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The Rolands’ quests

 

 

 

Elidor was Alan Garner’s third novel, first published in 1965, and the point where, half a lifetime ago, I became engrossed in the work of this great British writer.

At the start of the novel he quotes a phrase from Shakespeare’s King Lear: “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came – ”, spoken by Edgar as he pretends to be mad in order to protect himself from his malign brother Edmund. It is only recently that I have appreciated that this reference is one part of a literary chain spread over centuries.

In Elidor, Garner’s Roland, Roland Watson, is one of four siblings who become embroiled in an adventure to save the magical world of Elidor. Although the youngest, he is identified as the strongest by Malebron, the nobleman who seeks their help, and at many points of the story he is the leader. In Elidor at the start, he is able to rescue his siblings from the dungeon of the Mound of Vandwy. Later back home in Manchester, it is he who undertakes the task of recovering the four priceless treasures which they have hidden for protection. He retains a faith in the whole Elidor story when the older ones are becoming sceptical, and continues to take seriously their duty to bring it to a successful resolution.

That original quote from King Lear comes supposedly from a medieval ballad called “Childe Rowland” and when you discover the narrative of this (as, for example, through the collection of Joseph Jacobs) you see how liberally Garner drew from this source for the opening of his own novel. The ballad has Rowland playing with a ball with his brothers near a church and him kicking it away and it getting lost; his sister Ellen tries to find it but she has been captured by supernatural beings in the Dark Tower which appears to be within a small hill. In Elidor Roland kicks a football through the window of a derelict Victorian church which is the gateway to the fantasy world and then rescues his sister Helen and his two brothers from the Mound of Vandwy . The ballad’s hall encrusted with diamonds and rubies and emeralds is similar to a branch of “apple blossom…silver…crystal (and) spun mercury” inside Garner’s location.

 

  

 

The Shakespeare phrase influenced in turn Robert Browning’s 19th century poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”. Browning’s autobiographical narrative starts with Roland meeting a “hoary cripple…with his staff”, who is reminiscent of the tramp with the violin who leads the children into Elidor. The landscape this Roland walks through, “starv’d, ignoble nature…(full of ) penury, inertness and grimace” , is comparable to Garner’s desolate inner city landcape which he later specifically dubs “The Wasteland”.

In my youth, as regularly rescanned as my copy of Elidor was Poetry 1900 to 1965, edited by George Macbeth. In his notes on Louis MacNeice, Macbeth said that MacNeice’s 1946 “parable play” The Dark Tower was “the best piece of writing ever done for radio”. I heard it recently for the first time.  It imagines yet another young Roland, training to embark on a quest to visit the Dark Tower and fight an indestructible dragon.

Amanda Wrigley says that MacNeice did not wish his parable to be interpreted too literally and she herself describes it as “morally complicated”, but it seems clear to me that its theme is duty and sacrifice, risking your life for an important cause, even if you didn’t want to regard the dragon which Roland may face as a symbol of fascism.

Benjamin Britten’s music is a significant part of the reputation of The Dark Tower, and a significant part of its impact, notably the strings and percussion section at the end as Roland strides towards to his destination. But I found the text and production impressive too. The fantastical mixed into an atmosphere of political anxiety and idealism recalled Yeats play The Dreaming of the Bones, Brecht and Auden, Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Orwell’s 1984. To my ear its form has been copied by a lot of radio drama in the subsequent decades.

MacNeice’s Roland is, like Garner’s, the youngest of his family, regarded by his mother as “flippant” and someone who “lacks concentration”, described even by himself as “the black sheep”. However, he is trained to follow in the family tradition of travelling across the ocean to challenge the dragon of the Dark Tower. During the play, he faces various voices of persuasion and dissuasion, from his mother, his tutor, girlfriend Sylvie, old Blind Peter, a tavern drunk and the steward on the ship which is taking him towards his destiny.

As you listen, you are struck by the similarities with the other “Roland texts” even though you know they will not be coincidental. Mountains move like the circus of ancient Rome and the Dark Tower grows from the ground, just as Browning described hills as being like living “giants” and Roland Watson felt the standing stones in Elidor were multiplying and moving. The tavern drunk, the Soak, has a dream that Roland’s mission will have an “unhappy” end which undermines his confidence while the Watson children meet the drunk Paddy whose warning about “horses with horns” directs them towards the scene of the climax of the Elidor quest.

