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And still they come! A slightly delayed Christmas package arrives this morning containing the fabulous gift of The Powells.Com Interviews, in which 22 authors and artists including Nicholson Baker, Helen Fielding, Michael Ondaatje, Roddy Doyle, Bill Bryson, Annie Liebovitz and Paul Theroux talk about their books. It looks both entertaining and fascinating, although I haven't managed so far to get beyond this epigraph from "prince of minutiae" Baker: "Don't you think most writers are secretly worried that they're not really writers? That it's all been happenstance, something came together randomly, the letters came together, and they won't coalesce ever again?" Another good thing about the book though is that all profits from it are going to literacyvolunteers.org, a US affiliation of people who teach basic literacy skills to adults - a subject close to my heart, having been in the past a volunteer at such classes here in the UK.
The Guardian today prints the winners of its competition for New Year's Eve disaster stories. I actually didn't know there was a competition, otherwise I would have entered an account of my own oddest new year, 96/97. Longing for a big change in my life, I had just a few weeks previously left London for a year-long French work experience placement in a hotel just outside Paris. I say "just outside", but it was in fact miles away, in a "modern" (for which read "all concrete and right-angles") suburb which modesty prevents me from naming. Okay, it was called Noisiel. In the months that followed it actually turned out to have some very nice residents but in those first few weeks of getting to know the place it just seemed soulless and miserable. Having started my stage so close to Christmas and the New Year, I couldn't go home to celebrate, and on New Year's Eve I found myself waiting in the restaurant as usual, serving dinner to an unsympathetic English family who didn't like French food. I and my fellow English trainee Hardwin, both of us girlfriend-free at the time, just about managed to get our work done and catch the last RER train into the centre of Paris, only to find ourselves wandering aimlessly around a below-zero-centigrade Champs Elysees, barely recognisable beneath a chaos of people, traffic, fireworks and smashed champagne bottles. Having seen in the New Year (actually on the train itself), I was ready to go back to the hotel and a warm bed, but this was out of the question as the RER had now stopped running until six and the only way back before then was by taxi, which would cost a fortune. In any case 18-year-old party monster Hardwin was up for a serious night of clubbing. I was a few years older than him and not much of a club person, and although I liked him and was keen on broadening my horizons, I could see the night ahead was going to be difficult for both of us. Still, I did my best to get into the party spirit, and after thawing out over an espresso in a crowded bar we went looking for an all-night club which wouldn't cost the earth, was close by and, most essential of all, would let us in. The one we found turned out to be the quintessence of fromage, consisting of a small, pitch-black room, with drinks at insane prices poured by two women with permanent fags in their mouths, a slightly dodgy clientele and blisteringly loud music. Hardwin had a few drinks and then promptly fell asleep in his seat, leaving me to "work" the "room" on my own. I did my best to dance but I don't really have the sort of body for it, and I soon found myself much more sober than was sensible sitting down next to my unconscious friend, ogling female forms. This perhaps wasn't so bad when all was said and done but I had no chat-up technique and everyone seemed to be already taken anyway, so after a while any appeal of clubbage wore off and the rest of the night seemed to last forever. At one point another bloke who had crashed out next to me woke up and decided to grab me by the throat. I wrestled him off and he crawled away; I never did find out what that was all about. At about five a.m. Hardwin finally woke up and danced a bit, but his heart wasn't really in it and it couldn't last anyway, as we had to be back at the hotel to start our New Year's Day shift at nine. We caught the first train home in an awkward, ratty kind of silence, found our room, which we were sharing with some other members of staff, and crashed out. Hardwin fell asleep in his bunk with his glasses and boots on. Half an hour later two of the other staffers (a local couple) came in from their own night out, woke us up to wish us a bonne annee and proceeded to loudly enjoy each other's bodies in the adjoining room. Nine o'clock came round almost immediately and after barely an hour of sleep Hardwin and I staggered downstairs to find the breakfast room full of English visitors whose coach had broken down in the overnight freeze. I remember I drank five cups of coffee that morning and it was still barely sufficient to make things tolerable. Worst was to come however when by midday the English guests' coach still wasn't fixed and they were getting hungry. There was nowhere open in Noisiel for lunch, including ourselves, but we couldn't just let them starve, so Hardwin and I were commandeered by the monsieur to make 75 miserable sandwiches from various sad kitchen ingredients which were then offered free to the stranded guests. It was impossible for us to give service with a smile, a point lost on the Brits who, it seemed, had all been in bed by midnight at the latest (a few, indeed, had probably been tucked up by about 8.30). Nonetheless, we somehow pulled through, keeping in mind that all this would only go on until 3pm, at which point our day shift was due to end and we could sleep until the evening shift began at 7pm. At about ten to three however we were told by monsieur that we had instead to work through until 5pm in exchange for the evening off. Under any other circumstances, on any other day, it might have been a fair trade...
I was sad to read today of the death of comedian Bob Monkhouse. He could at times be slightly on the oily side but he was undoubtedly a great British funnyman. The Times today prints a selection of some of his best jokes, my favourite of which is: "People always say: 'You're a comedian, tell us a joke.' They don't say: 'You're an MP, tell us a lie.'"
