tag: Memories

Jun 2017

Nostalgic for Ronnie

When I was a boy, a disillusioned America, motivated by nostalgia, elected a faded Hollywood movie star.

Baby-boomers were a mess. Vietnam and Watergate had kicked the living crap out of them just when the 60s had got them all high and hopeful. It was one of the great cultural betrayals of this or any other era… the sheer size of the promise that was broken… but go read Burroughs or Pynchon or Thompson about that. Point is, by 1980 mainstream American culture was in crisis. After everything they’d been through, the boomers suddenly found themselves dealing with the weakness and mortality of their parents. The world wasn’t what they’d been led to believe, and the people to whom they once turned to make sense of things were themselves looking frail and terrifyingly uncertain — or worse, they were quietly abandoning them.

America wanted to be sipping soda at the diner on the way to the baseball game with their Pop while Elvis rocked the jailhouse on the jukebox in a 1957 that only existed in the grossly distorted shadow memories of their childhood. So they elected Reagan.

Freudian enough for ya?

Now, almost forty years later, the world has seen a disillusioned America elect a narcissistic Reality TV star. This time though, they were motivated by incoherent frustration, anger and a monumental amount of fuckwittery.

Golden Age of Hollywood Vs Fox & Friends. It shows.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Feb 2012

R.I.P. Whitney Houston

As I’m sure you’re aware by now, Whitney Houston has just died at the age of 48. I personally wouldn’t have been the biggest fan of her music, but her ubiquity for several years means that she did weave herself into the soundtrack of my life, whether I liked it or not. And I admit, there were times when it was very much “not”. Back in the winter of 1992 it was just impossible to escape her massive hit, I Will Always Love You. You’d walk into shops and where you’d expect to hear Christmas music over the speaker system, there’d be that bloody song again. The radio-waves were saturated with the damn thing and music television was in cahoots.

All the same though, that was a pretty good period in my life. I was a young undergraduate and thoroughly enjoying my party years in North London. So despite the fact that I really hated that song by the springtime of 1993, and despite the fact that I would never in a million years voluntarily listen to it, I found myself smiling with a wistful nostalgia when I heard it being played yesterday as a tribute. That overplayed – and overwrought – tune brought back a bunch of good memories with it.

As well as that, Whitney Houston was also – indirectly – responsible for a particularly lovely moment a few years back. I generally do my best to see David Byrne whenever he tours. His music is genuinely important to me and he’s one of the very few people I’ll travel distances to see live these days. Anyway, a few years back he played London and I naturally went along. The gig was – as ever – wonderful and it was a fantastic evening. By the time the encore came around I’d pretty much worked out that we’d be hearing Psycho Killer as it hadn’t appeared earlier in the set. And we weren’t disappointed; that dark and brooding bassline conjuring up all the right kinds of sinister. It’s still such a thrill to hear that song loud and live in a darkened venue.

Then, however, after Byrne had finished urging us to run, run away… the lights brightened and the strings kicked in with an oddly familiar tune. I couldn’t place it at first. Up-tempo and the complete opposite of Psycho Killer. “Maybe something from Uh Oh“, I thought, “I’ve not listened to that album in a while”. But almost immediately I’d thought that, I suddenly realised what the song was…

It was infectious, bouncy and genuinely joyous. Byrne was more than capable of putting a dark spin on the track; subtly subverting it and turning it into something strange and unsettling. But he didn’t. Instead he played it completely straight. No hint of irony. And it worked so well. Everyone danced. Everyone looked at the person next to them with a broad grin on their face. And everyone left the gig feeling slightly euphoric.

So I’d like to thank Whitney Houston (via Mr. Byrne) for that small gift. Rest in peace.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Media » Video, Opinion, Reviews » Music reviews

Nov 2010

My life as soundtrack

It’s another music meme. Sorry.

Anyhoo, I stumbled across this one over at Paul’s place. Here’s the idea…

They’re about to make a film of your life and want you to provide the soundtrack. Using the random play function on your music player, find 20 songs to fit the following categories:

Opening Credits, Birth, Waking Up, First Day At School, Falling In Love, Losing Virginity, Fight Song, Prom, Last Day of School, First Day at Work, Beginning of Adult Life, Mental Breakdown, Obligatory Flashback, Getting Back Together, Wedding, Birth of Child, Final Battle, Death Scene, Funeral Song, End Credits.

