Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Lists of the Year: Films, Music and Honeys


(I've asterisked the ones that haven't had a general UK release yet)

1. Leviathan
2. Eastern Boys
3. Under The Skin
4. Still The Water*
5. Girlhood*
6. Ida
7. Her
8. Horse Money*
9. Mommy*
10. The Possibilities Are Endless

Runners-up: The Tribe*, The Golden Dream, Tom At The Farm, Maps To The Stars
Best actor: Agata Kulesza for Ida
Biggest disappointment: Two Days, One Night/Inherent Vice*
Worst actor: Dorothy Atkinson for Mr Turner
Best scene: the extended party/house invasion in Eastern Boys
Worst scene: Dominic West’s appalling dance moves in Pride


NB: I did this list before D'Angelo beyoncé'd his album, but Black Messiah is obviously incredible and in my top ten if I could be bothered to rejig it.

Ten Albums:
St Vincent - St Vincent
Schoolboy Q - Oxymoron
Owen Pallett - In Conflict
Big Freedia - Just Be Free
Willie Watson - Folk Singer Vol. 1
Perfume Genius - Too Bright
Hurray For The Riff Raff - Small Town Heroes
Mac DeMarco - Salad Days
Your Old Droog - Your Old Droog
Azealia Banks - Broke With Expensive Taste

Ten Songs:
FKA Twigs: Two Weeks
Marissa Nadler: Firecrackers
Ghostface Killah & BADBADBADNOTGOOD: Six Degrees ft. Danny Brown
Young Thug: Eww Eww Eww remix feat. T.I. and Zuse
Vince Staples: Blue Suede
Perfume Genius: Queen
Sturgill Simpson: Turtles All The Way Down
Young Thug, A$AP Ferg, Freddie Gibbs: Old English
Jessica Pratt: Back, Baby
YG & Kendrick Lamar: Really Be (Smokin N Drinkin)

Playlist: Songs of the Year (on Spotify)

Special Mention for Earworms of the Year:

1. Too Many Cooks

2. Paxo's Gone, by Jon Snow


1. David Verdaguer, for the film 10,000 KM

2. Kayvan Novak, for being funny as well

3. No family is safe when he sashays - it's Perfume Genius

4. "He's-Gay-and-Absolutely-Massive" Award - Michael Sam

5. Football Twink Number One - James Rodriguez

6. Football Twink Number Two - Antoine Griezmann

7. Benjamin Booker, for alliteration and adorableness

8. Why-The-Hell-Are-You-Behind-The-Camera Award for Hot Director - Spike Jonze

9. Drag Queen Award - Trinity K. Bonet


10. Sensitive Thug Award - Jack O'Connell

'Hang On, These Are Ladies But I'm Still Feeling... Something' Corner:

FKA Twigs

Gillian Anderson in The Fall

St Vincent

Friday, November 28, 2014

Lord Monckton and the 20,000 Lays

Hold your noses as we consider the latest hateful comments made by Christopher Walter Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, former advisor to Lady Thatcher (boo!), climate change denier (boo!), homophobe (boo!) and inventor of the Eternity puzzle (bo… hang on, what?).

We’ll come on to the Eternity puzzle later, because it’s incredible. First, let’s look and laugh at Chris’s article for WorldNet Daily earlier this week, in which the hereditary peer bravely tilts at the windmill of homosexuality and posits that gays are evil because of AIDS and sodomy and drugs and look he just doesn’t like it, OK? He also spends a lolsome paragraph fretting about what LGBTQ stands for and decides to call all non-straight people QWERTYs. Ziiiiing! That’ll show us!

Let it be noted that, as usual, Monckton’s beef is with gay men - not, say, lesbians. The locus for this particular fear in straight men is, as ever, the ol’ back door: the homophobic man does not fear or hate, or even consider the existence of, lesbians, because their sexual activities do not dangerously reframe male sexuality. Above all the homophobic straight man fears (and if you know your Sigmund you’ll dig that this means he is inexorably, spine-tinglingly allured by) the idea of being penetrated. This gleeful panic oozes from each of Moncko’s sentences, not least his hilarious bracket that begins: “just ask any proctologist”. Cheers mate, will do.

