Posted on | April 26, 2013 | 3 Comments
‘Events, dear boy, events.” House Of Cards and other such series show that Harold Macmillan was never more astute than in that deft analysis of the political scene. Manifestoes and volumes of theory can be undermined in a bolt from the sky, bed – or another department.
Hove has this week been dealt a double whammy by the Government – to the great discomfort of the current MP who is himself a Tory.
The Green-run Council in Brighton and Hove has to contend with the fact that, despite “localism”, local authorities are forbidden to create new schools of their own unless premises or sites can be made a satellite of an existing school. The Government will only allow privately-run Academies and Free Schools (which none the less are supported by taxpayers). This is creating social division, something made all the worse in Hove and Brighton by the narrow location between the hills and Channel, a situation compounded by the historical jumble of the schools’ location and the current increase in births.
With a gun to its head, the Council was obliged to provide a site for a Free School of a religious hue (even though there are several of various religions). Somewhere suitable was found near an Academy in Portslade, at which, it turns out, the Free School will stay for three years because in the meanwhile, the Government paid private consultants to survey the Council’s property and the school will land on… a splendid playing field shared by two existing schools near the Seven Dials area.
This was ordered by Michael Gove.
It is hardly cynical to surmise that this was a plot to undermine the first Green administration of a local Council, to pass the blame and let the Council fall mercy to a populace unaware of the national side of the concrete mixers arriving on this tranquil spot.
However, for all his protestations of a need to remedy the national curriculum, Mr Gove did not study a little recent history.
The local residents, advised by an astute local Councillor Ruth Buckley, had already been alarmed at plans to fence off the field which is used by all of them. It is in effect a village green, and it is that very status which they are now seeking to establish for it.
Feelings are running high, a savvy campaign is underway, touching all bases, so much so that the local Tory MP, a charmless man called Mike Weatherley has this week panicked into expressing his opposition to the new school. An elementary class in logic would suggest that Mr Weatherley takes up the matter with Mr Gove. But, no, Mr Weatherley has perversely blamed the Green Party for this.
In such circumstances, one’s first reaction is always outrage, but then realises that he is desperate. As yet the grass is intact – except for the hole which Mr Weatherley has dug for himself there, and it could get deeper by the day.
One is used to this sort of thing from Mr Weatherley. He brought considerable trouble upon his head by outlandish lies about libraries and myself. To adapt Macmillan, Hove and Portslade have never had it so bad as with Mr Weatherley their representative in Parliament. Meanwhile, the other evening, a former Councillor – a Tory and a Governor of another school – lamented to a crowded room of parents that the advent of the Tories’ Police Commissioner set-up means that matters cannot be taken to a Police committee but languish until the Commissioner gets round to it.
Back to the logic class before a spot of cricket on the Field: one might infer from all this that Mr Gove regards the stumped incumbent of the Hove seat as a lost cause for the Tories. One can almost hear Mr Gove reply, “you might think that. I could not possibly comment.”
Posted on | April 1, 2013 | No Comments
Phil Ramone: obituary
It sometimes seems that the only musicians not to work with Phil Ramone were – The Ramones. A producer and engineer continually at the forefront of changing technology, he never paraded himself with the flamboyance of Phil Spector or even the widely avuncular presence of George Martin; content with the back of the cover, his work on disc, stage and film included such classic encapsulations of their eras as Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Paul Simon’s Graceland, a series with Billy Joel, while his sessions with Frank Sinatra for Duets pioneered down-the-line collaboration – a far cry from his apprentice work of ensuring that everything ran smoothly when Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” for President Kennedy.
Born in 1941, he had played the violin at three and was performing in concerts by the age of seven; dissatisfied by recordings of these, he realised how poorly posterity can be served; this galvanised an interest in engineering, and at the age of fifteen he worked in a recording studio while continuing to play violin in string sections, including variety shows, and joined the Julliard School, there friendly with jazz musician Phil Woods.
Always eclectic, his tastes broadened, and his classical ambitions faltered (decades later he did make a violin recording). Now working at a small studio, he was inspired to set up his own with Jack Arnold as A & R.
