Thursday, August 31, 2006

Tove Jansson - Bergman for Kids

BBC7's Summer Book is a celebration of the extraordinary work of one of the great authors of children's literature, Tove Jansson.

One of Finland's Swedish minority, Jansson's life after success with the Moomin phenomenon was conducted in demi-reclusive homebodiness on an island in the Gulf of Finland.
Tove, of course, is the name of the doomed heroine of the great Gurre poetic cycle by the Danish proto-Symbolist J.P.Jacobsen, one of the great forgotten works of European late Romanticism and immortalised by Schoenberg's magnificent and megalomaniacally huge setting - and Jansson's works share a predilection for nature and loneliness. But they are Romantic on a private level. Indeed they probably have inducted generations of children into the exisential idea of what constitues the private.

Nobody who 'gets' Jansson's work as a child is ever likely to forget them, for they are singularly adult in tone and feel. They are nothing less than Bergmanesque. This ain't Pippi Longstocking territory.

Beyond the Moomin family, all characters, more or less derived from Scandinavian folklore are loners. The WH Davies-derived Snufkin; the fantastically tantrumy midget Little My; and most hauntingly, the swarms of electrically-charged deaf-and-dumb willothewisps called Hattifattener, that can be grown from seeds and are forever asail except for a midsummer (what else?) gathering to worship an aneroid barometer. Equinoctial, pagan, white nights, the poetry of the Stockholm skerries.

The bucolic, petit-bourgeois domesticity of Finn Family Moomintroll (1948) - the Hattifatteners' finest and funniest moment - is analogous to Bergman's Smiles of A Summer Night, as are episodes of Moominsummer Madness , which has Fellini-esque overtones in its tale of a theatre proscenium swept away and recolonised after a summer flood. There are maniacal parkies, hysterics, clowns, rendered in a kind of sub-surreal, rodently bestiary. All the while there are hints of bourgeois repression - Moominpappa, the patriarch, perhaps an affectionate echo of Jansson's sculptor father Viktor, wears a stovepipe hat - and a constant striving against dun-coloured orthodoxy.But much of the rest of Jansson's output is much, much darker, a quietist sigh in an autumnal dusk. Tales from Moominvalley (1962) contains a series of vignettes, with titles like 'The Fillyjonk Who Believed In Disasters', 'The Last Dragon in the World' and 'The Hemulen Who Loved Silence' - almost impossibly sad writing, and even outdoes the heartbreaking, Andersenish story of the lost toy 'Cedric' because of a rare note of sentimentality which creeps in to close the latter. Moominvalley In November is almost unrelievedly miserabilist, and stunning. The Moomins have almost ceased to exist by now, and are treated practically as memories by friends who have previously been marginal characters in other books, and are waiting in rain and cold for the family's return.

It is all pinewoods, lone Friedrichesque figures on Baltic beaches in thin rain, mirroring Nordico-Romantic nature worship and sea worship - one considers the sea-music of Swedish composers from Alfven to Nystroem. Inwardly, it is all reflection - unlike any children's literature this writer knows.

The deceptively calm beauty of Moominland Midwinter (Trollvinter, 1957) uses the cute and smart conceit of the Everyman hero, the young Moomintroll, awaking irreparably from his winter hibernation into the Arctic darkness and having to adapt; the homeliness of the stoves-and-shelves surroundings of FFM alluded to with knowing mastery but they have become shadowy, alien, his sleeping family beings from another world. Very little happens in Moominland Midwinter, save for Moomintroll's slow feeling his way through a world known yet unknown, and evoked with precise, economical and always beautiful prose. In MM you want to turn up the thermostat every time the book is opened.

Jansson, tenebrous as her worldview might be, is even masterful at handling brightness; her evocation of femininity in the characters of Moominmamma and, most of all, the Snork Maiden, are tender and delightful and even arousing. I didn't know I wanted a girlfriend until, at the age of 9, I read Comet In Moominland, the first, raciest and most Hollywoodian of Jansson's oeuvre (1946, published as Kometjakten, a remnant of a putative film script?) - meteors, giant squids, nutty professors. When I read Jansson's description of the Snork Maiden's character - she changed colour depending on her level of pleasure - I knew things weren't going to be same again. The sensuality of chapter four of Moominsummer Madness - where the Snork Maiden discusses beauty, hair and the necessity of wearing frocks, grooming and sexual display with two other female characters - basically, girl-talk between three adolescents getting dressed - is almost embarrassing.

Tellingly, the enchanting, feisty Snork Maiden appears less and less as the stories darken. She isn't to be found in November or Tales. Nor in the enduring image (Jansson was a fine illustrator) of the Moomin family, staring blankly up at the (no doubt intentionally iconic post-Gibson/Woolf) lighthouse where they spend the whole of the thoroughly strange Moominpappa at Sea (Pappan och havet, Father and the Sea, 1965 - how Bergmanesque is that?). The chill of abandonment, of being watched by Death comes off the pages; this could be The Light at the Edge of the World, or Gibson's Flannan Isle. It's more than both. It is a masterwork.

Bergman for kids? Oh yes. These books scared, moved and spooked me then; they still do now.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

I'm Spartacus! Pecs and the Cold War

In 1957 Sputnik soared up through the troposphere to its shiny half-hour of fame. Around the same time the Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian was putting the finishing touches to a cyclopean ballet score, a four-hour epic detailing the struggle (a big word in Krushchev-land, remember) of the Roman slave Spartacus - interestingly, although quite coincidentally, at the same time as Hollywood's own take.

The original Jacobsen production fizzled; only Grigorovitch's reduced revision in 1968 made it the international hit and box-office bling that the Bolshoi toured for years.

Watching it - on the 1985 video with Mukhamedov and Bessmertnova - one is struck by the gayness of it all and how on earth the Politburo didn't intervene. Freddie Mercury would cringe at the mincing campness of Crassus. But maybe they didn't because it's a thing of wonder, an astonishing feat of choreography, and also utterly symbolic of the time and place of its conception and gestation. It manages to be propaganda, period piece and art at once. And yes, Khachaturian's score is 80 years behind the times - but that doesn't stop it being absolutely glorious.

Grigorovitch's symbolism is (sorry) crass - goosestepping legionaries, promiscuously decadent shagging and shimmying (Charlotte Kasner's article on in July 2004 was the best piece ever written about Spartacus ). But wait, listen to the music - it shimmers and sparkles, lots of tuned percussion, divisi strings outdoing Korngold - like the ballet, it is all brash broad- brush. Like all Socialist Realism, it ostensibly echews subtlety in favour of rhetoric, bold technique and screw everything else - but as with the best Socialist Realism, it elevates craft in the service of well-turned melody and a mastery of tension and release. Of course it isn't great music, it is much more acceptable than Western critics would have us believe. Of course it's bombastic - that's the point. Do we decry Tiomkin or Steiner's film music for bombast? We do not. Is anything by Minkus memorable? Who actually wrote the score to Giselle? How many people know?

