Saturday, September 30, 2006

But Like d'Murphy's...I'm not bitter

This Really WAS Their Finest Hour

Forget the spirit of the Blitz - this was the East End's finest hour - perhaps one of the defining moments in the history of the British working class. The current writer is a dreadful old snob, but this was, and remains, special. Audrey Gillan in today's Guardian:

They built barricades from paving stones, timber and overturned lorries. Women threw the contents of chamber pots on to the heads of policemen and children hurled marbles under their horses and burst bags of pepper in front of their noses.
Next Wednesday marks the 70th anniversary of the day that Jews, communists, trade unionists, Labour party members, Irish Catholic dockers and the people of the East End of London united in defiance of Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists and refused to let them march through their streets.

Shouting the Spanish civil war slogan "No pasaran" - "They shall not pass" - more than 300,000 people turned back an army of Blackshirts. Their victory over racism and anti-Semitism on Sunday October 4 1936 became known as the Battle of Cable Street and encapsulated the British fight against a fascism that was stomping across Europe.

Mosley planned to send columns of thousands of goose-stepping men throughout the impoverished East End dressed in uniforms that mimicked those of Hitler's Nazis. His target was the large Jewish community.

The Jewish Board of Deputies advised Jews to stay away. The Jewish Chronicle warned: "Jews are urgently warned to keep away from the route of the Blackshirt march and from their meetings. Jews who, however innocently, become involved in any possible disorders will be actively helping anti-Semitism and Jew-baiting. Unless you want to help the Jew baiters, keep away."

The Jews did not keep away. Professor Bill Fishman, now 89, who was 15 on the day, was at Gardner's Corner in Aldgate, the entrance to the East End. "There was masses of marching people. Young people, old people, all shouting 'No Pasaran' and 'One two three four five - we want Mosley, dead or alive'," he said. "It was like a massive army gathering, coming from all the side streets. Mosley was supposed to arrive at lunchtime but the hours were passing and he hadn't come. Between 3pm and 3.30 we could see a big army of Blackshirts marching towards the confluence of Commercial Road and Whitechapel Road.
"I pushed myself forward and because I was 6ft I could see Mosley. They were surrounded by an even greater army of police. There was to be this great advance of the police force to get the fascists through. Suddenly, the horses' hooves were flying and the horses were falling down because the young kids were throwing marbles."

Thousands of policemen were sandwiched between the Blackshirts and the anti-fascists. The latter were well organised and through a mole learned that the chief of police had told Mosley that his passage into the East End could be made through Cable Street.

"I heard this loudspeaker say 'They are going to Cable Street'," said Prof Fishman. "Suddenly a barricade was erected there and they put an old lorry in the middle of the road and old mattresses. The people up the top of the flats, mainly Irish Catholic women, were throwing rubbish on to the police. We were all side by side. I was moved to tears to see bearded Jews and Irish Catholic dockers standing up to stop Mosley. I shall never forget that as long as I live, how working-class people could get together to oppose the evil of racism."

Max Levitas, now 91, was a message runner and had already been fined £10 in court for his anti-Mosley activities. Two years before Cable Street, the BUF had called a meeting in Hyde Park and in protest Mr Levitas whitewashed Nelson's column, calling people to the park to drown out the fascists. Mr Levitas went on to become a Communist councillor in Stepney.

"I feel proud that I played a major part in stopping Mosley. When we heard that the march was disbanded, there was a hue and cry and the flags were going wild. They did not pass. The chief of police decided that if the march had taken place there would be death on the road - and there would have been," he said.

"It was a victory for ordinary people against racism and anti-Semitism and it should be instilled in the minds of people today. The Battle of Cable Street is a history lesson for us all. People as people must get together and stop racism and anti-Semitism so people can lead an ordinary life and develop their own ideas and religions."

Beatty Orwell, 89, was scared and excited. "People were fighting and a friend of mine was thrown through a plate glass window."

Friday, September 29, 2006

Bog Blog

I normally don't like this guy but this is a lotta fun

Supposing ... The 'fun' is put back into bodily functions

Charlie Brooker
Friday September 29, 2006
The Guardian

Ours is an increasingly polarised world, with a population separated by one yawning partition after another: racial differences, the generation gap, the rich/poor divide, inter-faith squabbling - in fact everyone's alienated from everyone else in some way. It's the only thing we've all got in common.
Actually, it isn't. We've also got our bodily functions. When Michael Stipe sang Everybody Hurts, he might as well have sung Everybody Empties Their Bum instead - because it's true (admittedly the song might have felt a bit less poignant with those lyrics, but on the plus side, the video would've been memorable).

Our bowels are a great leveller. Angelina Jolie is the most beautiful person on earth, but even she's suffered the odd bad-stomached scatological interlude, the kind that turns the bathroom into a tropical stink-chamber powerful enough to necrotise your face the instant you open the door. Yeah. She's done that, too. It's a comforting thought.
Bodily functions may be universal, but that doesn't mean they have to be performed in a disgusting fashion. I, for one, am grossly offended by "performance farters", for example - witless bozos who think it's acceptable to break wind for comic effect. In my book, that's assault; it's particles of their excrement wafting up your nose, for heaven's sake. It should carry a prison sentence of at least five years. I'm not joking.
Annoying though they are, such chuckling guffers are at least comparatively rare compared with the everyday horror of the gent's toilet - a place where time's stood still since the Dark Ages. It doesn't matter where or who you are: even a chortling, dinner-jacketed toff swapping bon mots at a glittering soiree becomes a grunting dehumanised beast the minute he steps into the gents.
Men's bogs are disgusting, and our tolerance is baffling. Take urinals. It's the 21st century - why are we still standing in a row, sloshing piss around like animals? It may come as a shock to delicate female readers, but a huge proportion of men, on taking position at a urinal, immediately perform the following ritual: 1. loudly clear phlegm from nose and throat; 2. spit said phlegm directly into urinal; 3. use personal stream to chase phlegm down plughole; 4. vigorously shake self dry while breaking wind, clearing throat, and sniffing; 5. leave abruptly without washing hands. (Look, I know it's disgusting, but it's true - every man reading this knows it.)
I'm more genteel - ie I'm one of the ones who often can't "go" when someone else is standing there. Not because I'm a wuss, but because I'm a civilised human being who believes it's the sort of thing you should do behind closed doors. In silence. With no ladies present. Usually.
Surely I'm not alone in this. Gentlemen of Britain, it's time we held a secret ballot. Let's vote to make private urinals compulsory by 2008. Oh, and working hot taps would be nice too. Together we can do it. All we need is the guts to say "no more". That and "now wash your hands".

Thursday, September 28, 2006

SPORTIN' LIFE: Standing Still

Jogging's so 90s. The fun's going out of running, so why are the BBC so obsessed with athletics, asks Paul Stump

Uh-oh. Clear the schedules! BBC outside broadcast unit coming through! Prestige event alert!

Trooping of the Colour? Footy? Second Coming in Littlehampton? No. Sunday October 1 saw BBC2's schedule - including the most-improved prog on TV, Country File - wiped because of the Great North Run.

Picture yourself in an agreeable bar in Lille or Bordeaux explaining this to the French. An athletics event that nobody outside Newcastle or BBC sport has ever heard of or cares about, dominating BBC2 for half a day. You couldn't make this fiasco up, and mostly because the BBC already have.

Nobody this writer has ever spoken to - including some enthusiastic runners - can quite source the date of the BBC's fanatical obsession with athletics - sorry, track and field. Some allude to the clout of failed athlete David Coleman in BBC sport. Others cite Sky's big buy-up of sport in the 1990s. There are also those who return to the theme of Brendan Foster's company, ViewFrom, and its cosy relationship with the Beeb (there exists a pic of the entire OB crew in ViewFrom tracksuits).

Fact; British athletics is Not Very Good. Some decent results in European Cups, Europa Cups in the mid-1990s disguised the fact that even if we were fourth of fifth best nation in the world, this disguised an abyss in quality between us and the US, us and the USSR or Russia. But as the results get worse, the more running, jumping and standing still is thrown at us by the Beeb. In the last decade or so, only Paula Radcliffe among British athletes has been provably pre-eminent (I won't attempt to describe the raised eyebrows among my running set at the triumphs of Christie and Holmes, and besides I know the laws of libel too well).

And yet not a hand is raised in protest at the heats of the 3000m steeplechase or the women's 200m beamed to us from Berlin or Santiago or Kiev or Pasadena. A foreigner would assume that the amount of coverage the sport gets on British TV was the result of some transfiguring triumph, akin to that which Graf and Becker's astounding ascents blanketed German channels ZDF and ARD with tennis in the late 1980s. But Asafa Powell was not born in Pontefract. and Haile Gebreselassie is not a Glaswegian.

We may moan at the inconsequentiality of the early rounds of Wimbledon's eliminators; but this trivia occurs but once a year, whereas contingent track-and-field seems all-pervasive.

Athletics at its best is great telly. Who's gonna run fastest, throw furthest, jump highest? Fabulously elemental. Nobody who saw Lilian Board (RIP) chase down France's Colette Besson (ditto) in a 4x400 relay in 1969, or the madcap finale of the 1976 Olympic men's 5000m is ever likely to forget these moments. Hemery, Juantorena, Coe, Ovett, Mota, Yifter, Fosbury, Bubka, Zelezny were individuals who brought gasps; Fanny Blankers-Koen was as much a heroine in the London of 1948 as in her native Holland. but so much of today's footage is necessarily insignificant, is it any wonder that yawning adolescent fatties reach for the PS2?

That elemental nature is also, indirectly, track and field's televisual Achilles heel. Most sport needs, au fond, no commentary; athletics, by that very elemental nature, least of all. But, perversely, the BBC's gratingly soundalike rabbiters Stuart Storey and Paul Dickinson never, ever, ever shut up. Shot putter getting 'in the zone'? Rabbit. Trainers double-laced prior to a 400m semi final? Rabbit. Steve Backley's missus in the crowd? Rabbit.

It sticks in the craw to diss the deceased, but the supposedly sainted Ron Pickering started all this, decades ago; Ron would simply not button it, even if the athletes he was commenting on were merely taking their tracksuit bottoms off ('you can just sense she's back where she belongs, after that 13th place at Gateshead'). The insecurity was feelable - if I keep talking, I won't feel like a fraud. Pickering was a fundamentally decent and hardworking man who did a lot for his sport, but (We Are The Champions aside) he was a TV disaster area, and it is about time someone said so.