Never mind that the people performing the vast majority of all anal acts in the world are straight and that gay men are thrillingly able to dream up heaps more things to do with each other besides common-or-garden buggery: Christopher must be heard. He is the inventor of the Eternity puzzle, after all, and who here can say that he, she or ze (I don’t know what these QWERTYs will dream up next!) has earned such a platform for yelling at clouds?

The Eternity puzzle, Wikipedia tells us, is a tiling game that “consists of filling a large almost regular dodecagon with 209 irregularly shaped smaller polygon pieces of the same color. All the pieces [are] made from a combination of equilateral triangles and half-triangles, with each piece having the same total area of 6 of those triangles, and between seven and eleven sides.” (Quick aside: is the game supposed to be fun?) Anyway: Monckton put the puzzle out in 1999 and it sold a staggering 500,000 copies. The peer announced when the game was released that the first person to solve the puzzle within three years would receive a million smackers - half from his own pocket and half from private insurers. What happened next is fun: two mathematicians solved it within a year and Monckton had to mortgage his house to pay them. The Schadenfreude is strong with this one.

Sadly, this was not the first or last time that Monckton would be personally defeated by science. As a loud and persistent denier of climate change, his non-lordship must now be well used to having his fanciful suppositions patiently refuted by specialists with tonnes of corroborated evidence to back up their claims. Monckton has written a number of climate change -denying, non-peer-reviewed papers for the Science and Public Policy Institute, of which he is a Policy Director. The Science and Public Policy Institute is a hawkish organisation staffed, as far as I can work out, predominantly by Monckton, with input from such scientific advisors as Robert Carter, who in 2012 was found to have been paid a fee to advance ideas sceptical of climate change by commercial organisations with a vested interest in pumping out gases willy-nilly. The Science and Public Policy institute has also made a film, ‘Apocalypse? No!’, to rebut Al Gore’s film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. The film is patented gobbledygook, but it’s got a funny title so I thought I’d mention it.

On, then, to Monckton’s latest claim that looks set to be tragically vanquished by science. “Official survey after official survey,” he bleats, without providing links to these documents, “had shown that homosexuals had an average of 500-1,000 partners in their sexually active lifetime, and that some had as many as 20,000. One wonders how they found time for anything else.” Indeed. Perhaps he thinks the Q stands for quick. I’m no Alan Turing but I calculate that I would have to get jiggy with 1.55 men a day for the next 35 years to reach my target of 20K lays. Don’t worry, I have  evidence to back up my assertion: (19,912/35)/365 = 1.55866927593.

Here’s the thing though. I’m starting to feel sorry for Lord Monckton, and anguished by his perpetual seppuku with the sword of Science. So I hereby make this vow: if he is willing to put up a million pound prize for the first man to reach 20,000 discrete homosexual bangs in a lifetime, I will apply the tenets of science to my quest to become that man and vindicate him. He can draw up the terms of the challenge: for instance, oral doesn’t count, and all my partners have to have their separate identity verified by a panel of face specialists. There will have to be an independent supervisor present during each distinct act of intercourse, obviously, to ensure that I’m not making up my figures. I’ll draw up a plan to systematically meet those numbers, with weekly, monthly and yearly targets, and arrange for my annual results to be audited by a committee whose findings will be made available to all in an open source document. Only then, when Monckton is 97 and I have exhausted myself getting down on the good foot and doing the bad thing with a minimum of one man every day for the last 3.5 decades, then, at last, he will be able to claim superior knowledge and tell the gay men of the world “I told you so”, as he sells up his last property to hand me my moolah. That’s if the world still exists by then of course, because have you heard the bad news about greenhouse gases?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Dulce et decorum choc-fest

The Sainsbury’s Christmas ad has arrived, and you will no doubt already be aware that it takes for its setting the lone heartwarming episode in a war that decimated a generation of men one hundred years ago. The football game that united enemy sides on Christmas Day of 1914 was a short-lived but touching truce whose legend has grown stronger over the years, even inspiring a syrupy film in 2005. In the Sainsbury’s advert, two wide-eyed young men in the twinky vein of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon slip each other an illicit treat on Christmas Day, the memory of which will remain with them for some time after both sides have resumed their conflict, perhaps even up until their death by spade, grenade or bayonet the next day or year. The advert doesn’t say so of course, but we are rather led to hope that these dewy-faced teens are not among the reported 888,246 British troops or the estimated 2,037,000 Germans who were murdered in the war. Chances are that they would have been, obviously, but don’t let that spoil your pigs in blankets.