 

   

 

 

Whereas in Browning’s poem and in MacNeice’s play a crucial role is played by Roland’s horn or trumpet, in Elidor other musical elements are significant. A violin tune, “thin and pitched high in…sadness”, starts the children’s journey from the abandoned urban landscape and a sinister melody hypnotises them briefly in the Mound of Vandwy. At the end the saving of Elidor is signalled by the dying cry of a unicorn, the song of Findhorn, in Manchester city centre on a frosty New Year’s Eve.

 

 

    

 

All of the Rolands’ quests share some degree of happy resolution. In the ballad, the King of Elfland, the wicked resident of the Dark Tower, is defeated in a duel and Ellen and the two brothers are rescued. In Garner, Elidor is saved by the Watson children despite the challenge of armed warriors and the death of the unicorn. In Browning, Roland, “dauntless”, reaches the tower where stronger people before him had failed. In the same way in MacNeice, Roland pushes himself towards the Dark Tower and sounds his horn as taught by his elders, including the specific command to “hold that note at the end”.

 

 

References:
Macbeth, George (1967) Poetry 1900 to 1965  London: Longman/Faber
Garner, Alan (1974)  Elidor  Glasgow: Collins Armada Lions

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In no man’s land

 

The series of five Westerns which James Stewart acted in for director Anthony Mann in the 1950s are celebrated for how they allowed Stewart to play some more ambiguous, less obviously likeable characters. In contrast, Stewart’s life-long friend Henry Fonda only once acted in an Anthony Mann Western, The Tin Star. Generally regarded as weaker than Mann’s other films of the period, The Tin Star is still interesting for its similarity to the superior Warlock, also starring Fonda, directed shortly afterwards by Edward Dmytryk.

In both films Fonda’s character is a figure who occupies a murky “no man’s land” between legality and crime. In both he visits a town where a group of leading citizens have strong ambitions about how the town should develop commercially.

His character in The Tin Star is Morgan Hickman, a bounty hunter who brings the bad men in dead, in contrast to the legitimate lawmen, who keep them alive, to face trial. He says that he makes a living by “(working) inside the legal system for money” and in that way, he suggests wryly, he is no different from any other businessman or tradesman. However, he is presented as a generally sympathetic character, willing to advise and support the idealistic young sheriff Ben Owens and becoming attached to the young widow Nona Mayfield and her son.

In Warlock, he plays Clay Blaisdell, who has been employed on short-term lucrative contracts as a marshal by several towns, because of his reputation as a skilful gunman who can intimidate and kill troublemakers and criminals.

It is in Warlock that Fonda’s character shows an intensity similar to Stewart’s characters in the latter’s Mann films: a hard, tough face below his blackened coiffed hair and above his expensive clothes, slow and careful in his movements. Whereas Hickman explains that he is a former lawman who turned to bounty hunting to improve his income for his family, Blaisedell seems to have discovered a particular talent which he could best use in only one way. “I’m a simple man, good only with Colts,” he says to his younger girlfriend Jessie. This has led inexorably to his career as an admired and feared gunman who accepts work within the legal system as long as it pays well, and understands that it can come to an end suddenly and bloodily. On more than one occasion he comments bluntly about how he will shoot and kill one of the troublemakers – as long as he is not shot first.

In one scene we see Blaisedell practising shooting, saying to the admiring Jessie, “Just like you practise on the piano, I practise on the Colts; the stakes are a little different but the reason is the same”. In another scene, he is greasing the inside of his gun holster. These are the practical disciplines which help him to feel always prepared and confident. Another is following “the rules”. “I remember when I first killed a man,” he reminisces to the official town sheriff Johnny Gannon. “It was clear and had to be done – but I went home afterwards and puked my insides up… Afterwards nothing was ever clear again.” All that he can do to retain some personal integrity, he adds, is to keep strictly to “the rules” in any gunfight. While striving to stay alive yourself, you give the other (probably inferior) gunman as many chances as possible.