One shudders in contemplating his heirs. Foster's contributions to distance races are clumsy, slurred and often wildly off-beam - if someone has 'gone off at a suicidal pace' (or 'gn'off a'soo'seyd'l peace' in Geordie demotic) in a marathon, bet on him or her to win. The BBC packs its uncritical 'team' with so many comfortably grinning yea-sayers it makes Football Focus look like Jackass; Sally Gunnell's syntax surely can't hold out much longer, and Colin Jackson is obviously engaged in a one-man war with Little Britain's Dafydd for Wales' Campest Man. The 'team' is on ,er, first-name terms with everyone, always has been, since Jackson and Gunnell were Col and Sal. Never is a negative syllable uttered, unless by the excellent, telegenic and ridiculously masculine Michael Johnson, who is not only a true athletic legend, but an articulate person aware enough of his worth to be unafraid of carping and has the butchest voice since Barry White went to the great heart-shaped waterbed in the sky. There is - maybe - hope for Steve Cram, who seems less of a cheerleader than his mates, but as an ally of the seemingly untouchable Foster, he needn't and probably won't bother about improving himself. One can at least give thanks for the retirement of David Coleman (another double, please, David!).

There are great athletes around. The timelapse-fast Powell; the relentless Bekele; the spidery gravity-defier Isinbayeva. Yet who talks of them in the playground as once Walker and Bayi and Viren were once discussed? Will today's athletes ever make it onto a set of Top Trumps? And yet because the sport receives such grotesquely distended coverage on the BBC - heats for major races are analoguous to training sessions for the likes of Arsenal before European Cup ties, and singularly unengaging as television or sport - fewer and fewer people will remember them as my generation sat back and savoured the heroes and heroines of 1976 and 1980 and 1984.

Yes, even Carl Lewis.

Memo to the Beeb; get it off. Now. Kick the Fosterist fixation.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Mellotrons - and a shameless plug

To anyone with the remotest good taste in modern music technology, please visit my mate Andy Thompson's insanely detailed tribute to this proto-sampler at

Fort Baxter Forever - Bilko at Fifty

It's 50 years since Phil Silvers introduced Master Sergeant Ernie Bilko to British TV. Paul Stump hails a deathless comic genius

In 1975, I saw Top Cat and The Phil Silvers Show within the space of an hour one Saturday morning in April. I loved the former, was bewildered by the latter, the gold from which Hanna Barbera created the base metal of TC (albeit the alleycat's derivative capers still have their own glister). This juxtaposition proved to me, many years hence, the preternatural sophistication of Bilko (now the demotic synonym for Silvers' vehicle).

To summon a comparison with Mozart is in this instance not to elevate the comic craft to art - but while W.A always leaves me emotionally cold his intellectual rigour astounds me. Similarly no sentient person, surely, could fail to acknowledge the sheer technical achievement of Nat Hiken and Phil Silvers' creation, even if it barely cracked them a smile.

Over-rehearsing the scenario of Bilko is superfluous; as the golden jubilee on British TV screens of this pop-cultural masterwork approaches, it's worth appreciating the subtler ways in which it has become a part of us. When it began in early 1957, there were roughly 3,000 televisions in the UK. Fifty years on, with more TVs on these islands than people, reproduced on videos and DVDs, home-pirated till the oxide's stripped, still pulls in audiences of nearly a million or more. Jack Benny, Lucille Ball and Sid Caesar were among the few US stars making it to the two British channels. None have enjoyed popularity or even recognition remotely comparable to Bilko.

Why? Here's why.

Bilko is probably the only classic sitcom known principally by a pseudonym; few outside the industry refer to Only Fools and Horses by its first three syllables.

It arrived at a time when cinemas were full of Kirk and John and Charlton sweatily tommy-gunning Japs; Saturday matinees were one ear-splitting babel of chattering bullet-belts and Oriental cries of 'aieeee!'. US newsreels were full of glinting hardware from Grumman and Lockheed, proving it was ring-a-ding-ding time for the Reds. Yet Bilko's motor pool men at the remote Fort Baxter in deepest Kansas hadn't a lantern jaw between them; these berks, fatsos, stringbeans, myopes and dupes were sitcom's first dysfunctional family, a buttondown slob assembly, from henpecked Jewish tailor Fender to resentfully runty Italian Paparelli to the tennis-ball-shaped Duane Doberman. Bilko was not a leader of men - he was a conman, a finagler, a bluffer, a cheat, a coward - only the deepest streak of loyalty and fellow-feeling redeemed him at the last (which wasn't often). The higher the authority, the more oafish the characters - Paul Ford's sublime portrayal of the decent but diffident and monumentally incompetent bumbler Colonel Hall (ostensibly Bilko's commanding officer, but for the most part his stuttering puppet) predates McLean Stephenson's Col Henry Blake in MASH (not to mention that programme's lampooning of US patriotism) by fourteen years and Werner Klemperer's slapstick Col Klink in Hogan's Heroes by ten. One of the scarcely believable facts about Bilko was that the Pentagon and the US Army cooperated fully with something that portrayed the American armed forces as less the defenders of the free world from commie Krushchev as a vaudeville troupe.

Apart from Bilko in his quest for profit and comfort, only the Pentagon top brass, fawningly wooed by Hall's upwardly-mobile rube, appear to have even the slightest grasp on reality. Bilko's fellow master sergeants are characters that border on those of low farce; Sowici, Grover, Pendleton and Ritzik would surely be drummed out of any army with medical grades of Z-6. The last, expertly played by Joe E. Ross, is a chef of minimal gifts and arrestingly low intelligence, who prefaces most sentences with a simian 'ooh! ooh!'

To a Britain who had dragged the horror of conscription through the double horror of austerity while the US boomed, these weren't the overpaid oversexed of recent memory - these were human beings to be laughed at and with. Interestingly, in the US of the era, militarised to the hilt, it was a hit with current and past servicemen.Was it sweetening the pill of service? We were still a decade away from My Lai and Tet and the Kurtzes of this world, after all. None of these questions have yet been answered.

Maybe that's because, over 143 episodes (then a record) Bilko flourished and lives on because it was, and is so pantwettingly funny. Silvers was a veteran of New York vaudeville; most of the gag-writers had by this time moved to TV, and were closeted in Tenth Avenue offices producing oneliners as fast and as prolifically as clouds of Lucky Strike smoke. Nat Hiken, another New York Jew, was a veteran comedic hired gun, with credits for Milton Berle, Fred Allen and Martha Raye. As Mark Lewisohn's definitive guide suggests, Hiken's secret in the first 70 or so Bilkos was to use Silvers' extraordinary verbal dexterity and timing (not to mention that of the other players) to cram in as many laughs as possible while creating a fast-moving, but adult 22 minutes of television. 'What distinguished his work,' Lewisohn comments, '... was his economy. what they would take sentences to express, Hiken could put across in just a few words... Hiken's Bilko scripts were... probably twice the length of any other US prime-time sitcom, so densely packed were the words and ideas.' Yet one never leaves a Bilko feeling exhausted or shouted at. Lewisohn also stresses that Hiken was able to maintain multiple plot strands within discrete episodes, and indeed was a pioneer of same, a virtuoso, a Horowitz or Heifetz. The words are relentlessly ironic, relentlessly clever. Silvers' peerless gift for improvisation is apparent also; most of the shows were recorded live, and some of Silvers's interventions beggar belief.

When, in an attempt to impress the Pentagon by inducting recruits in record time, Fort Baxter takes a performing monkey into the Army, the animal (on roller skates) strays out of shot and script in a fantastically surreal court-martial scene and begins meddling with a telephone. Silvers, acting as the monkey's 'defence' misses not a beat as he intones, 'wait, my client is phoning for another attorney' to a tornado of studio laughter.

Ford's hapless Col Hall delivers some of the finest lines. In that same inspired episode, 'The Court-Martial' he laments; 'will they remember me as an officer who won citations for bravery in two World Wars? No, they'll remember me as the man who opened the doors of the armed forces to the animal kingdom'. Or 'Bilko, I've reached a decision. I've decided to relieve you of the command of Fort Baxter and take over myself'.

Even when the scriptwriters, post-Hiken (nomenclaturally akin to a Tel Aviv phone directory and including talents like Arnold Auerbach, Harvey Orkin and a young Neil Simon) had to resort to fancy-dressing characters (always Doberman, with the fall-guy inevitability of Private Jones's escapades in the comparatively-anaemic Dad's Army), the results were drop-dead brilliant, both technically and in terms of guffaw-count. Yes, it's variety mugging instead of acting - jabbing fingers, punched palms, so that even deaf Aunt Emmeline at the back of the parlour in Skokie or Toledo or Portland can 'get it' - but the wordplay enables this to soar above so much US TV of any period.

Bilko's reactionary detractors (and there were many) simply had to indicate the place of its manufacture for the root of their objections to its portrayal of army life; Manhattan, in the pinko heart of that most-unAmerican, most faggy, most Jewish of cities. But the meteoric success of the programme (it was continually number-one rated sitcom throughout its run and won three consecutive Emmys) suggests that America actually wasn't quite as devoted to buzzcut militarism during the Cold War as one might imagine.

Naturally, Bilko didn't even attempt to engage with the sort of horrors catalogued in The Naked and the Dead, in Fussell's magnificent memoir The Boys' Crusade. But the fact that US servicemen like Heller's Yossarian and his picaresque buddies had scarcely entered the orbit of American popular culture until Bilko.

Within a decade Vietnam would consign the Greatest Generation and the era of illimitable swellness, Deco and fins and Burma shave signs to history. It may also explain why Bilko's star has waned in its country of origin since the 1960s, whereas its popularity survives here. Too many people saw too much to find the motor pool anything but an alien throwback; it might as well have been about the War of Independence for all the relevance of a Dobermanesque army life to minds shredded by gook mortars on the Mekong.

Silvers' genius illuminated US TV screens a few months before 'Heartbreak Hotel' gave Elvis his break. If comedy was ever the new rock'n'roll, Bilko was unarguably it.

Hurrah for Deborah Voigt!