You’re supposed to just list the first twenty that get played in chronological order. I’m going to try to be a wee bit more creative and, while I will take the first 20 that emerge from the player (skipping spoken word pieces and using only one track per artist), I’m going to try to match each one to a scene. So if the first song that comes out is more appropriate for the “Falling in Love” scene than the “Opening Credits”, then that’s where I’ll put it. Though obviously some will still remain inappropriate. I’ll link to a song where possible.

So here goes…

Opening Credits: One Fine DayDavid Byrne and Brian Eno

Birth: GracelandPaul Simon

Waking Up: Eternal LifeJeff Buckley

First Day At School: And She WasTalking Heads

Falling In Love: Stir it UpBob Marley and The Wailers

Losing Virginity: Hidden PlaceBjork

Fight Song: BuntDisciplin a kitschme

Prom: Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved MeThe Smiths

Last Day of School: HeroinThe Velvet Underground

First Day at Work: Desolation Row — Bob Dylan

Beginning of Adult Life: Nature BoyNick Cave and The Bad Seeds

Mental Breakdown: Black Box ThemeTom Waits

Obligatory Flashback: NightswimmingR.E.M.

Getting Back Together: Cold Wind in AugustVan Morrison

Wedding: Let’s Make This PreciousDexy’s Midnight Runners

Birth of Child: Here Comes The SunThe Beatles

Final Battle: O King of Chaos — Julian Cope

Death Scene: TimeDavid Bowie

Funeral Song: Black ButterflyLaura Veirs

End Credits: Sunset Coming OnMali Music

3 comments  |  Posted in: Blog meme

May 2009

Some Bowie for the weekend

OK, so the weekend is half done, but it’s a bank holiday over here, so I have an excuse. Anyhoo, I’m still going to post this for your delight and delectation. It’s a Bowie video. A 1997 live performance of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, reworked radically in a drum-n-bass meets discordant guitar stylee.

The Man Who Sold The World. Live, 1997.

I was listening to some Bowie earlier today. I had him on random play, and at one point African Night Flight found itself shuffled up next to We Prick You. The former is the gloriously weird second track from 1979’s Lodger (it’s one of his best vocal performances, which — given that it’s Bowie we’re talking about — is really saying something). The latter from 1995’s 1.Outside.

It was seamless. And I thought to myself how incredibly fortunate it is that Bowie, against all the odds, got a second wind. As a glance at this Last.fm page will show, I listen to far more of David Bowie’s music than anyone else’s. Even if you add on David Byrne’s solo stuff, Talking Heads are quite a distant second. And while Last.fm only lists the stuff I play here on my PC, I’d wager that my mp3 player has an even bigger Bowie-bias.

Sadly though, by the time I discovered Bowie (the mid-80s) he appeared to have passed his peak. Having single-handedly invented half of the sounds being made during the 1980s, he decided to take a mountain of cocaine and rest on his not inconsiderable laurels. The man fell to earth. The singles were still great (Let’s Dance, Loving The Alien, China Girl, This Is Not America, and so on). He hadn’t lost his touch for writing a great song. And that voice… well, so long as he still had that, everyone desperately wanted him to keep making great records. All of which made the sad mediocrity of the albums so much more difficult to take.

And there the story should have ended. Nic Roeg got it right.

Except he didn’t, did he? Bowie should have got fat and complacent. But instead he got creative again. And started doing unexpected things. And despite having spent the eighties lambasting him for his predictability, the music press hated him for it. How dare he not be written-off when they said he was. First came Tin Machine and The Buddha of Suburbia soundtrack. Both of which deserve some serious reappraisal, incidentally. Then Black Tie, White Noise which is no Lodger, but it is an album by someone who gives a shit again. What the hell was he up to?

None of these, though, could prepare anyone for what happened next. He only called up his old mate Eno, and went and made an album that’s just as good as anything he did in the 70s. OK… not just as good, but a truly worthy heir. Which, technically, shouldn’t have been possible. When 1.Outside came out, I felt like he’d realised that there was a whole bunch of us who’d simply been too young first time round. Listen to that album with open ears. Play it loud, give it your full attention and it opens out into something dark and thrilling and genuinely wonderful. It’s not quite Low, but it sits comfortably beside it… wrapping itself around that same corner of your soul that’s never been the same since Warszawa.