Of course they weren't communists, and therefore don't receive the usual critical innuendoes. It's probably naive to assume that Khachaturian's blastingly virtuosic, look-at-me-ma score and its freakish energy and gongs and sweeping harp glissandi was anything but paradigmatical of contemporary Soviet propaganda (you might not able to buy bathplugs, but listen to what the USSR can create!). But boy, does it do its job. It leaves anyone with even half a heart emotionally drained. It shines like Sputnik's steel - it has the relentless athleticism of the contemporary great Soviet distance trackmen, Kuts and Bolotnikov.

Of course it's kitsch - as if Hollywood's pecs and brass fanfares weren't coincident American posturing. The chariot race in Ben Hur and the multiple entrances of the (naturally)-red-clad Spartacus are spiritually one. Of course I prefer the latter - Grigorovitch's spectacular conjuring of Spartacus at the end of Act One as the slaves unite and the orchestra breaks out in blazing brass triplets - a moment that brings audible yells of delight from the Bolshoi faithful - and the famous death scene with the thicket of spears are unforgettable. Pure entertainment. That's all.

Both the Hollywood movie and Khachaturian's ballet got up and said 'I'm Spartacus' on behalf of their respective cultures.

Note to lovers of Socialist Realist musical OTT-ness ; Kha's 3rd.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

martin johnson speaks da truth - duh!

You have to love him even when you don't wanna. Take a bow, Martin Johnson from today's Bellylaugh.

This guy is sometimes so good he makes me want to hang myself- such technical assurance. Over tio you, MJ.


It would be no great surprise to discover that the one man who has ended up carrying the can for the Pakistani ball-tampering affair had no greater influence on his team's behaviour than an enthusiastic endorsement of prolonging the tea interval. Inzamam-ul-Haq has a long history of tampering, but only with the food supplies, and a rigorous forensic examination would probably find nothing more suspicious underneath his fingernails than traces of jam roly-poly.
The Pakistan captain faces a lengthy ban when the International Cricket Council convene to try his case on Friday, even though his non-confrontational nature suggests that the dressing-room sit-in was orchestrated by higher ranking officials from his own cricket board. Inzi did once wade into a crowd in Toronto when a spectator called him a "potato", but his general deportment is such that you could replace him at first slip with an exhibit from Madame Tussauds without being able to tell the difference.
And so it was on Sunday. His only reaction to the ball change was to look vaguely puzzled, and it was only when the players came off for bad light, and tea, that events took a more serious turn. Had it been Javed Miandad in charge, who seldom spotted a potential fire without wading in with a can of petrol, they'd probably have had to use the waste pipe on the motorised water mop as a riot cannon.
It is not too fanciful to suggest that if this business had involved a non-white umpire there would not have been quite such a volatile reaction. Darrell Hair is perceived in Pakistan as a symbol of old-style colonial arrogance, with a previous history of picking on players (Muttiah Muralitharan being the best known example) from the sub-continent. In other parts of the world, however, the only real criticism of Hair is that, in terms of considering the wider implications of a decision, he shoots first and asks questions later.
On the other hand, Hair can justifiably point to the fact that he was merely implementing prescribed procedure, and that cricket's law makers rarely allow much scope for individual discretion. The England and Wales Cricket Board once issued an edict that all pitches in county cricket must start "straw coloured", which was almost as barmy as the ICC's present rule book on umpires' dress code. During the last World Cup, Neil Mallender was given top marks for his decision-making, but docked five points for having two sun hats (one belonging to the bowler) on the top of his head. There is, for those who don't know it, an official ICC belt clip for the hanging of extra sun hats.
If the ICC have led by example in wearing only one hat down the years, it has largely been of the circus clown's variety. During the 1992 Pakistani ball-tampering affair, the one statement they issued not containing the words "no comment" was that they were refusing to produce in evidence a ball that had been confiscated by the umpires on the grounds that it would be "prejudicial". In truth, they had no idea where it was. It had, in fact, been pocketed by the third umpire, Don Oslear, and the offending projectile now resides in a bungalow in Cleethorpes.
The hardest thing of all to fathom, though, is quite why cricket should continually be getting embroiled in controversy over an offence that many would view as the equivalent of bringing back the death penalty for parking on a double yellow line. Bowlers have been fiddling with the ball since the days of top hats and curved bats, and one England seamer of Sixties vintage, who had fingernails like an electric can opener, could sharpen a seam, with a single one-handed twirl, to the point where he could have shaved with it.
During Sky TV's Sunday afternoon broadcast, they bravely refrained from introducing one of their panellists as an expert on ball interference, though the Michael Atherton dirt-in-the-pocket business once again generated a hue and cry beyond all balance of proportion. The lightest note came when Graham Gooch first discovered the match referee was investigating some kind of suspicious activity, and said to his team-mates: "Well, it can't be us doing anything because their batsmen are smashing it all over the park."
The answer to all this would be for the ICC to downgrade ball-tampering from its hanging offence category, but you have to wonder about common sense being embraced by any ruling body that can clamp down on an umpire for wearing two sun hats. In the meantime, Hair resumes his umpiring in a second XI game at Chesterfield next Wednesday, and Derbyshire's bowlers will doubtless be preparing for the game - behind locked bathroom doors - with a pair of nail clippers.


Now that's what I call journalism

Geoffrey Wheatcroft article

From today's Observer.