Serious music featured in Guardian shock! One of the most imposing of singing fatladies shows off her new slinkiness in today's paper (one suspects this is the real reason for the article, or possibly nobody could think of a story containing the names of Lily Allen, Ricky Gervais or Damon Albarn). She protesteth a bit too much that it was NOT, double-repeat NOT about Covent Garden's objections on the eve of Ariadne auf Naxos... I'm not entirely sure about this, ditto the forthcoming production of Salomé at Chicago's Lyric Opera where there's every chance she will be required to get her kit off... but there's also lots about how she was just fed up with being size 30 and her joints were starting to show some strain. Her confessions of food addiction are sad and funny, and she looks good as a size 14. But don't overdo it, Debs - the voice is what counts. Like Jane Eaglen and Michelle DeYoung, as long as you're as good as you are, I'll pay for tickets to see you rather than any number of Katherine Jenkinses or Magdalena Kozenas. But please - tempted by a Snickers every 15 minutes? Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo...!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Monday, September 25, 2006

Beautiful minds?

Stephen Fry's BBC series on mental illness misses the mark, writes clinical depressive Paul Stump

Broadcast around about my nightly ingestion of pills and drink, in Stephen Fry's investigation of bipolarity on BBC2, there is only one person whose testimony I have identified with; she's 'called' Connie. She is one of the few interviewees whose life is unmediated by public recognition or the possibility of acquiring expensive treatment. Tellingly, she is also the only witness who would - like me -unhesitatingly push a hypothetical button to immediately neutralise her depressive episodes. Tony Slattery, laugh-or-you'll-cry cretin Robbie Williams and even Fry himself regard their illness as somehow enriching and enlightening, if periodically irksome.

Tim Lott's not a favourite writer of mine, but the memoir of his own suicidal depression, The Scent of Dried Roses (1996) is one of my favourite books. Triggered by his mother's unexpected suicide shortly after the climax and catharsis of his own illness, it is gently devastating, like the proverbial butterfly's wings brushing a Jupiter-sized ball of steel to nothingness over time.

It's crass to invoke oneupmanship and comparativity in experiences of depression, but in my own experience of the fucker I recognise more of myself in Lott's accounts of total inertia than in the accounts of people like Fry, Belsen-was-a-gas Villa goalie Mark Bosnich and the doggy-style dogger Stan Collymore conducting successful and lucrative careers - which involve considerable investments of emotional and physical energy - when they are meant to be suffering from 'depression'. You only know depression when you are depressed. I passed my safe cycling test at 10 with a 99% mark while feeling like the ugliest and smallest-cocked boy in town. I was sad. I was not depressed; I was just rehearsing for the real thing, which was when I couldn't get out of bed at all. Most of Fry's witnesses are showbiz types; and most of them seem like they are rehearsing or auditioning for something much more serious. Give them a date, and they'll make it.

Seven words that sum up depression.

Let alone take on acting in West End plays or playing Premiership football (even ineptly) or presenting awards ceremonies, or (Oi, Williams!) fucking the brains out of anything that moves. Most 'ordinary' depressives don't even have the first idea how much energy goes into such showbiz undertakings. To suggest that people can expend so many carbs and kilojoules while supposedly 'depressed' grievously insults sufferers of true depressive illnesses, where for weeks at a time we pee in old mineral water bottles and force ourselves hard into the angle of the walls in the silent rooms where our stale beds are stowed. I am not depressed at the moment, because I can sit here and write this article. If I was, I couldn't even imagine writing it.

Lott's wise description of depression is 'a crisis of faith'. That's anthology stuff. I suspect Fry gets cut up and vacillates about which contract to sign next; this is quite different to being unable even to reach out and pick up the fucking pen, to even acknowledge the pen exists. Fry and his chums are surrounded, even engulfed by possibilities, promises of maybe-redemptions; friendly editors, agents, directors, well-connected mates - networks that constantly refresh the possibility of change unthinkable to most sane people, let alone the afflicted. Their whole world seems full of prompts to faith in rejuvenation and regeneration. Fry tells of 'booking himself into' a clinic after his ludicrously over-publicised crise de nerfs in 1995 - I challenge any reader of this article to ask their GP for any kind of comparable specialist consultation. Usually, the doc's reaction is straightforward - 20migs Fluoxetine or nowt. That is the difference between faith and no faith, that between Fry's world and that of the average mentalist (as most of us call ourselves now) - who has the greatest access to hope?

Right now, I am 40; I have a great journalistic CV, but no job, skypiling debts, no friendly media contacts; I might get a shag in seven years or so. I've heard the word 'no' more than thirty times a day for two years. I am losing; realising that serial losing, and the loss of hope and faith is what depression really is all about. Nobody has asked me to make a programme of my experiences, or even write about it. I somehow don't think anyone in Fry's two-hours will have this background, save for Connie, and the untold millions like her. Four or five million, at last count, so it's said.

Fry and his friends, so far, have sounded to those at depression's sharp end like grammar school sixth-formers whinging to coal-miner's sons that nobody 'understands' them. Nobody wishes depression on these box-seaters any more than they would on anyone else; but no sufferer in a different tax bracket would want them to be the ones giving a 'guide' to what depression, and bipolarity, are actually like to endure.

It's absurd to assume that earning seven figures a year automatically precludes irrationally envious glances at the pearl-handled revolver. But the bullet or the bag of barbs are less a temptation if you've an agent to field the offers of renewal and redemption than if you're a bankrupt on a Stoke sink estate or a Northumbrian farmer barricaded against the bailiffs.

Two Lost Progressive Rock Auteurs - Help Needed!

Two of the most memorable progressive acts of the last 20 years have been the Japanese pick-up band Mr Sirius and French outfit Hecenia. Both could be uncharitably described as vanity projects - the former for multi-instrumentalist Kazuhito Miyatake and the latter for keyboard player Thierry Brandet.

Both bands produced music of scarcely-disguised late-Romanticism, distinguished by debts to ELP, Yes and most of all The Enid- but despite Brandet's fondness for Bachian triplets and scales in the vein of infinitely poorer Emersonian epigones like Par Lindh, both managed to create a harmonic soundworld of progressions and chords that really did set them apart. Brandet's 'La Vieille Femme et la Chandelle' from the 1989 Hecenia album Légendes is, despite the programmed drums on the original, a bona fide prog classic; the triumphant climactic (and recapitulated) synth theme leading into the first statement's reprise is redolent of mid-70s Genesis (and the 'mellotron' choirs are fakes) but this it would take a heart of stone not to be stirred. Brandet, certainly on this album if less so on the consistently impressive but relatively bloodless Le Couleur du Feu (1994) is a master of cinematic chordal tension and release.

Mr Sirius' 1990 sensationally brilliant album Dirge is one of the very finest and most sophisticated progressive albums ever made, notably less influenced by the harmonies of Chopin, Liszt and Bach than by the more allusive and elusive language of Gabriel Fauré. This fabulous fantasy of Zappaesque time signatures, big band textures, tear-assing instrumental virtuosity, out-and-out symphonic bombast and chromatic delicacy has to be heard to be believed.

Where are they now? Miyatake is selling umbrellas, having taken over his family's Tokyo firm; Brandet is a qualified yoga teacher in eastern France. Both men have made choices; we should respect them, but also remind them that were the muse ever to return, an audience would be willing to crawl over acid-steeped broken glass to obtain new product.

Myspace, my boys, myspace.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Friday, September 22, 2006

LET'S GET LOST; Quick? Quick? Slow!

Richard Branson's new stunt is another fraudulent snowjob, says Paul Stump

You've heard them. You've seen them. Usually on any home counties motorway, the monied maniac or criminal in the purring supercar, headlamps and klaxons ablaze whose outside lane this is, blind-eyed by the local filth cos it's more than their job's worth. London bars ring with it; Y'know what? Did Bristol to London in an hour. Nah, I DID! 145 down from Membury. Wudda done it in 55 but there was a lane closure at Osterley...

What springs to mind? No, after the building of new Gulags to house such people - one imagines Richard Branson and his wannabe ilk. Thrusters who know toes have to be trodden on if business is to be done on time, if business is to be done right.

The news that a Virgin Pendolino had completed the 401-mile Glasgow-London run in 235 minutes at an average of 102.5 mph seemed nothing but a similarly asinine piece of saloon-bar oneupmanship, interestingly timed to coincide with the re-tendering of Virgin's cross-country routes..

This journey up the Premier Line, the LMS's north-south trunk, has been British rail's blue riband event for speed since the 1930s, when Sir William Stanier's peerlessly elegant Duchess Pacific 6201 Princess Elizabeth completed a non-stop Euston-Glasgow run in 395 minutes - with a load considerably heavier than Branson's toy, it should be added. Six hours became the Premier Line's holy grail; then five, achieved with through electrification in May 1974.

It seems almost cruel to pile even more scalding coals of relativism on Branson's lukewarm boast, but when I last checked, a few years back, the fastest journey from Paris to Marseille - comparable to London-Glasgow at 414 miles - took 187 minutes, averaging roughly 133mph. We're not talking one-off publicity trip with tickets sold at astronomical prices for 'charidee', all signals at green, all paths cleared. No, this was multiple services, daily. Now it's doubtless faster, and will get faster still. Every half an hour a TGV leaves Paris Nord for Lille, taking 57 minutes to cover 130 miles. The fastest TGV schedules average around 159mph (Pretend Brum-London timing? 46 mins). Madrid will soon be linked to Barcelona at a comparable speed.

These aren't trains whose arrival is greeted with a sheet-lightning of flashbulbs. there's no radio or TV; no pressmen; no bumfluffed grinning berk or battalions of tight-assed PR dorises with monogrammed flyers. Such rapidity and reliability (mostly) is the daily reality of life in Europe; the daily reality of life à la chemin de fer bransonienne is 202 pounds for a return from Euston to Manchester, stratospheric delays, shoddy corporate branding, traduction of tradition. Branson is roughly a quarter of a century behind the times; in 1976, Marc Arzens' beautiful SNCF CC6500 locos glided 12-coach TEEs from Paris over a tough line to Bordeaux in four hours flat, averaging 92 mph, twice a day. In 1981, the TGV raised the bar again, pushing average speeds into the fat end of 150mph. Let's get this straight- this was when Phil Oakey and the Goombay Dance Band were fighting it out for No.1 single. And Beardie expects applause in 2006?

The Pendolino's dash was all publicity; as was (whisper who dares amongst the gricers) Princess Elizabeth, the Coronation Scot and Mallard's mad 1938 sprint down Stoke Bank. But all those heralded a nascent reality of achievable speed and modernism visibly worth buying into. Branson's record is perhaps the greatest offence against the railway industry he has yet committed (ask any user of his trains - you'll get a myriad answers, all horrible). The LMS or LNER had not committed serial offences against its customers, nor betrayed their trust or faith nor tried to screw them senseless. Those were records that had credibility - not just credulousness- on their side. Branson's 'coup' shows not progress, but only how far British railways have fallen behind.