Blaisedell’s fine clothes are part of the evidence that he does not know for sure how long his life will last and it is one way in which he enjoys the material benefits of his violent risk-taking. In contrast, his partner Tom Morgan, club-footed and possibly homosexually attracted to Blaisedell, also appreciates furnishings and art. Despite the danger, Blaisedell does enjoy the status which comes with being a town’s lawman, and disparages alternative peaceful employment such as a shopkeeper, a farmer or a miner. He accepts that his chosen lifestyle is anachronistic and that “times are changing” but feels           “ there’ll be enough towns to last my lifetime”.

Hollywood Western narratives reach their happy endings either by community effort or individual heroics, depending on producer, director, star actor or period. In Warlock, made in 1959, these different factors combine to deliver a complex conclusion. Official sheriff Gannon, injured and isolated, hopes that the townspeople will help him quell the rancher McQuown and his lawbreaking employees. Blaisedall says scornfully, “I wouldn’t bet on it” – but that is actually what happens. This shows that it is the community which will enforce legal progress in Warlock and that the era of the star gunman has passed. Arguments between Blaisedell and Morgan lead to the latter’s death at the hand of the former, which effects on Warlock are shown metaphorically by the saloon first being set on fire then extinguished by a thunderstorm. Gannon has been shown to be an inferior gunman to Blaisedell, but the latter has decided that his time in Warlock is over and leaves the town without a fight, tossing his bespoke gold-handled Colt revolvers into the sand.

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A generation further on

 

In the 1990s, there were endless assessments of the century which was reaching its close. Three years ago, Leaf Collecting recalled one such, a season of the best sound films of the 20th century which BBC television screened during 1995.
Three years after that, in January 1998, BBC Radio 3 launched another grand project entitled Centurions, a two-year survey of 100 of the greatest non-music artistes of the century, one per week, focussing particularly on one of his/her key works.

BBC Genome now provides some supporting evidence for these sparse facts. As with the Cinema Century season, schedulers appeared anxious to control audience expectation and, therefore, the risk of boredom. Centurions was broadcast in the same time slot each week, on Sunday afternoons, but the 100 artistes were not covered in alphabetical order. Likewise, a companion series called The Year, providing musical highlights from a particular year of the century, did not observe exact chronological sequence.

I heard almost nothing of the series when it was broadcast, but, as with Cinema Century, I copied the list of those due to be featured, as part of (don’t laugh) my cultural education. It remains a stimulating list to review and re-assess.

Many of the 100 artistes are still familiar and celebrated. Auden, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, Lawrence, Orwell, Miller, Owen, Plath, Steinbeck and Wells are all writers still widely in print and names whom modern art-lovers might still readily come across at school or at university.

In contrast, the long-term reduction in the opportunity to see the drama of the past (either live or on television or in the cinema) has surely meant a decline in the knowledge of Beckett, Brecht, Chekhov, Lorca, O’Neill, Pinter, Shaw and Stanislavski. Foreign language writers have always been a specialist taste, so I would also assume that Borges, Camus, Grass and Sartre are much less known.

Of the English-speaking practitioners in the cinema category, no surprise today to find Disney, Hitchcock or Welles in the list – but striking to remember how Keaton and the Marx Brothers have become so much less seen during the last one or two generations. Possibly the continuing growth in feature-length film animation has made redundant their distinctive styles of living, physical anarchy. And of course all of the previously famous foreign language film-makers have been largely forgotten, even when individual works like Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai are still occasionally watched.

21st century students and aficionados of visual art will surely still know and respect Dali, Duchamp, Matisse, Picasso and Pollock, but how many people who think of themselves as arts lovers recognise the architects, sculptors, potters and dancers on the list? Surely very few.

Solzenitsyn was rated highly enough at one time to win the Nobel Prize, but surely that was a political accolade rather than a literary one, as it had been earlier for Winston Churchill. By the end of the century his celebrity, so powerful in the early 1970s, belonged firmly in the past. Damien Hirst looks now like a rather modish millennial name but the status of Charles Rennie Mackintosh has probably continued to grow. And J.R.R. Tolkien, chosen before the release of all those Hollywood blockbusters, is, rightly or wrongly, probably the single Centurion whom the most people of all ages in 2018 would recognise!

