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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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“You men and the war”

 

Some photographs of Newcastle and Durham – the approximate settings of “When the Boat Comes In” – including a few buildings which would have been recognised by its 1920s characters.

 

I was a great fan of the drama series When the Boat Comes In, written mostly by James Mitchell, when it was first screened on BBC television in 1976 and 1977. While my initial viewing was random and perfunctory – it was scheduled after the essential Top of the Pops and I was already a fan of its lead actor James Bolam through Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? – I was soon engrossed in its dramatization of working-class life in the north-east of England in the years directly after World War One.  In particular by the exploits of Jack Ford, played by Bolam, the handsome, clean-featured ex-sergeant who appears to have survived unscathed four years of trench warfare in France and Flanders , plus a period of unspecified “intelligence” work with the British forces supporting the White Russians against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. Ford is simultaneously presented as ambitious, charming, generous, resourceful and ruthless, whose leadership qualities are variously used in becoming the local head of his trade union and in challenging local employers, making money as an independent capitalist and promoting the careers and employment of those he regards as friends.

That historical period was a popular setting for drama then,  as it still is. It was a time of great social upheaval as people moved out of domestic service and farms into factories and as women gained a more independent and public role. The battles of the Great War were fought over small geographical areas by soldiers who knew similar small geographical areas, serving alongside men from the same locality as themselves. The scale of its casualties was horrendous and notorious so those who returned home without serious injury must have been regarded with some awe.

Watching the series again provides a striking reminder of how many ways and on how many occasions it is that recently fought war which specifically influences the present behaviour and ideas of the characters. This begins in the very first episode, pointedly entitled “A Land Fit for Heroes and Idiots”, with Jack Ford’s overt cynicism at inaccurate newsreel footage of the war and his organised political protest of throwing down campaign medals in scorn at the victorious Liberal parliamentary election candidate. 40 episodes later, in the story “High Life and Hunger”, Ford scornfully refers back to that Lloyd George “Land Fit for Heroes” promise as he watches hunger marchers .

In between those two episodes, James Mitchell and the other scriptwriters contrived many other convincing devices to show the dark shadow of war experience stretching into every area of post-war existence. For example, the way in which Ford plans a sheep-stealing expedition like “a trench raid” and how he publicly identifies the former regiments of Fitters Union members to show the union official from London that his members are professionally trained to “deal with” strike-breakers; how the unpleasant Channon knows as much about explosives as Ford or any of the more heroic characters from his own war service with the engineers and so is unpersuaded by their explanation of the destruction of the priceless Vanburgh-designed house Mandrake Place; the plight of the widow Elsie Carter who gets no war pension because her husband though killed in France was not on active duty; the reason why “Ten Bob” Tiverton the artist who had lost an arm took to forging bank notes. The war is also the source of one of the longest narrative threads: Ford’s business association and rivalry with Sir Horatio Manners, the nouveau-riche father of his former company commander. Small wonder that female characters of different social classes, whether Sarah Headley or Lady Caroline Summers, often make at different times comments like “You men and the war” at yet another memory or anecdote.

The programme’s fourth and final series, broadcast originally in 1981, stretched the story into more specific events, beyond the Wall Street Crash and into the rise of Nazism and the Spanish Civil War. These did allow some variation of the Ford character, presenting him as prone to excessive drinking, a little less impressive and a little more jaundiced, still ambivalent about how to balance and blend his competing individualist and collectivist instincts. He angrily lists at one point the only true friends he ever had: army comrades who are now dead.

Living now in London, he criticises a beggar who is exaggerating his war experience to encourage more generous donations. By this time we have heard Ford himself repeat on several occasions one particular war experience about watching the death of the young officer, Captain Manners (“What am I doing here, sergeant? I should be at the Savile Club” ) – always to impress the listener, usually female. From the very start of the series we know that he had had saved the life of Matt Headley, his later union colleague and Labour councillor, but only much later that his own life was once saved by a Sergeant Major Fred Randall. His parting advice to the beggar is “Get your story straight”. Perhaps we wonder by this time how many of Ford’s past exploits are true, how often we the audience might have been taken in by his charming loquaciousness, but nobody is now around to provide an alternative version.

