Saturday, 26 September 2009

Music to toddle to

Last night I posted the song Miracles by Jefferson Starship and a chum told me she really liked it but she was 4 years old when it came out. What a four year old made of the lyric I'm not sure, when it seems to be all ladies and gentlemen doing filthy things to one another with ecstatic results, including some rude words and noises slipped in which the censors possibly missed.

So I thought of what songs I had liked myself at the age of four. 1960! Before I started primary school, before The Beatles, before we had a tv or a fridge or a phone, before Dusty Springfield, before so much! I had a vivid childhood memory of loving Ronnie Hilton's A Windmill in Old Amsterdam in my infancy but it turned out that I was actually 8 when it was a hit. Late developer... So here are ten tunes I was enjoying at the age of 4! These were mostly 78rpm single recordings or 33 1/3rpm albums that belonged to my father or one of my mother's younger brothers (they were often off abroad in England or Egypt or Norway or the Gulf and would store their stuff in our loft).

1. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by The Platters
We had a 78rpm dinner plate of a record that we (me and my baby sister) played over and over but we had no idea who The Platters were or what they looked like. I now see that lead singer Tony Williams (above) was a bit of a shag.

2. Carmen Jones How my dad loved this film soundtrack. I could probably sing all the songs as soon as I could talk. I was ignorant of the story, of Bizet, of the politics, had never seen the film, but loved the songs. This is the anglicised lyric matched to the tune of L'Amour est Enfant de Bohème, which I learned to love afresh when I grew up and discovered the opera. For me though, the Bizet was never going to accrete the emotional load that the Oscar Hammerstein version had. I wonder why the lyrics are subtitled here? She's singing, magnificently and with great clarity, in English anyway.

3. Eartha Kitt and I Want to be Evil. My dad, I now know, had a very male adolescent relationship with sex throughout his life. I was impressed as a toddler that he thought Eartha was "sexy" although I really had no idea what that meant. But I liked the tune and the words and had seen her on tv (where I thought she looked a bit like my grandmother). In later life, I came to love her even more and once even saw her in the glorious flesh at the Edinburgh Festival.

4. Kaw Liga by Hank Williams.
In working class industrial-belt Scotland, there's a crossover between some Scottish folk and American country music. This was the original A Side of a disc that had "Your Cheatin' Heart" on its flip. As little kids, we loved this and felt deeply the tragedy of the wooden cigar store Indian with his knotty pine heart. Phrases such as "Native American" were then unknown to us and we had very confused, romantic ideas about "Indians".

5. Before I ever fell in love with Doris Day on film (as I certainly did!), I knew all the songs from Calamity Jane and, of those, The Deadwood Stage was my favourite. It was such a thrill, when I finally saw the musical, to see the songs in context, and Doris Day's performance cemented the love inculcated in me as a little boy for her breathy voice. I wonder if my folks knew this exposure to Miss Day was beginning the path to gay awareness for me?

6. The great Perry Como singing What Did Delaware? You seldom hear about Como these days but he was enormous when I was a tiny chap. We had lots of his recordings in the house but this was my favourite and I could recite all the puns in order in those days.

7. The Glenn Miller Orchestra and In The Mood. My dad would bang on about his National Service and play this but the bigger treat for my sister and me was when my mood-swinging mother would be a bit hypomanic and would teach us to jive to this tune. The man himself we never saw, just Jimmy Stewart playing him later in The Glenn Miller Story, which I must have watched a hundred times. I love the swagger of the purse-lipped pianist in this film. You see him in close up first about 30 seconds in. I've since seen (mostly American) marching bands performing this and it thrills me still, every time.

8. Here's one of the first songs I probably ever learnt to sing, at my grandmother's admonitory knee. Ye Cannae Shove Yer Granny Aff The Bus!. I loved my granny. I loved her sieved broth, her butterscotch puddings, her stories about the King and Mrs Simpson or The Great Strike. I was therefore not always comfortable with the suggestion of violence in this song. However, the granny I loved so much was my maternal grandmother and I didn't like the paternal one much, so I would join in with this when we sang it on long journeys or in the playground. This clip has extra verses we never sang but I remember lots of bus journeys like this one. It's very Scottish and I was surrounded by all sorts of Scottish music as a kid. Everywhere else in the world they have other words for this tune: She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain.

