged people loosely related, in contemporary Denmark.
The house they all live in was owned by the mother, a world-renowned artist who dies apparently leaving an unsigned Will and as a result, the property and the surrounding rich farmland is inherited unintentionally, by the wrong person. It’s hard to explain why it’s so great. Very well acted: it wins loads of TV Awards every year for almost everyone associated with it; beautifully written and terrific dialogue; thoughtful plot-lines: at the moment it’s all about the problems of trying to farm organically but that will evolve. It’s not afraid of being non-PC . . . which I find very attractive. In the previous series for example there was a lengthy section about Thailand and it was absolutely not afraid to say that the cops were open to corruption and could be bribed. No poncy pissing about.
The Guardian thinks it is soap-opera and other critics consider it visceral; I disagree with both judgements. It is about feelings I suppose but it is so, so intelligent: it comes at things in an original, thoughtful and frequently unexpected way. Who would have anticipated that the wastrel Emil would be the one who became surrogate father to little Melody? But that is what they have written.
I mean, what do you want from radio or television? As I have said on several previous occasions, I don’t actually watch much TV Drama. Some music programming; a lot of Arts shows; occasional documentaries, the one earlier this year about the lack of hospital beds rang a lot of resounding bells for me; the odd film that I may have missed in the cinema. Never watched Broadchurch; pretty much hated Happy Valley; still loyal to Homeland; gave up eventually on Good Wife.
I think what I want is exactly this: real, complex characters trying to hold on to what matters and save whatever they can from the wreckage of their relationships. Like Kiri and her family, really.
Even in these ignorant Brexit anti-Semitic times the BBC continues to deliver quality. So much good stuff, from In Our Time to Late Junction. Anyone hear Ramon Goose and Modou Toure on Lopa Kathari last week? I have found a nice piece of Intelligent Radio on BBC6 Music called Paperback Writers; today it was Emma Freud who wrote a novel called Hideous Kinky, which I haven’t read, just talking intelligently about her writing and her life and music [fourteen tracks] that have some meaning for her. No interview, it isn’t another version of Desert Island Discs, isn’t Human Interest, just her talking. Are novelists any more intelligent or introspective than say, round-the-world-yachtsmen or Coronation Street actresses? I don’t know this woman at all, other than that she is the daughter of Lucien, granddaughter of Sigmund, I just wanted to make mention of the fact that someone at the BBC is commissioning intelligent programming. For what it’s worth, these are the tracks she chose: David Bowie/Changes: Bob Dylan/It Ain’t Me Babe: Lotte Lenya/Surabaya Johnny: The Clash/Police and Thieves: The Pretenders/Cash in Pocket: Nina Simone/Love Me or Leave Me: Otis Redding/Try a Little Tenderness: K D Lang/Outside Myself: Elvis Presley/Blue Suede Shoes: Ella Fitzgerald/Always True to you: Carole King/You’ve Got a Friend: Duffy/Warwick Avenue and finally, Jeff Buckley/Hallelujah.
Tomorrow it’s someone called Jake Arnott.
I am not saying it is a must-listen thing; it is someone reasonably bright, reasonably articulate talking and contextualising for an hour. The means appear minimal yet the results are quietly wonderful. That’s all.
Sunday, 7 May 2017
Wednesday, 3 May 2017
WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE [By Raymond Carver]. This is one of those books and one of those American writers like Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald that I never read at the time. Not old enough; not interested or more likely, not mature enough to appreciate them. So as a consequence American culture, American mores and in particular a wide range of post-war American social and economic policies with the prime purpose I suspect of reinforcing the belief that individuals are responsible for their own destiny have rather passed me by. And I am not now interested in catching-up.
It’s a series of  short stories. Can’t remember the last collection of short stories I read; was it Olive Kitteridge [Elizabeth Strout]? . . . [which I adored], so I am not against fiction in this format. All the reviewers refer to his pared-down writing style as if it is to be admired. One reviewer refers to the similarities between Carver and the singer/actor and songwriter, Tom Waites.
Not a Tom Waites fan. They seem to have booze in common.
So anyway, this is a novel comprising of bleak vignettes about men mostly blue collar, mostly drunks, mostly in broken or almost broken marriages in the American Mid-west in the sixties. It is an attempt I think to blend the particular and the universal, moving away from a straight narrative retelling in search of a larger truth. As I said it is very lean, which I do quite like although this is too big a dose for me: I think writing a short story well is pretty difficult but generally he is an artist of show, not tell as in this little exchange:
Mel and Terri are married both on second [could be twelfth] marriages. The old couple are a couple in their seventies who have miraculously survived a head-on collision.