Perhaps best known of his early work was Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” but his use of sound was given a twin boost by President Kennedy and Astrud Gilberto. For a White House concert, the Democrats wanted to avoid an earlier occasion’s sonic disaster, and hired him: he arrayed speakers around a room whose ceiling was hung with long balloons from NASA, filled with styrofoam, beneath which were suspended thousands of regular ones. This souped-up Heath Robinson-approach worked well, and, soon after, Ramone hung up on a seven a.m. call from “Jack”: no practical joke, JFK wanted further help with “at home” concerts. Despite all the lights fusing, the sanguine President now asked him to arrange matters at Madison Square Garden when, a few months before her 1962 death, Marilyn sang “Happy Birthday, Mr President” in a tight, shimmering rhinestone-festooned dress.
Later that year he worked with Astrud Gilberto for the huge-selling Stan Getz collaboration which included “The Girl from Ipanema”, whose sound drew on Ramone’s noise-reduction technique, partly achieved by running the tape at thirty inches per second and by placing microphones so that sound did not leak between the microphones while keeping that ensemble spirit so often lost through overdubbing. He did not, however, eschew advances in techology, once likening these to painting with different materials, and he took early to solid-state machinery amd digital technology – just as he later urged CDs upon a doubtful industry. No nerd, he simply appreciated which make of microphone best suited such different voices as Frank Sinatra or Bob Dylan’s.
Through the Sixties he worked with, among others, Peter, Paul and Mary, Dusty Springfield, Quincy Jones, Procul Harum (“A Whiter Shade of Pale”), Arlo Guthrie (“Alice’s Restaurant”), Nilsson (“Everybody’s Talkin’”) and The Band’s eponymous album, whose Americana included “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down” (Ramone got the drums superbly throughout the album). As well as making live albums for the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers and Elton John, he achieved that bass sound which drives Paul McCartney’s Ram. When Paul Simon’s regular engineer was otherwise engaged, Ramone helped with “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” for the first solo album, and that led to far more work on the next one, then Still Crazy After All These Years and the under-rated One Trick Pony and “consultant” on Graceland.
His work with The Band led to his recording their live reunion tour in 1974 with Bob Dylan as Before the Flood, soon followed by Dylan’s masterpiece Blood on the Tracks (1975): always mercurial, working on the hoof, Dylan is here caught with stripped-down intensity; although Dylan later re-recorded some tracks elsewhere at the last minute, many judge the first versions – later issued on various compilations – the better recordings.
In 1977 Ramone again worked with Barbra Streisand, for A Star is Born (including “Evergreen”) and began a long collaboration with Billy Joel whose The Stranger included “Just The Way You Are”, his 52nd Street the first-ever CD (a Paul Simon disc had also been the first quadraphonic LP). Come 1983, Ramone brought a contemporary edge to the rousingly retro “Uptown Girl”. In the late-Seventies, Richard Carpenter ill, Ramone had worked on a solo album with Karen who stayed with him and his wife Itchy, who was worried by evident anorexia but the disc – eventually released in 1996 – was backed, jazz style, by Billy Joel’s musicians: perhaps her best work, it includes “Still Crazy After All These Years”.
Gloria Estefan, Julian Lennon, Everything But The Girl, and Cyndi Lauper were among those with whom he worked in the Eighties as well as the Flashdance soundtrack, and later a Pavorotti charity concert.
With Duets (1993) Ramone became known to a wider public. Sinatra’s managers asked him to create something akin to the previous year’s duet between Natalie Cole and her late father. The first sessions were a disaster but with Ramone giving him a hand-held microphone, Sinatra’s vocals took flight, blighted as many became with the accompanying singers recorded elsewhere. Capitol Records could not hide this ruse, and turned it to account by endless publicity, bringing huge sales among those with tastes not shared by chronicler Will Friedwald: he shuddered at Bono “moaning along” like “some stoned punker with a karaoke machine… the Irish rocker tries to scat alongside him, resulting in nightmarsih screams that suggest live animal vivisection”.
Ramone later worked, to better effect, with George Michael on Songs From the Twentieth Century, combined Tony Bennett with Billie Holiday, and provided a surprising twist to Rod Stewart’s career with albums of classic American songs, as well as making Ray Charles’s last album – more duets – and such cast albums as Sondheim’s Passion.
Palpably adaptable, widely informed, always open to new ideas, the ever-discreet Ramone was politeness itself, happy in his second, 1984 marriage – to singer and dancer Karen Kamon, with whom he had three children and lived in upstate New York. A consummate professional, his best work transcends the glibness lurking in that phrase.