The full list of the 100 Centurions is:
Chinua Achebe – novelist – Anthills of the Savannah.
Guillaume Apollinaire – poet.
Anna Akhamatova – poet – Requiem.
W.H. Auden – poet – “In Memory of W.B.Yeats”.
Francis Bacon – artist – Innocent Screams.
James Baldwin – novelist – Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Samuel Beckett – dramatist – Waiting for Godot.
Saul Bellow – novelist – Herzog.
Ingmar Bergman – film-maker – The Seventh Seal.
Elizabeth Bishop – poet – North and South.
Jorge Luis Borges – novelist – Fictions.
Bertolt Brecht – dramatist – The Good Woman of Szechuan.
Luis Buñuel – film-maker – Belle de Jour.
Albert Camus – novelist – The Outsider.
Henri Cartier Bresson – photographer – The Decisive Moment.
Constantine Cavafy – dramatist – Waiting for the Barbarians.
Raymond Chandler – novelist – The Big Sleep.
Anton Chekhov – playwright – The Cherry Orchard.
Joseph Conrad – novelist – Heart of Darkness.
Salvador Dali – artist – Burning Giraffes.
Walt Disney – film-maker – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Marcel Duchamp – artist – Fountain.
Sergei Eisenstein – film-maker – Alexander Nevsky.
T.S.Eliot – poet – The Waste Land.
Wiliam Faulkner – novelist – The Sound and the Fury.
Federico Fellini – film-maker – La Dolce Vita.
Scott Fitzgerald – novelist – The Great Gatsby.
André Gide – dramatist.
Jean Genet – dramatist – The Balcony.
Jean-Luc Godard – film-maker – À Bout de Souffle.
Le Corbusier – architect – Unité d’Habitation.
Martha Graham – choreographer – Letter to the World.
Gunther Grass – novelist – The Tin Drum.
Graham Greene – novelist – Brighton Rock.
Walter Gropius – architect – The Bauhaus.
Seamus Heaney – poet – North.
Ernest Hemingway – novelist – For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Barbara Hepworth – sculptor – Sculpture Garden St Ives.
Damen Hirst – artist – Sharks.
Alfred Hitchcock – film-maker – Rear Window.
James Joyce – novelist – Ulysses.
Franz Kafka – novelist – Metamorphosis.
Vassily Kandinsky – artist – Composition IV.
Buster Keaton – film-maker – The General.
André Kertész – photographer – A Red Hussar Going to War 1919.
Akira Kurosawa – film-maker – Seven Samurai.
D.H. Lawrence – novelist – The Rainbow.
Bernard Leach – potter.
Doris Lessing – novelist – The Golden Notebook.
Federico Garcia Lorca – poet – Poet in New York.
Robert Lowell – poet – “For the Union Dead”.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh – architect – Glasgow School of Art.
Naguib Mahfouz – novelist – The Cairo Trilogy.
Thomas Mann – novelist – The Magic Mountain.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez – novelist – One Hundred Years of Solitude.
The Marx Brothers – comedians – Duck Soup.
Henri Matisse – artist – Music and Dance.
Arthur Miller – dramatist – The Crucible.
Yukio Mishima – novelist – The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.
Piet Mondrian – artist – Composition in Grey, Blue and Pink.
Henry Moore – sculptor – Atom Piece.
Toni Morrison – novelist – Beloved.
Iris Murdoch – novelist – Under the Net.
Vladimir Nabokov – novelist – Lolita.
Vaslav Nijinksky – dancer – Rite of Spring.
Eugene O’Neill – dramatist – A Long Day’s Journey into Night.
Laurence Olivier – actor/film-maker – Henry V.
George Orwell – novelist – 1984.
Wilfred Owen – poet – “Strange Meeting”.
Yasujiro Ozu – film-maker – Tokyo Story.
Pablo Picasso – artist – Woman in Blue.
Harold Pinter – dramatist – The Caretaker.
Sylvia Plath – poet – Ariel.
Jackson Pollock – artist – Autumn Rhythm.
Ezra Pound – poet – The Cantos.
Marcel Proust – novelist – A La Recherche du Temps Perdus.
Satyajit Ray – film-maker – Pather Panchali.
Jean Renoir – film-maker – La Grande Illusion.
Lucy Rie – potter.
Rainer Maria Rilke – poet – Duino Elegies.
Richard Rogers – architect – Pompidou Centre.
Mark Rothko – artist – Light Red Over Black.
Jean Paul Sartre – novelist – La Nausée.
George Bernard Shaw – dramatist – Pygmalion and St Joan.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn – novelist – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch.
Konstantin Stanislavski – actor – A Month in the Country.
John Steinbeck – novelist – The Grapes of Wrath.
J.M. Synge – dramatist – The Playboy of the Western World.
Wallace Stevens – poet – “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”.
Rabindranath Tagore – poet.
Dylan Thomas – poet – Under Milk Wood.
J.R.R. Tolkien – novelist – The Lord of the Rings.
John Updike – novelist – Couples.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – architect.
Andy Warhol – artist – Campbell Soup Can.
Orson Welles – film-maker – Citizen Kane.
H.G. Wells – novelist – The War of the Worlds.
Virginia Woolf – novelist – The Waves.
Frank Lloyd Wright – architect – Fallingwater.
W.B. Yeats – poet – “Sailing to Byzantium”.