Gathering around our computers - and later this evening our televisions - to witness the annual unveiling of the new festive films literally devised with the intention of making an audience of consumers spend money, can’t help but have a touch of the Brave New Worlds about it. Aldous Huxley, an old Etonian, somehow escaped conscription in 1916 when he was twenty, meaning that he did not become one of the 2.2% of the British population to die in the First World War, and was therefore able to write Brave New World in 1932 - for which we give thanks. Brave New World, as you know, tells of a hideous, scarcely imaginable dystopia in which individualism is shunned and the supine populace is mass-manipulated by moving images. The book’s future world takes as its starting point the creation of the Model T automobile by Henry Ford in the early 20th Century. Ford, in the novel, is revered as a near-deity for having perfected the assembly line, and with it enabled mass production of cheap goods. For which we give thanks.

Two people who also revered Ford, back in our own brave world, were Walt Disney and Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonalds. Writing about the pair in a London Review of Books article on Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, James Meek notes that the two men served in the same military unit in World War One and observes:

“The mode of operation in the trenches fascinated both Kroc and Disney: the assembly line. Everyone – the ammunition worker, the machine-gunner, the infantryman – played their small, repetitive, unskilled role with as much speed and efficiency as they could muster. (...) The trenches were the ultimate assembly line: the dehumanised troops not only manned it but constituted the raw material.”

It’s so grotesque that it’s almost thrilling to consider that perspicacious people might have learnt valuable lessons from the First World War about how to run a wildly successful business, by subsuming individuality and using people with few alternatives in order to build an empire. But Kroc and Disney would not be the only ones to make a buck from the Great War.

What were these “dehumanised troops”, including the unnamed lads in the Sainsburys advert, fighting for? Here’s a clue: you need lots of it to get through Christmas. That’s right, money! If the self-appointed pitbull of the British Empire, Michael Gove ever reads this post he will no doubt bite me on the arse for saying this, but the First World War which we celebrate - sorry, commemorate - this year could hardly have had less noble origins. To recap: everyone in Europe had been preparing for a massive old war for two or three decades before 1914 - since, pretty much, the Industrial Revolution. The elites in charge of the old Empires - French, British, Austro-Hungarian - were involved in a huge and probably quite fun game of weapons-chicken from the late 19th Century onwards, and were perpetually having itchy little skirmishes with each other from then up until the First World War, such as the hilariously petty Pig War of 1906-08 between Austria and Serbia. The commercial and imperial interests of the so-termed Great Nations had to contend with a rising nationalism across the continent, meaning that sooner or later conflict would occur.

Michael Gove got into hot water with historians earlier this year after advancing absurd and unsupported plans for the commemoration of the Great War’s centenary. How we mark the occasion - from the display of poppies at the Tower of London to this Sainsbury’s advert - is actually quite important. Our view of the First World War is important too: were the soldiers willing heroes, embarked on a vital crusade, or were they unwitting and helpless heroes, sacrificing their lives for a futility? Notwithstanding his hilarious demotion earlier this year, Gove is a member of a Tory government that has delighted in taking money from the poor since not winning the election in 2010. So it makes sense that he would want to paint WW1 as a noble and unavoidable foray by Britain and its allies to quash the dangerous extremism of Germany, rather than a petty and despair-inducingly needless conflict of the ruling class’s devising in order to protect its financial interests. You have only to look at David Cameron now to see someone engaged in a similarly hotblooded and misconceived tussle with Europe - an act of financial and political self-interest masquerading as “the right thing to do”. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

The irony of a film about the soldiers’ Christmas Day truce being used to flog products to a soma-quaffing mass audience one hundred years on is so poetic I could weep. The one day when the power of the people called a brief end to the violence and selfishness of the ruling regimes, and they met each other and spoke to each other and played together, is the new hook for a commercial for an enormous corporation. Here you are, little people - here’s your chocolate.

Friday, November 7, 2014

I'm Telling You Why - John Lewis Is Coming To Town

The John Lewis advert has finally aired, marking, at long last, the start of the long and thrilling mudslide towards Christmas. Laddies and gentlewomen, permission has now been granted from on high to start planning your Secret Santas, begarlanding your work computers with tinsel, and anxiously giving your parents notice that you’ve only been able to obtain a few days’ leave so will be arriving early on Christmas Eve and leaving late on Boxing Day you’re afraid, there’s nothing you can do about it.