Posted on | March 26, 2013 | 2 Comments
This might sound – as if from a war-zone – an extravagant claim to make of an hour’s walk along some roads which straddle the border of Hove and Brighton. They had all become very familiar to me as I plied their letterboxes with leaflets the past few years. Today was different. Along with that most popular of MPs, Caroline Lucas, I had been asked by a Hove resident, Diane Marks to walk along the streets in a mask. This was no mere frippery, such as might be sported at a Venetian ball, but one which blocked out all light.
“Welcome to my world, Chris,” said Diane as I pulled the mask over my eyes and gulped at there being no hint of daylight – something which she has known since being struck by total blindness fifteen years ago, and become very much involved with many local groups, of various kinds, including the Hove branch of The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. Our journey along Dyke Road was to be in three stages. The first of these, northwards from Seven Dials towards a school, was with my arm in a guide’s. She led me steadily along, and I was almost immediately more alert to noise and, in particular, the direction from which certain sounds came. (Such senses as hearing and and smell do not physically improve but gain greater potential.) Normally given to walking at quite a pace, I slowed, aware that each step could bring the challenge of an uneven slab, a root or, as it turned out, an overhanging bush: something from which one would ordinarily turn away without a thought now had all the alarm of a ghost-train banshee descending from the darkness.
The passing automobiles themselves acquired all the timbre of such an aberrant vehicle. How thankful one should be for what are known as “tactiles”: those squares which are the pavement equivalent of a rubber bathmat, saving one from a slide down a kerb and even into an automobile’s path. (At the best of times, and contrary to the Highway Code, drivers invariably think that it is their right to turn into a side road without pausing to let any pedestrian cross it.) What would have been a simple glance to one side was now a consideration, a pondered decision. Was the noise to either side an automobile? No, and so this was the first crossing, the other shore reached, feet upon the pebbles of the tactile.
Phew, and onwards, concentration almost making one oblivious to the cold. The next halt was at a controlled crossing beneath whose indicator-board is a small lug which revolves when the light has turned green. To hold it was to feel a measure of security unknown to anybody who usually pauses and there moves from foot to foot with an impatience to be on one’s way rather than in a helpless state well-nigh redolent of childhood’s wakening into life.
I had quickly grasped that life moves in a different gear when all light has disappeared from it.
The other side of busy Dyke Road, and it was now time to move on to the next stage in which the blind gain some independence. (Having set off a little ahead of me, Caroline had – as so often – been recognised by some schoolchildren, who were now startled, even awed, humbled to find her in such a situation.) The white stick so long associated with the blind has gained many a technological enhancement. Its length is augmented by a ball at the end which eases its flow from side to side while, in grasping its handle at navel height, one progresses with the mien of a minesweeper (or, to put a more optimistic angle upon it, a prospector). A wall to the left was something of a guide while, without an arm to hold me, I made my way south towards Seven Dials – a good start, only to find that I duly veered off course, almost unduly intimate with a pillar-box, and a mite or more alarmed at the kerbside even though somebody was close by.
How heartening, amidst the thrum of traffic, to hear that a driver had paused short of the junction and, by surreal instinct, had waved an arm to let me cross. That often happens, I was told, and it is an indication that those with sight cannot, in that split-second, grasp the very nature of blindness: it is something out of mind.
This was to be in another world. Siegfried Sassoon’s “Does It Matter?” came to mind: “people will always be kind, / As you sit on the terrace remembering / And turning your face to the light.” It had been half an hour so far on this journey, but time had assumed a new dimension: every second mattered, and I felt acute anxiety, grief, at being in this world, so far from the one I knew so well, so much lost to me.
The theory of parallel universes is haunting, and this was one, palpably so.
It took a further turn with the agency of Edward.
There is a popular misconception that guide-dogs are solemn, almost unsmiling characters. True, on the sidewalk they are of necessity focussed upon their work but when off-duty they are as individual as any dog one has ever known (including Caroline’s own amiable Labrador, Alfie, of whom I had once been perhaps the first person to ask, “what’s it all about?” and he nodded politely). Edward is a jolly Labdoodle, with wild, Beatlely shocks of hair, a month away from the end of his training and valiant indeed as he took temporary charge of me.
