Tuesday, 30 August 2005

demand and supply; tom and jerry

During the ten months which I spent in the neighbourhood of Niddry Mill, I saw neither minister nor missionary. But if the village furnished no advantageous grounds on which to fight the battle of religious Establishments - seeing that the Establishment was of no manner of use there - it furnished ground quite as unsuitable for the class of Voluntaries who hold that the supply of religious instruction should, as in the case of all other commodities, be regulated by the demand. Demand and supply were admirably well balanced in the village of Niddry: there was no religious instruction, and no wish or desire for it.
- p309, Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters

Narratives of their adventures [workmates who spent their wages on weekends of drink and debauchery], however, would then begin to circulate through the squad - adventures commonly of the ‘Tom and Jerry’ type; and always, the more extravagant they were, the greater was the admiration which they excited.
- p310, Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters
- an intriguing Tom and Jerry reference.

and then do nothing

Twaddle, rubbish, and gossip is what people want, not action; that is what they think interesting. In Aus meinem Leben Goethe relates that The Sorrows of Werther created a great sensation and after that time, he says, he never again knew the peace and obscurity which he had known before, because he was drawn into all kinds of relationships and friendships. How interesting and exciting small talk is! Nothing would have been easier than to have prevented that if Goethe had really had the courage, had he genuinely loved ideas more than acquaintances. Anyone with Goethe’s powers could easily have kept people away. but in fact, soft and sensitive as he was, he did not wish it - but he likes to relate it as a story. People like to hear about it because it relieves them from action. If someone were to get up and preach, saying: once, in my early youth I had faith, but then I grew busy in the world, made many acquaintances, was knighted, and since that time I have never really had time to collect my thoughts - people would find the sermon very touching and would enjoy listening to it. If one wishes to succeed, the secret of life is to chatter freely about all one wishes to do and how one is always being prevented - and then do nothing.
- p104, Kierkegaard’s Journals

puppets and blood and films of eyeballs

But what really makes that album [The Soft Bulletin, by The Flaming Lips] so special to me is the whole concert around it that I saw at Reading in 1999. I'd never seen anything like it. I thought you just had to stand onstage and shyly announce each song title. Then Wayne Coyne came on with puppets and blood and films of eyeballs and all this stuff and you think, hang on a minute, you're basically turning it into a church service. It was the best thing I'd ever seen, and still have ever seen.
- Chris Martin, Uncut, September 2005

The first thought is, what kind of church services has Chris Martin been to? The second thought is, that reflects quite a positive view of church services.

Friday, 26 August 2005

31 Songs - part 1

There are ... around twenty separate Bob Dylan CDs on my shelf; in fact I own more recordings by Dylan than by any other artist. Some people - my mother, say, who may not own twenty CDs in total - would say that I am a Dylan fanatic, but I know Dylan fanatics, and they would not recognize me as one of them. (I have a friend who stays logged on to the Dylan website Expecting Rain most of the day at work - as if the website were CNN and Dylan's career were the Middle East - and owns 130 Dylan albums, including a fourteen-CD box of every single thing Dylan recorded during 1965 apart from - get this - Highway 61 Revisited, the only thing he recorded during 1965 that sane people would want to own. He's pretty keen.)
- p46

'All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,' Walter Pater said, in one of the only lines of criticism that has ever meant anything to me (if I could write music, I'd never have bothered with books); music is such a pure form of self-expression, and lyrics, because they consist of words, are so impure, and songwriters, even great ones like [Aimee] Mann, find that, even though they can produce both, words will always let you down. One half of her art is aspiring towards the condition of the other half, and that must be weird, to feel so divinely inspired and so fallibly human, all at the same time.
- p58