I don’t know about you, but as soon as I saw the new John Lewis Christmas advert (I’m lying, I haven’t seen it), I immediately wired J.L. ten quid via PayPal in return for nothing at all, merely because they do such a great job of just being themselves. And I bunged a crisp new Jane Austen to a penguins charity, too, because I loved Elijah Wood in Happy Feet.

Don’t you just love money? Sorry, I mean chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Just the smell of cold hard cash and cloves is enough to make me well up around this time of year, reminding me of all the Christmases I’ve spent putting a brave face on my disappointment at my parents’ financial expenditure. I still remember all those cheery Christmases singing songs in the sitting-room, enjoying the sight of tipsy grown-ups loosening their adultness for an evening, smelling the pine and delighting in the crinkle of the sweet-wrappers by the fireplace, while fuming with rage that my cousin got a Game Boy. The My Little Pony that my sister never got; the year when we couldn’t afford to heat the house for more than 4 hours a day; the quiver-lipped incomprehension at getting a tangerine in the bottom of your stocking to honour some obscure tradition, when citrus fruit is ten a penny for god’s sake: these are the memories I will cherish for all time

It seems apt that, under the coalition, the unveiling of a literal advertisement should have come to mark the annual descent into Christmas insanity. When anything heart-warming, beloved or truly necessary can be co-opted for financial gain and therefore has been or is about to be, there is a ring of poetry to us running around screaming about wide-eyed infants and Antarctic fowl in a feature whose every element has been devised, teased, workshopped and focus-grouped in order to squeeze money from our willing hands. Can we really have so completely forgotten the words of Saint Mariah, in her festive parable ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’? “I don’t need to hang my stocking there, upon the fireplace,” Mariah reminds us, in her wisdom. “Santa Claus won’t make me happy with a toy on Christmas day.”

Indeed. I’m certain I don’t need to remind everyone that Christmas was invented by Coca-Cola and that Santa Claus was trademarked by the company as far back as 1831. The reason Father Christmas wears a red robe in modern depictions of him, in fact, is a nod to the blood spilled in the alleged murders of trade union members by Coca-Cola in Guatemala and Colombia. And Santa rhymes with Fanta. Coincidence?

How I long for us to get back to the real roots of Christmas and celebrate the passing of another agricultural year with a pagan orgy of ale, song, the one piece of meat you’ll eat all year, and vigorous intra-familial intercourse. And alms, of course. Don’t forget alms. Have we already gone too far in the wrong direction, throwing money at a problem that doesn’t exist? In this era of grotesque financial inequality, and with climate change arranging things such that we’ll all be dead in 70 years’ time and it isn’t even cold in November anymore, I propose that we relocate Christmas to late February and call it Yule or ‘non-denominational festive time’, or something even more apt to get up the noses of Top Gear watchers. We would then devote the erstwhile Christmas period to a great festive protest, staying at home and singing and donating to worthwhile causes, while merrily kneeing Big Business one and watching our unelected government cower in fear at the great, holy power of the masses. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Which Character From FRIENDS are you?

Are you black? You’re Aisha Tyler.

Are you straight? Thank God. Please proceed.

Do you lock up the coffee shop that you own in Manhattan every night, wondering why love continues to elude you, why you remain friendless and scorned every day, when all you have ever wanted to do is bring happiness and joy to people, which you consider, after all, that you have succeeded in doing in this friendly, colourful establishment that you own, with its large cups of coffee, its comfortable seats and musical guests –and do you then go home to your perfectly agreeable apartment in Brooklyn, which no-one condescends to visit, in which you have not received a single unpaid-for sexual favour in the last five years, and do you stare at your now-thinning hair in your bathroom mirror and recall your teenage years in Düsseldorf, how happy you were as a perky young punk, hanging out in the park with your friends and your dog, Hanno, and listening to Die Toten Hosen on a big boombox for which you had saved up all your earnings from your weekend newspaper round, and do you then remember how one afternoon in the park as night was beginning to fall and there was a throng of red cigarette ends lighting up the faces of your classmates, you smoked a joint with Lotte and she told you, you know what, you’re actually a really sweet guy, and after locking eyes for a second you shyly leaned in for a kiss which she did not refuse you, and how soft it was, how lovely and warm to kiss her, and how touching, between kisses, to feel her smoky breath on your face – and do you then masturbate sadly while wondering what your future holds, and then order some pizza and text your mother? You’re Gunther.