Like all TV drama series from the 1970s and 1980s, When the Boat Comes In is true to its own period, showing its debt in construction and presentation to theatre plays such as by Shaw or Priestley. This means that it includes one or two comic-dramatic set-pieces which tend to slow down the excitement of the narrative, like the party turns at the Seaton family’s New Year party and the storyline of digging for coal under the Seaton front room. However, most of those first three series contained richly written and convincingly acted stories of poverty, unemployment, industrial conflict, political activism, slum living, hand-to-mouth subsistence and the slow struggle to comfort and (sometimes even) prosperity. And even the weaker episodes still show a craftmanship which is missing from 21st century TV standards.

 

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Some more rumination about music crossover

 

A digital radio in a new car this year has meant that I have heard much more of BBC Radio 6 Music than before – which perhaps affords the opportunity for another assessment.

Daytime listening often means catching randomly stuff which sounds listenable or recognisable but turns out to be by someone you had never heard of, like Public Service Broadcasting, This is the Kit, Houndstooth or Childhood. Equally it allows the deliberate listening to Mark Radcliffe, a presenter I have liked since he first appeared on Radio 1 in 1991, continuing in his jovial partnership with Stuart Maconie which I first enjoyed on evenings on Radio 2.

However, this increased listening does also provide further evidence that, whether the music is previously unheard tracks by long ignored bands from the 1970s and 1980s or 1990s or new material by new acts, it does consist mostly of the same rock/R&B/soul/pop elements as might have been heard on Radios 1 or 2 in decades past.

For me, it is a glaring and disappointing omission that the daytime programmes on a radio station which describes itself as presenting “the cutting edge music of today (and) the iconic and groundbreaking music of the past 40 years” does not regularly include as standard some world music from Africa or the Caribbean and some modern classical and experimental music of the kind Radio 3 features in their programmes Late Junction, Hear and Now and Exposure, and thus give its artists and composers a wider audience.

The weekly Freak Zone presented by the aforementioned Stuart Maconie is, as far as I can see, the only Radio 6 Music programme at present which regularly includes at least some music from the more esoteric ends of the jazz and classical spectra.

This particular flaw in Radio 6 Music’s conservative scheduling was highlighted by a comment by Sam Jackson, managing editor of the equally conservative Classic FM, when he suggested part of his radio station’s long-term success lay in identifying and exploiting the closeness of the audiences for mainstream pop/rock and mainstream classical. “There is a far bigger audience crossover between us and Radio 1 than there is between us and Radio 3,” he said, “(because) young people don’t have any preconceptions about how classical music is supposed to enjoyed; they are used to listening to individual tracks so they completely get our approach.”

An earlier Leaf Collecting post argued that the BBC had one pop/rock radio station too many, and I still think that’s true, since it is clear that most of what Radio 6 Music plays would easily fit into the musical offerings of the BBC’s two older pop/rock music stations, Radios 1 and 2. This was further made apparent to me by the employment of DJs from all three channels on the BBC TV Glastonbury coverage, demonstrating that most of the festival acts selected for broadcast would be easily recognisable to all three audiences.

An alternative unhappy interpretation of the BBC’s approach with Radio 6Music is the one expressed by Paul Driver when he was discussing the present-day shape of music criticism on Radio 3’s Music Matters: that the established media’s poor coverage of classical music is not caused by a shortage of space or resources but of a lack of will – “a distinct cultural intervention against classical music really, which has had so many manifestations…”

 

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Our new interest in others’ personal experiences

 

Memoirs, an old-fashioned literary genre, do seem to have come back in vogue in recent years. However, while those of decades past recounted the lives and achievements of people already well-known from the arts, sports, politics and business, now we can read about people we had never before heard of.

One major factor in this growth in the genre has probably been the profusion of weblogs. These often centre on routine and mundane personal experience, like diaries used to. Another factor might be the continued popularity of “reality TV” documentaries where ordinary people’s daily lives are given a singular attention and status. After all, memoirs are relatively easy to write, being a development of the essays on personal experience which everyone had some competence and practice in writing from school.

However, one rather alarming aspect about many of these recent memoirs is that they describe lives of violence, abuse, illness, addiction and suffering, and frequently with a sexual element. It does suggest that modern audiences have developed a particular voracious and gruesome appetite for accounts of other people’s sufferings. As observed by Shirley Showalter, Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It in 1995 seemed to be the progenitor of this trend. Even the less lurid and horrible stories still seem to feature sustained pain and hardship before they lead eventually to some reconciliation and success and happiness, a process which, it goes without saying, will allow a journalist or broadcaster to describe the book as “inspiring” or “life-enhancing”.