But as we are a country in thrall to publicity rather than reality (how else could the dread Dickie have survived?), maybe it shows that publicity is all we really care about. Until we're stuck outside Lichfield Trent Valley for a few hours with a coachload of pissed Scouse squaddies, fingering our tickets and wondering how the enormous sum on the slip of paper will get Branson out of his next fix.

LET'S GET LOST: Faster! Faster!

The TGV is 25 this week. Paul Stump hails France's wonder of the modern world

In February 1995 I had just seen my girlfriend off from Tours to Paris on the train. On the next platform a young man, my age, sat on his haunches, his arm round his tiny son's shoulder, pointing at the forward driving car of a TGV, resting demurely on the rails after a 186mph sprint from the capital. Two faces were lit by expectation and pride. I was transfixed by a tableau I had never actually seen before except in publicity material in my father's old rail magazines.

If ever there came a moment when I knew myself to be a Francophile, that was it. I wanted to be a part of whatever had created this thing of beauty. It also recalled to me that on January 1, 1948, the day Attlee's government nationalised rail, my grandad took my train-nut father to their local station and, with a sweep of the arm, said (apocryphally) 'that's all ours now, son'. And the French people owned this marvellous train. The man, the boy, my girlfriend. It made me love her all the more.

This snowjobs the facts that TGVs are rather cramped to ride in, are often abominably crowded, take an age to load and unload and the catering's rubbish. And while cheap by British standards, their premium fares exclude the poorer reaches of French society. Quite why the Massif Central remains untouched - there's not even a high-speed line to the relatively accessible Clermont-Ferrand - is a mystery. And in 25 years' operation on France's notoriously Paris-centric radial network, they have made the regions even more dependent on the capital, as pointed out this week by sociologist Jean Viard. Conversely, it has helped a migratory outward flow of Lutecians bound for Languedoc and the sun belt.

TGVs, for all their langorous aesthetic beauty (not sure about that windscreen, though, and the pack-'em-in Duplex double-deckers have lost a little panache in their evolution from the British-born Jack Cooper's basic design) are functionalist workhorses. But even to those uninfected with a passionate love of railways, they are something genuinely exceptional. Based on SNCF's prototype TGV001 of 1970 - which few remember now was actually gas turbine-powered, rather than electric - they are something almost anyone in France can boast about in the surefooted belief that nobody will contradict them, because nobody can. Even those who commute daily on the things will feel a little leap of the heart when a foreigner praises them. The Spanish AVE is set to go even faster, the German ICE's interiors are infinitely better-equipped but the TGV was the first and still the greatest of high-speed concepts. Japan's Shinkansen bullet trains, for so long the mode's ne plus ultra, were simply left standing.

The French had always been different, enviable, when it came to railways. Le Mistral and Le Train Bleu were stainless-steel symphonies of speed and silver service; to jaundiced British sensibilities anaesthetised by austerity, there was something almost illicit about their luxury, as glamorously indecent as Chartreuse, Gauloises, Bardot's slipped shoulder-strap. France was license, possibility to the Britain of the 1950s and 1960s; trains were no different. The implausibly romantic and exotic Wagons-Lits sounded French (although the firm originated in Belgium, brainchild of the great Georges Nagelmackers). In 1955 not one but two SNCF electric locos, 9004 and 7107, annihilated the world rail speed record, attaining 205.6 mph on the pancake-flat straightaway through the Landes at Morcenx; the railway industry's Sputnik moment.

The TGV, when it came, was almost a historical given; if any nation were going to wire up their entire country with a specially-built network of lines permitting insane speeds, it was going to be France. The success was immediate and astronomical. The fastest schedules now approach average speeds of 160mph; Bordeaux is an hour nearer Paris than it was in 1980. 220mph maxima are a year away; a new line, the LGV (Ligne à Grande Vitesse) Est, will bring Metz, Strasbourg and the German border into the network in 2007. Barcelona should be linked with the French network, and reachable from Paris in five hours, by 2010.

Even on a crowded evening run out of Paris to Lille, it's hard not to suppress the adrenaline as the train hits the TGV track near Charles de Gaulle airport, the 10,000hp motors climb through the octaves and the g forces bite. Nobody forgets their first time on a TGV. You never get on one without a sense of anticipation; you rarely get off one without a buzz. It's possible still to believe in the illusion of the world of Tomorrow's World, of exponential space-age benefits and limitless leisure time and James Burke's sideburns. That everything is possible, that just by humankind saying 'make it so', it can be achieved. The TGV made it possible to demand, and get, a little bit of the impossible. Certainly some of the specially-built TGV stations, such as Kolhaas/SNCF's Lille Europe and Calatrava's Lyon St-Exupéry are among the most strikingly successful modernist buildings in the world. And when racing at 186mph over the giddy switchback through the ravines and gullies of Provence on the Avignon-Marseille extension, you'll believe a train can fly.

Why Mitterrand fretted so much about a legacy when his government had already overseen the implementation of the superstructure of the TGV network as we know it is anyone's guess. That Tony Blair's legacy will be Virgin Trains and FirstGroup says all you need to know about France and Britain, really.

The French are trying not to crow about the TGV although they know they want to. Hell, even I want to, and I will. If you have an ounce of curiosity or romance in you, go and celebrate this wonderful icon of modernism. There are special offers aplenty at; there's even - for a little extra - a TGV dating service, where you can bank your personal data and be paired up with a suitable travelling partner. Now there's a thought - my experience of les nanas began when a TGV brought me to Tours twelve years ago, and in the words of Chicago, it's a hard habit to break.

Eduard Artemiev - Progressive Anomalist (A Draft)

The 100th anniversary of Shostakovich's birth has provoked the expected hornet's nest of debate as to his real ideological intentions. Those who paint him as the musical safety valve of a desperate, hunted samizdat culture have not adequately explained yet just how and why he, Prokofiev and Khachaturian, the most high-profile victims of socialist realist philistines, were so rarely in any mortal danger at the heart of one of history's most thuggishly murderous regimes. Indeed, reading most literature on the topic, starting with Boris Schwarz's mighty Music in the Soviet Union 1917-1970 (1973) remind one of how much easier composers had it than writers or painters. No notable Soviet composer suffered the sordid fate of the Nazis' Jewish victims, Haas, Krasa and Ullmann, in Terezin.

This kid-glove approach might also explain the extraordinary musical career of another Soviet musician whose 70th birthday falls next year. Eduard Artemiev has dabbled in rock music, screechy musique concrète, megalomaniacal open-air cantatas and above all - and most inimical to Soviet orthodoxy - abstraction since 1960 and has emerged into the newborn Russian Republic a legend in his own land, but still scandalously unheralded in the West. He is known, if at all, for his sublime electronic scores to the great Andrei Tarkovsky cinematic epics of the 1970s, Mirror, Solaris, and Stalker. Beyond that? Shameful ignorance.

'In the Brezhnev era,' Artemiev told an interviewer in the 90s, 'musicians were left alone compared to other artists.' The same could be said for musicians during the Krushchev thaw when the absurd musical prescriptions of Tikhon Khrennikov's 1949 edicts were relaxed. This was when Artemiev, from the Uralic town of Novosibirsk, fetched up as a student of the conservative Soviet trusties Partshaladze and Shaporin at the Moscow Conservatoire. His graduation piece, a cantata entitled I Was Killed Near Rzhev, was a copybook, boilerplate piece of rousing, bathetic nothingness about the Great Patriotic War or some other 'struggle'. But despite the years of terror - or perhaps because of them - music in Russia still had atavistic links with the past, and not just the Rococo yearnings of Tchaik and Rimsky. There was also a harking back to the fantastical, exponential growth in futurism and radical music of the 1900-1914 peiod, in which the work of Aleksandr Scriabin (1872-1915) and his radical, theosophically-derived synaesthetic theories on sound, light and colour headed a ferment in Russian artistic life.

Artemiev, a bright young man, met an engineer named Evgeni Murzin. He takes up the story; 'Murzin had created one of the world's first synthesizers. It was called the ANS, affectionately replicating Scriabin's initials. Murzin had completed this invention in 1955; utilizing a series of optical generators, it produced a unique photo-electric system of synthesis, and even today, there is nothing comparable to it. I wrote my first composition specifically for this instrument in 1961. Murzin termed his device "the photoelectronic optical synthesizer of sound". This photoelectronic principle of Murzin's implies the graphic imaging of soundings on a special plate, covered by a solid layer of black...' Light = colour = sound = the future. Pure Scriabin, in other words.

But there were other deserving modernists hard at work in the supposed jackbooted ghetto of duffelcoated Soviet conformism; Lev Termin and his Theremin; Alexander Volodin, a scientific pioneer of sound synthesis and instrument designer, and Andrei Sholpo, creator of the primitive variaphone synthesiser.Lilia Suslova writes; 'the first creative experiments on the ANS were by A.A. Volkonsky (1958), followed by enthusiastic contributions from Alexander Nemtin (the author of a valiant but doomed attempt to realise Scriabin's giant Mysterium), Sofia Gubaidulina, Edison Denisov and Alfred Schnittke.

Murzin lent Artemiev a book, The Foundations of Acoustics, on which he was to be tested if he were to proceed down the then fantastically-radical path of electronic music. The multimedia of the Silver Age radicals was also in the air. Artemiev; 'cinema was also a lucky chance. It was a double luck [sic]: thanks to the work in cinema I did not have to quit composing. Here, helped by the support of my teacher Nikolai Nikolaevich Sidelnikov, I met Alexander Alexandrovich Rumnev, a mime, a prominent actor. He was the only teacher of pantomime in the VGIK (Vseruskij Gosurdarsvenij Institut Kinematografii). In 1960 he set up his own theatre of pantomime, and I wrote pieces for him. There I met Alexander Orlov, who later became a director, and I worked a lot with him. He brought me to the cinema, to director Samson Samsonov. And for the first time I wrote a proper film score, for a movied called Arena. But even before this I was using electronics in the cinema, again by chance. Vaino Muradeli composed music to a film Toward the Dream at the Odessa Film Studios. He needed some pieces of 'fantastic' music, and he invited me as a partner. The amazing thing is that he put my name in the film credits, together with his own name... '

A brief technical exposition of the ANS (now resident in Moscow's Scriabin Museum) is in order. Before the composer is a row of levers, on the end of every one of which is a chiselled blade. When necessary the colour could be removed (with the chisels), to obtain a system of splits of a definite configurations: more rich sound required to draw a line (instead of a point), and a chord required to put several points in different places. Received this way splits, points and lines served for a regulation of brightness of light rays, directed on photoelements through rotating discs - i.e. frequency modulators. By the effect of light there appeared electric current, which was later transformed into current. "The Score" also played a role of operative memory, allowing the composer to make various changes in the character of created sound signals, i.e. to correct the sound picture in accordance with authorial choice. The ANS' optical sound generators make it possible to obtain 720 'sinusoidal' tones and compose from them oscillations of potentially infinite complexity. The main sound range of the instrument is a division of octave on 72 steps.