Strange to say, my foray into salsa dancing now came in handy. To walk with a guide dog is a matter of taking the right first steps, and having the confidence to lead as much as to be led. It is a case of keeping at the right distance from him so that he can judge available widths, and not holding back but allowing him to keep up a pace. This is mutual confidence, one’s left hand (it is always the left one) grasping both a handle and a lead. (In this case, there was an additional lead, held by the trainer, rather like a driving instructor having a set of pedals to use in an emergency.) Our route was to be one around the whole of Seven Dials, a junction at which seven roads of varying widths meet. It has long been perilous, scene of many a near-hit, and worse, and is now further complicated during the months of work underway to remedy that situation – one which has brought great controversy with the concomitant decision, now on hold, to fell a 130-year-old elm tree which creates a narrow passageway whose paving slabs bump above roots.
This journey had been arranged long before that uproar began. And now, steadily, we began the odyssey (which, of course, denotes a journey that ends where it began – pedantry can even find a place behind a mask). From the jumping and slathering humorist of our first meeting, Edward became, of an instant, a diligent pilot, his eyes ahead, taking decisions from moment to moment – a servant in his element, bent upon a task.
Another misconception is that guide dogs look left and right, and move on when it is safe to do so. In fact it is a partnership. The owner has to make the decision that it is safe to cross, which is then a matter of putting the right foot back, ready to take the next step when giving the command to go forward – a counter-intuitive movement which it takes a while to learn. What’s more, it became apparent that although the arrival of hybrid and electric automobiles will bring quieter streets – a return to those of decades past -, the blind, and indeed the deaf, will not be able to judge whether they are in the vicinity; discussions are underway with manufacturers to incorporate sounds through a loudspeaker, which is something which grew from the possibility of customising a Fiat to sound like an Aston-Martin.
So it was that around the circle we went, slowly, even more trepidatiously than I have done before. It is a junction at which drivers vie with one another, giving no quarter, an awful place at odds with its elegant surroundings. Although Edward was a little confused at one point by the roadworks requiring us to go into the road itself, he led on with a simple magnificence, calm when I was myself confused by the arrival of what I took to be two, and small, dogs whose owner did not grasp the worry that they caused – dogs whom one would, in other circumstances, have happily crouched down to pat and to engage in the banter they so relish.
This part of the journey, around Seven Dials, was a circle that almost made me dizzy, so much so that I asked, “have we got to the Tree yet?” And it turned out that we had passed it a few minutes before – that passageway was much less of an obstacle than others with which to contend there.
And so back to Dyke Road, north into that fierce wind which had made my hands so cold by now that – after removing the mask and carefully adjusting to daylight – it was a simple joy to hold them around a mug of hot tea while we talked of the many issues to which the hour gave rise. Only later did I think of A.N. Wilson’s great novel Wise Virgin and also feel irritated at remembering Carrington’s walking along Piccadilly with a fellow Slade student and pretending to be blind as a jest, even if that had perhaps given her an inkling that it is no laughing matter. Not that our talk this morning lacked humour, far from it: Diane Marks has a great laugh, a relish of life, a spirit which shames those who grumblingly magnify trumpery matters, those serial moaners for whom existence appears scarcely worth their while. Any article upon blindness invariably finds a place for Milton’s poem upon his own experience of it. Perhaps even more pertinent is Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
Only an estate agent would make so celestial a claim for Dyke Road (“and also convenient for several schools”). My hour upon it, however, left me so very aware that, by one slip, it could become Hell, a Purgatory of sustained agony: above all, it emphasised that there is so much to enjoy in this short life that, even when the odds are tough, one must look forward – indeed, be so very glad for the ability to look. As it happens, later that afternoon, on the bus home, I sat beside a mother who told her complaining child, “only boring people get bored – look out the window at everything”, and he did so.
As for the great Edward, whoever becomes his owner (and that takes another six months’ work) will discover a creature with an understanding borne of a delight in existence. You can see it in their eyes, I said; which is one of those slips of the tongue to which the blind become used. “Don’t apologise,” said Diane, whose Labrador, Tommy licked my face as I crouched down and we recalled his arrival at my party the other week, when it turned out that a quirk of his character is that he shies from oven doors being opened.