Seriously, if — like most people who appreciate genuinely good popular musics — you think Low is an extraordinary album, then do yourself a favour and play A Small Plot of Land (track 4 off 1.Outside). It’s coming from the very same source. Albeit with rather more control and self-referentiality. But I think we can forgive David Bowie the occasional knowing smile.

Most people couldn’t have returned from The Serious Moonlight Tour. But Bowie wandered far further into the wilderness than even that. He went all the way to The Glass Spider and still found his way back. Nobody else could have done that. But, of course, Bowie is the coolest man on the planet (what with being from space, or another dimension, or something), so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.

In fact, he’s been able to treat the world to another decade of great music. Three of his post-80s albums get regular play on my mp3 player.

And I got to experience it first hand. No, I wasn’t at Hammersmith in July 1973, but I embarked upon an epic winter hitch around the UK in pursuit of the 1.Outside tour (granted the vibe was rather different — more post-apocalyptic industrial decay / less glittery space operatic). But it was utterly incredible. Sure sure, it got a bit psychotic at times, yes that’s true, but it was one of the great defining times of my twenties (a 36-hour hitch in a blizzard with a massive speed comedown… me and Justin, we didn’t have Vietnam, or The Somme, or the beaches at Normandy… we had the Severn View Motorway Services). I may have to post the full story of that hitch one day. It’s an epic voyage into the Heart of Darkness complete with angels, demons and Cliff Fucking Richard.

The above video, so you know, is the version of The Man Who Sold The World played on that tour. Clearly you won’t get the same shivers down the spine that it gives me, but I hope you dig it.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Media » Audio, Video

May 2009

Movie annual

Almost a year ago, I succumbed to one of those little blog memes that involves listing a bunch of your favourite stuff. In that case it was choosing an album for each year of your life. Silly but diverting, and a bit of fun. Albeit a geekish kind of fun. And prone to throwing up some bizarre mind-benders. Strangeways, Here We Come or Sign ‘O’ The Times…? The very idea of trying to compare those two albums! So when all’s said and done, you go for the one that reminds you of that summer in Greece. And you slip a different Smiths album in somewhere else.

Anyhoo, an email arrived recently from Mahalia. It appears to have taken a year for someone to make the radical imaginative leap of substituting the word “album” with “movie”.

Read the rest of this entry »

3 comments  |  Posted in: Blog meme

Apr 2009

April in London (David Byrne gig review)

hallo y’all.

I’m sat here at one of those fancy web-terminals they have in public spaces these days. I’ve been in London for the past few days and am now on my way back to Dublin.

It’s been a groovy weekend and no mistake. London has changed in the three years since I left of course, but not by much. I felt utterly at home walking around the streets of Wood Green earlier today. Some of the shops are new, but most aren’t. There was familiarity everywhere I turned. The faces and voices. The smells. The shape of the buildings. The steel grey sky of London in Springtime. And that tree on Waldeck Road still has flecks of white paint on it. 16 years on! (about three people will know what that means, but they’ll get a smile from it. The rest of you will just have to wonder.)

The less said about The Queen’s Head at Turnpike Lane though, the better… London’s finest dirty rock pub turned into a sports bar? We live in profane times.

Anyhoo, I was over in London for a David Byrne weekend. Leastways, that was the excuse. Needless to say, the Byrnester didn’t disappoint. Though even if he had, the opportunity to catch up with some old friends was itself more than enough to make the trip worthwhile. I stayed with my old mate Gyrus (once again dude, many thanks for organising everything) and together we chilled out with a few cups of tea as well as attending a David Byrne movie double-bill at the BFI (Stop Making Sense and True Stories) on the night before the gig at the Festival Hall.

And what a gig!

I’ve seen Byrne at least once (and usually more often) on every tour since the eponymous album in the mid-90s. I’ve also seen several one-off shows (festivals and what have you). I can safely say he was never better than last night’s gig.

In fact, I’d kind of felt a bit worried about seeing Stop Making Sense on the big screen the night before the gig. Clearly live music and cinema are radically different experiences… but even so… how could his 2009 tour possibly match up to the performance on what is arguably the finest concert film ever made?

I needn’t have worried. The two can’t really be compared of course, but last night’s gig was simply breath-taking. As you may (or may not) know, the tour is called “The Songs of Brian Eno and David Byrne” and covers tracks from all of their work together… the two direct collaborations (My Life in The Bush of Ghosts and last year’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today), the three Talking Heads albums that Eno produced (More Songs About Buildings And Food, Fear of Music and Remain in Light) as well as The Catherine Wheel (the Byrne solo album that includes a few Byrne-Eno compositions).