Songs about drugs - especially songs that purport to be about girls but are 'really' about drugs - don't have the same appeal when you are no longer at school and there's no one you can explain the hidden meaning to. And jokes never really stand the test of airtime. (I have always felt slightly ambivalent about Randy Newman's work, brilliant though much of it is. How many times do you want to listen to a song satirizing bigotry, or the partiality of American congressional politics? Listening to Randy Newman over and over again is like reading The Grapes of Wrath twice a year: however much you care about the plight of America's migrant workers in the 1930s, there is surely only a certain amount of your soul and mental energy you can devote to them.)
- p60
- Nick Hornby, 31 Songs; Penguin, 2003.

the birth of the spiritualist movement

Would you believe that modern spiritualism stemmed from a prank by two mischievous American sisters in 1848? That's according to Science and the Seance, which charts the development of spiritualist practice from the 19th century. In New York State, sisters Maggie and Kate Fox, aged 15 and 11, claimed mysterious rapping noises in their house emanated from a murdered pedlar. When all attempts to expose trickery failed, they became famous, hundreds of other mediums started popping up and the spiritualist movement was born. Within five years, the first spiritualist churches reached Britain. But 40 years later, Maggie admitted the noises were nothing more than the sisters covertly popping their toe joints!
- Radio Times, 27 August 2005.

giving up at scapa flow

The British Navy believed [Scapa Flow harbour, in WWII] was impregnable. Three torpedoes from a German U-boat told them otherwise, and 833 of the 1,200 men and boys on board died. Two survivors return to the base for the first time in 65 years. One of them remembered swimming alongside a shipmate in the freezing water. 'You're almost in despair, really. You know you can't swim forever. In the end he said, 'Oh, bollocks to this,' and disappeared underwater. That frightened me more than anything else did.' But he kept swimming.
- Guardian, 15 August 2005, TV review of Coast.

specialist subject: stating the obvious

Yesterday's headline in the Evening Standard was, 'Diana's crash *was* an accident'.
Disappointingly, today's headline wasn't, 'Elvis Presley *is* dead'.

Thursday, 25 August 2005

you won't believe this but...

I'm always struck by the number of people who tell me they've always fancied being a writer and would have got round to it if only they'd had the time. They just assume they would have the talent.
- p5

Like myself, Humph [Humphrey Lyttelton] is in his anecdotage and told us that he had been relating for years the story of how he had played outside Buckingham Palace on VE Day. He admitted that he had told that story so often he had no idea whether it was true or not. Two members of his band, devoted radio buffs, tracked down a recording, transcribed on to tape, upon which you can clearly hear him playing his trumpet behind commentator Howard Marshall. Humph said he was thrilled to have confirmation that it did really happen.
- p83

You can't have everything. I mean, where would you put it?
- p102

A strange process takes place in the learning of lines. ... most actors - using the word in the unisex sense - seem to absorb the lines in conjunction with the moves the director gives them. If you're going through a door, you tend to remember the lines you say as you do so. My friend Robert Powell ... told me he was rehearsing a play called Tovarich at Chichester. ... He was appearing with Natalia Makarova, the former ballerina assoluta, who now performs as an actress and singer. ... At the dress rehearsals, he suddenly realised that Makarova wasn't standing where she should be, but behind him. He stopped and asked what she was doing.
'I'm a free spirit, darling; I go where I please,' she replied.
'All right,' said Bob, 'what's your next line?'
She couldn't remember. But once she went back to her original position, the line returned.
- p170

Someone once accused Stephen Fry of patronising them, upon which he put his arm around them and, smiling patiently, said, 'No, no. Let me tell you what patronising *really* means.'
It was also Stephen who met a man who said, 'I wish I had a tenth of your talent.'
Stephen replied, 'Your wish has been granted.'
- p173

[Bud Flanagan] must have sung his theme songs 'Underneath the Arches' and 'Strolling' hundreds of times. I asked him if he ever got tired of them and bored with the endless repetition. 'Of course,' he said, 'but I run a shop and, if the customers come in and I haven't got what they want, I'm out of business.' ...
When I was a young comic, I would sometimes make smart-arsed remarks about the smallness of the audience. An older performer took me to one side. 'Never make fun of them,' he said, 'they're the ones who have come to see you.'
Willie Rushton's favourite pieces of advice were: first, never go to a dentist with blood in his hair; and, secondly, never holiday in a country where they still point at planes.
- p188