As our damp little island descends sniggering beneath the waves of history, we can console ourselves that we leave behind a number of irreducible legacies to mankind. Although it would be nice (if maybe optimistic) to think that they include representative government and the rule of law, there's no arguing about the importance of our language, now the global lingua franca.
Nor is there about another legacy: organised team games. These are now in some ways the most important single residue of the Victorian age, almost certainly ranking higher in terms of global human consciousness than any language or political system, a common cultural interest shared by more people on Earth than any other. These games were also originally meant to carry a moral message about sportsmanship and the fostering of harmony among men.
As we have seen in the lurid fiasco at the Oval and its continuing repercussions, up to the latest revelations about Darrell Hair's grotesque demand for a golden handshake, the story turned out to be a good deal more complicated than that.
The sheer worldwide conquest of games from this island is amazing. Not only is rugby played in every continent; what Americans call football is distantly but visibly descended from it. Different public schools used to play their versions of football, until the historic day in 1863 when a group of sportsmen from Oxford and Cambridge met in a London pub to lay down a common code for a 'game of 11 men against 11' to be known as Association Football. As AJP Taylor said: 'By it, the mark of England may well remain in the world when the rest of her influence has vanished.'
Cricket had been codified well before that and, although it never spread to every country in the way that soccer did, it became the national sport of most countries which had been part of the British Empire, countries which, in some respects, became, and remain, more English than England. Without question, the world's great centre of the game nowadays is the Indian subcontinent.
We now tend to smile at 'sportsmanship' and the idea that playing games is character-building. Derision is appropriate enough when you see the orgy of cheating which professional sport has so often become. But that sporting spirit was once taken very seriously indeed and not only by the English.
In 1883, on his way to the epiphany which would see him create the modern Olympics, Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin visited Rugby school and fell on his knees before the tomb of the great Dr Arnold. Although Arnold had, in fact, been a far from uncritical admirer of the religion of games, he stood in de Coubertin's eyes for the athletic ideal, and the régime arnoldien was to be a model for France, a means by which de Coubertin's fallen country could be 'rebronzed' after the humiliating defeat by Prussia.
Theodor Herzl, author of The Jewish State, the book which helped launch political Zionism in 1896, hoped that manly English sports would be played in that state he dreamed of. This conjunction of sport and nationalism was very much part of that age; not long before, the revival of Gaelic sports had begun, to purify Ireland of foreign games and Englishness in general; it was a portent.
Maybe de Coubertin and Herzl now seem innocents. There has always been an 'English imposture', the pretence that we are a uniquely decent and restrained people, despite a good deal of evidence to the contrary. But this cult of sportsmanship played its part in the imposture, very successfully, to the extent that others were taken in (the English for 'die Schadenfreude 'is 'schadenfreude', the German for 'fair play' is 'die Fair-play'.)
That was far from the whole truth even at the time. In the earliest golden age of cricket, which was supposedly also the heyday of the sporting spirit and fair play, the first sportsman to be a national figure was WG Grace, a man who well-nigh invented 'gamesmanship' and who ended a long career as an amateur cricketer flagrantly richer than he began it.
But the real snag was that by providing a focus for collective endeavour and identity, team games encouraged darker human emotions. As George Orwell famously said, far from spreading the brotherhood of man, 'sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will', not to say sheer hatred, from the 'bodyline' cricket controversy when England were playing in Australia in 1933 to the 1936 Berlin Olympics to the Moscow Dynamo tour of England in 1945 which was Orwell's peg.
Even if 'unfailing' is typical Orwellian exaggeration, no one can deny some truth in what he said. Football matches can be uplifting occasions. And they can be frankly vile, as anyone knows who once heard the Leeds crowd singing when a black player gets the ball: 'Trigger trigger trigger ... kill that nigger', or the Rangers and Celtic fans' reciprocal chants about 'Fenian blood' and IRA vengeance, or the Highbury lads greeting their neighbours from Spurs: 'I've never felt more like gassing the Jews/When Tottenham win and Arsenal lose.'
Not that this country is unique in communal identity of teams. Herzl's dream came true: English sports are, indeed, played in Israel, where football is a reigning passion and where the clubs still carry the affiliations of their Zionist origins. Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister, who was brought up in the right-wing revisionist tradition, is by no accident a supporter of Beitar Jerusalem, which bears the name of the militant uniformed youth movement created in the 1920s.
What happened at the Oval showed two sides of the coin. On the one, there is 'tribal feeling' or, at any rate, wounded national pride, with all too many echoes of the imperial past and anti-colonial resentment: a team of brown men (and Muslims) is accused of underhand play by a white umpire, albeit Australian. The intractable confrontation painfully illustrates Orwell's thesis that organised sport 'is bound up with the rise of nationalism - that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with larger power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige'.
On the other, it is at least possible that Inzamam-ul-Haq and his team are sincere in their injured anger when he says that 'the pride of the nation has been hurt'. What's done to a cricket ball is not straightforward cheating, like a footballer diving to win a penalty or one rugby player tripping another. Fast bowlers have always polished the ball and spinners have discreetly scuffed it. When the Pakistanis first mastered the dark art of reverse swing, part of the trick seems to have been to shine one side of the ball and load the other with sweat. Moral philosophers of a sporting bent may debate whether that is 'tampering'.
But it really would be racist to suppose that Asian Muslims - or Hindus or Sikhs - cannot understand 'the spirit of cricket' toasted at countless banquets or that they are incapable of sportsmanship, even if it hadn't turned out that they have nothing to learn about gentlemanly conduct from the overbearing Australian at the eye of this storm. It's notorious that the last place you can meet what used to be thought of as an English gentleman is in the officers' mess of the Indian or Pakistani armies. In his great cricket book, Beyond a Boundary, Marxist writer CLR James recalled how in his Trinidadian boyhood, to play 'like an Englishman' had been the highest praise. We might take that as a compliment, even if it sometimes means playing like Dr Grace.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

More sentimentality

Sentimentality? Well, what a surprise.

Just for a change.

Stump posts lyric based on nostalgia and, plus war. Who'da thunk of it?

Also tired and disappointed that Clythalady was not at the Clytha's fantastic beer and cheese fest. Nettle cheese rules the world.

In this respect Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin's impossibly lovely 1944 Long Ago and Far Away from Cover Girl just about fits current mood of yearning and sehnsucht.

Classic GI fodder, this movie, nicely done to suit GI's girls also. Slippery relations between minor andf major keys bla bla bla.... also happens to be a splendid song. Jo Stafford does it best IMHO. Kern's mitteleurop heritage - Straus (O), Korngold meets the blues by accidental accident. Can even a supernatural being think of a better combination? That's real music, already.

How many potential Kerns perished after 38?

Long ago and far away
I dreamed a dream one day
And now that dream is here beside me

Long the stars were overcast
But now the clouds have passed
You're here at last

Chills run up and down my spine
Aladdin's lamp is mine
The dream I dreamed was not denied me

Just one look and then I knew
That all I longed for long ago was you.

Kern, Gershwin, 1944.

Aaaaah! Bless.... you can just hear the homecomer's boots coming down the gangplank.


Friday, August 25, 2006

Sexton Ming Is Brilliant

Sexton Ming is brilliant. He's not Julie London - he doesn't have tits. He can't sing very well. But to anyone interested in different music he is one of Britain's major talents. To anyone who has googled Sexton - he is brilliant. And I've never met him but I think his records are great.

Prog Fan's Disco Top Ten

Disco sucked? Well, like most music, most of it did

except these.

1. Gloria Gaynor/Never Can Say Goodbye (one of the best singles EVER. Full stop)
2.Michael Jackson/Off The Wall
3.Funkadelic/One Nation Under A Groove
4.Chaka Khan/I Feel For You (does the language have anything to describe the bassline?)
5.Tavares/Don't Take Away The Music
6.Heatwave/Boogie Nights
7.Abba/Dancing Queen (disco track. Don't argue)
8.EWF: September
9.Dan Hartman: Instant Replay
10.Donna Summer: McArthur Park (OK, bad remake. But not a bad groove)

This list subject to change. Maybe daily.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

See If I Care Part 2

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have lie portion in us after
We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes,
Within a dream.
ERNEST DOWSON (1867-1900)

read it and weep, or laugh, see if I care

Cease smiling, Dear! a little while be sad,
Here in the silence, under the wan moon.
Sweet are thine eyes, but how can I be glad,
Knowing they change so soon?
O could this moment be perpetuate!
Must we grow old, and leaden-eyed and gray
And taste no more the wild and passionate
Love sorrows of to-day?