Human beings have always loved stories of difficulties overcome and enemies defeated, so I suppose it is not surprising that these elements feature strongly in modern memoirs. Even if, in the lives of successful celebrities, you sometimes feel as if the writer had to work quite hard to find enough of those examples of hardship and challenge to attract the ordinary reader.

While the lives of famous people have always been useful for newspaper and magazine serialisations, now these, joined with the tales of ordinary folk, seem also to fill endless hours of BBC Radio 4, and to allow interview opportunities on any number of other radio and TV programme. Their particular value is for book festivals, fitting in with our endless appetite for all celebrity, or for any secrets. At this point, in case I become too superior or judgemental, I have to recognise and accept the role played in this development by the long-established TV format of chat shows, something I have enjoyed since childhood – at least, as long as they featured interesting writers, actors, film-makers, musicians and artists.

As memoirs have become more popular, another literature and publishing genre that I grew up with, collected letters, has definitely become less so. Understandably perhaps: hardly anybody writes letters nowadays, and people of note have long had plenty of other ways to record their ideas and achievements. Personally, I had never made a habit of reading collections of letters, but I certainly could see they have been an essential primary source in any worthwhile biography or history. It is memoirs which seem to some extent to have replaced collected letters in the publishers’ non-fiction repertoire.

Shirley Showalter also proffers the theory that the increase in writing and reading memoirs may be because many find it a useful therapy in stressful times. That certainly sounds plausible – and is certainly a more attractive notion than the alternative that more of us have become more ghoulishly and sadistically drawn to suffering and violence.

 

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A colourful cast of characters

 

As mentioned in an earlier Leaf Collecting post, a big impact was made on me as a young theatre enthusiast by the book Conference of the Birds by John Heilpern. It describes a journey around 1972 made by the director Peter Brook and a multi-national acting group through the African countries of Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Benin and Mali.

As Heilpern summarises near the start of the book, “Eleven actors and Brook left for Africa and thirty actors returned. Everyone connected with the journey learned how to act, one way or another.” One of the most vivid sections is his brief biographies of the actors at the start, full of colourful detail as if they were characters out of a 19th century novel.

For example, Malik Bagayogo, from Mali. “Bagayogo seems to have a perfect physical build, as powerful as an athlete. Yet he was crippled down his left side as a child. He was kept away from school – he can still scarcely write – until his father took him to a healer in the village who miraculously cured him with herbs and leaves. The treatment took three years…When he was eleven years old, Bagayogo met a blind beggar, a singer who travelled from village to village. He became his guide. The beggar taught him everything he knew, songs and poems about ancient traditions, animals, sorcerers and devils… Sometimes he starts to sing a melody suddenly remembered from his childhood. The actors scramble to write it down before it’s lost for ever.”

And Andreas Katsulas, “the giant American-Greek….The son of a one-time gambler and bootlegger who was imprisoned for a year or two in Illinois…He’s emotional, forthright, explosive – unconcerned, he likes to say, with ‘the mystical shit’. He does a job. His father always said, ‘Work eight hours, play eight hours, sleep eight hours. Don’t do any more or less.’ So he doesn’t. His father also said never trust anyone, not even your mother. And he doesn’t do that either. Also, he watches every penny he spends, which gives him a reputation for meanness. Yet, when one of the actors needed quite a bit of money in a hurry, he was the only one who offered to lend it, counting out the notes in ones from a tin in a secret hiding-place…”

The Englishman Bruce Myers “(had) made history when he was expelled from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for being drunk onstage while playing Napoleon in Man of Destiny”, writes Heilpern. He continues, “Of all the actors who might have been in this group, Brook ended up choosing someone I’ve known all my life. ‘Don’t laugh’, Myers said to me when we were fourteen. ‘I’ve decided to become an actor’ … Myers was to get lost in the Sahara Desert. He could have died. He can be wild and frightened, just frightened of life, I suppose. And he can have moments of such calm and mastery, of wisdom almost, that your eyes would be opened. Before Africa, he took a leading role for a short time in Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He was filling in for an actor who’d fallen ill, and he had only a few days to prepare the part. Brook told me that his first performance was one of the finest achievements he’d ever seen on the stage. Then (Myers) lost it…he found himself in a state of terror on stage…He went to the Lake District to teach sailing and climb mountains…”