And our talk turned to Mozart while the dogs slumbered. They cannot, ideally, work more than two hours at a time. This work is far different from any fetching in a field. More than physical exertion, it is concentration, their continual decision-making, judging distances. Meanwhile, Mozart was no random subject. Had his work been playing in the office, they would have recognised it. As also happens at Battersea Dogs’ Home, when the organisation’s dogs are left on their own, they have classical music played to them: it soothes, provides company. A part of me suspects, however, that frisky Edward would not be averse, on occasion, to a spot of Duke or Miles.
And, as I write this, and think of Edward bound for his owner in a few weeks’ time, it occurs to me that I shall perhaps never see him again. I shall never forget him. Our time together was an exemplar, in so many ways, of Montaigne’s notion: the journey not the arrival matters.
Posted on | March 24, 2013 | 1 Comment
Last Thursday lunchtime I arrived at Hove Town Hall for another of those civic events where one discreetly ensures that that one is not at a table in the company of those people who have been so very unpleasant in their denigration of one’s efforts – as such, it is a setting which amounts to that hinterland in which Alan Bennett meets David Lynch; a private function at which the black curtain pulls back to reveal a new take upon blue velvet.
The table at which I found myself was pleasingly eclectic: ecological expert and Francophile Joyce Edmond-Smith, several Hove businessmen and the former honcho of Brighton and Hove’s football club.
Our being there may have seemed, from talk at the table, to be in honour of the higher gossip, but attention was brought back to its original purpose by a series of talks about and by the head of the Brighton and Hove division of the multi-national bus company. The genial Roger French is retiring from this and the many local bodies on which he has served as an effective Chairman – including the hospice which duly helped his wife in her last weeks.
No need here to elaborate upon those speeches, but I was struck by the remark that buses can be a very emblem of a community, togetherness.
Lo and behold, this proved to be the case soon afterwards.
Out in the rain at three o’clock, I waited at a bus stop with three-quarters of an hour to get to the other side of town for the funeral of Merle, wife of Bob Carden who has been a long-serving member of the Planning Committee. (A leap across time; they married a few months short of fifty years ago, as Beatlemania took hold.) As one of the speakers had remarked, the bus-stops’ dot-matrix indicators are a law unto themselves: “three minutes” can become seven, and, Einsteiningly, “due” denotes anything from “you’ve just missed it” to a fifteen minutes far longer than Andy Warhol ever envisaged (I’ve improved on that speaker there). Lo and behold, I was joined by Councillor Jeane Lepper and her husband David, a former MP and continuing movie buff. Our talk about the great Val Guest movie The Day The Earth Caught Fire was prompted by my holding a copy of Rupert Christiansen’s new memoir of his family, and this discussion continued on the bus.
A few stops along our journey, however, a mother and buggy-borne infant manoeuvred their way off (something which requires more skill than any skid-pan test). No sooner were they on the pavement and the bus a hundred yards further along than Jeane Lepper noticed a stray toy monkey on the floor.
With which she rose to her feet, halted the bus, picked up the stuffed toy, and, in that split-second, I gallantly offered to run back along the pavement and return the monkey to its grieving owner.
Lo and behold, the bus doors closed behind me, I gesticulated “see you later” to the Leppers, and ran with the monkey.
There was no sight of mother, child and buggy. Vanished. A scene from a movie.
No time to dwell on that. I clutched the monkey to Rupert Christiansen’s memoir, hailed the next bus, and found myself beside a woman whom I had encountered upon another bus when I had been bringing home, from a charity shop, a splendid framed print by local artist Monica Wills.
As chance further had it, this resident was now on her way to the bus company’s lost-property department to retrieve the wad of credit cards and loot which had been handed in minutes after she’d cancelled the cards.
I told her about the strange case of the Monkey (now worthy of a capital letter) on my lap. And decided that I would hand it into the lost property. No time for that just then, but two more buses brought me to my stop: that temporal fretting had left no time to read Rupert’s memoir before I reached Bear Road.
And so, with a crouched-over, full-pelt walk in the rain, up the long hill of Bear Road and down the path to the cemetery. The Monkey and myself were in time to join the queue of people on their way into the Chapel beside the motor-bike and side-car which had ferried Merle there. Only at the last minute had I heard that she’d also asked, in that spirit of jollity, for people to come dressed a cowboys (and -girls). In such a crowd, it seemed a mite less odd to bring the Monkey along – although one must ask how a pink-hatted cowboy would have faired on the Prairies.