[Arthur Askey] developed gangrene and had his leg amputated. I visited him in St Thomas's Hospital. Ever ebullient, he greeted me. He showed me a telegram he had received from an old friend. It read: 'Have got you the part of Long John Silver in the tour of Treasure Island'. Arthur was much amused. Tragically, his condition worsened and he lost his other leg. I went to see him again, desperately putting on a cheerful face. I entered his room. He lay in bed. The sheets were heartbreakingly flat. And he was laughing and said, 'You remember that man who sent me the telegram?' I did. 'He's sent me another one,' he said, and showed it to me. It said: 'Calm down, you've got the job.'
- p192

I was told this joke by a blind man. There was a blind parachutist who did jumps for charity. Someone asked him how he knew when he was getting near the ground. 'The lead on my guide dog goes slack,' he said.
- p194

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders tell the story of giving their autographs to two women at an airport. After assuring them how much they enjoyed their work, the women moved away. As they did so, Dawn and Jennifer heard one say, after looking at the signatures, 'Still none the wiser.'
Michael Parkinson was sitting in a Manchester store, at a book-signing session. Two women stood close by. Finally, after studying him closely, one said to the other, 'He doesn't take daylight, does he?'
- p195

My first employer, David Nixon, told me a story of the early days of What's My Line? on BBC television. One of his fellow panellists was Gilbert Harding, an irascible, gifted man with a huge reputation. They came out of the stage door one night to be confronted by a crowd of autograph hunters. As Gilbert fumbled in his pocket, he heard someone say, "You'd think he'd have a pen.'
The next week, he said to David, 'I'm prepared,' and took out a pen.
They went out through the door and a voice said, 'Look at him with his pen out!'
- p196

- Barry Cryer, You Won't Believe This But...; Virgin, 1999.


When I was at Aberdeen I saw a production of Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard I think, by a company led by Ian McKellen, and part of their thing was that they had no set staging, so the actors moved wherever they felt like it each night.

One summer I stayed in Aberdeen - either before third year or fourth year - working in a fish factory for a few weeks, and I went down to the Festival for three weekends (I'd actually bought tickets for another weekend's worth of shows - I bought all my tickets in advance, it was a meticulously planned operation - but my father suggested I should come home for the Stornoway communions, which I did, and in fact that weekend was when I joined the church. I still have those unused tickets, including one for Mullarkey and Myers, who were a double act. I wonder whatever happened to Mike Myers.). Quite a number of the shows I went to had small audiences - I think the first one I went to (on the first Friday evening after I got off the bus) was a Christian sketch show at which there were only two of us in the audience (me and a psychiatric nurse, Australian if I remember rightly). I remember two comedians treating their small audiences very differently - one American plainly hated it and kept making comments to the offstage fellow comedians, seeking solidarity with them as if the audience were the enemy, while one from Liverpool created his solidarity with us, making us a little gang, saying we should swop addresses, keep in touch and have reunions. The latter, unsurprisingly, was a much more enjoyable experience for everyone concerned.

Sunday, 21 August 2005

dream a little dream of me

So, a CD by Mama Cass. File under M, C or E (Elliot, her surname)? My life is so very complicated.

loneliness won't leave me alone, life going nowhere

One of John's CD reviews in Word kept me awake wondering where I'd heard 'this loneliness won't leave me alone' before, which was a lyric quoted from the CD. In the morning I remembered the tune for the line, but still couldn't place it, so ended up googling it - Dock of the Bay is where I knew it from. Googling it, while meaning admitting defeat, also meant I saw that it was in the lyrics of Many Rivers To Cross, and I was amazed to see that Many Rivers To Cross also included mention of 'the white cliffs of Dover', which wasn't what I would have expected.