‘’What about the old couple? Laura said. ‘You didn’t finish that story you started’.
Laura was having a hard time lighting her cigarette. Her matches kept going out.
‘Yes, what about the old couple?’ I said.
‘Older but wiser’, Terri said.
Mel stared at her.
Terri said, ’Go on with your story, hon. I was only kidding. Then what happened?’
‘Terri, sometimes,’ Mel said.
’Please, Mel,’ Terri said. ‘Don’t always be so serious, sweetie. Can’t you take a joke?’
‘Where’s the joke? Mel said.
He held his glass and gazed steadily at his wife.
‘What happened?’ Laura said.
I am writing a kind of biography at the moment [it is more Elizabeth Strout or Knausgaard than Carver] and have set it up as a sequence of scenes, short stories I suppose about people and events that I remember from my life; the piece about Rick Taylor a few weeks ago [Its all over now Baby Blue] is from that manuscript. I’m not trying to break the literary mould: the piece would be meaningless if I didn’t explain at the end that the kid was in terror of Taylor. If I had left the reader to fill in the gaps, as I suspect Carver would have done, one might have filled the gap with something else entirely.
LIFE [By Keith Richards]. In 1964 I was living in Easterhouse in Glasgow, commuting into the city where I had a job, my first job, at Boyds in Buchanan Street. I loved the Stones; their music, their attitude as represented by the long hair and their total lack of respect for the previous order and the way things must be . . . were expected to be.
Somehow, I heard they were playing the Barrowlands Ballroom where I had been on a couple of previous occasions to the Saturday night dance, where you might get lucky with a girl. Like Easterhouse however, Barrowlands was a famously tough venue for both performer and punter. The Stones couldn’t have been looking forward to the gig much given that their normal stamping grounds were the green pastures of Richmond, Surrey at that time.
I still say to this day that this gig was the greatest single gig/concert I have ever been to: there are no words. They were incredible. I had seen The Animals a couple of times and they were the benchmark, no-one came close to Eric and we had several very good Blues-rock bands: Lulu and the Lovers for example, Miss Lawrie and her amazing blues-shouter voice and delivery but the Stones? They did it the way it was supposed to be done, with one of the best rhythm sections on the planet, not that we knew that then; the astonishingly accomplished Keith who could play the Malaguena at age seven then studied the Chicago Blues masters from the age of fifteen or so. In depth and I mean from the ground up. And of course the magnetic, charismatic Mick with his mastery of the black man’s diction and the idiomatic phrasing but not a copy, entirely his own.
Can’t possibly remember what they played. Route 66 was probably in there and I think Round and Round was in their set. I do remember that I Wanna be your Man was one of the highlights; it hadn’t yet been released but was due out very soon but you could have been in Detroit or Chicago, so perfectly had they recreated that authentic American sound.
Keith describes this actual gig in Life:
We got bigger and bigger and more and more crazy until basically all we thought about was how to get into a gig and how to get out. For eighteen months, I’d say, we never finished a show. The only question was how it would end, with a riot, with the cops breaking it up, with too many medical cases and how the hell to get out of there. Nothing like three thousand chicks throwing themselves at you. Or being carried out on stretchers. All the bouffants awry, skirts up to their waists, sweating, red, eyes rolling.
The limp and fainted bodies going by us after the first ten minutes of playing, that happened every night. Or sometimes they would stack them up on the side of the stage because there were so many of them.
Myself, I had literally never seen anything like it; maybe I had been attending the wrong gigs but certainly girls weren’t being passed overhead at Animals shows. I’ve wondered since then how spontaneous it all was: did the girls knew from some grapevine or other that this was how you behaved at a Rolling Stones gig? Later, I saw them escape; I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and saw them running across the road and getting into a transit van literally sixty seconds after they finished the set. Someone else must have collected the instruments together. And, there were no chicks with them: all left behind.
I had gone with a couple of girls I knew and one of them had been one of the one’s who had fainted and been passed overhead to the front. Groped every inch of the way, she was a bright intelligent girl from a good home with about a million A-Levels and a good job, not at all the sort one would think to surrender herself like that. On the bus home I tried to ask her what on earth had overtaken her emotions but all she muttered was ‘Mick’ and that was all I could get out of her. He was there, in relatively close proximity, if she played her part; moving dancing turning and shaking his Maraccas . . . one of the sexiest men in the world, within reach. Within reach now.