O red pomegranate of thy perfect mouth!
My lips' life-fruitage might I taste and die,
Here to thy garden, where the scented south Wind chastens agony;
Reap death from thy live lips in one long kiss,
And look my last into thine eyes and rest:
What sweets had life to me sweeter than this Swift dying on thy breast?
Or, if that may not be, for Love's sake, Dear!
Keep silence still, and dream that we shall lie,
Red mouth to mouth, entwined, and always hear
The south wind's melody,
Here in thy garden, through the sighing boughs,
Beyond the reach of time and chance and change,
And bitter life and death, and broken vows,
That sadden and estrange.
ERNEST DOWSON (1867-1900)
Could do without the pomegranate bit, though.

Sarah Dempster's Flat

Great article in the Guardian today by Sarah Dempster about clutter, and its importance to anyone who even remotely considers themselves creative. She's also the author of a great piece on 'Guilty Pleasures' listening from May 2005.

10 Things

10 things to do before you're 40
1. Put Ian Paisley's mobile number into Paris Hilton's phone
2. Tell someone the way to Amarillo in such a way that they end up in Taunton
3. Clean out the little raft of matted hair from inside of the bathplug overflow hole
4. Lead torchlit party to hunt down Jonathan Ross like a dog
5. Barge drunkenly into a kids' football match, pile through the lot and score, boot the ball onto a nearby railway/through a cold frame and run off laughing
6. Reprogramme James Blunt to accompany every song on the spoons
7. Call occupants of interplanetary craft, tell them the Carpenters are no more
8. Actually enjoy sex
9. Covet thy neighbour's hydrangeas
10. Loosen the tops of the salt-shakers in the News International canteen

Kids' names

I've had to look it up again. I always have to. Yes, there WAS a guy in the USA squad at Germany 2006 called DaMarcus Beasley. Hang on. Better check. Yeah, that's his name.
How? Why? Won't someone tell me? What was wrong with Marcus? Hmmm... well, honey, what it needs is two letters attached to it whose relevance is at best spurious and if anyone questions it we'll invent some bullshit about culture and ancestry and Africa/the Celtic fringe.
Such motivations presumably attach to Aston Villa's Jlloyd Samuel who seems to be called that simply because someone put a J there - the same way that if someone but Scro in front of Tom Robinson's name he'd be ScroTom Robinson. Cute, huh?
As the cult of the child grows ever more powerful, many parents see them as little more than accoutrements to be displayed to a presumably wondering and respectful world. They are the human analogues of those tiresomely pretentious and ostentatious personalised number plates. Just as KEV 1N and 1RON scream 'I am interesting. Look at me', so does a -let's be frank - silly kid's name. Of course it actually screams pitiful ignorance and insecurity (BTW, would anyone like to put any money that the owner of the BMW registered with the latter is aware of the slang attribution of Iron? Thought not).
Naturally, when referring to shabby display, one turns to the Beckhams, the ne plus ultras; their firstborn, Brooklyn, was named for the place of his conception. Aside of the incredible vanity and vulgarity of advertising the fact - if they'd said 'we just like the sound of it', everyone would be much more forgiving - scene-leaders that they are, they set a disturbing precedent for dolts everywhere.
Imagine, if you dare, your mates or neighbours calling their first born Ebbw Vale; but maybe that would be made up as a preferable alternative to Layby-Near-Llanfihangel Ystern-Llewern. Try yelling for him (or her) to come in for their tea.
And let's hope such a habit doesn't extend to Big Bone Lick (Kentucky), Anus (Burgundy) or Twatt (Orkneys).
Thirty years ago, the middle classes were rightly mocked for the pretentiousness of the likes of Casper and Tabitha; where is the righteous mockery of the new bourgeois now we need it most?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


So the hordes return from Germany - 300,000 England fans, some say. Is it too much to hope that the scales will have fallen from their eyes and they'll see that, contrary to media-derived preconceptions, Continental Europe is an immensely civilised place, full of public services that are efficient and cheap to use, liberal opening hours, sexual liberation and grown-up conversation. I.e. not only as good as Britain, but usually rather better (OK, I'm not talking about downtown Bratislava or the Silesian coalfields, but bear with me) and that becoming European might not be the nightmare it's made out to be. After all, reading the Sun or the Daily Mail for the last fifteen years makes closer European union sound so painful and degrading that it is something not unakin to genital mutilation. There may be a few more people coming home shaking their heads and saying, 'why can't we do that here?' The hospitals, the trains, the cleanliness.

Those of us fortunate enough to travel regularly on the Continent have known all this for years, of course; and it seems that more of us are coming round to the above conclusions. 65% of Britons want closer ties with Europe, according to a recent YouGov survey. Sadly, though, we don't vote with our feet; most of us holiday in places either Anglophone (USA, South Africa) or ostentatiously Brit-friendly (the Costas). Nowhere in Europe do fewer people command a second language than in Britain. No mainstream political party dare engage actively with Europe for fear of losing votes (Cameron's recent apparent statements to the contrary are pure guff; witness the Europhobic bye-election candidates elected by the party).

This is not a British disease. Anywhere on the Continent -apart from the Schuman district of Brussels - distrust and dislike of the EU are voiced - and the Euro is widely detested as being a tool of corporate power and globalised capitalism. But nowhere, if you voice any kind of Europhilia, are you still likely to get a punch up the fuckin' bracket, to employ our delightful patois. For example, speaking French well ( or as well as a high-school kid in Toulouse, Dijon or Marseille speaks English) is seen as 'unpatriotic' or just plain pretentious; the EU is routinely ridiculed as a new Nazi superstate (I mean, is it just me, or how stupid is that?). Often, of course, this fatuous gibberish usually issues from people who see nothing wrong with becoming a client state of the US, to the degree that we are bombed on our own soil for buddying up to Washington's latest craziness. An equal partnership in Europe, it seems, doesn't hold a candle to licking American ass to certain Brits. There are people out there with the right to vote who still believe that the EU imposes a Euro-culture inimical to local traditions. Anyone who has visited a village in Burgundy or Flanders knows what total bilge this is; when challenged with the Americanisation of British culture, a much more pernicious influence, EU critics are rendered speechless. But to be fair, that doesn't just affect us. If you ever want to really, really, REALLY piss off a Frenchman, tell him how like America the outskirts of all France's towns are.
Which is why the jaunt in the summer sun of the lovely cities of Germany (all right, apart from Dortmund) might have done some good to our jaundiced, prejudiced view of Europe. It may just have tempted more people to say 'screw the tabloids' and try the likes of the Bavarian Forest or, elsewhere, France's Ardèche or Slovakia's Tatra mountains. It may even have tempted a few to try and learn a foreign language.