 

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A splash of Spanish colour

 

Happy New 2018!

And, to welcome it in, some photographs of the beautiful Nativity and Epiphany tableaux in the 17th century Church of Santa Ursula in Adeje, Tenerife.

 

 

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Some Leaf Collecting highlights from 2017

 

Leaf Collecting is now five years old. Many thanks to all its readers.

Here are a few cultural highlights from its writer’s year.

Travel: a belated return to Orkney, including to the great Pier Arts Centre in Stromness.

One new film : Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin was certainly not flawless but did draw a great performance from Simon Russell Beale as the secret police chief Beria.

Older films: Stage Door was especially striking during its first quarter, with 12 young actresses, and with scarcely a man in sight, exchanging fast, witty dialogue in a model which we might copy more often today, while the J.B. Priestley-scripted Last Holiday had an interesting left-wing slant on Britain just after the Second World War.

TV: certainly Broken, but another fine drama was Decline and Fall – an accomplished adaptation of an Evelyn Waugh novel on BBC1 on Friday night? Almost made you think we were back in the 1980s! Also The Mash Report, freshly and reliably mocking the tropes of old and new media as well as politicians around the globe.

Radio: Jeremy Bowen’s Our Man in the Middle East, the Radio 1 Vintage three-day pop-up channel – an imaginative way to mark the 50 years of the station, and the always enlightening and instructive Late Junction.

Music : the Scottish musician Gerry Cinnamon’s influences are very clear, but it is still striking to see what individual success can still be achieved without mainstream media support, with just moderate skills in playing, composition and singing but added to persistent application and a hard-earned stage confidence.

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Desire, deception and devilry by candlelight

 

Leslie Megahey is not the best-known UK film director, so it is interesting to find around the internet so much evidence of admiration for one of his films, Schalcken the Painter.

This was first screened by the BBC at Christmas 1979 , both as an edition of the arts programme Omnibus and also the latest in a series of annual Yuletide ghost stories. Its main value is in its photography which brilliantly recreates the look of 17th century Dutch paintings.

Film critic Graham Fuller points out that it is in particular the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, Jan Steen and Pieter de Hooch which provide the template for the film and this is certainly convincing if you look at the artists’ work on the Essential Vermeer website.

Leslie Megahey’s script was based on a 19th century story by the Irishman Joseph Sheridan Lefanu, which constructed a plot around an non-existent (as far as I can find out) painting by a real-life Dutch artist Gottfried Schalcken.

The original story describes how Schalcken loses his betrothed, Rose, niece of the artist to whom he is apprenticed, the real-life Gerrit Dou, to a rich old man. Once married, Rose disappears without trace but later Schalcken has a nightmare in which Rose and her rich husband appear to him. Megahey’s updating provides more detail about Schalcken’s life and more detail of his fictional nightmare.

