One version of the 20th century

 

 

The drawing of Anthony Burgess by David Levine on the cover of Burgess’ journalism anthology “Homage to QWERTYUIOP“.

 

So finally, after owning a copy of the novel since 1983, I got around to reading Anthony Burgess’  Earthly Powers.

650 pages is a long volume for me nowadays, although it is certainly a readable 650 pages since its structure is largely chronological, as octogenarian writer Kenneth Toomey recounts his life, friendships and travels between World War One and the 1970s.

In many ways the novel is especially characteristic of Burgess both as writer and man, which perhaps explains its celebrity and its Booker Prize nomination. The narrative moves through many locations, and locations which Burgess knew well: Malaysia, North Africa, London; Italy including the Vatican, the USA including Hollywood, France including the Cannes Film Festival. The lead character name-drops many famous artists: James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Havelock Ellis, Peter Warlock, JB Priestley, George Orwell. Literature and music are widely discussed. There are many detailed descriptions of food and drink, of fashions and furnishings.

Many characters and incidents are based on real-life examples which even the less informed reader enjoys identifying. Toomey is related through marriage to Carlo Campanati, the Catholic priest who becomes Pope Gregory XVII at the exact same time as did John XXIII, although his international fame also hints at the Pope at the time of the novel’s publication, John Paul II. The fictitious Nobel laureate Austrian writer Jakob Strehler whom Toomey greatly admires has written a novel sequence Vatertag which seems rather reminiscent of Earthly Powers itself in some ways – and certainly also of The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil and Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, both rediscovered and fashionable at the time of Earthly Powers. The exploits of religious cult leader God Manning are clearly modelled on those of Jim Jones and Charles Manson. The Poet Laureate Dawson Wignall seems very similar to John Betjeman with his “themes derived from Anglican church services, the Christmas parties of his childhood, his public school pubescence…” A musical The Blooms of Dublin based on Ulysses is almost identical to a play by Burgess himself.

Although, as mentioned, Earthly Powers’ chronological structure makes it easy to follow and to stay with, it does include a few modernist flourishes which show off Toomey’s and Burgess’ Joycean influences. Vocabulary which is unfamiliar and demanding, some which may well be invented, omissions of punctuation, invented onomatopoeia like “at the card table, flicking a new pack of cards skrirr skrirr with powerful gambler’s fingers”, selections of Toomey’s own writing in different genres.

 

Waiting for Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Square, Rome on Easter Sunday 2002. “Carlo…told the crowd briefly why he had chosen the name Gregory. It was primarily because of Gregory the Great, who had reformed the Church and spread the gospel.”

 

The entrance to Graumann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollwood, USA in 2010. “My situation in Hollywood was a comfortable one. I was glad to get money out of the industry but I did not really need it. I did not have to bow or yes or cringe…I was Kenneth M. Toomey, distinguished British novelist in distinguished early middle age…”

 

For me, one especially absorbing part of the narrative is the section about the Vatican as Carlo Campanati moves towards the Papacy. Campanati’s plans for the Catholic Church as revealed to Toomey could be seen as similar to John XXIII’s ideas: “the unification of the churches. The vernacularization of the liturgy” and the awareness of “capitalistic enemies, but … Marxist enemies too”. Around the time of the writing of Earthly Powers in 1978 came the drama of the deaths of both Pope Paul VI and John Paul I and the accession of John Paul II, the first non-Italian Pope in 400 years, a period which prompted regular discussion in the Catholic Church about the pontifical legacy of John XXIII. The vivid African image on the cover of my Penguin paperback edition seems out of place at first since it seems to give undue prominence to a tiny incident from a novel which takes place more often in Europe and the USA, until you notice that the figure in the wooden statue is undergoing a Christ-like crucifixion.

 

 

The night-time exterior of Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 2006.”I… telephoned La Scala to ensure that a ticket for the gallery was available for me and would be waiting at the box office.”