"Practically having no temperation,' wrote Artemiev, 'the ANS exceeded most commercial synthesizer of that time (for example, Moog modular synthesisers) by its unlimited polyphony, and possibility of strictly scientific synthesis (knowing spectral composition of the timbre, it could be exactly reproduced on the keyboard of the device)." He has also commented: "A composer, working on the score of the synthesizer, is like a painter; he paints, retouches, erases and deposits code pictures, immediately carrying out an auditory control of the result. The sounds, being completely unusual by their spectra on the glass of the score. The device, which has a memory system, can remember these elaborations, so that to use them later. Having no limitations in the timbres and their changes, the ANS made it possible to use artificial voices and noises of various constructive processes."

By 1968, La Stampa could claim that "Moscow is... one of the leading centres of electronic avant-garde". Pierre Schaffer, Francis Dhomont and Stockhausen now had serious competition. From being a musical nation where styles of composition and performance often predated the Great War, the USSR was suddenly a vanguard nation; the regime of Sputnik, it was confidently asserted, was still thrusting forward with big shiny biceps into a glorious socialist millennium of space-age stainless steel.

It couldn't last. The dead hand of Brezhnevism and its consonant economic, cultural and scientific scleroses may have spared music its worst excesses, but electronic experimentation received an official cold shoulder. But despite the advent of the reactionaries in the late 1960s, Krushchev and Kosygin's relative liberalism had also allowed musicians exposure to other elements, notably western ones. It seems incredible that Artemiev, even in the 21st century, can call Andrew Lloyd-Webber a 'genius' but, Jesus Christ Superstar had a clearly extraordinary effect on him. Artemiev's student days had seen signs of a potential bifurcation of musical traditions in the USSR (thought unified in the service of socialism since 1917), in which academic classical pedagogy, folk research, electronics and even western music became discretely knowable and distinct entities. Artemiev, as with many of his contemporaries, Schnittke included, was fascinated by the possibility that these musical discourses could run in parallel and cross over. With Lloyd-Webber's work - not to mention pirate recordings of early Western prog rock - he realised that music was a Babel of voices, all with different spiritual, emotional and political dimensions as well as their own artistic vernacular.

Even much later, he told an interviewer of how his thought-processes developed;

"For a long time I completely did not take part in the Union of Composers. Long ago I understood that I will not find a common language with many of my colleagues, when I have gone into the "not encouraged" electronic music scene... and then later rock music. I knew little of what my colleagues are doing, with the exception of my close friend Vladimir Martynov, with whom I have personal and creative links. I have listened with half an ear to what's happening in the Union of Composers, and I have occasionally visited the concerts... I had a period in my life, when everything being connected with acoustic music and academic performance couldn't satisfy me. So, at that time I have immersed into the rock music. Now I want to do something for an orchestra, but connected with electronics, the aesthetics and instrumentation of rock. A strongly scattered field of interests, styles, directions and currents are at present in the modern music. Music has disintegrated into a thousand streams."

In 1970, he met Tarkovsky, who handed him the script of Solaris. It was to be the start of a curious relationship in which the two men rarely met, but when they did, it was generally at moments of common artistic inspiration of the highest order.


"Interestingly, that in the course of work on Solaris Andrei told me a lot about his vision on the role of the composer in his cinema. In the composer he sought not the author of music, but the organiser of audio space of the film. And what is more, he needed the composer for supporting with music some scenes which emotionally he could not manage or did not manage so far to bring to the audiences using the language of cinema.

Here we are back at the concept of music as a linguistic analogue of scenography and emotion, redolent of Rimsky and Scriabin (at a pinch, of Mussorgsky's Pictures). This, of course, prefigures the work of Vangelis on Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1981) in which the Greek (Artemiev's only equal in the use of electronics as emotional and scenic ciphers) was consulted as to creating the entire sonic space of the future LA using electronic effects.

In the words of the music critiic Annaliese Varaldiev on Stalker:

This music possesses a kind of hallucinatory resonance and clarity - in terms of pure aesthetic intention, it is perhaps closer to something like the Allegri Miserere (Artemiev's solo flute line is reminiscent of that composition's sublime soprano solo) or to the Japanese sacred pieces that Tarkovsky would use as source music m his last film. The Sacrifice, than to any conventional notion of what a motion picture soundtrack should be. (It is also interesting to note that in the late '70s, when Stalker was made - a time, conversely, when post-production sound in Hollywood was becoming increasingly departmcntalizcd and fragmented - Artemiev was eradicating the boundaries between music and sound with his work on this film: many of Stalker's otherworldly effects, which give the impression of subtly manipulated production sound, were actually created by him on the synthesizer, and therefore serve as both extension and counterpoint to the purely musical ideas.).

Artemiev again;

"Tarkovsky often said to me that, for him, it was more important for the composer to create an overall conceptual idea for all the sound used in a film, rather than to simply write themes or melodies that accompany the images. In Mirror, for example, I had to create orchestral textures which were added to the natural, non-musical elements of the soundtrack, in order to give them a certain spiritual dimension that he wanted. The orchestra's purpose here was to play the role of "living water" - a term in Russian folklore having to do with spiritual regeneration and renewal - in the entire picture there is only one actual music cue, in the usual sense of that term and even then I used variations on only a single chord- E-minor - with constantly changing instrumentation-and this sequence is ten minutes long!"

Tarkovsky was, in Artemiev's recollection, as difficult, diffident and enigmatic as he apparently was to almost everyone else who met him.

In Mirror and Stalker it was easier. Andrei and I seemed to gradually adjust to each other, become closer at heart. I always was astonished with how he was making his pictures not allowing a slightest mistake. In the time of Solaris and Mirror, I recollect, each part had to be written from beginning to end - such was the equipment. Only in Stalker we already had an opportunity to work on the system allowing to insert music, speech, noises from a moment we needed. Before that we had to run a part about twenty times to allow the director and sound technician to learn it almost thoroughly and only after all that we could record. In the case of any inaccuracy everything had to be done again and again. The story of composing the music for this picture, perhaps, was the most complicated because Andrei lacked for a long period of time any clear understanding of what its musical atmosphere ought to be like. I remember that soon after I received the script of Stalker Andrei called me and told me that he would know exactly where the music was to go only after finishing the shooting. However, having shot all the material, he continued to search and was explaining to me that he needed some combination of the Orient and the West recollecting along with that the saying by Kipling about the incompatibility of the Orient and the West... that they can only co-exist but will never be able to understand each other. Andrei desired this thought be resonating throughout Stalker distinctly but he could never get it right. Then he suggested trying European music on Oriental instruments or, vice versa. This idea seemed to be curious and I brought a wonderful melody to Andrei, named Pulcherrima Rosa by an anonymous 14th century composer, a motet. Having heard this theme, Andrei immediately decided to take it but warned that in such original form it was just inconceivable in the film. It ought to be given in an Oriental colouring. "You know, I have some friends in Armenia and Azerbaijan. What if we would summon musicians from there and you would write the melody Pulcherrima Rosa for them and they would play it improvising on this theme?" We decided to give it a try. A performer on the tar was invited from Armenia. I have made the orchestral development of the theme, when tar was leading the main melody. Andrei came to the recording, listened attentively, and rejected the record, having said, that this was not what he wanted. We stopped the recording, and rethought it. And I do not know how did we find it; possibly Andrei himself had mentioned something about the necessity of creation of a state of some inner calmness, inner satisfaction in the film, being similar to that is could be found in Indian music. I knew what to do. In general, I do not like to use open methods both in cinema and in other musical genres. On the contrary, I try to mask technique so that the listener doesn't understand how I put it together. But, obviously I had to on this occasion. So, I took a well-known Indian musical device as a basis of the musical solution of the film. It is constructed on the distinguishing of one base tone, which is usually entrusted to the performers on the Indian vina and tampur. In the background to this drone, there's improvisation on the tar (a multinational instrument, which is used not only by Indians, but also by Iranians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Georgians). I decided also to add a transverse flute. Nonetheless, later I came to the conclusion, that such a straightforward connection of European and Oriental instruments was just too corny, too obvious a contrast. Then I turned to electronics and passed the music through effects channels of the EMS Synthi-100 synthesizer [an extraordinary sport of the imported technology of a primitive Taylor synthesiser from the UK], having invented many various and unusual modulations for flute. The tar was recorded at one speed, and then it was lowered so that the "life of one string" could be heard, which was incredibly important for me.


"Later on Tarkovsky tried to remove music from the films. He told me about it: "music is needed in cases when it patches up emotional holes, and it is impossible to repair them with any other means". Also, here one can attribute the cases, when he exhibits the pictures of old masters: here he needed the illusion of recreation of the roots. Cinema is a very young art, but he wanted that it would be comprehended as a ancient ones - painting, music, literature. And knowingly he used the symbols, which put him on a rank with the "eternal". Really, there are no music in his last films...the only occasion when Tarkovsky came to a record, was Stalker. Here he was worried. In this film Andrei gave a considerable attention to the main musical theme, where he assumed to hear some "state", characteristic to the Oriental music, with the elements of intonation of the medieval European music. It was a task which led me to a dead end. And there I made the most serious mistake in my life. After long and fruitless thoughts, I decided that the "European theme" will be performed by an Oriental folk instrument accompanied by the symphony orchestra. Tarkovsky came, listened to the music and said that it was completely unsuitable in spirit. But the complete record was already made. So, in order to avoid a scandal, he signed that he accepted all the music. Later, the additional financial means to redo it all were obtained. The film was shot twice, and the music was written twice. The second time I composed music in a spirit of a meditation. This is where rock music helped me out..."