Do you drive your kids to school in the morning feeling full of a jumpy sort of energy, a tingle of excitement at something or other that you cannot immediately place but which, you realise when you think about it long enough, is merely the rush of happiness, of pure contentment and exaltation, and do you feel so overwhelmed with luck that you, yes you, Janice, were blessed with so many and such kind friends, and children so beautiful and inquisitive they make your very heart leap at every minute of the day, and a husband whose calmness and consideration for you are matched always by what seems to you a still undimmed beauty, a very male gorgeousness that kindles desire in you to this day so that when he comes through the door after work and his face brightens to see you feeding the kids in the kitchen and babbling away with them so merrily, you think that if the children weren’t around you would probably jump his bones right then and there in the lobby of this light and airy house you simply cannot believe you own? Do you reflect on your life ten years ago, when you were still searching for your thing, for that breath of life to animate your existence, when every day you felt for some reason belittled and cursed, and do you wonder, good Lord, how did you turn it around, and what might you be doing now if you had not escaped to Boston and married Jeremy on so foolhardy a whim, and reflect that, not to be immodest, but perhaps good things really do happen to good people, and do you laugh your head off to think that it happened to you, to simple, little old Janice? You’re Janice.

Are you in your sixties and still in possession of a luxuriant moustache, and do you sometimes still catch sight of yourself in a car window by accident and think, “Wow, who’s that?” and then realise it’s you and, heck, you’ve still got it? You’re Dr Richard Burke, the character played by Tom Selleck as a recurring role.

Are you currently studying for a law conversion course after having changed your name – you always had an obscure feeling that ‘Tag’ had ruined your chances of projecting the gravitas to which you aspired – and revelling in your newfound abilities, which tend towards negotiation and summation? Did you bump into your old girlfriend, whatshername, Rachel, just the other day in Central Park, walking with her moody daughter by the pond, and did you consider going over to say hello but then notice that she looked harassed  enough as it was, checking her outmoded telephone and snapping at her daughter that they could not go rowing because she wasn’t dressed appropriately, and did you then decide not to say anything but simply walk past, only for her to notice you, recognise you, and give you an odd look that afterwards you remembered as being almost pleading, and did you wonder briefly what had become of her and that goofy gang of people she hung out with way back when, before returning to the warmth of the library to get out some books on Torts? You’re Edward Jones.

Do you have a completely different set of friends now and thank your stars that you only have to see Rachel twice a year for things she invites you to, Ross never, Monica and Chandler never, and Joey never? You’re Phoebe.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams In Neverland

Mrs Doubtfire was an important film for me because it was the first film I saw in a cinema that I recognised not to be very good. When you're a child, everything you see at the cinema, pretty much, is brilliant - or at least, it was for me. How could it not be? Getting your ticket, finding your seat, the lights going down; then, the curtains would part, then there were always the same adverts, for ice-cream and popcorn, a couple of trailers, and then the lights went back up, briefly, and then switched off, and the cinema screen seemed to re-jig its size. A lion roared, someone whispered shhhhh!, and you were off. You're ten. Ah, Wayne's World. This is going to be brilliant.

Mrs Doubtfire was a huge success at the time and everybody in my school had seen it, and so I was naturally very excited to see it at the cinema. I was twelve. From the start something seemed wrong in the film; it was tonally adrift. Robin Williams was presented as a cool Dad and Sally Field as the standard, drab mother-wife figure: but when she asks him for a divorce very close to the start of the film, without us having met either of them for very long, the suspicion was born in me that the Robin Williams character was probably a bit of a dick. The film had perhaps not foregrounded his loveliness and excellence well enough. Things kept going awry: scenes kept happening that prevented the film from being enjoyed as a delicious romp. The Williams character would speak poisonously of his ex-wife's new partner (Pierce Brosnan!), and for some reason the scene where Williams' eldest son discovers his father has been masquerading as Mrs Doubtfire by accidentally walking on her (him) pissing standing up, failed to make me chortle. I suppose the idea of recognising your dad's cock in the hand of the kind old woman who has been looking after you felt like a little too much to take. At the end of the film, having generally made a mess of things and somehow belittled his wife (the film is one of those "men can do whatever women can - but better!" films, with Sally Field reduced to saying "Mrs Doubtfire, what would I do without you?" over and over from the midway point), Robin Williams is gifted a heartstrings scene where he begs to be given his children. Call me a bastard, but at twelve I was already a little tired of this Tootsie meets Kramer vs Kramer situation and didn't care if he got the kids or not.