It's quite recently that I realised that what the Bee Gees are singing in the section near the end of the brash, cocky Stayin' Alive ('you can tell by the way I use my walk I'm a woman's man, no time to talk') is 'I'm going nowhere, somebody help me'. (Online lyrics I've just looked at suggest it is in fact 'Life going nowhere'.)

Wednesday, 17 August 2005

'current reading'

I'm the kind of person who reads several books at a time, of different kinds and to suit different moods. At New Year of 2003 I decided I should round up all the books I had bookmarks in. I was still finding them in the summer. I've done the same at subsequent New Years.

1 January 2003 - 33 books, including some I’d been ‘reading’ for years.
1 January 2004 - 23 books, 20 of which had been on the 2003 list.
1 January 2005 - 15 books, 8 of which had been on the 2003 list (and none of which were new additions on the 2004 list).

The trend is in the right direction, but I still haven’t finished any of the 2003 Eight yet this year.

The Eight: Oxford Dictionary of Popes; John Keegan - A History of Warfare; David Groves - Hogg: Birth of a Writer; The Times London History Atlas; Walter Scott - Old Mortality; Iain Murray - Martyn Lloyd-Jones Vol 2; William Cowper - Poetical Works; Hugh Miller - My Schools and Schoolmasters. Of those, three don’t lend themselves to speedy headway, four are fat books I’m in the middle of, and one is one I’ll have to start again as it’s been so long since I picked it up.

Tuesday, 16 August 2005

robin cook

The obituaries of Robin Cook gave me a chance to scan the internet again for something. I heard a bit of Desert Island Discs when he was on it, and was sure I remembered a reference to some kind of Christian background, but couldn't find any reference to it subsequently when I searched online some time later.

But the Daily Telegraph obituary includes this: 'Robert Finlayson Cook was born on February 28 1946 at Bellshill, Lanarkshire, the son of Peter Cook, a headmaster, and his wife Christina. He was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School, Edinburgh Royal High School and Edinburgh University, where he read English Literature. He intended to become a Church of Scotland minister, but lost his faith as he discovered politics; his student sparring partners included another future Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, and he chaired the Scottish Association of Labour Student Organisations.'

While searching for that this time, I also discovered that James Callaghan met his wife through his being a Sunday School teacher in his Baptist church.

Monday, 15 August 2005

but are you a protestant jew or a catholic jew?

(being the punchline to the joke of the man being approached in dark Belfast street by threatening gang and being asked 'Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?' and replying 'I'm Jewish.')

Loyalist and Republican terrorists in Northern Ireland were (let's say were) sometimes described as being from the Protestant or Catholic communities, but they would rarely be described (by either friends or enemies of religion or their cause) as Christians.

Part of the linguistic problem, I think, in relation to 'Islamic terrorism' is that the language and terms haven't developed to help Muslims, secular or religious, to distance themselves from the terrorists and not be identified with them. An unknown (to me) proportion of Muslims will be secular Muslims or people from a Muslim background - just as not all those who identify themselves as Christian in the census surely contain a proportion who do not consider themselves to be faithful or practicing Christians, however broad one's definition. Unless one believes that the UK is indeed 71% Christian.

Of course part of the difference is that the Islamic terrorists do believe they are faithful believers (or Islamist - I haven't grasped whether there is a preferred acceptable usage, and whether the distinction is intented to imply quotation marks as opposed to faithful believers). Which I guess makes their nearest Western Christian equivalent those American Christians (or 'Christians') who attack abortion clinics and murder people who work there. How does the Christian community distance itself from them, in its use of language? (I've just visited a very unpleasant website which embraces them. I don't expect the Christians behind that website view equivalent websites by Muslims inciting murder in quite the same way as their own.)

An interesting thing I've seen in a couple of reports and interviews is where Muslims say that obeying their faith and its laws is a higher requirement than obeying the law of the land, and that Western culture is decadent, immoral and materialistic; I think many reasonable Christians asked similar questions would give similar answers.