Hardly a word of this incredible effect Jagger had on young women in Life. Later, much later in the book when Keith is comparing Mick to Bowie, we get an understated, measured summation of Jagger’s remarkable potency. It’s not grudging exactly he does recognise Mick Jagger’s qualities as a singer, dancer and front-man but it is the same old, same old . . . Mick doesn’t play. He composes [pretty much every lyric on every song] but he doesn’t play and Keith perhaps not unreasonably, rates his and Charlie’s contribution to the success of the band higher because it is the music that kept the group at the top for 25-years, not Mick Jagger’s sexual persona.
It’s very honest, almost soul-searchingly so; didn’t expect that. When it is interesting, for example on learning how to play the Chicago Blues in the early part of the book, it is tremendous. I like Chicago Blues, not to the same degree as Keith does but his insights and explanations are quite riveting. He later opines that the Stones greatest contribution to popular music is to have re-introduced the Blues, in all forms, to Americans. I think he has a point.
When he gets to the salacious sex & drugs he loses me; not interested and clearly no sign of self-abnegation despite his ‘honesty’. Its six-hundred and ten pages long, a little too detailed for my taste especially the almost daily diary of Anita Pallenberg’s latest drug abuses. But when he is talking about the music which is often, I loved it.
He doesn’t make any particular claim to be at the intersection of desire and power but the Book is full of clarity and disdain for hypocrisy; I for one would like to see it challenged more rigorously. The main takeaway I personally had however was the . . . find me an adjective . . . incredible, amazing, astonishing . . . fact of these two South London guys even meeting. A chance in ten zillion.
GOLDEN HILL [By Francis Spufford]. This is a popular work of fiction [No 88 in the Amazon Fiction charts at the moment]; it has recently been high in the UK Paperback top-ten. I liked it, it sags a bit [a lot] in the middle but it picks up in the second half. Has absolutely incredible reviews: ‘Dazzlingly written’ according to the Sunday Times; ‘Ingenious’ sez the Guardian. ‘Virtuoso’ according to the FT. Can’t be clearer than that. The author is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, so he will know his punctuation and his pronunciation backwards, and it shows: he is very, very good at selecting just the right word, just the correct noun although as one finds with this kind of writing, there are a hell of a lot of adverbs. Me? I couldn’t write a novel like this to save my life. I haven’t got the Greek, or the Latin which I guess someone who teaches writing at Goldsmiths very much does. It’s a little bit cluttered with words for my taste but there are certainly sufficient high-brow reviewers in places like the Telegraph and The Times more than happy with this kind of exposition.
Its set in New York in 1748 still effectively a frontier town caught up to a greater or lesser extent by the Anglo-French wars in Europe. The putative main character is Mr Smith who arrives on Halloween [1st November] straight off a boat from London with a money order in his pocket for a thousand pounds. We do not learn what he intends to spend the money on until 3-pages from the end. It starts off written in a pseudo-Georgian style language which it is hinted at replicates the form of the times; Smollet, Fielding and Hogarth are mentioned as sources but since I have never read any of these writers and am unlikely ever to want to, it is stylistically over my head. In any case, he soon drops this style, realising pretty quickly that you cannot do that these days if you want to sell books. A smattering of authentic-sounding 1748-dialogue in the first couple of pages, such as, ‘You impudent pup, flirting your mangled scripture at me! Speak plain, or your precious paper goes in the fire.’[page 7]. But by page 103 we have long arrived at conventionality, with, ‘For heaven’s sake,’ said Smith, ‘I am not trying to blackmail you. I am not trying to blackmail you!’
It is descriptively rich but Stufford has given himself an almost impossible task with his plot-line: withholding. He has to withhold the key information about Smith, who he is and why he is in New York until almost literally the last page. It is an impossible task. And the OMG moment when it does come, is a let-down to say the least.
So instead of being able to develop his main character and sketch in some background and motivation to explain his actions he is forced to divert off into other side-shows; a playlet; an arresting homosexual relationship; an extended dinner-party scene with the possibility of a relationship with an heiress. These scenes are imaginatively well done and turn out to be in fact the meat and backbone of the narrative but they are a substitute for what we thought the book was going to be about: the note for a thousand pounds and when the reader begins to realise that this is it, so to speak and that yes, there are no oblique references or hints about what he is really about then he or she starts to wonder well, what’s the point: just a stylistic exercise? It’s hard not to notice that we are being manipulated, which is death to the enjoyment of suspense.