Something about Williams' relationship with the kids felt queasy somehow. There's a good scene in the film where, in the guise of the kids' father, and not as Mrs Doubtfire, he exhaustedly loses his temper with his children, who reel in shock. That moment felt real - like a real father. The rest of the film felt far too like an old man trying to act pally with a younger generation. I didn't realise at the time that this was the M.O. of Williams' career. In film after film, he played an exuberant loose cannon who was too anti-establishment to fit into the straitjacket he found himself in, but inspired children or younger people to dream and/or be happy. In Good Morning Vietnam it was the army that couldn't contain him; in Dead Poets Society, the rigid private school; in Mrs Doubtfire, Sally Field; in Aladdin, the lamp. In those films he inspired soldiers, students, his children, and Aladdin, with his overblown shenanigans, funny voices, his we're-all-in-this-together attitude, his fuck-'em-all vibe. This is Robin Williams' mid-career, the height of his fame. This Robin Williams type reaches its apex in Hook, in which he literally plays a grown-up Peter Pan, who goes back to Neverland to help the Lost Boys out and rediscover his own childlike joie-de-vivre. It felt like a sort of summation of his career and character. He would return to this benevolent-shitstirring-uncle figure for Good Will Hunting, in more sober mode, later on.

The truth about Robin Williams is that if you were my age you got the very worst of him at the cinema, with intermittent flashes of the comic talent that, older people assured you, he had in droves. All his films contained a sentimental, not to say mawkish streak - and there was often a sense of desperation in his performances, of a need to be loved that went beyond his characters. He went on, after the height of his fame in the late eighties and early nineties, to make a series of staggeringly bad films (Flubber, Jack, Patch Adams, What Dreams May Come, Bicentennial Man) that gave a sense of someone not particularly in control of his career. He belonged in this sense to that lost generation of American comedians whose talent was much vaunted by all but was clearly wasted in films: Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin were also beginning to busy themselves, around then, with gross comedy and children's films that departed radically from their alt-comedy origins. I think there may have been a problem in Robin Williams's case with how to grow up, how to continue to be funny as an adult; how to persevere with your maniacal act after you have ceased to be the young person tearing the world to shreds - and perhaps that problem was there for Murphy and Martin. Bill Murray got around the problem because he was always world-weary in the first place, and he made very few films and seemed not to give a shit. But your more lively comedian has a hard time making himself at home in the world.

The best of Robin Williams came when he was allowed to either give full rein to his excesses (as in his beautiful cameo in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) or when on the contrary he was made to pare his excesses down and he became almost alarmingly creepy (One Hour Photo, Insomnia - both in 2002). Those last two films seemed to show something magnetic about him, but something haunted, too, like an empty fairground. All his other films showed flashes of his talent: his now almost cliché dancing-while-cleaning as Mrs Doubtfire is beautifully understated in its grace, just before he begins to rock out; at one point he does a drop to his knees before dusting the floor with pernickety elegance, which shows how precise and modulated he could be as a comic actor, and in Good Morning Vietnam there are traces, although the film is too written, of his broad and generous madness.