Miriam Goldschmidt was “German, black, wide-eyed like a child, devious as a cat. She likes to drink, goes over the top from time to time, has a wild surrealist imagination, living close to the edge of craziness maybe. At twenty-five, she’s the youngest member of the group. More than anyone she has a real need for the world of make-believe. Her mother died when she was two. Her father, thought to have been born in Mali, died in a car crash. Her adopted parents both died in a car crash. Her third mother died of cancer, as did her first. Her boyfriend of nine years, an archaeologist, died in a car crash. One time, during an improvisation, Brook asked her to come on last. ‘I don’t want to come on last!’ she snapped. ‘It’s the story of my life…!’ People thought she was joking…”

Lou Zeldis was described as “tall as a windmill, vague as a giraffe. You would notice him in a crowd. He’s a striking bisexual, usually dressed in flowing robes as if taking part in a biblical epic. Perhaps he is. He lives very much in a world of his own, a world of fantasies and dreams, lived out with a little help from his friends. He’s been busted a couple of times…The second time, he was jailed for six months downtown Las Vegas: quite enjoyed it. Very little fazes him. He talks rarely. When Brook has a discussion, he often falls asleep. That is, unless he’s listening with his eyes closed…”

Michele Collison was “a small mountain, or a large hill, height 6 ft 1½ ins, weight 180 lbs before breakfast. Unless you’ve seen her blow her wages on a meal, you’ve missed one of the great theatrical happenings…”

Most of Brook’s group were not well-known at the time of the African trip, and scarcely better known now, 40 years later. However, one who was already established has become more famous as the decades have passed.

“Helen Mirren… a star maybe, outspoken, generous, bright, luscious, lost. Violence is a part of her, part of the strange alchemy that goes into the making of a sex symbol…However she resolutely refuses to appear in the nude except for money… She’s famous for many fine leading roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company…and some massive publicity usually labelling her as ‘The Sex Queen of the RSC’. This can lead to tears, but you have the feeling she can’t resist playing up to it. It makes life easier sometimes. ‘Oh, don’t let’s talk about serious acting,’ she’s been known to say to earnest journalists, ‘let’s talk about my big tits.’ Part of her dilemma might have been that she couldn’t decide whether to be a straight actress or a great big sexy movie star. You can’t have both, apparently. The Brook experiment was entangled with her search for an answer.”

Heilpern’s comments are particularly apposite since it is quite obvious that, in subsequent years, Mirren did manage to combine serious acting and sexy celebrity.

The primary long-term legacy of the enterprise was Brook’s dramatisation of the Indian epic poem The Mahabarata, first performed in 1985, given its UK premiere in Glasgow in 1988 and later adapted for television.  Bruce Myers and Miriam Goldschmidt featured among its large cast, plus a third member of the African explorers, the Japanese Yoshi Oida. The film is on You Tube – high time to watch it again, I think – as is The Empty Space, a documentary by one Gerald Feil about the Brook group’s residency in New York shortly after the Africa trip.

 

Reference: Heilpern, John (1979)  Conference of the Birds: the Story of Peter Brook in Africa   Harmondsworth: Penguin

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The diggers

 

Orkney has been a famous location of prehistoric archaeology at least since the Skara Brae village was excavated in the 1930s. The fact that the four sites of Skara Brae, Maes Howe, the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness are all located within one small geographical area was marked in 1999 by UNESCO when it created the World Heritage Site of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.

Since 2003 a new archaeology site has been excavated at the Ness of Brodgar nearby. It comprises a collection of large prehistoric stone buildings. Years of TV archaeology programmes like Time Team  encourage the opportunity to observe the professionals at work, although you do feel frustrated at how little is available to see compared to the more famous long-established locations.

 

 

Seeing teams of modern day archaeologists at work certainly emphasises how much more slow, painstaking and labour-intensive must have been the work by the earlier generations who brought to our knowledge all those famous historical sites from all over the world.

 

Part of the ancient site of Pompeii, Italy, first excavated in the 18th century. Photographed in 1999.