Anyways, it’s probably safe to say that while I’m a fan of pretty much everything Byrne has done; from ’77 to ’09; it’s his work with Eno that excites me the most. Well, Remain in Light is the best album ever recorded after all*.

I was delighted, so, when it turned out that the two albums that dominated the set were the latest one (naturally) and Remain in Light. He must have played at least half of that record. Needless to say, I’m hoarse from cheering.

Dressed all in white, the band and the three dancers (whose whirling, creatively slapdash choreography was at times funny, at times sexy and at times just weird, though always successful in transmitting energy to the proceedings) rarely stopped moving for the two hours. It was truly joyous, and how many gigs manage to even get close to that?

By the halfway point, everyone in the festie hall was on their feet. The audience reaction was incredible. The whoops, cheers and wild applause were heartfelt and real. Those in the lower tiers crowded down to the front of the stage, and the festival hall became a dance hall.

Life During Wartime, a glorious version of Once in a Lifetime (a song that has perhaps suffered a little from over-exposure but managed to sound fresh and wonderful all over again last night) and stunning versions of Houses in Motion and The Great Curve (“The world moves on a woman’s hips / the world moves when she swivels and bops”). Those were the highlights for me up until the encore.

Returning to the stage, still in white, but now with the addition of ballerina’s tutus, Byrne and the band launched into a blistering version of Burning Down The House. By the end, pretty much the entire hall was shouting the refrain… must have been a little bit like what Funkadelic gigs were like in the late 70s.

That wasn’t the end… but how to top that? Well, how about getting Brian Eno on stage for the final encore to provide backing vocals on the achingly beautiful title track from the last album? It was the cherry atop an already perfect cake. When the house-lights came up at the end, the Japanese chap sitting next to me asked in broken English… “the man at the end? He was Brian Eno, yes?” “Yes”, I said. He looked utterly delighted. It was the cherry for him too.

So yeah, that’s where I’m at. I must away now… my time on this terminal is running out, and I need to think about making tracks soon. If you get a chance to see Byrne on this tour, then you really need to. It’s bloody incredible.

* Excepting on the days when Astral Weeks is.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion, Reviews » Gig reviews

Apr 2009

Meandering nonsense

There’s plenty of catching up to do. Plenty of “Previous posts” links to be clicking. Though browsing through my blogroll, I find that it’s been quieter than usual all round. It’s not just been me.

Larry‘s only had four posts since Chrimbo for instance. Mind you, one of those was a video of a man playing Angels We Have Heard On High on a piece of broccoli. I’ll take quality over quantity every time, and it doesn’t get much better than a man playing Angels We Have Heard On High on a piece of broccoli.

An anecdote about my life as an engineer

John B’s been over in Haiti. I came within a mildly amusing anecdote of spending a few months in Haiti in 1996 but it involves a corporate blunder that’s almost certainly still covered by confidentiality clauses, so I’ll have to be vague.

At the time I was working for an engineering consultancy that specialised in managing medium-sized projects for US corporations (food and beverage mostly, but there was bits and pieces of other stuff). The company had built its reputation on handling projects in what were euphemistically known as “hardship locations”… Nigeria, Angola, Ghana, Tanzania, the Middle East, the Philippines. Though by the time I joined they’d shifted both into working in ‘first world’ countries and also to the “new hardship locations” of the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia.

In early 1996 a multinational corporation contacted us. An almighty cock-up had been made in Haiti and our company was one of a small group who had the expertise to put it right. Because there was a certain level of political sensitivity involved, there was a kind of “name your price” air to the whole thing. I put together our quote for the job and was encouraged to “be generous” with the budget by my boss; the company owner. I’m talking about the high side of reasonable here, you understand, not silly. The project had a healthy profit margin, but still we looked certain to win the contract.

I’d begun preparing to head out there. Seven of us would go out. Myself, a director of the company, and five engineers. After a couple of weeks, the director would head home and I’d run the thing for the next twelve weeks or so. It was to be the third project I’d managed, but the first in a hardship location… and what a location! Admittedly, our project would entail spending most of our time in a secure compound well away from population centres. So it’s not as if we were going to be hanging out in downtown Port-au-Prince every evening. All the same, it was a pretty daunting prospect and I had more than a few sleepless nights freaking out about it.