In the end, it was the person who somehow counted for people: something in Robin Williams shone out of his dismayingly patchy career. His appearances on chatshows and his acceptance speeches are all now being paraded as examples of the Robin Williams talent, the high-energy spirit: clearly this spoke to generations. But in the end it was our determination to love and to feel ourselves entertained by that slightly melancholy figure of the ageing older brother that made him who he was.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Lee Mead: One Year On

Rejoice! Today we celebrate the one year anniversary of  this interview with actor Lee Mead - quite possibly the funniest thing I have ever read. I feel about this interview the way I used to feel about Alice Munro ten years ago: why don't more people know about this? Something this wonderful and brilliant can't be allowed to stay so little known - it should be shared; its brilliance should be shouted from the rooftops; we should be talking about this every day. I don't know how I will celebrate future anniversaries of the publication of this interview with Lee Mead. Perhaps there could be a staging of the events described in his answer to the final question (for this is the pot of gold at the end of the interview rainbow). Perhaps we could all tweet catchphrases from it. Maybe I could go to schools and give lessons about it to some eager children, who will always remember the interview thenceforth and talk about it glowingly to their own children and grandchildren in years to come. The possibilities are endless.

Do please read the interview yourself. What counts, in your first reading of it, is to drink in its all-conquering, almost zen inanity. I particularly savour this bit, for instance:

So I auditioned for Triple 8, didn’t get it, went back on the ferry and a few weeks later, there was a picture of them on the back of a cornflakes packet. I thought: ‘If I’d done better in that audition things could be a bit different to how they are now.’

Several things contribute to making this so delicious. First there's his majestic use of the bathetic, as evidenced in his three-part deconstruction of failure ("Triple 8"/"didn't get it"/"ferry"). There is also his pleasingly vague narrative style: "the ferry"; "a few weeks later"; "a cornflakes packet". (A lesser storyteller might be tempted to tell you which ferry company he was working for, to tweak that timeline, to say Frosties.) Here, too, is a gratifying ambiguity: is the gist of this anecdote that he is pleased he didn't make it into Triple 8 because he wouldn't want to be shilling cornflakes, or does he in fact aspire to the sort of success that Triple 8's cornflakes packet photograph bespeaks? It's hard to tell, precisely because of Lee Mead's appealingly dingy anecdotal style. Finally, the icing on the cake is his qualifier: "a bit different". It may be that you had to be there, and that in person he put a sarcastic emphasis on 'a bit', implying that he bitterly wished he were in Triple 8, whom he considered to be lightyears ahead of him - but in my reading of it, he is merely stating a fact in his pleasantly bland way, namely that things would only be slightly dissimilar if he were a member of popular boyband Triple 8.

Developing an ear for these almost effortlessly banal replies, delivered in a touchingly winsome and artless manner by Lee Mead, is crucial because you need to be prepared for the thrillingly thick and pointless anecdote he unfurls in answer to the final question. Because you have worked through the whole of the interview with mounting amusement, with a giggly exhilaration that builds with each thudding observation about showbiz, musicals, and what it's like to work with Mat from Busted, you arrive at the last question in a state of huge excitement. And there it is - the final question. 

Have you ever had a supernatural experience?

You may want to take a little pause at this point. It's a great question, and you already know from everything I have told you, and from Lee Mead's careful answers to such questions as Are you surprised articles have been written about your childcare arrangements? and What were the highs and lows of singing on a ferry? that Lee Mead isn't going to mess this up. Take a deep breath. Enjoy the moment. OK, we're going in. Says Lee:

My family stayed in a big manor house hotel for my parents’ wedding anniversary a couple of years ago. We were outside my mum’s room and I saw this white light at the end of the corridor. I said: ‘Is that you, Nan?’ because she’d passed away not long before. My mum couldn’t get into her room with her card, it stayed red, but every time I used the same card, it went green. It went on for ten minutes. It was bizarre. Eventually she got in. It might have been my nan having a laugh but who knows?

And there you have it. I count this paragraph as one of the very funniest things, if not the funniest, that it has ever been my pleasure to read. Read it again! I return to it every now and then and it never fails to bring forth a guffaw. It starts low in my body and rises gradually throughout me, filling my chest and then my head with a kind of airy hilarity, an addictive lightness, which finally emerges in the form of a hooted laugh, a sort of incredulous, slightly breathless, almost entirely helpless chortle.

There are many wonderful things about Lee Mead's reply, and I must be careful not to spoil the exhilarating delight that his answer procures by analysing it to death. A few things do stand out however. First of all, my heart is flooded with compassion when I consider that this event happened "a couple of years ago" and that it has remained with Lee Mead for all this time, that he has mulled this over and considered, more than once, whether a faulty lock in a countryside hotel might in actual fact be the post-physical incarnation of the spirit of his grandmother. This makes me feel full of fondness towards Lee Mead.