 

Barcelona in 2002 with Gaudi’s building La Pedrera on the left. “Ralph and I were at this time more or less domiciled in Barcelona… Why Spain, or rather Catalonia, which is not quite Spain? Because mild fascism seemed to me at the time to be better than confiscatory socialism. Because of the architecture of Gaudi…”

 

Another favourite strand throughout the novel is the descriptions of food and drink which showcase Burgess the bon viveur as well as the descriptive writer. For example, the expensive Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo where its restaurant serves “Saumon Fumé de Hollande, Velouté de Homard au Paprika, Tourte de Ris-de-Veau Brillat-Savarin, Selle d’Agneau de Lait Polignac…”, or “the crowded smoky (Paris) restaurant (with) potted shrimps, lobster Mornay, a carafe of house Chablis” followed by all brands of cigarettes such as “Gold Flake, Black Cat, Three Castles, Crumbs of Comfort” or Moneta in Italy with its “thick bean soup, tripe stew with gnocchi, fat sausages from the grill, the black wine that is Moneta’s pride”.

Although I did enjoy the belated company in a writer of whom I used to be such a fervent fan, I did feel just a little sense of anti-climax at the novel’s ending. Perhaps because it is the sort of novel which impresses an eager younger reader rather more than a jaundiced older one, and perhaps because of another stronger sense, that this reader and the world in which he was reading were so very different from what they would have been at the time of the book’s original publication.

Reference: Burgess, Anthony (1982)  Earthly Powers  Harmondsworth: Penguin

 

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Some linguistics research – or perhaps just complaining about the way younger people speak…

 

Words come in and out of fashion. “Groovy” came and went fairly swiftly, “cool” has stayed around longer. Of the many words which changed meanings after medieval times, one of the most widely known is “fond” : meaning “stupid” when King Lear applies it to himself in Shakespeare’s play in the early 17th century, shifting to “affectionate” by the 20th century. I am sure the phrase “disc jockey” which I grew up with amused or annoyed older people who were accustomed to use the noun to describe someone who rode horses. I remember distinctly my surprise the first time I read a sentence including the phrase “spin doctor”, around the 1992 UK General Election, and, coincidentally, also around the namesake US band’s brief fame – and this phrase it is still commonly used.

All this is a prelude to listing some phrases which have become common parlance, even among journalists and broadcasters who are not young, but which sound rather ugly and unhelpful to my ears. Probably many of these usages have emigrated from the USA or Australasia and via cinema and TV – routes of travel heavily used for many years. Of course, such a list shows that the list-maker is more prone to nostalgia and conservatism rather than looking forward in optimism…

Anything which is unlikely or unachievable is now “a big ask” rather than “asking a lot” or “expecting a lot”.

A new feeling or attitude or condition will now “kick in” rather than “take effect”.

If something which needs caution or action is about to happen to you, you now need a “heads-up” rather than a “warning”.

An event which will begin immediately starts “from the get-go” rather than “from the word go”.

A permanent happening or condition is taking place “24/7” rather than “24 hours a day”.

An event will “not happen anytime soon” rather than “not happen soon”. Always used in the negative, this one, so possibly seen just as a more forceful emphasis.

If you are making things difficult for someone, you are “playing hardball” even if you know nothing about baseball.

A cause or practice which you feel strongly about or carry out continually is one you are “passionate about” rather than “dedicated to” or “committed to”, although “passion” is also often used as a euphemism for levels of anger.

Finally, since we’re in constant voting mode, it appears that people rarely now refer to others’ political “principles” or “beliefs”, but you talk about their “ideology” if you want to be pejorative and their “values” if you want to be polite and respectful.

About 20 years ago, the writer and broadcaster Clive James commented on how the word “enervate” seemed to be getting used more often as if it meant an increase in energy and strength rather than a decrease, because its sound, like “invigorate”, suggested such a meaning. He concluded that, if the majority of people come to use a word in one particular way, even if it is the incorrect way, that has to be accepted as appropriate and reasonable practice. A prescient idea.

 

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Summer night flight

 

It’s always stimulating to uncover similarities in different pieces of art– as long as you can feel that something more than plagiarism is involved! One of my first ever experiences came, as mentioned in an early Leaf Collecting post, when I saw the paintings of Andrew Wyeth and realised he dealt with similar people and places as did two other artists from different periods, the poet Robert Frost and the songwriter David Ackles.

When I heard Katrina Porteous reading part of her poem “Dunstanburgh” on BBC Radio 4 recently, I immediately remembered D. H. Lawrence’s poem “Bat”.