The day before I was due to fly out for a preliminary visit we got word that the project was put on hold. I don’t recall ever being so relieved. A part of me was excited by the prospect of visiting the place, but it was a small part. Overshadowed significantly, I might add, by a far larger anxiety about running a site office and managing a bunch of men, many of whom were twice my age, for three months. In Haiti. In fairness to my boss, and contrary to how I may come across here, I was actually quite good at that kind of thing at the time. It’s not like he was sending some blithering academic off to fix stuff in Haiti. Even so, I was mightily relieved when I informed the office secretary to cancel my travel plans.

The company was expanding at the time. We were being asked to quote on far more work than we could possibly do and despite moving to larger premises and taking on more staff, we were actually turning down as many projects as we were taking on. So losing Haiti wasn’t all that big a deal. Within a week I was looking at the schematics for a plant in Baku.

For the next couple of months the Haiti project was on-again / off-again. It was getting on my nerves, and it was pissing off my boss. Over a liquid lunch one afternoon, he brought up the subject and vented his exasperation at trying to get anything organised in Haiti. The place was, he assured me, impossible to deal with. This from a guy who’d built factories in Angola and Northern Nigeria.

“Yeah, and that’s without the voodoo! Just wait ’til one of the lads pisses off a local voodoo priest. It’ll be The Serpent and The Rainbow all over again”. I was laughing, but my boss’s interest had been piqued. What was The Serpent and The Rainbow, he wanted to know? I told him it was a book and then a movie about Haitian voodoo and was supposedly based upon a true story. We chatted about voodoo for a while and I told him to rent the movie from the video shop if he got the chance.

He did. And clearly a bit squiffy from a few ales, he sat down to watch it that evening.

Now, I don’t know about you, but there are one or two horror movies that — for me — stand far above the rest… films that got to me. Got to me at a level that most horror films, even the very good ones, never get to. Films that crept inside me and did nasty things to my mind when I lay down in my bed at night. And it’s not about the quality of the film; it’s about the time and place you see it. Set and setting. How you’re feeling, what’s been on your mind, what you’ve eaten, drank or smoked. For me, An American Werewolf in London was one of those films.

For my boss, it turns out, The Serpent and The Rainbow was one of those films.

We’d had that drink on Friday afternoon. By Monday morning he’d read most of the book and was in something of a state. That afternoon he made a call to New York and withdrew our involvement in the Haiti project.

Now, I’m not saying that we’d still have pulled out if economic conditions had been different and there hadn’t been other work to do. And the way we’d been jerked around for so long certainly hadn’t helped. But The Serpent and The Rainbow was very much the straw that broke the camel’s back. The fact that my boss rented that movie on that particular night and it scared ten shades of shit out of him is almost certainly the reason I didn’t go to Haiti in the mid 90s.

So yeah.

There you have it. Well, I did say it was a mildly amusing anecdote. Though I must admit, it certainly went on for longer than I’d anticipated.

But look, it is almost 4am. I’m very close to nodding off. And I wanted to get something up here tonight but the thing I’m writing about nuclear power isn’t quite right yet, and the thing about police brutality and civil protest just isn’t hanging together either. At least this meandering nonsense is labelled as such.

Mr. Byrne’s Big Suit Built
Gail Blacker

Is that one of the best film credits ever?

And is this one of the best opening paragraphs to a blog post ever…?

The approval ratings of Austrian rapist Josef Fritzl have fallen below Gordon Brown’s according to a Daily Mirror YouGov poll published today which suggests that Brown would win a 20-seat majority at the next election if the Conservative Party were led by Fritzl.

Certainly when you add it to the closing paragraph of Harry’s prior post, it’s clear that despite the lack of quantity, Chase Me Ladies, I’m In The Cavalry… is also still providing high quality:

I honestly believe him to be insane. And the fact that this very dangerous lunatic is still poking his nose into the Middle East shows that Blair remains one of the most serious threats to our national security, and that his arrest and execution should be matters of the highest priority.

Harry Hutton, Blair Must Hang

There have been plenty more pearls amongst the online swine during my absence. I’ll get to them in due course. I’m travelling a lot over the next couple of weeks. London. Then Serbia. But I’ll try to post as often as possible, even if only briefly. For now, I’ll leave you with Politicari + Virusi (Politicians and Viruses) from Serbian band, Disciplin A Kitschme.