Karen Armstrong, author of A History of God and Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World, writes in the Guardian: "Today, we need religious people to be proactive in reforming their own traditions away from extremism. It is not enough simply to condemn other people's violence. We need bishops, rabbis and imams to search for the seeds of aggression in their own scriptures, admit that their own faith has a history of hatred, and revise bigoted, self-serving textbooks. We should also question the efficacy of the current war against religious terror. By increasing violence in troubled regions, we contribute to the conditions that have always mobilised the faithful in their pernicious holy wars." Sounds like a sensible thought for the new year to me.
Thanks to the Christmas spirit of various friends and family, I've added some fine titles to Thoughtcat's list of books by the bed: Russell Hoban's Her Name Was Lola (see 27th December below and 8th November); Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Lynne Truss's popular and entertaining little book on punctuation; Attitude: Wanna Make Something Of It?, a collection of pieces on stand-up comedy by veteran comic Tony Allen; and Cinema Today, a beautiful (and huge) Phaidon monograph by Edward Buscombe crammed with brilliant stills from classic films from the past thirty years. As ever, the book titles in the left-hand column link to the books on Amazon, while the authors' names link to selected reviews of the book or interviews with the author from across the web.
Absorbed (belatedly) on Christmas afternoon in Her Name Was Lola, a gift from my other half, I was struck by how beautifully Russell Hoban does his atmospheric scenes involving characters, at least one of whom is a minor expert on something, sitting in London rooms on winter evenings warming themselves up with various spirits and mysterious conversation. The experts in question in the early pages of this new novel are the Glenfiddich-quaffing Istvan Fallok, reprising his role as electronic music wizard from Hoban's 1987 masterpiece The Medusa Frequency, and the Stolichnaya-friendly "Amazing" Grace Kowalski, an otherworldly jeweller who helps troubled blocked writer Max Lesser "get with the form of emptiness and the emptiness of form". As the sun set in Putney, just a few stops down the District Line from Hoban himself, I was inspired to break into my Dad's spirits cupboard, which yielded up neither scotch nor vodka but an old bottle of Calvados, and with the aid of the transcendental Normandic apple brandy I was for a while right there with Max, Istvan, Grace, emptinesses, forms and all sorts of other tantalising items. Coming back down to earth (or so I thought) I found my Mum slotting together a Scalextric-type car-racing toy (a gift for a slightly younger member of the family - okay, it was for me really; we keep ourselves young with such shenanigans) into a figure of eight, the top section elevated by little plastic struts. I watched as the cars zoomed round in an endless Hoban Mobius, each car now on the inside track, now on the outside and back again, or so it seemed under the influence of Hoban, Calvados, Hobandos, Calvaban. I returned home today to read more about Max's struggle with creativity (thinly fictionalising an old love affair, he finds the hero of this parallel story-cum-alter ego refuses to cooperate with the plot) and open the Guardian's Saturday Review - wherein I noticed in a preview of 2004 books a novel with the distinctly Hobaneque title Mobius Dick, in which Scottish author Andrew Crumey "dabbles in mobile-phone technology and the space-time continuum". A spot of Googling for Crumey turned up an interesting interview containing this exchange:
Q: There is something anarchic, sometimes almost dreamlike, about your writing.
A: Dreams are the archetype of all writing. As kids we all know the story that ends "then I woke up, and it was all a dream". Every novel has this as its unwritten final sentence, after the last page. You close the book, you wake up from the dream it has presented, and you get on with your life.
Q: Is life itself a dream?
A: In a poetic sense, yes; but unlike the postmodernists, I do not confuse the poetic with the factual.
Q: Yet your books often pose such riddles about the nature of reality.
A: That is what dreams can do. And when writing a story, it is very natural to ask "who is writing this"? Then that writer becomes a character, who is himself the subject of a story. Such infinite regress is quite natural, and it's fun. Writers have always played these games. Cervantes, for example, when Quixote enters a printing shop and sees that the book being printed is The Adventures Of Don Quixote. A delicious joke against the author of a pirate edition. Or Sancho's enumeration of inconsistencies earlier in the book. In Proust, the moment when the author/narrator decides to call the narrator/hero "Marcel": wonderfully disorientating.
Well, I'm confused, anyway... I hope everyone had a good Christmas.
I've just spent the past hour or so Googling for a suitably seasonal image for the site, an activity which has proved once and for all that (a) I don't get out enough and (b) I have too much time on my hands. Anyway, there were so many brilliant Christmas cats to choose from that I couldn't possibly pick just the one, so here are a few of my, er, favourites...
Thoughtcat wishes all Thoughtcateers a very peaceful and enjoyable Christmas.
A huge load of Christmas (bah) humbug today from Microsoft, which has appealed to recipients of Christmas computers not to connect to the internet without first buying or downloading anti-virus software. "The warning came as anti-virus companies said 2003 was the worst year ever for viruses attacking Windows, with two 'global' outbreaks which were the biggest in the history of the internet," reports the Independent. Oh goodness indeed! Things must have been awful for these companies, coining it in as people ran to them terrified by MS Blast.