 

Part of the site of Knossos, Crete, excavated in the first half of the 20th century. Photographed in 2016.

 

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Rebuilding

 

Broken,  recently screened on UK BBC2, may seem to have several differences in tone and style from the channel’s earlier Rev. After all, the latter was scheduled as a comedy rather than a drama, in 30 minute rather than 60 minute episodes. However, at their hearts, their two presentations of society, religion, Christian ministers and their congregations are very similar.

In Broken, Fr Michael Kerrigan, a middle-aged Catholic priest from a northern English parish, attempts to help with a number of serious problems suffered by individuals in his local community. For example, Christina is a single parent who loses her job as manager of gambling arcade and then postpones reporting the death of her mother so she can illegally claim her pension income for one last week. Roz is another single parent from a slightly more prosperous background who confesses to Michael of her embezzlement and huge gambling debts and who sees suicide as the only escape from her predicament. Helen is an African mother whose mentally disturbed son Vernon, returned home prematurely, is killed by police during an episode of his violent behaviour.

Three more individuals are involved in the aftermath of Vernon’s death. Andrew, a policeman, knows that the boy was killed unnecessarily but gives into pressure from peers and superiors to compile a false report. Daniel, Vernon’s uncle, supports Helen in his fierce contact with the police, but his conservative views about homosexuality prompt him to insult and assault the compassionate but vulnerable gay neighbour Carl, who immediately makes a formal complaint of a hate crime to the same police.

Inside this multi-stranded plot, Jimmy McGovern’s script still spends a fair amount of time analysing the character of Fr Michael. Studious and interested in literature as a child, abused by a teacher-priest but then disbelieved by his parents, inheriting some of the conventional working-class morality of his 1970s childhood and passing on to others some of the cruelty he personally suffered. Nevertheless, he has sought to assuage early ills by decades of service as a priest, and is depicted as a kind and brave leader of his community even while still haunted by his past.

So the drama’s title clearly applies to its lead character. Also, unsurprisingly, it describes his community, with its areas of unemployment and poverty and a prevalence of gambling outlets, and also his parish church, an old building, architecturally impressive but perhaps overwhelming and unwelcoming, certainly shown to be frequently empty with Masses attended only by small congregations.

A striking visual comparison between Broken and Rev. is that directors of both used repeatedly a shot of high church doors being opened by the priest to let the daylight in. In Rev. this appeared to represent Anglican priest Adam Smallbone’s attempt to address his church’s diverse local community; the equivalent in Broken seems to presage Fr Michael’s regular recall of scenes of past personal anguish.

Michael’s immediate family places heavy demands on him as much as does his parish, although we do see him able to relax at church socials and with his brothers, and his relationship with his frail housebound mother clearly brings him joy. Throughout the episodes of Rev., Adam faces many of the same problems, doubts and opposition as Michael, although he is younger, has a supportive professional wife and benefits from additional administrative assistance in managing his myriad responsibilities.

In Broken, Michael sometimes discusses his problems with Peter, a fellow priest. We learn so little about Peter (despite him being played by a well-known actor) that gradually it is tempting to see him as the personification of Michael’s conscience. Certainly the way in which the camera moves away from him in the last episode also reminds me strongly of the final exit of the angel Dudley in the film The Bishop’s Wife. That further reminded me that Rev., mostly convincingly realistic in tone, also has one notable scene towards its end which seemed more spiritual or fantastic: where Adam, in the depths of despair, meets a friendly stranger in scruffy sportswear (also played by a well-known actor) who already knows his name and who tells him “I’ll always be here” before disappearing.

Both Rev. and Broken have similar conclusions which are encouraging to those of us who believe in the value of religious faith. In Rev., Adam’s church is due to close and he to resign from the ministry, but friends and colleagues coax him back to carry out an Easter Vigil service and his daughter’s belated baptism. Broken shows Michael persuaded out of his vow to leave the priesthood both by his siblings attending Mass and receiving Communion at his mother’s funeral and by those individual parishioners from the previous crises all quietly praising him as “you wonderful priest” as they receive Communion.

Both Broken and Rev. were excellent pieces of television drama about Christianity in modern Britain, and if I find Broken prone to stereotype a little more than I do Rev. it is probably only because I know the Catholic church and the Catholic religion much better than I do the Church of England.

 

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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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