Porteous describes larks and swallows flying in the midsummer twilight in the north-east of England. The mood is eerie and almost supernatural as the viewer watches the “messengers from another shore” which act like “needles, blue-black arrows, ravelling breath-taking streamers of flight”.

 

Lindisfarne Castle, just along the Northumberland coast from Dunstanburgh Castle, which features in Katrina Porteous’ poem.

 

Lawrence’s narrator is in southern Europe, sitting on a terrace in Florence about 100 years ago, but he also has an acute sense of the gently shifting period between night and day and of birds creating a new landscape. “The world is taken by surprise” as he watches the swallows “with spools of dark thread sewing the shadows together”.

 

The “tired flower of Florence” on the “obscure Arno” , as D.H. Lawrence describes it in “Bat”.

 

While the narrator in Lawrence’s poem moves from an admiration of swallows to a revulsion towards bats, Porteous’ poem retains a tone of pleasure and wonder. Her birds are the “minstrels” which, evoking “gold, firelight, dancing”, help to bring the medieval ruins of Dunstanburgh castle temporarily back to midsummer life.

 

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Home, sweet home

 

Why did people go to the cinema to see Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter  in 1978 and 1979? Because it was the latest film starring Robert De Niro, one of the big new stars? Because it was a highly praised adult drama – a little reminiscent of those by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, other Italian-American directors of the time? Because it dealt with the still pertinent issue of the Vietnam war? Because of its widely publicised and controversial scenes of Russian roulette? Perhaps yes to some or all of those questions.

Why is it worth seeing now? Because it is a rare example of big-budget Hollywood presenting the lives of the America working-class, and of a working-class experience which has been since the Vietnam war largely decimated through industry closures, unemployment, “globalisation”. A political issue correctly identified by Donald Trump during his US Presidential campaign – although possibly not, as argued by J.D. Vance, one which can be suitably tackled by him.

The Russian-American community of Clairton, Pennsylvania, depicted in The Deer Hunter is one of modest prosperity, mutual support, religion, hard work and hard play. The wedding of a young steelworker, Steven, is the main event of the first part of the narrative and the banner at his wedding reception which also marks the departure of him and two friends Nick and Michael to serve in Vietnam reads “serving God and country proudly”. Many scenes are shown of the church wedding service (presumably in a Russian Orthodox church) and religious choral music serves as a backdrop elsewhere. Several scenes of the location show a landscape dominated by smoking factories, which make people and other buildings seem small and insignificant. Steven and his friends are presented as bound together by work, the wedding, hunting in the mountains and the continual drinking of alcohol.

The Deer Hunter is in many ways similar to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2  – a largely masculine narrative, with the male characters involved in physical activity; the depiction of collectivist values; the influence of Christianity as practised through weddings and funerals; the acting presences of Robert De Niro and John Cazale. However, there are differences. The collectivist values of The Deer Hunter characters tend to be civic and religious rather than family values; the church is genuinely the centre of the community whereas in the Godfather films it is more marginal; characters’ parents are distant or intrusive or violent rather than supportive or influential.

However these positive community values are threatened by forces elsewhere. Two scenes of foreboding intrude into the wedding reception. The friends meet a soldier in uniform to whom they offer a patriotic toast but he brusquely replies “fuck it” – which hints that their eagerness to join the US forces in Vietnam may be misplaced. At the wedding it is traditional that the bride and groom drink from a dual loving cup and must spill nothing in order to guarantee good luck– but Angela the bride spills a little red wine down her white dress. We are reminded of this when we see the blood dribbling down Steven’s face after he is forced by Vietcong soldiers to take part in the Russian roulette game on the Vietnamese river and the fired gun shoots a bullet which grazes his temple.

At the end of Steven and Angela’s wedding, Nick says to Michael that he loves their home town – so it is essential that, if anything happens to him in Vietnam, Michael must not leave him there but must bring him back home. Tragically Michael is not able to do this. In the final fateful Russian roulette game, Michael does use such language to reach out to Nick – “Come home”, reminding him about the “trees” and “mountains” – but Nick’s memory has been fatally damaged by his war experience.