Simon Jenkins writes a provocative piece in today's Times about the renewed "terrorist threat": "I know that no bombs have exploded in Britain these past two years, and for that I must be glad. A serious price has been paid in public fear, anti-Muslim sentiment, loss of civil liberty and police overtime. Untold damage has been done to the tourist industry, Britain’s second biggest employer. But no outrage has occurred and, I repeat, I am glad. My problem is that I have no way of assessing the risks against the costs. Democracy is not trusted with such a calculation... When government cries “terrorist!” it is accountable to none. It issues blood-curdling warnings and then says, trust us... Mr Blunkett tells Britons to suspect foreigners with funny bags, to pay more taxes and to shut up about civil liberty."
Meanwhile, Nick Cater in the Guardian yesterday nominated Blunkett as his Villain of the Year.
I received-stroke-gave myself an early Christmas present today, and a damn fine one it was too - the completion of the first draft of my novel All My Own Work, which I've been working on full-time since April. Of course, the real work is only just beginning... maybe this time next year I'll be able to provide an Amazon link to it?? I'm dreaming (of a white Christmas...)
A very reassuring story in today's Guardian reporting the success of a literacy project in a young offenders' institution. A group of inmates have been studying William Golding's classic Lord of the Flies and are now preparing a dramatised version.One, who had never read a book before he ended up in jail, finished the novel in two-and-a-half hours, remembered it in detail and is now "determined to continue studying English at college on his release", while another said he sympathised with the character of Piggy because he was bullied at school. All heartwarming stuff.
"Tony Blair dramatically announced last night that Libya has agreed to give up hitherto undisclosed weapons of mass destruction after nine months of clandestine negotiation between Colonel Muammar Gadafy and diplomats from Britain and America," reports the Guardian. Am I alone in thinking (a) "why couldn't diplomacy also have been used to address the Iraq issue?" and (b) "the answer to (a) is probably that Libya actually did have weapons of mass destruction and therefore couldn't be attacked."
Thoughtcat's lady in East Molesey points me to a fabulous story from the BBC reporting that the new M6 toll road in the West Midlands has been partly constructed from two and a half million pulped Mills & Boon romantic paperbacks. Tarmac, the firm responsible for constructing the road (and a former employer of mine, trivia fiends!), comments: "We use copies of Mills and Boon books, not as a statement about what we think of the writing, but because it is so absorbent. They may be slushy to many people, but it's their 'no-slushiness' that is their attraction as far as we are concerned." Now, why ever did I leave...?
The Guardian weblog awards have been announced today, with prizes going not to Thoughtcat (boo hoo!) but a London call girl, a teenage Free Willy fan and Samuel Pepys, among others. I'm not bitter.
Another funny story from today's Guardian. The Nigerian spam scam usually confines itself to an unsolicited email requesting your bank details in return for a slice of untold billions, but a dastardly spinoff has developed whereby the cunning emailers back up their claims by providing the phone number and address of a "Nigerian offshore bank" in Scotland. There's even a real Nigerian guy who answers the phone, but that's where the authenticity ends: the address is actually of a chemist's which has nothing to do with the fraud whatsoever. There's one born every minute though, and so far a Mediterranean couple and an American pair have turned up at the pharmacy to try to claim their cash...
Meanwhile, "Britain's farmers are being asked to join in the hunt for large wild cats on the loose in a concerted attempt to discover whether there really are 'puma-type animals' roaming the countryside," according to a Thoughtcat-friendly report in the Guardian. The British Big Cats Society says that since its inception three years ago there's been a steady growth in the number of animals being killed by large felines and in the number of sightings in the UK. The organisation's website contains pages explaining how to identify "ABCs" ("alien big cats") and has some spooky sample photos of sightings which are faintly redolent of those blurry pictures people claim to depict the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot and actual aliens. Try this one for instance...
The excellent Speaking Cohen website alerted me today to the news that Leonard Cohen himself has designed a Christmas card for War Child Canada, a charity which works across North America and around the world to assist children affected by war. While visiting the site I found another page inviting me to send an electronic peace card to a world leader (a service unconnected to the Len issue). For some reason Tony Blair wasn't included on the list (perhaps he wasn't considered a leader, with which I sympathise), so I had to go with my second choice, George W. Bush. Dubya was probably more in need of a peaceful exhortation than my own poodlesque leader anyway, so I clicked through the screens, choosing a design from a jolly selection (all done by children) and the pre-fabricated message "Peace cannot be constructed by destruction", which expressed very well my strong disagreement with the US administration's invasion of Iraq and its related policies. A message popped up to tell me my card had been sent, and I forgot all about it. Checking my inbox later I found to my surprise an autoresponse from the White House thanking me for emailing Dubya, and giving some standard guff about him being unable to personally read the message I'd sent, reply to it, understand it etc. To my even greater surprise however, the subject line of this autoresponse was "Re: Your friend Thoughtcat has sent you a free War Child Canada electronic peace card". Evidently WCC's software had automatically inserted this "Your friend" business when sending the message from their site - without my permission. Stop me if I sound mean and unChristmassy, but I was quite offended by this. While I appreciate the meaning of Christmas, I don't believe the fact that I don't consider myself a friend of Mr Bush negates the message I chose to send him, or that that message would have been any less meaningful if it had been sent without the "your friend" bit. I have emailed WCC to point this out, recommending that they at least give senders of the cards the option to be referred to as the recipient's friend - especially as many people who will use the site for this purpose will surely be trying, like me, to spread a message of peace to leaders who aren't following this road.