Inside, as I stood at the back beside former Councillor, now Alderman Sue John, I saw the Leppers across the aisle. They pointed smilingly to the Monkey while I tried to gesticulate an explanation of his/her being an addition to the throng – indeed, a veritable David Lynch-touch to it all. As the service got underway, with a very good talk by the vicar from Mile Oak, the Monkey fell to the floor from the back of the seat in front of me – and was retrieved by Councillor Mo Marsh, who put him on the shelf in front of her beside a Bible.
A surreal conjunction which some might think a commentary upon, an emblem of, Darwin’s theories.
Only afterwards did it occur to me that some – many – of the congregation might assume that I was in the habit of taking the Monkey with me everywhere; a habit besides which Betjeman’s lifelong penchant for his teddy-bear Archie seems restrained.
So be it. I like to think Merle would chuckle at the misunderstanding.
And if the Monkey had found the bus ride rather wild, there was then an Annie Hall-style voyage across town with Alderman John at the wheel. Next day, true to my word, I caught another bus and took the Monkey to the bus company’s booking office on North Street, where I was assured that I would be told if the owner did not come forward within a month.
It might sound silly to say so, but I had become fond of the Monkey who, dropped by a child, in those subsequent two hours somehow, brought another dimension to the funeral: attachment and loss, the Circle of Life.
Posted on | February 28, 2013 | No Comments
(Chatto and Windus £12.99)
A week is a long time in espionage. In Jennie Rooney’s third novel the contemporary week in question straddles several decades. As with her Inside The Whale and The Opposite Of Falling, past and present – sometimes continents apart – work in tandem, alternating and overlapping, the pace increasing as one learns more of what the chamber drama entails.
With this new novel, which is much her longest, Jennie Rooney’s territory is perhaps less quirky, more familiar, not as idiosyncratically populated as before. It is, however, the work of an accomplished novelist who never ploughs one track but is sure to adapt her talents to whatever facet of human behaviour comes within the restless purview of somebody steeped in Law. (Hilary Mantel, Julian Barnes and A.N. Wilson also aspired to legal careers until novels took them over.) Put simply, on Red Joan’s opening – a Sunday morning in Sidcup – Joan Stanley learns of a significant death and is visited by the Security services who, as five days go by, make it clear that they are aware of her involvement in events which go back to… Thirties Cambridge, where, as a science student, she was caught up in events – meetings, rooms, romance – which dovetail with the splitting of the atom, of many a belief, many a heart.
To say any more – well, a reviewer is as much bound to silence as the participants. Other than to say that, as one reflects on it all, and despite scenes in Russia, Canada or (tangentially) Australia, it is a novel which takes place in rooms: a chamber drama writ large, from that of Joan’s week-long interrogation in her home to all those confines in which momentous exchanges took place. Remember telephone kiosks, the clunk of a coin?
If Jennie Rooney’s prose is plainer than in her previous novels, there is a purpose to that: it is tune with the austerity of an era in which baroque, boggling and terrifying events turned upon seemingly mundane exchanges and stolen kisses. Her use of the present tense serves make something immense of the characters palpably living through time.
Another mark of an adroit novelist is the deploying of real people: a cameo by Winston Churchill rings true. (Indeed, in October Graham Farmelo will publish his account of Churchill’s Bombs: the Prime Minister’s little-known involvement with England’s nuclear scientists.) There is one scene, towards the end, when one pauses to ask oneself whether the participants would have been left alone but, shucks, this is a thriller which is no less exhilarating for the reader wanting to take it at a steady pace, to savour the moment. “Sonya lowered her eyes and looked up at Joan through her eyelashes, just as she had once taught Joan to do.” Red Joan might be in a different gear from its predecessors but, once again, it continually has one braking to reflect upon, well, as Doris Day sang: “that look in your eye / which has me waving my conscience bye-bye.”|
Posted on | January 20, 2013 | No Comments
“Keep On Truckin’.” First used in a Thirties blues song and made popular several decades later in a cartoon by R. Crumb, this phrase could also hang from a lamp-post on Wall Street.