It could be said in western terms that Artemiev was by now a fully-fledged postmodernist, despite the fact that even the idea of postmodernism was unknown in the Soviet Union. Although in a privileged position in Soviet cultural circles - he and his friends could listen to certain permitted western records and import musical equipment - he had, by a route unknown in the west, stumbled upon the hybridising tendencies that informed western progressive rock.

"From the mid-70s Artemiev's style underwent a change in the direction of a "new simplicity". The dialogue between the academic tradition and rock aesthetics tended to meet other, more global tasks: to assimilate the styles, genres. Resonant with those tasks was also his desire to try his hand at an openly emotional, intuitive self-expression. Polychromaticism of timbre still preserved its significance for the composer, however, the traditional elements of writing were more actively introduced, accompanied with a new sense of melody, rhythm and harmony."

The cultural continuities and dialectics that made taste in the 1960s and 1970s were not entirely absent from the USSR - a thriving underground rock scene was always in attendance - but the development of tastes and discourses were quite different. Only behind the Iron Curtain, for example, could a rock record of the gigantic perversity of Artemiev's Ode To The Herald Of Good (1980) have been made. Commissioned by the IOC and the Party organisers of the Moscow Olympiad of the same year, it is one of the most monumentally bizarre recordings ever made by a rock band. The 'instrumental ensemble' (the term 'rock band' was forbidden) Boomerang was assembled and took the stage to play the soundtrack to the opening ceremony of the Games; operatic soloists and massive choirs intoned the plaititudinous texts of Pierre de Coubertin in the enormous cauldron of Moscow's 100,000-capacity Lenin stadium while Boomerang churned away in the foreground, virtuosically pounding out a surreal blend of western influences - anything from Mantovani to King Crimson while the EMS Synthi gurgled away non-stop. Artemiev cites Genesis, Procol Harum, Gentle Giant, Yes and Led Zeppelin among contemporary influences. 'O, Sport!' hollers the tenor lead, over and over again. Honest.

If this was meant to present the USSR as a happening place, it was a monstrously tragic error; yet in retrospect, what is striking about the performance, and the accompanying CD, is the fact that it sounds, to Western ears, utterly incongruous yet oddly assured. This is a quality that is often cited by those who have discovered the wonders of Gorizont, Gunesh or Arsenal on 'official' Melodiya LPs of the 1980s. Mess and In Spe, two Estonian bands, produced some of the most radically weird progressive rock of the era, yet in the USSR must have been regarded as positively straight-laced. These bands were the respective brainchilds of electronic maestri Sven Grunberg and Pëëter Vahi, both of whom created - and still create - music of integrity and interest which owes everything and nothing to the western subversion that must have crackled through the ether under their nylon bedclothes all those years ago. Vahi's band, In Spe, on their second album, recorded a Concerto for Typewriter...

Artemiev, meanwhile, shacked up with a new patron, Nikolai Mikhalkov with whom he had first worked in 1974, and also cultivated ties with his brother Andrei, better known in the west as Andrei Konchalovsky. Some of the most remarkable of his 140 film scores were devoted to the brothers' work, not least the Oscar-winning Burnt By The Sun. Konchalovsky helped Artemiev create his first opera, based on Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment at the turn of the millennium, the composer having contributed pieces to his Duet For One, Homer and Eddie, and a full score for a dreadful film adaptation of Homer's Odyssey (Artemiev's no snob - he's even chucked pretty little cod-minuets into straight-to-video schlock like the Corman-produced Burial of the Rats). After perestroika, Artemiev could afford to commute between LA and Moscow. But this did not hamper the processes of his magpie mind. As Susalova maintains, "There is a new quality perceptible in the works written in the late 80s: a blending of the democratic aspirations inherited from the aesthetics of the 70s with the ideas of avant-garde, of the rational with the intuitive... n a variety of proportions and combinations the synthesis of "musics" was realised in his quasi-symphonies The Seven Gates into the World of Satori and Peregrini, in the poems to Lithuanian texts White Dove, Summer, Vision, in the music for the films Sibiriada (actually a Konchalovsky serial), Fox Hunting, The End of Eternity, Moon Rainbow and the cantata Warmth of Earth.

It's hard for many listeners to take in this monumentally bizarre work. The current writer is often reduced to incoherence when asked to describe it (and hopes he does better here). Ostensibly an interpretation of Yuri Rytkheu's jejune verses, in a suitably optimistic socialist-realist stamp reflecting the dialectical ascent of man from creation to 'fulfilment' (i.e. communism), it contains influences of Tchaikovsky, Yes, ELP, the far East, nursery rhymes, King Crimson and Burt Bacharach. It was recorded in 1985, but even ten years previously would have sounded recondite. Melodiya released it on LP the following year and French label Musea have now made a CD available to western listeners.

Boomerang are out in force again, and Igor Len - himself a formidable synthesist, as witnessed on his icy, unsettling Melodiya LP Here - Sergei Saveliev and Yuri Bogdanov handle keys, the latter also doubling on electric guitar; Jeanne Rozhdestvenskaya is the occasional vocalist, making a sighingly pretty but curiously hermaphroditic sound in the mould of a Westenra or Haslam. Odd, chromatically melodic leaps - as at the beginning of "What Am I?" (track 2) evolve into soaring showstoppers. The Synthi bubbles and boils and shrieks. There are placid arpeggios over which instrumental aurorae shimmer with an oddly discoloured light. The finale, "Hymn to Man" is a thrilling series of tension-and-release episodes worthy of Khachaturian (or Glazunov) before a handbrake turn into an entirely different key and down through the faders to nothingness.

Around the same time Artemiev was working on a concert piece to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Premièred in Bourges in 1989, it was well-received. A critique by Jorge Peixinho in the Lisbon daily Diario de Lisboa (27.10.89) read "... the work Three Glimpses on the Revolution by Russian composer Edward Artemiev [is] a real discovery: his powerful music, built with great skill, is remarkable for outstanding accomplishment. This is a work of typically Russian composer brought up in the traditions of Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Shostakovich… This is a music of epic might and undoubted expression".

Artemiev, since then, has decelerated. The film work in LA was piecemeal, derisory by his standards - but it paid the bills. Ocean, his Tarkovsky tribute, has yet to find a place in the orchestral repertoire; but this may be something to do with the fact that his M.O. is of a piece with a time and place long since forgotten. In the late 50s and early 60s, in Moscow as much as in London or LA, things were falling apart, centres didn't hold. People did unorthodox things for the simple reason that they found, with incredulously childlike joy, that they could. This, of course, was the cultural compost that nurtured progressive rock music in the west, and Artemiev, in his own way, is a perennial hybridiser as much as Fripp or Eno. Now, sadly, society and culture tends to view these interesting people much as it regards lepidopterists or fell-runners or beekeepers; picturesque but ultimately boring and inutile outsiders. The fact that Artemiev has never abandoned Russia for Hollywood's machine means that his music still - 16 years after the fall of the USSR - remains contingent and difficult to obtain in the west.

His son Artemiy, another electronic artist, although of inferior gifts, now runs Electroshock Records, devoted to marketing the best of Russian electronic music. Three Eduard Artemiev sets, Moods and Impressions; a thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating swatch of pieces from Solaris, Mirror and Stalker; also, the fantastically odd Ode To The Herald of Good can be acquired here. Musea Records are responsible for the sale and distribution of Warmth of Earth.
He deserves to be heard; he deserves to be rewarded.

BLOGGER'S NOTE: The interview materials are taken from the website. I have taken the liberty of smoothing the English syntax on occasion. Readers wishing to read the full unvarnished text of each should visit, clicking on 'Eduard Artemiev' and then 'Interviews'.


Lilia Suslova: A Breakthrough to New Worlds of Sound, Musical Academy #2, 1995
Annaliese Varaldiev: from 'The Mix'
Tatyana Egorova: "He always has been, and will remain, a creator...", Musikalanya zhizn, 1988
Galina Drubchevskaya: Eduard Artemiev - "I am sure there will be a creative explosion", Musical Academy #2, 1993
Archie Patterson: An Interview with Eduard Artemiev (source uncredited, likely


The great American literary critic Paul Fussell would doubtless disapprove of one of his observations becoming a public aphorism; but 'nothing depresses me so much as optimism' deserves a place in the postwar pantheon. For in a world where, even after Newton, Kant, Curie, Freud and Chomsky, gifted arts graduates raised on reason ventriloquize crap about 'being yourself' and 'finding the answers in you' and, above all 'being positive', witchcraft ordure commandeered by astrologers and management consultants and still as shitty as anything Himmler envisaged, then there really is hardly any hope at all.

if you get lucky, thank your god, quietly, shut up and run away

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Album Sleeves 100 Years Ago - The Opera of the Sea

Evidence of Autumn - Lots of Sweeping Up...

Levy-Dhurmer's The Wind I

Segantini - When Piety Becomes Magical

Yeah he was a terrible fundamentalist - but Symbolism, and the painting of the Alps, rarely gets better than Le Chatiment des Luxueuses.

SPORTIN' LIFE: Not On Mineral Water

Dope, dope, dope. Paul Stump argues that it all began with the Tour de France, because such a mad idea meant it had to

"All France holds its breath". It is July 13, 1964. Chunky Limousin Raymond Poulidor (right) and Jacques Anquetil are coude-a-coude up the corkscrew cul-de-sac of the Puy De Dome, the basalt volcano in the Massif Central. Julio Jimenez, the flyweight Spanish climber, has long since danced on his pedals and soared into an unassailable lead; but people's almost-champion Pou-Pou and Parisian chou Anquetil are renewing a years-old duel in what was the first great sporting moment on French TV. Poulidor burnt Maitre Jacques off; but the Norman won the Tour.

Two years later Anquetil would win the gruelling week-long Dauphine Libere stage race in the baking mountains of Rhone-Alpes and, the next day, win the 550km Bordeaux-Paris race. In betweentimes, he would lead riders' strikes against dope testing and declare to journalists; 'you don't win the Tour on mineral water'. A year later still, Tom Simpson would ride himself to death on the calcite griddle of Mont Ventoux's merciless white slopes in 120 degree heat, his metabolic capabilities haywired by the drugs he had taken (speed, speed).

Let us review the facts; from Rennes anticlockwise to Paris, the 1964 Tour covered 4505km in 22 days, as opposed to the 3200 common today. 1964 was the first time the Tour went over the Col de Restefond, a 2802m-high pass, where snow was banked six feet high even under a Midi midday sun and where even hikers might stop to suck an oxygen tit.