Meanwhile today, a great story in the Guardian. French admin worker Bruno Perera was fired from his job after allegedly basing characters in his novel Petits Meutres Entre Associes (Little Murders Among Partners) on colleagues in the office where he worked. He only sold a few hundred copies of the book, mostly to the people he worked with, despite depicting his bossas a "pig", his secretary as a "brainless blonde", the IT guy as a "pervert" and the senior broker as a "chronic drunk" - and then having them all murdered (in the book, I mean). However, in one of those great "truth is stranger than fiction" twists, Perera was awarded £50,000 by an industrial tribunal for unfair dismissal - infinitely more cash than he made selling the book. Until now that is, as the novel, a "business thriller" as the French publisher quaintly categorises it, is available to purchase from Amazon's French site. Roll on the English translation! Great cover too...
As the festive season gets into full swing, I couldn't resist sharing with Thoughtcateers this ingenious, if slightly dubious, leaflet advertising the local church that came through the letterbox the other day...
"Dirty shepherds"? Jesus as a mere "celeb"?? I ask you...
Today's Independent on Sunday has a profile of Keith Richards explaining why, unlike glimmer twin Sir Mick, the Ian Fleming of rock will never be knighted: "Richards's secret is the way he seems so at ease with who he is and what he does, while Jagger, for all his gifts as singer, songwriter and iconic frontman, has always looked like an actor playing a variety of roles. The contrast between them grows ever greater. In the Four Flicks concert footage, Jagger resembles an underfed chicken jumping across a hotplate, while Richards somehow gets away with his outrageous parade of camp guitar-hero mannerisms."
And elsewhere today, just as the Queen gets over her operation this week, the Sunday People splashes the news over its front page that one of her servants was a drug-addled gay porn star. I can picture a flabbergasted Brenda in her nightie reading that and Phil consoling her, saying "Well, at least he's not a journalist."
Sometime Richmond rhythm-and-bluesman Mick Jagger has now been knighted. This has provided my favourite quote of the last week as Sir Michael's old mucker Keith Richards commented,"I don't want to step on stage with anyone wearing a fucking coronet and sporting the old ermine." Keef joins those complaining of Dame Jagger's "decline and fall" from sixties counter-culture icon into quintessential establishment figure. But hasn't he always been that?
As poor old Ozzy Osbourne recovers from ending up under a quad bike, I couldn't help but smile at reading that the name of Wexham Park hospital's medical director is Dick Jack. Thoughtcat meanwhile wishes Ozzy a speedy recovery.
Astronomers in Sky & Telescope Magazine have posited the theory that Edvard Munch's classic painting The Scream was inspired by "an amazing series of sunsets" following the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. This is clearly nonsense: as any visitor to The Court pub in Tottenham Court Road - whose sign sports a reproduction of the painting - knows, the image was the depiction of a monstrous hangover.
I was very sorry to read today of the death of brilliant Cuban pianist Ruben Gonzalez. Ry Cooder and Nick Gold recruited him for the classic Buena Vista Social Club record in 1996. I love the story that when they found him he didn't even own a piano, but when they bought one for him he started playing immediately. Cooder attests: "Some people can play fast, some people can play loud, some people can play sad, some people can play scary, but this dancing quality, for me, has something to do with your character. He was a happy man, Ruben. Cheerful, happy, laughing." What a lovely legacy to leave the world.
BBC journalist George Alagiah relates a hilarious story in today's Independent about how he nearly met his maker while reporting on the Somali civil war. Struggling to escape from the war zone, he finally found a pilot prepared to fly him and his team away when gunmen appeared, sat on the wing and said: "Give us all your money, or this plane doesn't take off." Alagiah continues: "There was another British guy with us, who was very sick with dengue fever. Until then, he had been stretched out in the middle of the aisle. But suddenly he popped up. He realised he had a brilliant idea that might just save the day. 'I know what,' he told the gunman, 'we'll nip to the bank in Nairobi tomorrow. Then we will send you the cash. How about that?' The bloody-eyed gang leader looked rather dubious. But as the cogs attempted to click into place - unsuccessfully, I am delighted to say - he responded: 'All right, then.' He got off the plane, and we were able to take off." Great stuff - like something out of an Ealing Comedy.