Vocals, drums, bass and effects pedals. Who needs a lead guitar?

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Oct 2008

Slogan question

Hi y’all. I was discussing politics with someone earlier and I came up with a slogan to explain my rather extreme position. Thing is, I’m not sure whether it’s original or whether I absorbed it from a song or a film or even a TV show. It’s obviously a variation on “demand the moon, to get the earth”, but if anyone knows whether there’s a more specific equivalent doing the rounds in popular culture could you let me know?

Here it is…
“Demand revolution and you might get reform. Demand reform and you just get ignored.”

Anyone heard it before? Or the same sentiment in similar language? Maybe I dreamt it?

11 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Aug 2008

A person of good character (pt 1)

The book-meme post got me thinking about literature (as it was bound to do) and about what makes good literature. Leastways in my eyes. Clearly I’m not the first person to tackle that question, and I suspect there’s little truly original to be said on the matter. So this won’t be a long insightful (or inciteful) essay on the subject of literary value. Instead it’ll be another bloody list, which takes far less time and effort, and won’t be out of place here in the blogosphere.

And it’ll be a list of characters. You see, I thought about literature and the myriad interacting factors that make for a good piece of fiction. There’s plot, characters, dialogue and that indefineable thing called “style”. Those would be — for me — the Big Four. Obviously there’s plenty of other factors too (political position, theme, structure, setting and so forth). And there are those who would insist that “theme” is a far more important factor than “dialogue” for instance. Or that the political message of the book is as important as anything else. It’s a subjective thing.

The best novels have them all of course; a great plot, wonderful characters with whom the reader can strike up a relationship based upon empathy rather than mere “interest”, believable dialogue all tied together with a writing style that allows the words to flow into your mind, rather than appear before your eyes. Add a political message that one agrees with, a theme that flirts with redemption but never to the point of fantasy, a story structure that doesn’t have you wondering what the hell is going on half the time (occasionally being forced to wonder what the hell is going on is a good thing; do it too often and the book becomes less interesting), a setting you can either identify with or is gloriously exotic, and so forth.

Eventually you end up with a Pynchon novel, of course. But you knew I was going to say that.

I figured the easiest of all those factors to identify would be “good characters”. Incidentally, good characters almost always need good dialogue… otherwise they cease to be good characters very quickly… but the two are indeed quite separate and I’ve read books with great characters but iffy dialogue (The Great Gatsby) as well as the converse (can’t think of one off the top of my mind, but there’s more than a few dull characters in the world of literature who are rescued by the author’s ability to write a good line of dialogue or two… in most of Woody Allen’s movies for instance, the characters rarely get truly fleshed out, but who honestly cares when they’re saying the things he writes?)

Anyways, as an antidote of sorts to the book-meme post which contained a good deal of negativity, I now present my list of the finest fictional characters ever created. Not a duff one among them. And these are “fictional” rather than “literary” characters as there are one or two from more modern media. As usual… no specific order to these… just writing them down as they come to me.