This, of course, was as naught compared to the 5745km of 1926(chapeau, Lucien Buysse!), when repairs were the rider's responsibility, derailleur gears were banned, when bears and bandits roamed the Pyrenean cols, when day stages started at 3 am to cover distances of 450km-plus (Metz to Dunkerque over cobbled bleared with soot and rain was a particular brute).

Henri Desgranges, the Tour's founder, launched it - and maintained it till 1939 - in the spirit of fin-de-siecle Nietzscheanism. Altius, fortius indeed; the purer, the stronger, the greater, will prevail. This principle, which arguably underpins all organised sport, was the lynchpin of Desgranges' thinking, to the power of ten. Not for nothing did he take the Tour over the mountain passes where he imagined Zarathustra mused during the Nachtlied.

Octave Lapize didn't see it that way in 1910 - as he hyperventilated his way up the horribly steep Aubisque in the Pyrenees, en route to final, spent victory in Paris, he hissed at Desgranges' officials as they clustered at the summit; 'vous etes des assassins' - you murdering bastards. Desgranges was unruffled. Next year, the Col de Galibier, in the Grandes Alpes, at 2645m, was introduced to the peloton. It remains the Tour's highest regular calling point; only Iseran (2770m) and Restefond are closer to heaven. 'O Tourmalet, O Sappey, O Bayard [and other mountains]' he wrote, 'I will not shirk from my duty in proclaiming that beside the Galibier you are but pale and vulgar babies'. But nonetheless, next year, up they went. That's sport. That's sportsmen.

After the hysterical insanity of Desgranges' Tour concept, cycle racing could never be the same again. And neither could the riders. Imagine asking Isinbayeva to pole-vault 30 feet; imagine asking Woods to play Troon with a stick of rhubarb; imagine asking Radcliffe to break two hours. All equate to what Desgranges' megalomania demanded of his riders.

Desgranges and his Tour not only redefined the paradigms of cycling, he also came damn close to redefining paradigms of sport. Lapize was right; Desgranges and his men were murderers, insofar as they induced men to become something they were not. Not corpses, but differently-configured beings. The only means of such transmorphism was, of course, chemical.

How Much Road Do You Want? Top Gear

Richard Hammond's accident might just spell the end for an outdated disgrace to British TV, argues Paul Stump

Here's my pitch. I want to do a TV show about hearing the reminiscences of great musicians (Brendel, Plant, Marsalis W?). Or about the alcohol cultures of Europe (Belgium, Germany, Poland?). Or even dining with, interviewing and spending the day in bed with successful young women in the arts (Tautou, Johansson, Cojocaru?). Niche markets only, true. My fee? 700 big ones. Now how much chutzpah do you need for that?

As much as Jeremy Clarkson, apparently. Because his fantasies to wow a thimbleful audience have come true thanks to the BBC and the public's license fee - which rarely feels so much like a stealth tax as when switching off Top Gear. Clarkson's pitch was him and his mates driving six-figure motors at illegal speeds, acting the goat and getting paid a king's ransom for it. Of course, like my dreams, that's a minority interest too - the latest series of Top Gear (or does it now run indefinitely?) averages 4.5 million a week, by the way, roughly the figure that One Man and his Dog got in its heyday. In one week in May it scored only 1.2 million more than Dan Cruickshank's extraordinarily esoteric series on Claude Friese-Greene - but who cares? In terms of audience share across the board it's not even in the little league. Incredibly, the thing's still on. Indeed, it's scarcely ever off.

Ah, but at the end of the day - a phrase most Top Gear viewers use a lot, I find - doesn't Jeremy speak for the silent majority of road-users against the killjoy environmental lobby? With today's news that Richard Hammond, one of Clarkson's chummy sidekicks was spread across most of a disused airfield by a disintegrating dragster, the weary claim that Top Gear is about motoring and ordinary motorists may have been demolished, like the better part of the hapless Hammond's anatomy. For isn't driving at a turbojet-assisted 300mph exactly what most of us do in our vehicles most of the time? Er...

Could it be that Hammond's prang will do for Top Gear what the ill-fated Michael Lush and his crane dive did for The Late Late Breakfast Show? Will it kybosh the hitherto invincible Clarkson like Lush holed the previously unsinkable Edmonds? Guiltily, one hopes so - as one hopes it tempts Hammond to get out from under Jeremy's career and make one of his own - but don't bet on it.

For it's hard to imagine just what Clarkson could do that would induce his employers to aim him. Bulletproofed by the Beeb's blind faith, heedless of detractors, he is a real-life Roger Mellie. ("Tom! I've cracked it! How about 'The Milk Race'? Five celebrities stand in a row and have a wank...' Clarkson could do it. He could write his own cheque) After all, Top Gear in its awfulness has defied all known laws of television extinction for so long that it seems inconceivable that it should ever end. It was in 1997 , for God's sake, that Viz - even then belatedly - pisstook Clarkson. 'I'm not going to drive this car... I'm going to fuck it... up the arse!' (ironically, in a Mellie strip). And nine years on, what's changed? One thing only; he - and by extension the show, for they are indivisible - have worsened.

Once a likeable, clever, exceptionally knowledgeable presenter - and still a decent journalist - Clarkson's waggish Everygit schtick became iconic enough for the BBC to milk it dry. But long after the golden tit dried up, still they squeezed. Top Gear, once about cars, became about supercars, and Clarkson driving them, and then about Clarkson. It disconnected from the average driver and nabbed the fantasy angle alluded to above - tapping what they imagined, in the media vernacular of the laddish mid-90s, average driver wanted to be. Pedal to the metal, outthefuckinway, breathe my toxins, baby. Terylened Derek Yesman in Sales getting dumped on by his boss all week, hasn't quite made it and know it, with nippers and a prostate playing up and the mistress in Dartford or Alderley Edge to worry about, not to mention the traffic on the M649 where the accidents are caused by people driving too slow - Jeremy is the ventriloquist of his dreams. Top Gear was - is -the blokiest TV, when primetime seems so drattedly faggy - How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria, Strictly this or that etc. Jeremy is an icon of anti-PC, of putative Obersturmbannfuhrers in every underpaid office in England. You know them - the Barmy Army wannabes.

Fine - even perversely novel and laudable, sort of - for a series. But not serial series. And when the whole tawdry shebang moved into a hangar somewhere in Bedfordshire, with Clarkson and a brace of suitably blokeish, chirpy henchmen attended by a bevy of bussed-in fawners, it looked more car-crash telly than car telly. This promised to be a legend in bad broadcasting.

But years on, the legend doesn't just continue; it seems immortal. Quite apart from the Millwally morals of the show (no-one likes us etc) and the well-rehearsed, corresponding - if correct - jeremiads of ecologists, the main objection to Top Gear is that it is not just bad TV, it is shockingly, buttock-clenchingly bad TV (at least other people's wish-fulfilment telly - Dibnah's, Meades's- is instructive, well-made and inexpensive).

The road lobby could hardly have a worse shop window. The journalism's shoddy. The humour is for people who don't like humour, rather like James Blunt is music for people who don't like music; the clodhopping jokes are for office 'wits', Nigel Rees addicts, people who swear by Keeping Up Appearances, rabid Hitch-Hiker and Red Dwarf completists, whoopee cushioneers, debaggers. It can't even do irony well - it knows it's crap, but is never quite convinced - after all, look-at-me-ma smugness is its (very leaded) fuel.

The content is numbingly repetitive; faster, costlier, more extreme. People who would never watch ESPN2 or When Lawnmowers Go Bad or World's Most Gruesome Laundromat Accidents find their baser desires catered for here with what they fondly, and vainly, imagine with typical British thickness to be invention and good taste. Yet, if anything, Top Gear is arguably worse than both of the above, insofar as that it dissembles a catering to a wide motoring audience.

Actually, it does nothing of the sort. It pornographically titillates the unassuageable wants of its own cult audience. The cost to the BBC of the programme isn't disclosed, but runs into seven figures, and in buying up 4.5 million people with this sum, one could safely assume Auntie could better spend the loot and please more people by on televising professional cycling, broadcasting a cycle of Rachmaninov concertos, launching a documentary on Stuckism, financing a new Aardman feature, making its news bulletins watchable for intelligent adults or buying up and reuniting the two world darts championships. All of the above would draw lower audience figures but better value for money than Jeremy currently does. Even if not spent on programmes, financing a hitman to take out Ben Fogle or just paying Ptolemy Dean to retire to the Falkland Islands would be a public service greater than anything Top Gear offers.

A habitual enemy of the road lobby, the current writer nonetheless happens to like cars and motorbikes much as doubtless did the old Jeremy; the redefinition of sleekness in the peerless coachwork of Pininfarina or Bertone; the social history of hot-rodding; a carmine-and-daffodil Velox or Cresta's whitewalls; the piping, shortarse defiance of Isettas and Messerschmitts; sustainable energy; reboring mopeds; best-value kit cars or grannymobiles; the Citroën DS; how, basically, bloody cars work in the first place. But that is not Top Gear's way. Not Jeremy's way, which is the same thing. The vast majority of the UK's adult population drives; that the only motoring show with any profile should cater to the fantasies of a bossy, self-regarding and insecure few - one in particular - is one of the cultural scandals of our time. Yes, I know - of course one can turn it off - but one can do nothing about the squanderbugging haemorrhage of public money into such outdated, ignorant swill.

It's easy to forget now, but once upon a time the BBC did have a show that covered the motorist's universe, from carburettors to Can-Ams, investigatived rewinding scams, chucklingly road-tested vintage heaps, lectured on tyre pressures, even had the odd 140-plus spin in a Lamborghini. It was pretty good, actually, if memory serves.

Its name? Oh yes. Top Gear.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

musical seduction

OK, I admit it. It was Boulez' 1974 NYPO recording of the Prelude and L:ebestod which got me off with my first girlfriend. This was admittedly makin' out.

I'm not proud, OK? I was 18. So lay off.

She did ask me to play it again, at least.

So was I so wrong? Tell me. I could have played the Dead Kennedys. She'd have probably enjoyed that, but the langour would have been missing.

First time soundtracks of the active libido welcomed. No judgement on any, just interest.

Astrid Varnay - Correction

Silly sod - Varnay didn't sing Isolde in 1953. She only took on Brunnhilde and Ortrud, which is rather like running four consecutive four-minute miles instead of five.