The Observer today has a feature on the funniest people in the UK, giving potted biographies and "funniest moments" of 50 hilarious Brits from Caroline Aherne to Victoria Wood, and providing readers with the opportunity to vote for their favourite. The list is pretty good, if conservative, but how they could have left Johnny Vegas out I have no idea - has he upset the paper, are they just plain ignorant, or are they simply annoyed that the Independent ran an exclusive interview with the edgy northern genius yesterday? I probably shouldn't have voted at all given this omission but I couldn't resist clicking the button for Paul Merton, long my favourite UK funnyman. Then again, I have to admit he's being given a run for his money these days by brilliant free-associating Geordie Ross Noble. Satirist Craig Brown also makes the list: apart from his regular Diary column for Private Eye, he is, says the paper, "best known for his splendid alter-egos [including] Bel Littlejohn, the embodiment of all that is frothy and self-congratulating in the media". Of course, in wondering out loud the other week which planet Bel Littlejohn was on following "her" bizarre contribution to the Guardian's "celebrity letters to George Bush" feature, I knew she was a made-up character rather than a real journalist. Really I did.
Elsewhere in today's Sundays, I was by turns horrified and amused to read a feature in Talk of the Town about a US firm called www.customizedclassics.com, which offers classic works of literature whose copyright has run out in a version with the names of selected characters replaced by a name of your choice, so you can give that special someone a gift of a book featuring them as the hero. This is from the website's Moby Dick page: "Moby Dick - Starring YOU as Ahab — or Moby Dick! The ultimate highbrow chase novel! ... Enter Herman Melville's classic tale of high adventure and deep symbolism in a personalized edition ... Now YOU can enter Ahab's shoes in a personalized version of this classic novel. Or, become Ishmael: 'Call me Brad. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little...' Or become the White Whale itself, the terror of the seas—Moby Dick!" As if all this wasn't bad enough, Romeo and Juliet is also given the Customi"z"ed Classics treatment, complete with an optional happy ending, available in both "classic" and "irreverent" versions. I challenge anyone to provide me with a better illustration of the phrase "only in America".
The Guardian Guide selects www.iusedtobelieve.com as one of its sites of the week today. I've dropped in on the childhood beliefs site before but found a lot of the contributions rather inane and amateurish, but some are okay, the main idea is great, and of course I couldn't resist being transported back to a few confusing childhood moments of my own. The main one that sprung to mind was my first experience of youth hostelling. As a kid I had a large collection of annuals, or bumper comics (aka comic books), which used to come out around the school holidays, and amid the pages depicting the misadventures of characters like Roger the Dodger and Desperate Dan, these A4-format hardbacks would sometimes feature serious articles proposing ideas for things to do on your school holidays other than sit around reading comics. Of course I tended to ignore these features completely but one of them proved intriguing, with the headline "Youth Hostelling" and an unintentionally spooky photo, apparently taken around dusk on an overcast winter day, of a big old house in the middle of a field. In retrospect this was obviously a youth hostel, although there was nothing in the photo to say as much, and not having heard the phrase "youth hostelling" before, and too lazy to look it up or ask someone what it meant (or, indeed, read the article), I interpreted the article as a warning to children against getting involved in a dangerous phenomenon whereby large gangs of young criminals got together and stole houses. Why? Because the headline, to my childish eyes, was quite clearly a misprint and should have read "youth house-stealing".
I was sad to read this morning that classic Brit actor David Hemmings has died. All the obituaries make huge efforts to talk about as many of his films as possible that weren't Blow Up, but obviously the 1966 Michelangelo Antonioni movie was Hemmings' most famous. I first saw it when I was about seventeen: heavily into Led Zeppelin at the time, I'd sought out the film solely for its cameo by The Yardbirds, the hit-and-miss R'n'B combo which at that point boasted not only Jeff Beck but also soon-to-be-Zep guitarist Jimmy Page. However, that scene was about half way through the film, and by the time I got there I'd fallen in love with this fantastic, cool movie set in both swinging and not-so-swinging London. The film may have been made several years before I was born, but it made me want to be David Hemmings, or at least a good-looking, sexy young photographer-about-town in a black jacket, white jeans and chelsea boots. The clothes never really worked on me but my resulting photography phase is represented on my Freeserve website. (Should've carried on with it, really, but instead I decided to devote myself to words, which were if nothing else a lot cheaper to develop.) And the final scene of the "imaginary" tennis match is spellbinding. Hemmings incidentally was also excellent in the recent film adaptation of Graham Swift's Booker-winning novel Last Orders, featuring umpteen other British stars from his era including Michael Caine and Tom Courtenay. And my reference to that is by no means a desperate attempt to mention a David Hemmings film that isn't Blow Up, okay??
Indian author Aniruddha Bahal has been awarded this year's Bad Sex Prize by the UK magazine Literary Review for his novel Bunker 13. His publishers, Faber and Faber, flew him in from Delhi to receive his statuette. This Guardian story reprints an extract from the novel, which is far too fruity for Thoughtcat, but in any case the quote is less funny than the news that another contender for the prize, Rod Liddle, said the judges were unqualified, since "nobody on the magazine had had sex since 1936, in Abyssinia."