9. So, here's some tartan stuff, plundering the music hall image of Scottishness. Andy Stewart was a master of this genre and I could have chosen several of his tunes which the extended family would belt out at Hogmanay when they gathered at my Granny's house from all parts of the world. The Muckin' o' Geordie's Byre is an old Scottish folk song and Burns wrote a version too. This differs from those but we loved it as kids, particularly the section that mocks Received Pronunciation. So many of those old Scottish tunes we loved, I realise in retrospect, were about getting gloriously drunk. Doris Day may have made me gay but Andy Stewart made me a binge drinker. My first thought was to place the gruesomely sentimental A Scottish Soldier here because I remember how I used to weep over the poor soldier far from home as as tender little soul. It reaches dizzying heights of mawkishness and my, frankly, alcoholic and chain smoking old grandmother would play it and weep and think of her two soldier sons. It's as bad as Rolf Harris' Two Little Boys for the reliable jerking of tears.

10. The Three Bells by Edith Piaf et les Compagnons de la Chanson. This is a cheat. My granny, I'm sure, didn't have this Piaf version but the inferior American one by The Browns. Either would have me welling up but this one's classier.

Next week, I will rummage around in 1961. Or perhaps not, since this playlist plucks at my heartstrings a little too much.

Friday, 25 September 2009

My Favourite Record OF ALL TIME!

I haven't checked the date stamp on this but it transports me instantly to University Halls of Residence in first year, Edinburgh, the only gay in the village near enough (or so it seemed) but making a big splash!

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Pink Prada Purse

Our Lady J is celebrating 20,000 hits on Pink Prada Purse on YouTube. Let's add a few more!

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Duckie Report

Another absolutely splendid Duckie!

We went down to Peckham to have food and drinks and fun with some friends, at an event organised to exploit the presence upon these shores of a friend from Iowa. Despite the torrential downpour that suddenly broke over us, we all managed to make it to Duckie to maximise our friend's enjoyment of London. Five of the Duckie Six were there and Simon was very sharply suited as if to make up for the absence of the legendarily well tailored Father Cloth.

We had two cabarets and the second was a German chap called Noisy Pig who had lots of multimedia stuff going on: pumping eurobeats, projection of images behind him, comedy eyewear. It was fine. But the first of the cabarets was venerable septuagenarian Bette Bourne reminiscing about Quentin Crisp, apparently an old friend, and giving us some of the great man's lines, delivered with the same withering crispness. I was fortunate to have met Quentin years back and to have seen him do his own show and I have to say Bette did an exemplary job, in my peripheral opinion. You could have heard a pin drop in the RVT and that doesn't often happen at Duckie. Marvellous!

Our friends had all gone the other side of the Activity Island to have a fashion model makeover from Amy, celebrating 25 years of British Fashion Week or something. Amy worked fast and everyone came away even more glamorous than before. The only downside was, for me, that I had recommended the Norwegian Nazi Zombie horror film Dead Snow to Kim Phaggs in the past and he had since watched it and found it wanting! I love his musical tastes but clearly that doesn't correlate with our respective film tastes. I really liked Dead Snow! Hey ho.

We all ended up back on our roof terrace, fortunately only a short trot in slingbacks from Duckie, annoying the neighbours and draining the alcohol from the fridge. I went slightly mad with the cheese and mushrooms on toast but it was all eaten. What a great, great night! Still had one friend with us this morning. We went round the corner to The Oval Lounge for an English Sunday roast, with another friend from close by, and damn fine that was too. In bed early tonight and taking life easily after a mofo of a weekend! Brilliant though :)))

Sunday, 13 September 2009

District 9

Went to the pictures this afternoon, an appropriate entertainment for a day that had proven suddenly autumnal. Saw District 9, a South African sci fi film. It's great! It explains very little and shows you a great deal of fun stuff.

Like all the best sci fi, it takes themes from contemporary culture and presents us with metaphorical teasers. On the surface, this one is about race, about the othering and subjugation of millions of people. It's about the ways that political oppression is sustained and how easily we can all be hoodwinked by the powerful. It has so many more delicate touches in it too.

It works on every level, I think. The cinematography is great (it reminded me hugely of City of God), the sound is great (the click language of the aliens, the incidental music) and the effects are very well managed. The 'prawns' make the Cylon centurions look clunky and robotic. But the main thing is that it's a rattling good story that moves along at a fair old lick, and you can't predict every turn of the plot, right up until the ending where much is tantalisingly unresolved. I admired the ending very much. And the central figure of Wikus van der Merwe is played by a guy who's apparently never been in a film before: Sharlto Copley. He does a great job. You like him, he's funny, but even from the first he is seamlessly inserting crude racist epithets into everyday exchanges and he's no mindless mass-market Hollywood good guy.

I'm sure there's lot more to say but have to go cook some prawns.