Learning other languages is one of Britain's last taboos, seen as something on a par with deathbed granny-rape; perhaps understandable in a country whose grasp of English is getting weaker by the day. When we can't even be bothered with learning native grammar (do Welsh speakers have this problem? Just asking) how are we going to cope with the respective tongues of Goethe, Balzac or Dante?

In 1994, the Tour de France visited England. I went along, expecting zero interest in the well-heeled and conservative villages of Kent and Sussex for such a definitively alien event. The route was thronged, the atmosphere joyous; it was like nothing I had ever seen in Britain. The opening of the Chunnel that year fuelled an optimism that we were finally dumping the old saw: 'fog in Channel - Continent cut off'. We've gone backwards since then; but after Germany 2006 and the Tour returning next year, maybe we're getting in touch with our roots again. Do yourself, and everyone, a favour - learn a language this winter. French or Finnish, Spanish or Slovenian, it matters little; there's untold riches out there. "I never knew about this place," a German tourist told me in Caerleon last month. "I just came here on the off-chance. It's brilliant." When I hear someone from Caerleon saying that to a German - in German - in Regensburg or Passau, then I know the New Jerusalem is at hand. It can happen. Make it so.

FACE STUFFIN': Standard Real Ale Rant

I don't know. The last time I looked in the mirror, I didn't have a gut visible from space, I didn't wear sandals and I'd shaved within the last 30 years. I'd had a girlfriend recently. In other words, not a real ale drinker as recognised by most people. Yet I was going out, as I do most nights, to drink real ale. So was I a real ale drinker?

Readers with long memories might recall the White's lemonade TV ads of the mid-80s, with John 'Really Free' Otway as the 'Secret Lemonade Drinker'. Despite 35 years of CAMRA's best efforts, real ale - properly and traditionally brewed - still has an image problem, despite the fact that more and more people are drinking it. So why are we still so ashamed to admit it? Why do people still have it in for us as fat smelly gits who wear socks with sandals and/or are basically the kind of people the Arctic Monkeys had in mind when they wrote Mardy Bum?
CAMRA's Great British Beer Festival is now so big it's moved to Earl's Court. Whatever one's preference, it's a cruisable place. Willowy Sloanes, bit-of-rough provincials, civil service spinsters on a spree, six-packed City rugger buggers, you name it, they're all there, and all getting good stuff down their necks. And enjoying it. The second-most beautiful girl I ever chatted up, I met at the GBBF at Olympia.

The problem is that in London, as in all other cities, outlets for real ale are thin on the ground and so outside the festival, people usually have to drink the same old rubbish. Pack 'em in, rip 'em off, Stella-and-Fosters - that's the mantra. Taxed as they are, you can hardly blame landlords. And so the good intentions of Olympia are slowly dissipated. But punters have power unrecognised. In three fantastic real ale Newport pubs I drink in most locals come in and order pints of John Smiths or Strongbow at slightly more than the price of a pint of real ale or cider.

One wants to weep; in a country where a culinary and dietetic revolution is meant to be underway, and the fat-tongued fraud Jamie Oliver is lording it over our cuisine, men (usually always) still order the crappiest, most expensive, least-healthy, rip-off drinks in any given pub. Almost no intoxicated Englishman in Germany this summer will ever have got patriotically pissed on the best of his own country's produce. What's worse, if one really wants to get bladdered, one can do it in Britain for less on a decent cask bitter than on pints of Fosters. Look, lads, if you want to give your money away, give it to me. If not, real ale offers an alternative leglessness, and a more economical one to boot. In some places, the message is getting through. In Herefordshire, just across the border, sales of real ale in rural pubs are now up to 94% of all ale sold.

Fifty years ago, our parents and grandparents drank cask ales and ciders largely uncontaminated by bubbles and sugar, i.e. not rubbish like Carling and Scrumpy Jack. Then the Watneys Red Barrel syndrome of keg beer decimated British pubs and turned adult palates towards childhood habits of sweetness and fizz. We are becoming Americanised, too used to the sugary, tasteless garbage of Coors and Budweiser (and why has it ALWAYS got to be ice-cold? Why?). It's voiced abroad that young people can't take their alcohol, to which I would reply thst they can't take depth or complexity in their drinks and cannot enjoy them over anything more than five minutes. Visit a bar in Belgium, where a couple of young Goths will canoodle quietly for an hour over a very bitter De Koninck before a Cradle of Filth gig. Or just make out in the corner after midnight accompanied by a bottle of 11% trappist ale.
For about 1.56 a pint, by the way.

Closer to home, check out Earl's Court under the August sun, and watch how people - not just fat mardy-bums - learn to love pale ale, old ale, premium bitters - and no bits floating anywhere. Good, authentic beer made in your area from your area's produce. Or from wherever, whatever tastes best.

So what's to do? Go and wassail away with local breweries, that's what, you lazy sods. If there's going to be drunken violence in a town centre near you, let it be fuelled by quality beer, say I. If you are proud of your county, drink it!

Never mind the fat blokes or the saddos - it may have been CAMRA's slogan of 2003 but it will - should - be their eternal legacy. 'Ask if it's cask' is the surefire way to know that your half or your pint is the good stuff. A lifetime of high-class, inexpensive beery sophistication - the universes in a bottle that are yummy German Weissbiers and sharp Kölsches, refreshing Belgian fruit beers, oddball American steam beers and wonderfully bitter Czech lagers opens up to those who even dare be adventurous with beer; and it's cheaper than wine, too! Be a connoisseur or get slaughtered; or both; but start local, cos the adventure, like all the best adventures, begins on your doorstep.

Long Distance Runaround

It took only a World Cup trip to Nuremberg for my friend to fall for a Bavarian typist; 'help me compose my emails to her', he pleaded. Normally, people ask me for relationship advice as often as they ask Jordan for help in solving Fermat's Last Theorem.

Given that my German is merely adequate, I sensed his desperation. I knew he was in for a bad time. 'If you must go and watch England play Ecuador,' I said, 'this is your punishment.' But given the difficulty of dating in our time-poor world, and the range of the web, it seems many of us are at it, hooking up with potential partners in Istanbul or Oslo or Miami.

There's something to be said for long-distance love; and it's usually the word 'don't'. Such cynicism doesn't always apply; we all know those who've chucked up a lifestyle just to wake up next to an ideal paramour.