That's not very clear, but it's clearer than when I started. You should see the other guy.

7 July

7 July was a Thursday, so my day with the younger generation, but we didn’t go to Chipper Club in the morning as we were spending the day getting ready for going off on holiday that evening. We popped out to the shops a couple of times, but spent most of the day watching/listening to events unfolding. The sirens were noticeable, and the absence of buses a little noticeable; the most unusual thing I saw was in the shopping centre, the group of people standing outside the shop with the tellies in the window, watching the news pictures and ticker tape. I'd never seen that actually happen outside old black and white films and newsreels.

We drove up to Leeds that evening, a reverse journey to that taken by some of the bombers just that morning.

james doohan

James Doohan died last month. The most interesting thing I read after his death was that he lost a finger, shot off, when landing on the Canadian beach on D-Day (he was Canadian, not American - or Scottish, but you knew that), and its absence is only noticeable in two episodes of Star Trek.

his life expresses a demand

Why did Socrates compare himself to a gad-fly?
Because he only wished to have ethical significance. He did not wish to be admired as a genius standing apart from others, and fundamentally, therefore, make the lives of others easy, because they could then say, 'it is all very well for him, he is a genius.' No, he only did what every man can do, he only understood what every man can understand. Therein lies the epigram. He bit hard into the individual man, continually enforcing him and irritating him with this 'universal'. He was a gad-fly who provoked people by means of the individual's passion, not allowing him to admire indolently and effeminately but demanding his self of him. If a man has ethical power people like to make him into a genius, simply to be rid of him; because his life expresses a demand.
- p97, Kierkegaard Journals

Sunday, 14 August 2005

hebridean celtic festival - the experience

The audiences at the concerts in the tent were probably the least attentive I have experienced - lots of chat and milling about between and during the songs, lots of people not even in the tent. I got the impression that for a significant number of people the performances were just background music for a night out drinking with pals. Some of it might also have been the 'we were there' factor - not that keen on, or not really familiar with, Van Morrison, but we were there the night he played Stornoway. Also, if you go to a concert in London, say, it's because you want to be at that particular concert, because there are scores of concerts you can choose from; if you want to hear live music in Lewis, there's less of a choice.

The instrumental acts were largely providing clubbing music with live musicians, in a context without dancing, which seemed odd to me. Clearly I was just too old. I bumped into Carol, who I'd been in school and Aberdeen with, at the end of Runrig, and we recognised the sobering fact that a large proportion of the people in the audience hadn't been born the first time we saw Runrig (over twenty years ago, while still at school). (Apart from Carol, I bumped into Kathleen and Martin, also at Runrigh, and that was it for the whole holiday really. I tend to recognise or half-recognise people, but generally conclude that it might not be them, or that I didn't know them that well, or that they won't remember me. I haven't really maintained many Lewis links beyond family. I've certainly now reached the point where I've lived in London for longer than I lived in Lewis.)

And a depressing proportion of the audience seemed to be drunk teenagers.

I wouldn't make another effort to plan a Lewis holiday around the festival, unless they developed a town hall programme of concerts in parallel with the tent concerts.

Part of my discomfort may have been knowing that I might have been just the same. I certainly wasn't keen on Echo and the Bunnymen when they played the Caledonian Hotel in Stornoway when I was in school, but I was there. Although I was listening. Festival concerts might just have been a night out with pals and drinking (illicit or otherwise). (I don't know if it's still the case that you can get tickets to wedding dances on Saturday nights, weddings of people you'd never met - younger family members would get fistfuls of tickets to disperse, and you might just get in at the door anyway. Which must have been odd for the happy couple.)

It struck me that my view and experience (of the festival, and probably of all my visits to Lewis) was being distorted by the fact that my memories and resonances are largely linked to schooldays. Friends who never left, or who moved back after studies, , or who maintained better links with friends, have built up a bank of memories and associations at age 24, 27, 30, 32, 35... my core memories stop at 17. So the people in the crowd I make the mental associations with are the schoolkids, which makes no sense.