 

The original story of “Schalcken the Painter” mentions Leyden and Rotterdam, but these pictures of period Dutch architecture were taken in Amsterdam in 2001.

 

 

One reason why the drama remained in my memory, it must be confessed, was because it included a certain amount of exposed female flesh (still rare on television at that time and usually irresistible to the younger male viewer). It ended with a particularly provocative scene where, in Schalcken’s nightmare, he imagines watching his lost love Rose invite him to watch her making love to her monstrously frightening and ugly husband.

 

 

 

Dou and Schalcken are still among the less famous artists of their period, so I remember the different frisson, prompted by strong memories of the drama carried over the years, when I later unexpectedly came across a Dou painting in the Palais des Beaux Arts in Lille.

Watching Schalcken the Painter again, I was reminded about other interesting works of fiction which imagine the lives and work of forgotten painters. First, Ali Smith’s novel How to be Both which includes the work of the Italian Francesco del Cossa and Leslie Megahey’s own later Cariani and the Courtesans which features his slightly later compatriot Giovanni Cariani.

 

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Reading, watching, eating

 

Cookery has been a growth area in publishing for many years. As soon as an amateur cook does well on one of the numerous television competitions or through a website, or as soon as a professional’s restaurant becomes successful, a personal cookery book is rarely far behind.

I admit to being part of that inflating audience. While I have read many fewer books in the past 20 years than in the previous 20, one subject which I have definitely read about more often is food and drink and cooking.

 

Rural France – Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny, photographed in 2005.

 

Urban France – Paris, probably photographed from the Eiffel Tower, in 1995.

 

In the 1970s, the highest status cooking in the UK was influenced by France, although the most commonly eaten food was probably Italian, or even Asian. Around that time my father did a good deal of the weekend cooking in our house, and consulted in particular two books, The Constance Spry Cookery Book and French Provincial Cookery by the more famous Elizabeth David.

My own first cookery book in the mid-1980s was a Delia Smith. One is Fun was on TV and much publicised but I remember it wasn’t that title, so it must have been one of the volumes of Delia Smith’s Cookery Course. It was a valuable source of particular recipes although soon enough I did gain enough basic knowledge not to have to refer to it regularly. I do remember her almost coy description of mackerel which seemed to betray the period in which she had grown up: “it has a strong taste which men like”.

Another TV programme which provided cooking ideas around that time was the first Master Chef – lower budget, less cool than the current version, with its Sunday tea-time scheduling and including some restaurant chefs as judges.

We were entering the era of the Celebrity Chef. Expert and/or professional cooks had been on TV for a while but this was the time when the term was coined and they were now more likely to be male. An episode of the Gary Rhodes series Rhodes Around Britain encouraged my wife and me to visit the wonderful area of St Ives.

 

St Ives, Cornwall, in 1994.

 

Soon after came the very first Jamie Oliver series The Naked Chef, with its pretend bijou city centre apartment, and for a long time after I copied a recipe of his for baked salmon wrapped in parma ham.

My biggest influence over the past twenty years has probably been Nigel Slater through his regular columns in The Observer newspaper. His recipe for a spicy aubergine stew, first suggested as an informal Christmas Eve dish for a large group, is perhaps the single recipe which I have used, adapted and shared the most often.

 

A few Nigel Slater recipes from over the years.

 

(Tangentially, I do miss the passing of the classic design of The Observer newspaper, once so weighty and authoritative, as it has moved significantly in the tabloid direction over many years, with many more and bigger photos and more light-weight stories in the front half of the paper. Its coverage of food and drink has definitely been one part of that “tabloid-isation”, with the Observer Food Monthly magazine and other frequent recipes supplements adding to the regular pages. But a modest periodic coverage of food and drink with accompanying photographs is hard to dislike).

As if there were not enough recipes already in books and newspapers and magazines along came the internet, full of more ideas and pictures from professionals and amateurs. Food and recipes are actually what directly led to the creation of Leaf Collecting: one particular piece of cooking research drew my attention to how many weblogs documented other areas of people’s domestic life and interests alongside the recipes and prompted me to think that I might do no worse!