It is perhaps ironic that the one character who travels away from the home community to the battlefields of Vietnam yet does return safely is Robert De Niro’s Michael, since he is shown at the start as something of an isolated outsider. During most of the wedding reception he is observing events while other male friends join in dancing, and, while he loves the group hunting trips, he is still willing to risk spoiling the last one before Vietnam with an argument about sharing equipment. When he returns from battle, he at first rejects his friend Linda’s succouring advances with “I’ve got to get out, I feel a lot of distance, I feel far away”. However, he and Linda do later become intimate and at the end he appears to have found some sort of calm and composure.

The collectivism of the characters is also represented several times through music. “You’re Just Too Good to be True” by Frankie Valli is featured twice, sung together by the friends accompanying the jukebox in a bar, then performed as part of the wedding celebration by a guest singer: Valli and the Four Seasons is appropriately energetic pop music for a 1960s/1970s narrative about a group of male friends from an ethnic working-class neighbourhood just as it was in Sleepers. The deer hunting trip before leaving for Vietnam evokes a more spiritual mood. This is shown, first, by the use of religious choral music while Michael and Nick hunt, then, again, when the group return to the local bar with a deer corpse, by the playing by John, who has already been seen as part of the church choir, of a tuneful but sombre piece of piano music which silences the others into rapt attention – a moment of group harmony and empathy which contrasts with earlier scenes of argument and competition. Finally, at the funeral breakfast for Nick at the close of the film, John leads ensemble singing of “God Bless America” with its final line of “America, my home sweet home” which the group of friends do find consoling.

The Deer Hunter is a flawed film by a director who had an erratic career. The time and money spent immediately afterwards by Michael Cimino in the making of Heaven’s Gate, another narrative about American immigrant communities at a time of conflict, is one of the best-known stories of Hollywood self-indulgence. Although The Deer Hunter was publicised as a film about the Vietnam war, its best parts have long outlasted Hollywood’s fondness for that genre.

The Deer Hunter is one of the many topics of history, politics, religion and culture covered in the excellent weblog of Ross Ahlfeld.

 

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The drama of news headlines

 

Newspapers are less important than they used to be, as proved by years of declining circulation. Perhaps no surprise, then, that newspaper headlines now are often long, plain and inelegant.

One recent example which bucked the trend was “Enemies of the people”, the Daily Mail’s concise and provocative description of the High Court judges who ruled that Parliament, and not the Prime Minister, should vote to begin the UK’s process to leave the European Union.

It recalled another Daily Mail headline from those earlier days of high circulation and political influence: “The Enemy Within”, supporting Margaret Thatcher’s criticism of the miners’ during the 1984-1985 strike.

A few more from that era stick in my mind. When Arthur Ashe defeated the favourite Jimmy Connors to win the men’s singles tennis title at Wimbledon in 1975, more than one paper saw the available pun. “King Arthur’s court”, The Observer stated. However, the Sunday Express extended it more eloquently to “Connors bows at the court of King Arthur”.

In 1979, the announcement that Sir Anthony Blunt, art historian and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, had been a Soviet spy since his youth resonated perfectly with the popularity of John Le Carré’ s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and its TV adaptation. The Glasgow Herald borrowed one of Le Carré’s great pieces of espionage jargon for their headline of “Mole at the Palace”, but I thought Blunt’s character suited better the more old-fashioned, and more stylish, phrasing by the Daily Mail: “Traitor at the Queen’s right hand”.

This September sees the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, one of the most dramatic media events in my lifetime. Most of the press and TV coverage at that time made me wince, and its polarising effect is shown well in the Peter Morgan/Stephen Frears film The Queen.

However, one headline which I did admire came from the Glasgow Herald at the start of that dramatic week in 1997 when Diana’s body was flown back from Paris to RAF Northolt. “Home – to a nation of broken hearts” displayed assonance, alliteration and an appropriate sense of rhythm.

 

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A love affair like the French Revolution

 

A really great poem from the first half of the 20th century which I discovered only in the recent past is the sonnet “Well, I have lost you…” written by the American Edna St. Vincent Millay.

As a fan (then and now) of BBC Radio 3’s  Late Junction,  I was readily drawn to something recommended by one of its presenters, Fiona Talkington,  as part of a poetry season the BBC  produced in 2009.