In 1994, I did my academic year abroad at Tours University in France. Maybe it was culture shock, maybe it was too many bottles of cheap Saumur, but - sorry, ladies, and I am sure there is the occasional distff reader of this stuff - no words could convey my epiphanic astonishment at the beauty, grace and maturity of French students. Physically gorgeous, clever, demure, precocious; I fell in love daily - honestly - until someone even surpassed this and I was really lost. I've never even read about anyone who ever imagined a woman as beautiful as Christelle; we went out for four months, in spite of her Parisian boyfriend. Part of me loves her still, and we still email trivia to one another.

The otherness of the foreign loved one's lifestyle is always a bonus; love is often mistaken for liberation, and the novelty of the beloved's circumstances can be as intoxicating as her or his physical and emotional charms. Since Christelle I have idolised Frenchwomen, and had relationships with two of them. Both have been contacted via the net, both with the premise I would move there. Neither worked. But neither were disasters and both women are still friends. And neither would I swap for anything.

The first was with a Swiss-French girl in Lausanne, Switzerland, who I visited twice; after thirty minutes of arriving on the first occasion, one summons the words of Ian Dury, "what happens next is private/it's also very rude". There was lots of talk also, as much as an Eric Rohmer movie; she tried to convince me to move over there. I wouldn't. We agreed; if either of us found someone better in London (me) or Lausanne (her), that would be the end of it, but we'd remain friends whatever happened. She found someone, I didn't. We are still best friends.

In 2003, I met a Rachael Leigh Cooke lookalike who dumped me after two ecstatic weekends by describing our distance relationship as 'too bizarre and precarious'. I disagreed; but not so much as to endanger an ongoing friendship which, as far as I can gather, still exists.

What am I looking for? A French girlfriend, a French flat to call home. Not every distance-relationship protagonist is so sure of his or her aims. Part of it is, yes, again, adventure; but anyone who will make that journey overseas has a longterm future in their emotional kitbag. The secret of enjoying and profiting from long distance love is not to tie up a potential partner to an idealised vision of a new life in a new country. No, better to marvel at how unlikely such a coupling is; how much of a risk it is (risk is always sexy); if it feels good, rejoice and keep the moments for ever but don't assume it's for life; don't kid yourself or him/her; establish an emotional bond before swapping spit; maintain friendship after the naughty bits are over.
Long-distance relationships can be the sweeter because of the passion that breaking an enforced absence can bring; if they work, and the protagonists move in together, they are the most enduring, for both partners have endured lengthy separation without (one hopes) infidelity. But if they don't, it's always nice to have someone to put up a bed for you on the floor overseas.

Right now my mate is no doubt in Hamburg doing what comes naturally. I've told him all the above. I think he will be all right. "If all else fails," he told me, "I've always got somewhere to have breakfast over there. And someone to talk to." That's the spirit, son.

Hardy Part 2

O, the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea,
And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free--
The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me.


The pale mews plained below us, and the waves seemed far away
In a nether sky, engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say,
As we laughed light-heartedly aloft in that clear-sunned March day.


A little cloud then cloaked us, and there flew an irised rain,
And the Atlantic dyed its levels with a dull misfeatured stain,
And then the sun burst out again, and purples prinked the main.


--Still in all its chasmal beauty bulks old Beeny to the sky,
And shall she and I not go there once again now March is nigh,
And the sweet things said in that March say anew there by and by?


What if still in chasmal beauty looms that wild weird western shore,
The woman now is--elsewhere--whom the ambling pony bore,
And nor knows nor cares for Beeny, and will laugh there nevermore.

Hardy Part 1

While rain, with eve in partnership,
Descended darkly, drip, drip, drip,
Beyond the last lone lamp I passed
Walking slowly, whispering sadly,
Two linked loiterers, wan, downcast:
Some heavy thought constrained each face,
And blinded them to time and place.

The pair seemed lovers, yet absorbed
In mental scenes no longer orbed
By love's young rays.
Each countenance
As it slowly, as it sadly
Caught the lamplight's yellow glance
Held in suspense a misery
At things which had been or might be.

When I retrod that watery way
Some hours beyond the droop of day,
Still I found pacing there the twain
Just as slowly, just as sadly,
Heedless of the night and rain.
One could but wonder who they were
And what wild woe detained them there.

Though thirty years of blur and blot
Have slid since I beheld that spot,
And saw in curious converse there
Moving slowly, moving sadly
That mysterious tragic pair,
Its olden look may linger on --
All but the couple; they have gone.

Whither? Who knows, indeed.... And yet
To me, when nights are weird and wet,
Without those comrades there at tryst
Creeping slowly, creeping sadly,
That lone lane does not exist.
There they seem brooding on their pain,
And will, while such a lane remain.


And I listen
And I look into the brightness -
In the heavens there cluster millions of stars,
And I fathom the depths into which time has passed.

In that calm lies redemption.
In the ripening, in the full final ripening,
Let it come, oh sweet night beyond that day!

Antonin Sova (1864-1928), Zrani (Ripening)

Long Deep Sigh


Actually I admit that I read a piece by Zoe Williams today, who I normally regard as everything bad about journalism, and I almost cried with pleasure. A very, very astute piece on office romances.

"1. The Unpindownable Fillip
Absolutely nothing has happened between you and Person A. I'm guessing you know one another's names, oh go on then, maybe A has told a saucy joke and only you got it, or maybe he said something about a third person (Person B) that was so devastatingly true, and so acute, and unleashed such depths of perspicacity and sagacity, that your eyes met over the brow of the perfect-remark (it was probably something quite bitchy) and there was a flash of fathomless understanding and togetherness, like that episode of Buffy where she accidentally swaps selves with someone by touching hands. So when I say "nothing's happened", I don't really mean that; everything has happened.
Person A occupies all your waking thoughts. You would no more get yourself a cappuccino without getting one for A than you would lash yourself to the mast of a ship in a storm and watch your family drown. If I can be completely honest, you are not a terribly good employee at the moment. If you're in any position of power over A, your favouritism will be almost embarrassing to watch, and even if you aren't, your concentration is shot. But you haven't had sex or snogged or touched, you might not yet have even ever left the building at the same time. You wanna hear about it now, Mr Boss Man? Huh?
2. The Pre-Event
Right, now you have Person A in some kind of conspiratorial, metaphorical hug; you still haven't actually, you know, done anything, but you have established without words that you both want to. Or perhaps you've just worn the poor bugger down with speechful looks and milky coffee, so that now you are regularly out together, sniggering, chatting in low voices and going out for lunch together every day. Sometimes you tacitly enlist the chaperonehood of a third party beliked of you both, and this brings a peculiar frisson, where you play-act being a Real Couple, Accepted By The World, which wouldn't be exciting at all, except that that's the exact opposite of what you are, a Non-Couple, Shunned By The World, What Hasn't Even Had Sex Yet.
And the chaperone doesn't mind, even though she knows you'd both rather be having sex than chatting to her, because frankly she fancies going to the pub, but if she were on her own it'd have to be Pret A Manger, otherwise she'd look like an alcoholic. Right now, you and A are both good employees in so far as you're really looking forward to going to work, but in terms of your actual productivity, you might as well be monkeys or goats."