You can also easily see how people can get caught up in regret or bitterness about the past, or trying to recapture their youth by hanging onto youth culture - thinking, say, about what their youth would have been like if they'd had the things the youth of today have, like a livelier music/culture scene. Forward, not back.

Tuesday, 9 August 2005

against the law, apparently

For Buford Posey, a white man raised in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the second world war had a civilising influence. 'When I was coming up in Mississippi I never knew it was against the law to kill a black man,' he says. 'I learned that when I went in the army. I was 17 years old. When they told me I thought they were joking.'
- Guardian, 11 June 2005, p17

this is the modern world

The most remote inhabited island on Earth, Tristan Da Cunha, an overseas territory of the UK which takes six days to reach by boat from Cape Town, has been assigned a postcode: TDCU 1ZZ. [But why, Iain, why?] The island's 276 inhabitants asked the Royal Mail to help after being unable to shop online without a postcode.
- Guardian, Monday 8 August 2005.

Monday, 8 August 2005

hebridean celtic festival - the concerts

We planned our holiday to coincide with the Hebridean Celtic Festival for the first time.

The most enjoyable concert we went to was the first, in the Town Hall rather than the marquee, which featured Seamus Begley & Jim Murray and James Graham. I'm not sure why they don't have a Town Hall alternative concert on the Thu-Sat nights. According to Jim Murray, who was a very good guitar player from Cork, people from Cork are famously big-headed, and he told this joke: Did you hear about the Cork man who had an inferiority complex? He thought he was just the same as everyone else.

Thursday night was Van Morrison, supported by Blas (before) and Xosé Manuel Budiño (after, to accommodate Van's flight departure). Blas were quite good, but the audience were inattentive. Xosé was a Spanish piper who had a band and a lot of backing tapes (which seemed to be why they took about an hour to set up), and obviously thought he was God's gift to bagpipe-loving women. As someone once marvellously said of Graeme Souness, if he was made of chocolate, he'd eat himself. His manner was off-putting, the tapes were noisy, the playing was nothing special, and we left before too long.

Van is famously curmudgeonly and unpredictable, and when we saw him at the Fleadh years ago he was in a dull noodly jazz phase. This time, however, he had a more traditional jazz band, with a brass section, and he played the hits. (Setlist: Celtic Swing, Have I Told You Lately(Las Vegas version), Days Like This, Stop Drinking, Bright Side Of The Road, All Work And No Play, Baby Please Don't Go, All Saints Day, Moondance, Here Comes The Night, Jackie Wilson Said, Cleaning Windows, Back On Top, Don't Worry About A Thing, Wonderful Remark, Help Me, Irish Heartbeat, Celtic New Year, Precious Time, Northern Muse(Solid Ground), Star Of The County Down, Brown Eyed Girl, E:Gloria.) The band were good, though most of Van's on-stage speaking involved shouting at them (it was obviously a flexible set list). He did mumble a couple of things to the audience, including the word 'Stornoway', so everyone was happy. A pleasant surprise.

Friday night was Runrig supported by the Peatbog Faeries. The PFs were okay - amplified ceilidh music with another brass section. Runrig packed in a lot of songs, and unusually had hardly any between-song chat. I enjoyed them more last time I saw them; I think they played more from the traditional angle that time, perhaps you have to adjust your set for a festival crowd.

Saturday night, which Bethan didn't come to, was Shooglenifty supported by Mark Saul. Mark Saul was an Australian piper, with a smaller band and also backing tapes - more interesting than Xose, but could still have done without the backing tape. In both cases, most of the musical and audience energy seemed to be generated by what was on the tape rather than what was being played live, which is such a cheat. Shooglenifty were trailed as 'techno ceilidh, acid croft, hypnofolkadelica', but it sounded rather like the PFs to me, just amplified ceilidh music with different instruments. But I did leave before the end.