Another thing that leaps out at me is, again, the gnawing vagueness of the story - the elements that he has cleverly omitted in order to leave you wanting more. I hunger to know why, once his mother had been unable to enter her hotel room using her card, and Lee Mead had helped her enter her hotel room, they carried on trying the lock out between the two of them - she failing to open the door and he succeeding - instead of just going into the hotel room as any normal person would do. That they carried on experimenting with the door for a further ten minutes and proceeded to establish through a presumably forensic elimination process that the fault resided not in the door or the card itself but that the problem was to do with a physical or psychological difference in the person attempting to open it, tells me volumes about the relationship Lee Mead has with his mother. Perhaps they already had an inkling that the phantasm of his grandmother was responsible for the issue, because of that mysterious apparition in the corridor (note how Lee Mead has already set the scene!), which was then seemingly corroborated in the very first moment that Lee Mead's mother failed to open her door, and therefore had to carry on experimenting with the lock for ten minutes in order to verify this hunch.

My favourite bit of the story, and probably yours, is of course Lee Mead's helpless cri de coeur, "Is that you, Nan?" Again, note his mastery of the bathetic, in his appending clause "because she'd passed away not long before", which may be here in order to puncture any too operatic quality the story might otherwise have. The dubiousness of the causality means that the reader is immediately inside Lee Mead's mind: we are with him all the way as he takes us into the second episode that leads him to believe he may have had a supernatural experience. You need to imagine, properly, being in the sort of state of mind that would induce you, upon seeing a light at the end of an empty corridor, to voice out loud your suspicion that this is your grandmother. I struggle to imagine saying "Is that you, Nan?" in an empty corridor. What if one of the people in their hotel rooms were to overhear me and come out into the corridor to see me talking to to a wall? I couldn't bear the shame. But I'm not Lee Mead. A simple man perhaps, his affectless mind means that he isn't afraid to ask the question, nor to recount the story in a widely read newspaper.

But he scuppers us in the final part of his answer, by becoming the voice of reason itself. Again, his winning modesty is at play as he says "but who knows?" Indeed.  Lee Mead knows that his story is not proof that he has had a supernatural experience, merely a very solid argument that can never be entirely refuted. He never says, "Yes, I have had a supernatural existence": it is this doubt, draped over his story like a fine gauze, that lends the episode its charm.

So today we celebrate Lee Mead. In part we celebrate him for the wonderful, glorious dumbness of his story about the ghost of his grandmother fucking about with a hotel card-lock, but mostly we celebrate him for his gentle, sweet nature and for the true beauty of a mind that would dare to tell such a tale. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Black Sheep, by Joanna Newsom

T’was a humdrum, cloud-bespotted day
Rumblesome skies unfurled, turbid and grey
And the air was charged with smoke, was charged with sulphur and with hay
As I tripped like a sea-washed shingle down yon rocky terrain

The whippoorwill cawed slyly in the sighing willow trees
And the long grass heaved with the bulk of the breeze
And as it blew, it grew, and drew toward my feet, toward my knees
So I hummed like a mariner; chanted my larky, garbled refrain

And as to pick some dandelions and mint and sage I knelt
I chanced upon a woe-behobbled beast, upon whose charcoal pelt
The brunt of weather and of hunger was sorely felt
I asked him whence his wool had gone, and sadly he did explain:

“Aye sir, nay sir – I do shiver verily to tell
This coat of mine, my garment, my friend, was taken for to sell,
By my master and his cruel dame, and the little boys who dwell
In the crumble-down cottage, down the honeysuckle lane”

We cleft our ways; I watched the path he took
As he limped amongst the poplar shadows, by the stagnant, mellow brook
And rehearsing his tale, my fundament, my heart and soul were shook
And I felt a jarring needle, a kick, a stab, the punch of pain.

Baa baa baa baa baa
Baa baa baa baa baa
Baa baa baa baa baa

Monday, February 17, 2014

Where AMERICAN HUSTLE Fits in the Pantheon of American Things

1.  Tune
2.  Boy
3.  Pastoral
4.  Airlines
5.  Psycho
6.  Apparel
7.  Beauty
8.  History X
9.  Hustle
10. Woman
11. Pie
12. Idiot
13. Idol

Not ranked: Express; Graffiti