Political theory commentator and sometime linguistics professor Noam Chomsky is interviewed by the Independent's readers. Amid the usual sorts of questions and answers (e.g. "If you had only one question to ask the President of the United States, what would it be?" - "Why doesn't he abdicate?") there is one slightly more imaginative exchange. "To counter all the depressing news reports about seemingly omnipotent corporations, corrupt politicians and ignorant or disenfranchised subjects," asks one Michael Pilkington, "are there any recent 'points of light' that would encourage hope?" Replies Chomsky: "The US, and the West generally, has become far more civilised in the past 40 years, thanks to the activism of mostly young people in the 1960s and since. It is easy to give examples, including opposition to aggression and massacre, but also in many other domains as well. Of course, every effort is made to induce hopelessness and despair, but there is no reason to succumb. The future is in our hands, and the opportunities today are far greater than they have been in the past."
Monica Ali has been criticised by an East End Bangladeshi pressure group for portraying the community in a "despicable" way in her Booker-shortlisted novel Brick Lane. The Greater Sylhet Welfare and Development Council has written an 18-page letter to Ali and the Guardian, which says at one point: "What mischievous sarcasm! It painfully reminds us of the insulting name of prophet Mohammed as 'Mahound' given by Salman Rushdie in his controversial Satanic Verses." Dodgy stuff, as novelist and Booker judge DJ Taylor says: "I think we should be very careful about this. Fifteen years ago we had people on the streets of Bradford burning Salman Rushie's Satanic Verses merely because they had been told to hate it. We do not want to go down that road again."
I'm delighted to see that The Concert for George, the magnificent memorial gig for George Harrison at London's Royal Albert Hall almost exactly a year ago, has now been released on CD and DVD. Thoughtcat was lucky enough to be in attendance at this star-studded one-off tribute to the late Quiet One, although it was kind of a miracle that we even got there at all. First of all it involved a trial of telethonic proportions to get through and buy the tickets, although this was only to be expected: Albert Hall was selling seats exclusively over the phone and only from 9am on a certain day a few weeks before the concert, and even though I was all set at ten to nine with the number and my credit card to hand, despite about 600 attempts I couldn't get through for over an hour. All I can say is thank heavens for the redial button, or else I might have given up with cramp after about ten minutes. By the time I did get through, the only tickets they had left were standing room only in the top gallery, at a whopping £50 each. Having bought six for myself and some friends and family, Albert advised that the tickets wouldn't be sent through the post but would instead be issued at the venue from 5pm on the night of the concert. This was a bit early (the gig was due to start at 7.30) but we were advised we could get a meal at the Albert Hall restaurants from 5.30, which was good news because most of us had been working all day and none of us were particularly looking forward to standing up all night not having had anything to eat. In the event though the box office was open but there was a queue anyway, and after queuing for ten minutes I was told to wait in a separate queue for the standing tickets. This second queue went round the side of the building and not only wasn't moving but didn't go anywhere for an hour, a situation worsened by some building work being done adjacent and the proximity of the artists' door, where paparazzi and autograph-hunters were crowding. The whole queue was moaning in true British style about being given confusing information, about being given no information, about having to queue at all, and of course about how it was all Tony Blair's fault. Inside there was a great scrum of people collecting their tickets, although when we eventually got to the counter they weren't tickets but wristbands which we each had to be personally "fitted" with. As we waited, Mark Ellen, the famous Old Grey Whistle Test and Q Magazine journalist and sometime Blair bandmate turned up, and was trying to get in as haplessly as the rest of us. I said to him, "If they're making you wait, we're all in trouble!" He nodded gravely. "It doesn't look good," he concurred. When we were finally all wristbanded, the beleaguered ticket guy said that if we wanted our actual tickets as a memento, we had to queue again for them after the show! It was extraordinary.
By the time they let us in it was 7pm. The air inside Albert was literally hazy with incense, and staff were standing around in white long-sleeve teeshirts with purple chakra designs handing out free programs, which were very nicely bound in rich purple with tasteful black & white photos of George and some comments from him about life, music and his Material World charity which the gig was in aid of ('in aid of which the gig was'?). We felt a bit better but by now it was too late to get a meal, so we grabbed some glasses of red wine and headed up to the gallery. None of us had ever been up there before and the view was fantastic. It was unreserved but there was a space at the balcony directly opposite the centre of the stage, so we grabbed it. The whole hall was lit in warm orange and yellow hues. A banner in red and orange with the "Arpan" symbol from Harrison's records was hanging above the hall. The semi-circular stage was perimetered with Indian instruments, and in the centre there was a raised platform with an Indian rug and an electric guitar. Hanging behind the stage was a vast black and white photo of George looking fabulously handsome and moody in an early-70s pose with long hair and moustache. (He really was one of the few men who could wear a moustache and not look like a member of the Village People.) From where we were though we couldn't see the whole picture because the rack of lights was in the way - in fact from where we stood, two large, round, black lights were hanging in front of his eyes, making him look like a giant fly. We stood around for a while, and just when we'd got settled in and forgotten all the previous inconveniences, a steward in a red Butlins-type jacket told us off for bringing glasses up to the gallery, even though we'd been told we were allowed to by the bartender. We could however use plastic glasses, she said, so we swigged our drinks and one of us went down to the bar and brought up another round in plastic glasses. We'd got about half way through those when a second steward appeared and said we were in fact only allowed plastic bottles with lids on, "in case anything was spilled". It took a third steward in a black jacket to arbitrate between the first two stewards and us before we could enjoy our drinks against the sort of peaceful background appropriate to the occasion the Albert Hall was pretending to provide. George himself was probably rocking and rolling in his grave.