A sonnet is a long-established form, perhaps now old-fashioned, and certainly constraining, so it was striking to see the energy and intensity squashed into and bursting out of this one.

Regret, reflection, resignation, pride and self-confidence, the shrewd analysis of a finished relationship, and a statement of feminist independence which would have been unusual in the 1930s – all crammed into 14 rhyming and rhythmic lines.   

For me the most powerful images are, first, the end of a relationship compared to the way French royalty and aristocracy “went to their deaths…in a tumbrel” during the Revolution, and, second, the use of the phrase “played…slyly”, and the realisation that behaviour which might at first seem grown-up and sophisticated might be dishonest and ultimately self-defeating. 

 

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There was this Catholic boy from Manchester…

 

This year is the centenary of the birth of the writer Anthony Burgess – already noted in the media and surely with further mentions to come.

My admiration of and fondness for Burgess was heavily based on his regularly available journalism in the 1970s and 1980s. Principally the fortnightly Observer book reviews on intimidatingly varied subjects  – as can be judged by a scan through the collection Homage to QWERTYUIOP – from religion to linguistics to Grace Kelly to James Joyce to Adolf Hitler to Russian literature to all types of classical music. Although the regular articles in the Daily Mail about contemporary life reminded you, the star-struck young  fan, that in many ways his experiences and attitudes were rather closer to those of your parents than to yours.

The other part of his appeal was his speaking.  I heard Burgess give a talk in the McLellan Galleries in Glasgow around 1982 or 1983. Shamefully most of the content from that evening is forgotten, but I  do remember one snippet that all of the best writers in the English language of the 20th century  had actually been Celtic rather than English – the best poets being Hugh MacDiarmid and W.B. Yeats, and the best novelist the aforementioned James Joyce. I also recall an attention-grabbing comment that, since he had mostly lived in the Far East and in continental Europe and his wife was Italian, the most memorable of his sexual experiences had been with non-English women – but that was possibly later on television!

His public speaking persona was highly individual. The melodious drawling voice, the way he flaunted his learning while pretending the opposite – “Yes, I’ve read it about 10 or 15 times now..” –  the prickliness he never hid at feeling undervalued compared to some of his contemporaries. All qualities which suited the TV appearances such as the astonishingly erudite Book Game one Christmas with Germaine Greer and Adam Mars-Jones.  His Desert Island Discs broadcast from 1966 is one of the few from that long-running series which are not available to hear currently, but many other TV examples are.

A recent commemorative series on BBC Radio 3 brought the public Burgess back to memory. Simon Rennie, an academic with a suitably Burgessian unconventional route to professorial status, suggested that it was the writer’s working-class Manchester background which gave him the confidence to combine populism with intellectual rigour. In addition, Rennie drew an unlikely but convincing comparison between Burgess and the US musician Frank Zappa:  both intellectual populists and experimental modernists, both political and social conservatives, both careless with their physical health yet prodigiously productive.

Another contributor on the same series, my Scottish contemporary A.L. Kennedy, reminisced about her own youthful experience watching Burgess on TV. It reminds you how he loved to entertain and impress, she said.

Kennedy proposed that it is unusual now to see a literary novelist perform on TV in the way that Burgess did, but you might argue that some current writers, in their alternative guises as commentators and columnists, do appear on discussion programmes like Question Time or on one of those ubiquitous TV slots previewing or reviewing newspapers. I frequently find such appearances annoying rather than stimulating, and so I wonder whether, if I had been older in the 1980s, I might have taken a similar dislike to Burgess and his ability to pontificate on any topic. 

 

           

 

Burgess wrote over 30 novels and many other works in other forms. The only novel I ever read was A Dead Man in Deptford, about Christopher Marlowe, although I also greatly liked Jesus of Nazareth, the TV drama which he co-scripted.  I have also owned a copy of his famous Booker Prize short-list novel Earthly Powers since 1983, so I think this should definitely be the year when I read it, either in an attempt to revive my youthful affections or in honour of its author’s centenary.

 

Reference:  Burgess, Anthony  (1987)  Homage to QWERT YIOUP : Selected Journalism 1978-1985   London:Abacus

 

 

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A welcome to new life

 

Here and below, four scenes of Orkney photographed in 1992.