Middle East food and drink has definitely become my most interesting experiment in recent years. Arto der Haroutunian’s book Middle Eastern Cookery (London: Grub Street 2010) is as informative on the history and culture of the region as on individual dishes.

Belatedly I came across the name of Claudia Roden, the Egyptian writer who was one of the first to introduce the British audience to Middle Eastern food in the 1960s. A recent article by Bee Wilson article opened with Roden’s discussion about how something she ate as a child in Cairo appeared in Australia later as “dukkah”  – which was clearly the same snack I was offered  myself at Ayers Rock last year, with its chunky bread, dry spice mix, olive oil and sparkling wine. That combination of taste and place was something I would count as one my own most memorable food experiences in recent years.

 

Uluru/Ayers Rock in Australia, at dusk.

 

 

 

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It takes two, or more

 

Although pop/rock music has continued to be given a high status in modern culture (shown for example by the extent of regular coverage on the BBC4 channel and the prominence given to the deaths of pop/rock musicians on national TV news) many modern practitioners appear to feel less confident about their individual talents and careers. This, I think, is why they are keen to be described by the media as “writers” as well as singers.

In fact, they are mostly actually co-writers – especially those whose songs are part of the pop/dance genre. People like Beyoncé Knowles, Adele, Pink, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Emeli Sandé, Katy Perry, Will Young, Sam Smith and even Ed Sheeran. Invariably, on closer research, you find their songs have been co-written with one or more other writers and producers.

The first artists in that genre who gained a huge individual success from such collaboration were probably Madonna and Michael Jackson in the 1980s. In the late 1990s came Robbie Williams.

The pop/rock music industry has in my lifetime produced many people who constructed a significant celebrity on a modest ability – but I do think that Robbie Williams is the most startling example of that phenomenon. A competent singer who left a successful group for a solo career, who was not content with keeping fans returning regularly to concerts but always preferred to play vast open-air venues, yet who has little individual skill with an instrument and whose music has been almost wholly composed throughout a 20 year solo career by other people, such as Guy Chambers and Steven Duffy. His success has been gained mainly through fierce ambition and a distinctive stage and media persona (usually characterised as “cheeky chappie”!) which, I can’t deny, has had an amazingly long appeal.

Pop music has long been a highly collective endeavour because it is often something you start doing when you are young with your pals. In the past most people have had the good grace and sense to become a member of a group if as individuals they have only one or two playing or writing skills. In addition, many successful groups sang and played songs written by non-performing songwriters.

At first I thought it was only the modern generation who tended to exaggerate their abilities. It is certainly true, in these internet-dominated times, that it is much harder to make a decent living from music, even if your work is played on national radio or performed in venues up and down the country. Then I remembered two earlier British artists who have gained solo credit for collaborative success.

Ian Dury was a highly accomplished lyricist and a singer and performer of real personality, but he didn’t play any instruments and all those great tunes from New Boots and Panties and elsewhere were composed by Chaz Jankel and some others. Morrissey’s lyrics, singing and stage presence were a natural ally to the tunes of his school friend guitarist Johnny Marr in the Smiths, but his own musical abilities were modest and the music of his solo career has mostly been composed by Steven Street, Mark Nevin and Alain Whyte.

If you were to analyse the appeal of all these three artists, you might discern some interesting similarities. All working-class boys who have covered shyness and vulnerability with flamboyance. All three have felt outsiders: Morrissey openly gay, Williams clearly bisexual, Dury disabled. All have shown a fondness for older musical traditions and developed their careers through a willingness to blend music-hall, rockabilly and swing with contemporary styles.

Another couple of earlier examples of collaboration, sometimes forgotten. Elton John, for many years in the 1970s probably the biggest star in the world, mostly co-wrote his greatest hits with Bernie Taupin  – although he did write the memorable tunes rather than the more disposable lyrics. David Bowie is regarded even more highly, as one of the great multi-talented auteurs of the pop/rock era, but his “Berlin trilogy” of Low, Heroes and Lodger is usually accepted as being significantly assisted by Brian Eno, the Let’s Dance album by Nile Rodgers and quite a few other tracks through his career co-written with others.