First used as a verb in the thirteenth century, truck derived from various European forms, themselves rooted in medieval Latin, and meant to exchange or barter. Within two centuries, it had become a noun. This is perhaps now most familiar in the phrase “having no truck with that”, and has otherwise been supplanted by truck as a synonym for lorry. In fact, this derived in the seventeenth century, from truck meaning a small wooden wheel, especially one used to support a cannon. Its roots were in Latin and Greek, and was short for truckle, first used in the fifteenth century – and now mainly associated with cheese.
Not forgetting Robert Crumb: his use of the word resonated further in Sixties counterculture, echoing a slang form known to Sir Walter Scott deriving from the sense of movement rather than the perhaps equally plausible one of barter: sexual intercourse.
Posted on | December 31, 2012 | 1 Comment
In his recent, Fifties-set thriller False Negative, Joseph Koenig takes one of many opportunities to refer to a girl’s tush. The word – for bottom – has been one of those American terms not to cross the Atlantic (I first noticed it when Ronnie Spector used it in her memoirs to speak, admiringly, of her ex-husband’s).
The OED’s first citation is from 1962, but Koenig’s generally sharp eye for detail suggests that it was in earlier use. At any rate, it derives from the slang tochus, itself from the Yiddish with a root in the Hebrew for beneath. This emerged around 1914, and was given currency by gritty novelists in the Thirties.
Koenig’s novel is a diversion, and its use of “shutterbug’ makes one reflect that it is a shame that a great, pacey Thirties movie about a press photographer – James Cagney is not readily available: The Picture Snatcher. That movie is adept at action but Koenig’s novel is at its best in scenes rather than the pell-mell action to which this leads.
Posted on | December 30, 2012 | No Comments
In the New York Times, Parul Sehgal discusses essay writers and notes that “Susan Sontag suffers from the sama hamartia” as befell choreographer Julie Taymor when thinking that she could make something of Spiderman: The Musical. That is, “the lack of self-knowledge [which] makes self-betrayal inevitable”. The term is from the Greek for fault or guilt, and formed a part of Aristotle’s Poetics but only gained currency in English at the dawn of the twentieth century – and, of course, such ignorance need not denote wickedness but a part of the human condition.
Posted on | December 26, 2012 | No Comments
The thriller writer Lee Child not only has a Manhattan apartment with a tremendous view but the productivity which netted him that has brought a separate one, in the same block, to keep up so unstinting a pace. As he notes recently in the New York Times, such diligence entails keeping the second place free from computer distractions. His journey in the elevator often brings thoughts of – as he puts it – triskaidekaphobia.
That is, it is one of many buildings to lack a thirteenth floor. This term emerged before the Great War, incorporating the Greek for thirteen.
That this number should be deemed unlucky is something that began in the mid-nineteenth century. As Steve Roud notes in his The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland, there had in the previous century been a nervous reaction whenever thirteen people formed a group in a room or on a ship. This has been widely attributed to the Last Supper harbouring a traitor. Until the Reformation, however, it had been the custom to organise religious groups, such as a convent, in thirteens. Only with the sixteenth century did this take on human gatherings go into reverse – and, by extension, on some streets, bring with it a vogue for numbering a house as 12a. That might sound a mere sub-division rather than a whole building, but for some people it is better to do than live in fear.
Posted on | December 25, 2012 | No Comments
A small thing, perhaps, but it has been on the mind.
Yesterday I brought three children’s coats and took them along to Brighton Town Hall, one of several collection points for Brighton and Hove Coats For Kids.
There are those who cannot afford even a secondhand coat.
And a coat – hat, scarf and gloves – make as much difference to life as a comfortable bed and shoes: wrapping up against adversity.
The sadness of childhood is that moment when the false value of goods sets in, a knowledge of the price paid and all that wasted emotion it entails: not least the time expended upon obtaining the wherewithal to purchase the trumpery – disposable income, one might say.
For me, however, a continued joy is the wool overcoat I bought from what was then called the Spastics Society. £20. Soon after, I arrived at the airport to fly to New York (something I have not done for fifteen years). As I handed the ticket to the desk clerk, she looked first at my coat and then exclaimed, “you’re travelling economy!”
Well, I like to think that it was not only the coat but bone structure, demeanour, sang froid that had given her the pleasing illusion that I was surely bound for the front of the aeroplane, money to throw away on “free” champagne.
So, don’t let any child feel chagrined but look up, savour so much ahead, value priceless time.keep looking »