To our enormous relief, the first part of the concert started, albeit half an hour later than billed. Eric Clapton came on in a grey short-sleeved shirt and introduced the concert in a very low, peaceful voice. Rarely the most confident of speakers, he nervously referred to "George's wife Dhani" before correcting himself (Dhani is George's son - his wife's name is Olivia). There was a faint ripple of laughter at this but it seemed soon forgotten. EC introduced Ravi Shankar, who came on looking very frail. He didn't play but introduced his daughter Anoushka and a 16-strong Indian orchestra. Olivia came on then and lit some candles. The house lights stayed on, and although this was probably only because they needed the light to film the concert, it lent a great deal of warmth, optimism and calm to the concert. The Indian music, which lasted about half an hour, was beautiful, peaceful and colourful, and Anoushka was also beautiful and clearly highly skilled, although you could sense that a lot of people were aching for the main part of the concert to start. Jeff Lynne, of ELO and Traveling Wilburys fame, joined them at the end for The Inner Light, and then EC came back on, picked up a Spanish guitar and "jammed" with the orchestra on a delightful acoustic instrumental piece. There was an intermission then, interrupted only by a steward who told us we weren't allowed to hang our coats over the balcony.
Thankfully the main set started without further ado. The atmosphere was electric, or at least acoustic. To everyone's delight the show began with a little comedy section. Four guys dressed as posh French restaurant waiters with ankle-length aprons and crisp dishcloths over their wrists trouped on and did a silly song which I couldn't hear hardly any of the words of, but it was obviously something Pythonesque, as the programme mentioned that various Pythons would be participating. Later I found the song was Sit On My Face And Tell Me That You Love Me. When they'd finished singing, they turned round and trouped off again, revealing that they were wearing no trousers or pants under their aprons. Then, a guy whose face I couldn't see very well (we couldn't really see any facial details from that distance) but who turned out to be Michael Palin bounded down the stairs onto the stage wearing a bright white jacket with gold lame lapels and did a silly introduction: "This evening is so big, so ginormously huge, so simply magnificently, er, large, that it makes one feel just wretchedly inadequate, really..." Palin then ripped off his jacket to reveal a lumberjack shirt, and a troupe of "mounties" came on for the Pythons' brilliant Lumberjack song, complete with the pretty, dippy girl with blonde pigtails and big blue dress. It was fantastic, and although you couldn't hear all the words, it hardly mattered. We had no idea at the time, but apparently Tom Hanks turned in a cameo as one of the mounties.
This bunch all went off, and then the main band came on - EC, Gary Brooker and Chris Stainton on keyboards, Jim Keltner on drums, Ray Cooper on percussion, Andy Fairweather Low and Albert Lee among the backup guitarists, EC's backing singers Tessa Niles and Katie Kissoon, a sax and trumpet player, and even, on bass, Klaus Voormann, who designed the Beatles' Revolver album cover and had played with Lennon on the Imagine album and here, there and everywhere else. George's son Dhani was also on stage, wearing a long white smock-type shirt and playing a big brown acoustic guitar. I didn't know it was him for quite a while (he wasn't mentioned on the program and not introduced until the end) but there was something very Georgian about his... well, his hair, really. The band began with a resounding I Want to Tell You from Revolver, and continued the Beatles stuff with If I Needed Someone, both of which EC sang. Gary Brooker sang the vocal on Old Brown Shoe, while Jeff Lynne sang on Give Me Love. EC came back up to the front to sing on Beware of Darkness, a sublime track from All Things Must Pass, and he played the solo note-for-note from the record. God, the number of evenings I've sat up and played that song, disappearing with the aid of a few glasses of wine into its echoey depths... it couldn't have been a better choice.
The main band then went off for a while as old "cockerney" rock hero Joe Brown and his band took the stage to do a perfectly-judged acoustic Here Comes the Sun. He then took out a mandolin and played a song I hadn't heard before called That's the Way it Goes from Gone Troppo, which was also lovely. The main band came back on with Jools Holland and Sam Brown for Horse to the Water, the last song Harrison recorded (for Jools' Small World, Big Band ensemble album from the previous year, crediting it to the "RIP 2001" publishing company, only to die a few months later). This number was storming, Sam Brown's voice taking the Albert's famously domed roof off. The band then did Isn't It a Pity, another All Things classic, on which EC played some magnificent extended solos. The whole thing was getting better and better.