 

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In Memoriam in wood

 

 

A profoundly tasteful and artistic World War One commemoration is the series of wooden statues of soldiers of the period carved out of tree trunks and located within the woodland of Rozelle Park in Ayr.

 

 

 

The statues were carved by Iain Chalmers, Andy Maclachlan, Peter Bowsher and Craig Steele.

 

 

 

 

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The songwriter who might have been a Nobel laureate?

 

The wise David Hepworth made another shrewd comment when he said that perhaps it was the recently deceased Leonard Cohen rather than Bob Dylan who was the more deserving Nobel Prize winner for literature from the ranks of pop/rock songwriters.

In my own first flush of musical education, I actually read more articles and reviews about Cohen than heard his songs. At that time, as posted earlier,  Joni Mitchell was for me the most accomplished and most literate songwriter and musician. Not until the 1980s did I get my first sustained listen to Cohen with the compilation album which was released in the UK under the title Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits. By this time Cohen was gaining renewed attention as an influence on some younger artists like Lloyd Cole and Nick Cave.

Coincidentally, I recall a review of Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits in Melody Maker at the time of its original release in 1975. A curious title for a Cohen album, the journalist remarked – his songs had not recently graced the Top 20. Unless, he went on to muse, the title applied to the number of times Cohen “hit” the nail on the head, with his shrewd lyrical analyses and observations? That would make the title highly appropriate.

It is irrefutable that Bob Dylan had a wider and deeper cultural influence during the 1960s and 1970s than did Cohen, so, on that count, he is the more deserving of the Nobel Prize. However, the internet now allows a free and easy listen to all of Cohen’s work, and some of those songs really are brilliant, are they not?

Skilfully and thoughtfully crafted, technically precise and crammed with vivid images. Musical influences from traditional ballads or Jacques Brel or Kurt Weill or others from the earlier 20th century, lyrical influences from the Bible, Bertolt Brecht, Walt Whitman and Federico Garcia Lorca. Imagery which is often not immediately contemporary and therefore timeless. A long list of highlights would come from all periods of Cohen’s career: “Suzanne”, “The Master”, “Hey That’s No Way to say Goodbye”, “Sisters of Mercy”, “The Story of Isaac”, “The Partisan”, “The Old Revolution”, “Last Year’s Man”, “Love Calls You by Your Name”, “Famous Blue Raincoat”, “Joan of Arc”, “The Guests”, “The Ballad of the Absent Mare”, “Dance Me to the End of Love”, “Hallelujah”, “First We Take Manhattan”, “Everybody Knows”, “Democracy”.

Although many songs shine brightest in the simple guitar playing style he began with, Cohen was clever enough to work with collaborators who helped him construct sensitive arrangements which drew from traditional or jazz or classical idioms. Even the most glaring exception to that rule – Death of a Ladies’ Man, the 1977 album where music as well as production is credited to the ostentatious and eccentric Phil Spector – probably merits fresh attention for its novelty.

Throughout Cohen’s career listeners often regarded his music as bleak and pessimistic. As a youthful fan of Neil Young I never felt such criticism was fairly applied to him and I certainly felt it was equally unfair to Cohen. His singing voice was always of a narrow range, but that could just as easily be applied to singers of other sub-genres like Robert Plant or Bruce Springsteen or Adele. That narrowness would certainly be a problem if the songs were not sufficiently varied. With Cohen they definitely were varied, and were regularly performed, as suggested earlier, by a sympathetic group of supportive instrumentalists and backing vocalists.

In his performance and public persona, Cohen aged gracefully as he retained his musical popularity. He was fond of classic male tailoring, was well-groomed, softly and thoughtfully spoken and known for asking for high-quality wine in his dressing-room after performances. As a man born into a Jewish family in French-speaking Canada, who had once lived in Greece and later as a Buddhist monk in Tibet, he was respected and celebrated as someone who was part of and comfortable in many different cultural and spiritual traditions.

Perhaps because of Cohen’s Jewishness rather than his North American background, I find when I listen to him that I think of other disparate cultural figures who were part the changing landscape of mid-century and post-war Europe. Film-makers like Buñuel and Wajda and De Sica and Truffaut, writers like Lorca, Havel and Auden.

 

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