Friday, 11 September 2009

An earful

Like London buses, you wait for a blog post for ages and then two come along at once! I am in the middle of several jobs but waiting for something to happen in every case before I can proceed further, so shall use the time to muse here.

I wanted to say a word about audiobooks. I have always, throughout my bookwormy life, been a voracious reader, slower than my partner but relishing the process just as much in my way. He says I am a hobbit; I am happiest when I know how the story will end, pleased that the conventions of the genre are respected. I like storylines to resolve. All true. I would add though that I am not immune to the quality of the prose or to the interpenetration of big ideas and themes with a swiftly moving plot.

Perhaps because I now accumulate piles of textbooks that I must read, attentively, as I work my way through successive modules of a postgrad degree, or perhaps because I spend so much time these days in surfing the quick moving internets and focusing on quick bursts of communication, I read little now, off the page, for pleasure.

I do, however, listen to audiobooks. Even in the old days of the Sony Walkperson, I would occasionally buy a book tape and listen to it. Some I recall very fondly. These were huge box sets: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, Life on Air: Memoirs of a Broadcaster by David Attenborough, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke, hundreds of them over the years...

Then came the Age of the iPod and, from iTunes, I can download many many books and listen at my desk as I do dull work on the computer, on tubes and trains and buses as I traverse South London (which I do frequently to get to and from bits of work), or just around the house as I clean and tidy and vacuum and pair socks.

I find I say often to people that I have ‘read’ a book when what I mean is that I have listened to another read the book for me. There is little distinction in my mind between the two except that I read one book these days for every half a dozen to which I listen.

I prefer the unabridged offerings and some of those can run to 12 or 24 hours’ worth of recording. I can be listening attentively at one point and then go off woolgathering, only to realise half a chapter has slipped by, so I find I rerun and review the spoken text very frequently. I do that with books too though, rereading pages at a time, either because I am puzzled about a development in the narrative and have to backtrack, or because of the particular quality of a piece of prose.

Recently, I have enjoyed all of Boris Akunin’s (Erast Petrovich) Fandorin thriller novels: The Winter Queen, The Turkish Gambit, The Murder on the Leviathan, The Death of Achilles, and The State Counsellor. They’re all set in late Imperialist Russia, spanning the reign of Alexander III. Some, like the State Counsellor, were wonderfully read. Others were less so. You’d think it would be basic when reading a novel set in Russia, translated from the Russian, where everyone has Russian names, that the narrator would have learned how to pronounce those names (and the few Russian terms used in the books) correctly. I doubt that I would have read these in print but I find I enjoy thrillers much more as audiobooks.

When I listen to U.S. voices reading American novels, I notice some linguistic quirks that I haven’t picked up from American friends. Such as, the word ‘shone’, past tense of ‘to shine’. In the U.K. that’s pronounced ‘shawn’. In the U.S. it seems it’s pronounced ‘shoan’. In at least three recent audiobooks, I have observed this pronunciation. In general, the standard of locution is high. I marvel at the number of slight variations some narrators can produce to differentiate between characters. It’s quite an acting job, I would imagine.

So, hooray for audiobooks! Why then do I feel slightly ashamed of my increasing reliance on the iPod as the medium for enjoying fiction? I read more reviews in the Sunday papers of new audiobooks than I do of new literary fiction. I rage at iTunes for the absence of some favourite texts or unread text by favourite authors. I like the fact that they seem to growing cheaper all the time - I can download some texts that run to 20 or more hours for less than a tenner and yet some bestselling thrillers last 2-3 hours and cost twice that. Well, that’s a nonsense. I will be reading those in paperback then…

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Blog Resurrection!

My dear partner has recently posted to his blog after a gap of some many months. Shamed by his sudden industry, I shall do the same. And shall decorate with some photos from birthday trip to Italy - my return to Florence after 33 years!

I don’t know why I stopped, really. Just found I had less time than I'd been used to and something had to give. For about nine months, I was going to the gym every day (lost 20kgs), busy working on a sequence of demanding assignments for my MSc (two at once at one point), and monumentally busy at work. Over the past few months, the gym fell by the wayside, I went supernova with the two simultaneous assignments and haven’t picked up a textbook since handing them in, and work became much less intense (always does over August when everybody is on holiday, as was I).

Some highlights of the past few months:
I put all the weight back on that I had spent months shedding. Oh well. So it goes. But I did eat some lovely food in the process, particularly when on holiday in Florence. I had pizza at least once everyday (usually Pizza Napoli) and most days I had a risotto of some kind. Italian food must be the best in the world. Have been making risotto twice a week since getting back. I am currently in the process of psyching myself up for another monster slimming down programme. I think I’m almost disgusted enough and uncomfortable enough with my present weight and shape in order to be driven to dire measures like abjuring carbohydrates entirely for many months, having a limb amputated, or having my mouth sewn shut by the Bad Mother from Coraline.