 

I had never heard Peter Maxwell Davies’ song “Lullaby for Lucy” until six months ago, when I heard it performed by Genesis Sixteen at the Cumnock Tryst. Since then, I keep bumping into it, most recently as the finale of the BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week programmes dedicated to the late composer.

The text of the piece is a poem by George Mackay Brown , only eleven lines long but still resonant with trademark references to nature, food and drink and spirituality.

Maxwell Davies set it to music in 1981, bringing what to my ear are medieval influences into the undulating harmonies.

The back-story of “Lullaby for Lucy” is often repeated. Mackay Brown wrote it in acrostic form to mark the birth of Lucy Rendall, the first child born for 32 years in the parish of Rackwick on the Orkney island of Hoy. The circumstances of her parents’ meeting were suitably unusual.

What happened to Lucy after her birth was marked, exceptionally, by two world-famous creative artists? The internet does have one newspaper article about her forthcoming wedding in 2005.

Maxwell Davies was a prolific composer, working, like Benjamin Britten and James MacMillan, in many forms and for many types of musicians. His style moved from modernist and avant-garde in the 1960s to more conventionally classical later, influenced, it is usually agreed, by his move to Orkney in the 1970s.  

 

 

 

 

“Unite…celebration…new…a pledge and a promise…brightness and light”.  “Lullaby for Lucy” is a fittingly uplifting piece, in both words and music, for spring and for Eastertide. 

 

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Werewolves and Thompson gunners

 

I hadn’t thought much recently about the deceased US musician Warren Zevon  until Verity Sharp marked the 70th anniversary of his birth on Late Junction on BBC Radio 3 in January. She described him as “a man who struggled with life, emotionally volatile, violent, erratic”.  I thought back to other descriptions of Zevon.  Andy Kershaw called him “the Hunter S.Thompson of rock and roll” when choosing one of his songs for Desert Island Discs in 2007. Right at the start of his career, I once heard a broadcaster’s summary of his early extra-musical life which made him sound like Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine character in Casablanca.

All these colourful impressions are emphasised by various articles on the internet which mention his father’s gangster connections, his childhood acquaintance with Igor Stravinsky, his acquaintance with writers like the aforementioned Thompson plus horror specialist Stephen King and poet Paul Muldoon, his continual philandering and addictions. 

 Like many people, my first acquaintance with Zevon was through his connection with Jackson Browne.  At the time of Browne’s arrival to prominence with the album The Pretender in 1976, he produced the album Warren Zevon. The two toured together in Britain at that time, including in a concert filmed on  The Old Grey Whistle Test.

Zevon’s cover photograph on that 1976 album is of an alluringly cool dude: the shoulder-length light hair and round-framed glasses, the semi-formal dark jacket over the open-necked white shirt, the serious gaze and the arm raised in purposeful pose.  

Barbara Charone in Sounds described the album at the time as “the ultimate L.A. album”, less for Zevon’s association with more established California-based musicians than for the location-spotting of his scenes of deviant behaviour, such as in “Carmelita”, “The French Inhaler” and “Desperadoes Under the Eaves”.

Looking back now, you feel Zevon’s musical affinity is less with Browne than with another Californian singer-pianist-songwriter: Randy Newman. Like Newman, Zevon’s songs are often narratives, featuring characters whose behaviour is eccentric or subversive.  Like Newman, his perspective is often wry and sour, with an awareness of political realities. Among the best are “Frank and Jesse James”, “Excitable Boy”, “Werewolves of London”, “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”, “Lawyers Guns and Money” and “The Envoy”.

During the 1980s and 1990s, many musicians tended to overuse the multi-tracked heavy rhythms which were then judged to be most suitable for radio and live concerts alike. This certainly seemed to happened in Zevon’s case. Whether it was others’ commercial interests, his own personal distractions or simply changing musical fashions which were the strongest influence in his artistic stasis is hard to say. As Zevon apparently said himself before his death in 2003, “I got to be Jim Morrison longer than he did”.

Throughout his career, as shown by the many clips on You Tube, continued an attractively self-deprecating personality and a gruff but tuneful voice.