EC and the others then went off yet again, this time to be replaced by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who did Taxman (Petty sneering the wicked vocal in Artful Dodger pose), I Need You, complete with the distinctive volume-pedal guitar part, and Handle With Care from the first Wilburys record, which was fantastic, another storming version. There was much hope in the air that Bob Dylan would come on to do more Wilburys songs, but he didn't. I can't imagine he wasn't asked to join in but I think it might have been difficult politically for him to have been involved, with the emphasis on the British aspect and the fact that it was ultimately a Beatles thing more than anything else, plus there were so many legends there already that his turning up might have caused a mass mutual orgasm from which none of us might ever have recovered.
The main band returned then and EC introduced Ringo. The crowd gave him a fantastic reception - pretty much a standing ovation in fact. He had a beautiful red velvet jacket and a pair of round sunglasses. "I loved George, and George loved me," he said laconically, conveying fifty years of unique companionship and the whole Beatles story in one quintessential Ringunderstatement. He sang Photograph, a great song which he co-wrote with George, and Honey Don't, an old Carl Perkins song that Harrison loved, which featured a howling solo from a guitarist with wild grey hair who was either Albert Einstein or Albert Lee.
Ringo then retired to the drums, so now there were three drummers and about 14 guitarists and 3 keyboard players on stage. When EC then introduced "Sir" Paul McCartney, the place just became unspeakable. Macca started with For You Blue, the nice but inessential Harrison blues from Let It Be, and then, referring to Eric's mistake earlier about "George's wife Dhani", which got a laugh, picked up a ukulele and explained that whenever you went round George's house, after dinner "the ukuleles would come out" and you'd inevitably find yourself singing "all these old numbers". He then strummed (plucked? uked?) a solo version of Something - it was so simple and beautiful, and all the more heartbreaking because you were thinking maybe George's best-known (and surely best Beatles-era) song wasn't going to be given the full-band treatment. However, when it came to the solo, McCartney stopped plucking, wandered over to the piano, and the whole band seamlessly picked up the thread of the song, with one of the other guitarists playing the famous solo (George's best, for my money) note-for-note. EC then took over the lead vocal from Macca, which must have been bizarre given that George wrote the song for his first wife Patti, whom Clapton of course later went on to steal from George (as well-documented in EC's own classic Layla and just about everywhere else).
The next Paul-vocalised song was a pleasant surprise - All Things Must Pass itself. By now McCartney was back on acoustic guitar, and he and EC were up the front of the stage standing side by side with their guitar necks facing each other, looking uncannily Beatle-esque. The next song took a few moments to get started, but the band played a few notes to tune up and I had a strong feeling it was going to be While My Guitar Gently Weeps... and it was. Macca played the echoey keyboard intro exactly the same as on the record, while EC sang the lead vocal and played a note-for-note solo, complete with the famous extra "wobbly" vibrato. All this guitar heroicism was almost too much for poor old Thoughtcat. It was magnificent, the whole moment setting in stone before my ears.
The concert ended with My Sweet Lord, which Billy Preston sang in a sub-gospel style, and Wah-Wah, a very heavy song off All Things Must Pass, which was so loud it was actually painful. As the Guardian review of the gig explained later, Wah-Wah was an interesting choice because Harrison reputedly wrote the song as a stab at McCartney after a particularly sour late-era Beatles rehearsal, yet here was Macca himself playing piano on the track. For this last song the people in the front stalls got out of their seats and crowded up near the front of the stage like a bunch of middle-aged teenagers. As the show ended McCartney took the mike and said, "Olivia just said that with Dhani up on stage tonight it looks like George stayed young and we all got old." Then for an encore Joe Brown came on with his ukulele (saying "This ain't too loud for ya, is it?") and did the gentle old jazz number I'll See You in My Dreams as red rose petals tumbled down from the roof onto the audience and Olivia came on to hug Dhani. It was enough, as they say, to make a grown man cry. Afterwards Dhani came up to the front and said, "Hi, I just want to thank everyone for performing... I'm Dhani by the way, George's wife."
Altogether, I need hardly say it was the best rock concert I've ever been to. It was really more than I could have hoped for. And the good news is that you too can now share in the magnificence of this unique gig in the comfort of your own front room, and all without having to spend an hour on the phone for tickets, queue around the block or be told off by people in red jackets (unless that's your thing, of course). Amazon as ever is doing some excellent offers on the DVD and CD, so if this whole thing turns you on please do click on the appropriate link below, turn up the volume and listen to the music of a master played by a handful of legends. Even better, all profits from the DVD are to go to Harrison's Material World Charitable Foundation. The Foundation doesn't appear to have a website but according to this page on Norwegian site beatles-unlimited.com it was established in 1973 to "sponsor diverse forms of artistic expression and to encourage the exploration of alternative life views and philosophies", as well as support "established charitable organizations with consideration to those with special needs".
The Concert for George on DVD
The Concert for George on CD
I've made a few changes to Thoughtcat over the weekend, getting rid of the frames (I find it clutters up the screen and looks ugly in XP) and adding a long overdue comments system, powered by the excellent Haloscan. So, regular Thoughtcateers and droppers-in alike, please feel free to chip in on this and just about anything else...
Okay, don't then you bastards!
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