In an hour.

With a knapsack on.

Game girl - not maybe as forbidding as Caruso taking on the tenor lead in Aida, Boheme, Butterfly, Traviata and Tosca within six days at the Met in 1908, but not bad going.

FACE STUFFIN': I Didn't Get Where I Am Today

... without tasting CJ's Cider of Usk. A hobby producer, this medium cider is vinous, subtle, as layered as a Genoese sponge. Tasted at The Bell, 16.9.06.

RIP Pip Pyle

Entering one's 40s, one also enters the period of the big losses, the places where parents leave you to adulthood on your own. It is not supposed to be the place of other big losses, where musical or cultural heroes, whose work shaped the adolescence that shapes adulthood and independence, die off also. But now it is beginning. Pip Pyle, drummer with Gong, Hatfield and the North and National Health, died on August 27. However yawningly-inflected one's voice when discussing the obtrusively, if very much de jour sub-Python humour of said bands, Pyle was a master drummer; he made utility the criterion of style and vice versa. In a band as dedicated to pure music as National Health, his gift was to make the drum kit sound like a melodic, transposing and rhythmic instrument sometimes within the same bar. Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones and, more recently, Christian Vander are his spiritual homologues. Pyle was also a singular exception to the British dread of mixing and matching the Apollonian and Dionysian, the abandoned and the intellectual. Whether pounding through a punked-up jam with Gong or playing a refined 13/8 with the Hatfields, Pyle was a natural - in other words a natural musician. Scarce wonder he emigrated in the early 1980s from this unmusical country. That his friends have united in their mourning for him, and that the (quality) national press have at least acknowledged not only his passing but his contribution to thinking and creative musical endeavour, shows that British music's flame is not dead.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Mabon - Celtic Roots Rules

Saturday night to The Bell in Caerleon [qv] for a barnstormer of a set by Jamie and Derek (accordion and guitars) of Bridgend-based folk-rockers Mabon. Steve Tibbetts meets Afro-Celt Sound System; athletic but unshowy fingering, intriguing harmonies, blink-and-you'll-miss it variations on rhythmic pulse. Unsurprised when Derek later confessed to being a fan in the 70s of Italian prog legends Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM). Watch these guys - there's no finger in the ear here - just feet on the dancefloor.

RIP Astrid Varnay

Belated acknowledgement of the death of one of the great singers of all time - the woman who practically invented the modern heroic soprano actress. Flagstad and Nilsson probably had finer, stronger voices, but Varnay's willingness to study and learn from stage actresses made her more of a presence live than on record. And even on record she was formidable - her Ortrud in the 1953 Lohengrin at Bayreuth may never have been bettered. This was, one must remember a festival in which she also sang Isolde and Brunnhilde. Now that's a voice that could bench-press 250kg and more.

The Onion - Senile Mother A Broken Novelty Record

Senile Mother A Broken Novelty Record
September 15, 2006 | Issue 42•38
HUNTLEY, NE—The constant chatter of vascular dementia–afflicted Sophia Chandler, 88, has become a "broken novelty record" to the family members who care for her, Chandler's daughter Jane LeNoir said Tuesday. "All day long, it's 'I'm cold,' or 'Where's my husband? Is he dead?' or 'Janie, the airplanes are stopping over our house and the people are looking down my blouse' in the same scratchy tone," LeNoir, 59, said. "Then, a few minutes later, it starts again. Although sometimes she totally flips and starts in on 'Eight-Eyed Emily' or 'King Of The Dung Beetles.'" LeNoir said the condition is expected to get worse when Chandler's recently diagnosed Parkinson's disease really kicks in and her voice begins skipping unpredictably.

Jan Toorop - Delftsche Slaolie poster 1895

Evidence of Autumn - Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer's 'The Wind II'


Another day, another P45 for Bryan Robson. Paul Stump laments the cult of the superstar-turned-manager

*this computer is crap. It's been pasting in wrong slabs of text. All should be well now. This is a rewrite of a putative Sunday story

Being a fan of Charlton Athletic Football Club is never easy; but then again neither is being a fan of 97% of all football clubs. This season has been more arduous than most. Now in the charge of Sgt-Maj Dowie, whose shaved cranium and barky syntax lend him the air of a cross between a failed Droog, an unpopular games teacher and Rob Halford out of Judas Priest, four out of five games have finished in defeat. Sainted Curbs, the thinking man's whelk-stallholder, had 'taken the club as far as he could'. Dowie obviously thinks that this was too far and is quick-marching his players back down the hill as fast as they can go.

It's a fair bet that Dowie is mopping his lumpy brow this morning, as a manager boasting a far less calamitous start to 2006-7 clears his desk. But then again, ID has never been quite so much of a serial failure as Bryan Robson, with whom West Bromwich have parted company with all the alacrity of the firing of a human cannonball.

Robson, as it was pointed out - albeit too obliquely - in this morning's press is an archetype in British football. Former international heroes have always struggled to translate onfield skills into managerial nous. For every Brian Clough there are forty Bobby Charltons/Moores or , heaven forfend, Alan Balls. But since the 1990s there has been a slight change of emphasis. Charlton and Moore saw their dreams founder in football's wilderness at Preston and Southend respectively. That repeat relegation offender, Alan Ball, only made a fool of himself when he stepped up into the top flight.

Robson, on the other hand, was parachuted, as if by magic, into Middlesbrough in 1995 despite having shown no aptitude for management whatsoever. John Barnes sashayed from nowhere into the Celtic hotseat a few years later. How? Why? Tony Adams caesuraed Wycombe Wanderers' meteoric rise in its prime. The abject failures of the likes of Merson or Gascoigne even in the boondocks is more redolent of bygone days; yet even when Charlton and Moore took up reins, they were never afforded the same degree of publicity that the Adams, Merson, Robson, Barnes appointments received. Despite the fact that back in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, there were so many hardbitten Scotsmen and Irishmen swilling around the coaching courses that an ex-international getting a job was news. The appointments were for little more than publicity, for appointer and appointee; part gullibility, part Learishly raging against the dying of the light, part ego-massage.

I doubt that Southend or Preston fans expected the two Bobbys to arrest the decline of their clubs. Yet when Robson took over at Boro, a good friend of mine, a staunch fan of the club and for the most part an accomplished ironist, was almost beside himself with excitement. The publicity machine has moved on since the time of Ball and the Bobs, and if it's said loud enough and long enough ('this man is a winner', typically) people will believe it. Until they realise, as they must surely now with Robson, that he isn't. It was chilling to think that the man was once offered the England job.

This is not to place to pontificate on what makes a good football manager. In the last 20 years, the role has changed considerably in any case. But something identifiably different is the machine of hero-worship. Robson, Barnes, Merson, Gascoigne and others were the first megastar generation of British footballers. Not only did they have to work like billyo to make the grade and stay there (always the hardest, yawn), the publicity bubble they inhabited would not have helped foster an identification with the nuances and niceties of player management, of study peripheral to a public persona (can you see Gazza sitting up to 3am poring over Red Star Belgrade videos?), juggling tasks and time. Shit on the boots, in the bootroom? Filling in forms? We've left that behind, cock. Which might explain why Stuart Pearce seems to be coping reasonably well.

Hardly surprising then that a random handful of successful Brit-based managers (Ferguson, Mourinho, Mee, Nicholson, Wenger the Magnificent, Shankly, Stein, Paisley, Saunders) were average players but were journeymen who faded into the nuts-and-bolts conducting of a club and XI so much they came to know it and to master it like few others. Only the remorselessly enigmatic Dalglish defies this logic. O'Neill, Clough's protégé and clearly an intelligent and observant man, may yet. Will Keane prosper at Sunderland and treble the numbers? I suspect not. Abroad, it's different; Capello, Ancelotti and of course, the ne plus ultra of the whole phenomenon, the regal Beckenbauer, were globally renowned as much then as now.

Clough's career was over too soon to tell if he would truly have been a star. Billy Wright's tenure at the helm of Arsenal was drab and unsuccessful, but he was maybe the first true international star to make a fist of management. George Graham was peripheral to Scotland's international XI and Bobby Robson a stop-start workhorse in England's.

But these crumbs are what prompts to sensation-mongers to banner the former stardom of a has-been to conjure the future stardom of the genius rejuvenated. Hope springs in the breast of few more readily than that of a football fan. Great deeds once done... Kevin Keegan and Graeme Souness were the first to milk this misplaced adulation in the 1980s, for precious little long-term gain. Since then the atavism has spiralled out of control.

It is of a whole, really, with the British capacity for self-delusion in the face of the publicly notable. How else do we explain the willingness of Brits great and small, rich and poor, mad and sane, to suspend disbelief and so trust that the likes of Jonathan Aitken, Richard Branson, Jeffrey Archer, Mohammed al-Fayed, yes and Tony Blair, are not shysters of the deepest dye to whom one would not trust across the pub to the bar?

Interestingly, the old warriors the chairmen charge with new glories - Keane, Robson, Adams, Merson, Gascoigne, are all representatives of an age for which the vast majority of fans now feel nostalgic. Before the takeover by the foreigners, the flick-artists and fancy dans, when a player was judged as much by the number of pints he could consume and by the studmark scars on his legs as by his ability to chest-trap. This, of course, is itself a delusion; not one of the aforementioned won an international medal.

Which of the current crop of deceiving flatterers will get fast-tracked to hotseat humiliation or humdrumness first? Given that insulation from the rougher edges of the real world and the football industry for highly-paid footballers is even greater than in the early 1990s, Ashley Cole or Frank Lampard do not spring to mind as ideal management types. But given their remuneration at present, and the amount of hunger for the game they showed in Germany (akin to Kate Moss's hunger for industrial waste lard, one could say), why should they bother? Some of them will, though; the WAG will be gone, the hamstring or cruciate with her, and down to the last 700 grand it's too much for a footballer's ego to take. Yes, they'll 'throw their hat in the ring'.

And right now there's a shiny-suited little prick on his mobile, drink-driving his way round the M25, and who, in a decade's time, and after having shredded 40 applications from qualified and competent and experienced men, will whisk this hapless washout into the boardroom of his newly-acquired club to announce that 'x is a winner'. Anyone with a memory who saw the way British footballers played in 2006 - not to mention Robson, Barnes, Merson, Adams, Keegan - might beg to differ, and wonder just what 'winning' is going to mean for the club henceforward.