 

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The great over-achiever

 

Richard Curtis must surely be counted one of the great over-achievers, at least in the commercial sense, in UK cinema. He started off on television as just one of the many writers on the Not the Nine O’Clock News comedy show before bagging a high-profile job as the co-writer of the first series of Blackadder with fashionable comic performer Rowan Atkinson. Although the show was at first poorly received, it eventually became a great success with many repeats of its next three series (although this happy result was surely helped significantly by the arrival of co-writer Ben Elton) and with the final series gaining regular credit as an important contribution to the modern appreciation of World War One.

Whereas Blackadder caricatured the customs and peoples of past periods, Curtis’ solo scripts for the films Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill covered the ins and outs of contemporary romance.  Famously their cinematic machineries were oiled by a certain amount of  modern risquéness,  photogenic scenes of the UK, the burgeoning popularity of Hugh Grant and glamorous American co-stars Andie MacDowall and Julia Roberts.

The great success of these films will be at least partly responsible for the fact that Curtis’ next script, Love Actually, was a multi-character narrative, which he had the opportunity to direct himself, and which was able to recruit many big UK acting names, like Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman. At the time of its release in 2003, one journalist, David Smith in the Observer, suggested that the starry romantic Christmas story was so perfectly packaged that it might become the best-selling UK film of all time! I don’t think it has reached those heights , but regular TV repeats suggest that longevity is guaranteed.

 From 1985, Comic Relief was the comedy equivalent of the musicians’ Band Aid,  popular professionals co-operating to raise money to help ease the continuing problem of Third World hunger and poverty.  The charity’s website credits Curtis as one of the founders, although in its early years on-screen performers such as Lennie Henry, Griff Rhys Jones, Jonathan Ross, Billy Connolly and French and Saunders were certainly more visible representatives. By the 21st century, perhaps as other people’s profiles had waned, Curtis had become more openly associated, and a TV film The Girl in the Café was a high-profile part of Comic Relief’s association with the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign. Almost as if Curtis was saying, “I know nobody thinks of me as cool and modern, but people should pay attention to my contribution!”

The next film Curtis wrote and directed was The Boat That Rocked, about a pirate radio station during 1966-1967. I would have thought that Curtis is a bit young (born in 1956) to harbour nostalgia for the pirate stations and their musical period, but the answer to the conundrum may lie in the theory, often repeated in the media, that the next series of Blackadder, planned for after World War One but never made, would have been set during those same Swinging Sixties, full of pop music, fashion, youth culture and sexual licence. Certainly here the character of Thick Kevin seems very similar to Blackadder’s Baldric.

The Boat That Rocked allowed Curtis the unlikely chance to blend some old-fashioned narrative ideas of harmless fun oppressed by reactionary authority such as from the St Trinian’s films with others of masculine heroics during maritime danger like from Titanic. Meanwhile, the overall picture of UK society and culture is again a fond and positive one. Alongside the elongated adventures of the staff of Radio Rock are repeated scenes of school pupils, workmates, housewives and teenagers in bedrooms, all gathered around their sets, thus arguing the illegal radio station’s role in bringing the nation together.  

It is historically true that the pop/rock music stations of the period were heavily influenced by US fashion – with the genuinely American “Emperor Rosko” on Radio 1, the faux-American Tony Prince on Radio Luxembourg and almost all other disc jockeys adopting American accents and colloquialisms – so in this case a big American star, Philip Seymour Hoffmann, in the cast could be said to be perfectly reasonable from a narrative point of view, however much it might also be connected with the film’s length, budget and commercial ambitions.     

Curtis is the British Spielberg, TV producer John Lloyd has been quoted as saying, both because he has a golden commercial touch and because he wants to make the world a happier place with his work. Perhaps a fairer reason to compare him with Steven Spielberg is that in neither case would it have been easy to foresee by looking at their earlier efforts how their careers would develop and how much they would produce. One percent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration, as Thomas Edison is supposed to have said about genius. You feel certain it is an adage that both Spielberg and Curtis live by.   

And another Hollywood quote:  George Clooney once said that he knew he would get to “play” with the film-making “toys” for only a little while, so was aware he must make as good use of them as possible. Richard Curtis must also be amazed by his good luck and how long it has lasted. Those of us of Curtis’ age who are ever tempted to sneer at any of his output might reflect that we might not have done any better with the opportunities than he has done. 

 

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