Watched some excellent films. Five of the best were:
Let The Right One In, which I watched on holiday and adored! Hard to describe and ‘Swedish teen vampire movie’ does it no justice. It’s brilliant.
Moon, which I went to the picturehouse to see and very much liked. The apple obviously hasn’t fallen far from the tree in the Jones / Bowie family. Pleased to have watched Sam Rockwell performing so well when I thought I didn’t even like him. Great little film, much deeper than it appears on the surface and more complex than its apparently simple design suggests.
The Baader Meinhof Complex, which I downloaded from iTunes and hugely enjoyed, if enjoyed is the correct word. It was enjoyable to be reminded of that very potent period in my memory, when the Red Army Faction were great popular bogeymen, but the film did more than evoke nostalgia for the 70s in a divided Germany. It examined many levels of faith and doubt, freedom and control, innocence and corruption. Clever film.
Dead Snow, which is undoubtedly the best Norwegian zombie horror flick I’ve ever watched. A delight from start to gloriously over the top finish, all in the snowfields of Norway. Observed the requirements of the formula and then torqued them up.
Brüno, which I didn’t think I’d like and was rather coerced into by partner. I didn’t watch the Ali G movie and wasn’t all that taken with Borat although I did laugh quite a lot. To quote Julia Roberts in ‘Pretty Woman’, I near enough peed my pants. I was sore from laughing at some points and barely stopped chortling long enough to draw breath between start and finish. I was also in awe at Baron Cohen’s balls of steel, particularly in that final section where they’re making out in the cage at the wrestling match. He both enlightens and delights as he trots along poking shibboleths in the eye.

Books wot I red!
Just finished The Poisonwood Bible which has been burning a hole in my bookshelves for years since a friend gave it me to read on holiday. Books recommended by friends often acquire a curiously leprous association that somehow causes me to read anything else I come across first. Don’t ask me why, makes no sense. And when somebody actually gives me the book, to put on my shelves to gather dust, the effect is magnified. Thus it was with Barbara Kingsolver’s book and I can’t believe I have been denying myself this marvellous treat all this time. It’s exceptional. Her observation of place, biology, anthropology is all outstanding. The sweep of the tale is enormous, from the US to South Africa but mostly centring on a small Congolese village. It takes you from post war Georgia to the Reagan presidency. It puts you inside the heads of grown ups and of children, of whites and blacks, of mighty and humble, of Christian and heathen, even recounts the narrative from the point of view of an Okapi at one point. It is a joy and I was sad to have finished it.

Similarly with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I gather this has just been made into a film with lovely and very talented Viggo Mortensen as The Man. Partner insisted it was excellent but I thought it just looked too bleak. He gave it to all his friends and family for Christmas, which seemed like an odd choice. Those who read it loved it though and so I finally cracked the spine. It was describing a bleak world but it’s not a bleak book. There’s a strong narrative despite the limitations and the vivid conjuring of the inner lives of the two protagonists and the (sometimes horrific) events that unfold around them makes this one of the best books I’ve ever read. Can’t see how the forthcoming film is going to match it in any but the most desultory way. It’s such an intelligent book and tells you so little by way of explanation of anything. It leaves you to figure out which is or might be happening and why. I think a Hollywood film will feel obliged to explain too much.

One last happy literary find from over the Summer. Dirty White Boy by Clayton Littlewood is a series of blog posts gathered into a touching little book. Dirty White Boy is a shop that Clayton and his partner ran for a short time on one corner of Old Compton Street. If you know Compton St, you’ll recognise so much of what he describes of the life he sees through his big plate glad corner window while jotting his musings in a notebook under the shop counter. It’s Queer Street now, awash with gay bars, cafes, shops, but there’s still lots more going on in the neighbourhood than the noisy bars spilling their pink punters onto the pavements. And there always has been that mix, to judge from the history Littlewood serves up, gulled from his encounters with so many local characters. Its blogging origins mean it’s composed of several short chunks, so it’s a perfect book for someone like me who has trouble devoting long periods to reading. I tend to want to read a short bursts these days, my concentration span shrunk by my excessive laptop use. When I saw that it had been made into a piece of theatre, performed at the Soho Theatre recently, I wondered how that would have been structured, but there are some robust threads running through it upon which one could hang a drama.

Hmmm, I seem to have written a lot, without much effort. All it took was a free half an hour. Maybe there will be more. Maybe not. Who can say?