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Sublimely observant.

Show me the person who hasn't been there and I will show you a granite statue or a poorly-drawn character in a bad novel. My worst case was six years ago, when I got halfway through stage 2 when I found out that person A, despite appearances to the contrary, was actually only 20 years old, making her young enough to be my, er, much younger sister.

I think the coffee motif helps here. I was coffee gofer and bought her her favourite cappucino just in time for her to get in two hours late cos of a security alert at Paddington. The blinding smile and look of gratitude on her face and the 'you are a star!' and the slightly too-long exchanged look is still beyond price.

Basset Horns On A Plane - Help Needed!

I am not a name-dropper as a rule, not having to many even to pick up in the first place. But even if I did, name-dropping would seem as irredeemably vulgar as spelling out 'TITS' with Alphabetti Spaghetti characters or being caught watching The One Show ('it's for research, honey, I swear').

That's why I won't name the passably famous musician with whom I've been exchanging mails regarding the horribly under-publicised crisis which is now seriously afflicting British musicians. Here is someone who is a poll-winner, a player known around the world and who is losing work - as are his band - because of the current ban on musical instruments being carried as hand luggage on flights from British airports. His sidemen include people who are also regular collaborators with some of the biggest names in jazz. Not a Casio-and-voice pub duo with a name like Peaches'n'Cream, Sapphire'n'Steele, Assault'n'Battery etc. No, these guys are the real thing.

He is not alone. The BBC website has been inundated by wailing, teeth-gnashing players losing money hand over fist from an inability to travel with their instruments.

Is there a problem here? You're darn tootin'. It's a commonplace that being a musician isn't a Proper Job. Even among some musicians. And the profoundly unmusical British don't really seem to give a damn that many instruments just are not suitable to be chucked in the hold.

Hypothesis: you own, or are permitted to play, a 1731 Guarneri violin. This just happens to be the way you make a living. You need to be in Volgograd tomorrow night to earn your living with your violin. Do you want a burly yob from an outsourced company specialising in 'luggage solutions' lobbing your fiddle into the hold at Heathrow, where it will be subject to subzero temperatures for several hours which ruins tuning, strings and body, and then lobbed out onto a Russian runway? Tell you what, Yuri, use it as an improvised baseball bat too, while you're about it.

Permit me to be indulgent, but I wouldn't be too keen on this, either.

In Britain's tediously unmusical climate, and its even more unmusical media, the response is common. Oh, those musicians. Won't any old violin do? No, it won't. Pianists and, at a stretch, drummers, can get away with unfamiliar kit.Arcadi Volodos or Keith Jarrett have to use different pianos in different cities. But the likes of Hilary Hahn or Emily Beynon carry their violin and flute with them, for they have built up an almost osmotic relationship and can only perform to their considerable potential when using them.

The Israeli cellist Ofra Harnoy used to joke in interviews about how El Al were touchy about her taking her instrument into the cabin in case it could be used as a weapon. What was funny in 1989 is now deadly serious for the livelihoods of many people, and would still be funny if it wasn't so farcical.

The mind boggles. My correspondent's musicians are renowned and respected soloists, and to his knowledge have no connections with any terrorist group, and certainly have never troubled the security services, beyond maybe the odd caution for double parking or falling asleep on the tube and travelling one zone too far on the London Underground. And if the double-bassist takes his instrument into the cabin, what do the BAA expect this provably innocent fellow to do with it? Leap out of his seat and say; 'now everyone keep calm... or this thing could go off', presumably.

I have visions of Julia Fischer, the ravishingly blonde, blue-eyed German violinist, being stopped on boarding at Gatwick and asked to hand over her Strad. Why? Suspected membership of the Bavarian Army of Allah's Martyrs? Or possibly the desperate and dangerous paramilitary wing of the Say No To The Oberammergau Ring Road Action Group?

The music industry - or, more damagingly, individual musicians - have a money haemorrhage because of these absurd strictures. To anyone out there who cares about music, collaring your MP is essential. To anyone who has had their instrument seriously damaged by handlers at airports, I can suggest by way of consolation only one thing - that you take it and insert it forcefully in John Reid's bottom. Double bassists to the head of the queue, please.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Venus et Apollon

Does anyone in Britain know about this brilliant surreal Francophone comedy soap? Arte make and show it on the mainland, and it's based on Tonie Marshall's 2001 movie Venus Beaute Institut. Parisian beauty salon goings-on, with ludicrous dream-sequences, great characterisation, and above all the stratospherically lovely Melanie Bernier in the role of Bijou - the little apprentice, played in the movie by the then-unknown Audrey Tautou. If the luminous MB isn't the next Tautou, I'm the Duchess of Argyll.

Proustian and disposable, part 1

Here is a Stump moment. Was recently interviewed for a job (cah!) in an office aboutt 50 yards from where my first girlfriend used to live. It's about half a mile from Belle Vue Park in Newport, where we used to meet and cuddle and generally carry on like drivelling imbeciles. And of course, I walked past her house four or five times, and went to Belle Vue and found pretty much the exact spot where I once saw her walking towards me, vanilla teeth and simpering gratitude (what for?), backlit by the sun, summer-frocked (she had neo-Grecian hair, Timotei hair, cliche hair). We didn't run towards each other in slow motion - pre-arranged not to. I tried to find the bench where she dumped me (sorrysorrysorry) a few weeks later, but I think it's gone. 23 years ago. Twice that again in years and I will be gone (I am a very morbid mathematician).

She was the nearest thing the distaff side in my year had to me, but infinitely lovelier. Slender, very very clever, pouty, spirited, independent, eccentric, few pairs of eyes have ever laughed as much. She was going through a Tory phase - which should prove just how compelling the rest of her was. I tend to live in the past. I did so then. So little changes. Or does it? She married, had kids, separated. I have no idea where she is now. But I did bump into someone in Ponthir who might be her. Kids in tow, but the pout, the bearing - and the hair, the buttery sheen, was recognisable. Imagine it was her (such thoughts well up) - what would the film of my life be compared to hers? And what's changed for me? Not much. Does she lingeringly revisit past joys and agonies? No. Why should she? I am a prisoner of my past. That is why I write about the past, bad imitator of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Paradise Lost, indeed most of western art full stop. Not long before she dumped me I remember listening over and over to the Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin, which I am listening to now. We once made out - and I am sorry to have to tell you this -to the Prelude and Liebestod of Tristan und Isolde. I know. Sorry, but I *was* only 18. On a less insufferably pompous level, probably our song was - though we both disliked it - The First Picture of You by the Lotus Eaters [sic] or the only slightly preferable Moonlight Shadow by Mike Oldfield, both of which were inescapable in July 83. Even more so than Every Breath You Take, Baby Jane and KC and the Sunshine Band's rather good Give It Up, which were the No.1s. I think more in literary and textual terms these days - would this work, would that?

If life doesn't fit literature, even the corniest narrative, it doesn't work, either way. All lives are narratives, all writers are storytellers; in both cases some are better and more credible than others, and if the story doesn't hold water, there's no point. CAN I WRITE IT? WILL IT SELL? When you can't think in any other than either of these two ways, you're a writer. Of course if the writer doesn't hold water he or she needs the lav, and quickly. One never forgets one's first love, and, pessimist that I am, I believe that is because for the vast majority of us, we never forget the sheer audacity of the hurt that comes at the end. We may well have had major crushes before; but never, or rarely, mental pain to compare with the first that seems requited. It's like someone walking up and casually breaking a bottle across one's face, for no reason. It's everyone's little Fermat - a problem most of us try and work out, fruitlessly, for the rest of our lives. How comes before why. It is outside extant experience.

time signatures

Anyone out there know the time signatures in Release Release by Yes? Detailed analysis, please.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Oh, Julie!

Robert Hughes has a term for a particular iconography of American popular culture: Deco and Fins. It stretches from the Jazz Age to the Edsel, and is also beautifully satirised in the Onion headline "American Swellness at an All-Time High". Few musicians embody this complacent and - some might say - pinchbeck luxury than Julie London. Without question for this writer the finest white female jazz singer ever, her delivery connotes as much languour and lubricity as material paradigms of consumerism; radiograms, chrome, prosperity. The lavalamp swirl of the strings on her magnificent Love On The Rocks collection (1963) is so incandescent it sounds as if the recording was buffed up by a frowning manservant. Makes Nelson Riddle sound like The Ramones - only Mantovani got more divisi and portamento than this. One album trumpets that it was recorded in 'Spectrasonic' sound or somesuch (I wonder when it was that the ideas boys at Capitol made that name up). Phrases like 'jet age' are not far away...
Best known for her stunning recording of Cry Me A River - Jim Hall on guitar (hi, Jim!) - Julie, in a series of albums with part-Playboy, part-Vega sleeves with embonpoint and lipgloss everywhere, dutifully turned out vampy lounge standards in an ever-breathier stylee, to the point whereby she couldn't only do it in her sleep, she probably often did. Monica Vitti, wasted on booze in How To Murder Your Wife is probably the closest fiction has ever come to Julie's recording persona. But holy socks, could that girl hit and hold a note, gilding even the most faded lily of a song. How Did He Look, Guess Who I Saw Today, Where Did The Gentleman Go; none of them true greats, except when Julie sang them. Few, if any, singers, dissolve my insides and reduce me to the status of a little girl crying as often as this genius.
If she'd only been around to record with the likes of Hall, Shorter and Petrucciani... and an ork, natch.

FACE STUFFIN': Welsh Marches Food

Wow. With Ludlow and Abergavenny fast approaching, foodies are fixing their compasses west. Let them also know - God, this is pointless - of the chain of great, unsung venues from Newport northwards. Tony and Ceri's magnificent gastropub The Bell in Caerleon must surely make the nationals soon, not just cozza their menu but also a stellar selection of the ascendant Welsh artisanal ciders and perries currently taking the industry by storm, and all exquisitely kept. The New Bridge in Tredynog is about to change hands - but the Llansantffraed Court Hotel is worth a gander, as is the Hardwick on the old A40, now the B4598 near Abergavenny. The first of two real stars here is The Clytha Inn, who not only make their own perry but serve unpretentiously ambitious pub meals using locally-sourced ingredients to their very best advantage. This Saturday, fried calamars had a batter that was buttery and light, the flesh pillowy, moist and tender; Carmarthen ham was admirably matured and accompanying chorizos freshly sweet-and-sour. The real triumph was a fabulous Catalan tomato bread with anchovies, possibly spiced with judicious use of mild chillis. Just as well the food is so good - it stops me spending my entire time in the Clytha wishing I could get one of the waitresses (in particular) on a slow boat to China, or to anywhere, or even in the same room. North of Abergavenny the Walnut Tree is back to spanking, star-grabbing form. Northwest there's Llanwenarth Arms; plushly posh. In the Black Mountains, the intrepid and patient will chance upon the Bull's Head at Craswall in Kilvert country, a former drover's inn and cider house. On into England the Green Man at Fownhope is to be recommended for pub lunches; the Three Crowns at Ullingswick is more resto than pub, and all the better for it. And the Stagg at Titley has managed to source some of the finest foie gras this writer has ever tasted in England. Adumbrate the festival frenzy and go to all of them, now.
PS Lough Pool in Sellack, nr Ross - best gastropub in Britain rigjht now. Visit also Hop Pocket Farm Shop,


If anyone out there, anyone at all (and I realise this is about as likely as finding a NWA track on Norman Tebbit's IPod) knows anything about George Enescu, please get in touch. His three symphonies aren't quite of Mahlerian stature, but are damn good, distinctively constructed without a loss of focus on form, and the first in particular has a slow movement to die for, built out of a three-note germ motif that's a ringer for Three Blind Mice.

Oi! Kelner!

To the very wonderful Martin Kelner, whose blog is sadly no longer with us, and who, I suspect, has a similarly jaundiced attitude to this whole confessional phenomenon as I do. Blogs piss me off; one is reminded of the great 2001 Onion story: 'Gore Delivers Presidential Address into Bathroom Mirror'. At the end of this experiment, I shall be able to point to the monumental pointlessness of it all and say 'I told you so.' People will say to me, 'why on earth did you post that 2000-worder on George Enescu's orchestral music?' and they will see the ridiculousness of it all. Hurrah.

At least MK has a job, a family, ie the trappings of mature adulthood which presumably keep him away from computers most of the time. Great piece on suits in today's Grauniad, Martin, even if the suit appears to be turning you into Steve McClaren.

Heavens to Murgatroyd

I can't believe I am doing this. I really can't. Has life got so bad that I have to start one of these infernal things so as maybe to get work? "Oh, if you're a writer you have to have one... increases visibility... networking... future of publishing... your round"... Enjoy this while it lasts, SOBs. Cos with any luck it won't and as soon as I actually get a job it will be hopefully cast into outer cyber-darkness, never to return. In any case, it saves me having to write separate mails to various people who just might need to know what I'm up to but as these seem to be diminishing exponentially, there hardly seems much point. I'm going to regret this one day. I know it. And anyone who feels like bringing it up at some future point - I know where you live.