  • John Constantine: My favourite fictional character by a country-mile. There’s no order to his list, but if there were, John Constantine would still be first. Originally a creation of Alan Moore in his Swamp Thing stories, John Constantine is nonetheless as much a Garth Ennis character as a Moore character. Ennis wrote many of the best Hellblazer stories (the graphic novels in which John Constantine is the anti-hero) which is really where the character sprung fully to life. Constantine is a magician. Not a stage illusionist, a real-life magick-user who consorts with demons and angels as well as all manner of low-life human nasties. He is bitter, cynical, self-obsessed and haunted by a horrific past… yet he’s also incredibly likeable. He cannot be relied upon to Do The Right Thing, though he often does so reluctantly. In fact, in probably the best of the Constantine stories (The Long Habit of Living) he knowingly and deliberately places the entire human race in serious jeopardy in order to cure his lung-cancer. He’s an utter bastard who you’d stay as far away from as possible were he real (he generally ends up being responsible for the grisly death of his close friends) but who you root for without reservation while reading the stories. Never, ever, ever, ever see the movie.
  • Sherlock Holmes: Most people know all about Holmes, so I won’t go on too much about him. Like most of the literature of that era, the Sherlock Holmes stories often feel — to me — as though they’ve been caged by the culture they came from. As though there was so much more beneath the surface that had to be left unsaid because of the phoney morality of the time. All the same, Holmes somehow escapes the cage (I think Mycroft may have smuggled in a key somehow) and becomes a wonderfully 3-dimensional character as the stories progress. Most of the other characters are merely props, of course, with which to explore the methods and psychology of Sherlock himself. All the same, because he is such a wonderful character, that flaw (and the many others) don’t overshadow the stories. Personal favourites? Probably the two stories that introduce his two greatest opponents; The Adventure of the Final Problem (Professor Moriarty) and A Scandal in Bohemia (Irene Adler). Jeremy Brett is the definitive screen Holmes.
  • Agent Dale Cooper: Created by David Lynch for his TV series Twin Peaks, Dale Cooper is an FBI agent with a difference. When I mentioned him before on this blog I wrote: “A latter day Sherlock Holmes (who switched the cocaine and opium for something a little more psychedelic), Cooper attacks problems with a singlemindedness that usually appears anything but, and a method that is often – quite literally – madness itself.” Mind you, there’s an obvious mistake in that description (Sherlock Holmes’ narcotic of choice was morphine rather than opium).
  • Zoyd Wheeler, Brock Vond and Frenesi Gates: There’s just no way I could pick a single character from Pynchon’s Vineland. Like almost all of his novels, it’s an ensemble piece, and choosing one character above another would be impossible. As it is, I’ve left out a few others who are worthy of mention (Takeshi, Prairie and — of course — DL). Yeah, I’ve heard the objection that “they’re not characters at all!” and certainly Zoyd is not merely a man, he’s also the unrealised dream of the 1960s, Frenesi isn’t just his ex, she’s also the inherent contradictions of feminist politics and Brock isn’t just a total asshole, he’s also The Law. But that’s what makes Pynchon so wonderful in my eyes. They feel like real people to me, even in those passages when they are obviously being used primarily as symbols to make a political point.
  • Doctor Benway: OK, hardly a well-rounded character. Hardly more than a scary bogeyman in fact. But this Burroughs creation is nonetheless one of the all-time stand-out characters in modern literature. “Did I ever tell you ’bout the time I performed an apendectomy with a rusty sardine can… … …?” The following short scene says more about Benway than I ever could…

    … incidentally that line near the end is “some fucking drug-addict’s cut my cocaine with sani-flush!” The bizarre decision to cut the word “fucking” makes it a little difficult to make out.

  • Harry Haller: The protagonist of Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Harry Haller is a total outsider. Alienated from society, from almost all human contact, he sees clearly the absurdity of human existence. He is at once repelled by, and attracted to, a society he can never be part of. Haller is Nietzsche, he’s Hesse himself, he’s even — some have argued — Carl Jung (the “magic theatre” he discovers and explores being no more — or less — than his own psyche). Certainly for a period in my teens, Haller was me. Losing himself in the intoxication of alcohol and narcotics, and finally in his desire for Hermine, the beautiful dancer, he seeks salvation in oblivion. The ultimate existential hero. “The thought of suicide is a powerful solace”, writes Haller reproducing one of Nietzsche’s more famous aphorisms, “by means of it one gets through many a bad night”. Haller’s subsequent abortive suicide attempt is one of the funniest tragic scenes in fiction.

Hell, this could on forever and I’ve left out some true greats. It’s a decent start though, and I’m going to add a “Part 1” to the title of this entry in the possibility (though not the assurance) that I’ll continue it later.

Notable absences

  • Leopold Bloom: despite being the central character in the finest novel ever written (actually, I have some sympathy with the view that “Dublin” is the central character of the book, but all the same) Bloom wouldn’t feature as one of the great literary characters. Which is clearly deliberate on Joyce’s part. Bloom is a passive observer (almost always). A rather limp Everyman who, even when he provokes a reaction from the world around him, is generally doing so accidentally, and as a result of being misinterpreted or misunderstood. It is only at the very end, with Molly’s wonderful “Yes!” that he finally escapes his role as voyeur and fantasist. Bloom is not a Great Character, because Ulysses is about viewing the world through impotent eyes. Eyes that have no Greatness behind them until that very last scene.
  • Legolas (the elf): Tolkien was a master at creating an internal world for children (or adult fantasists) to disappear into. He wasn’t necessarily a great writer of characters. But Legolas deserves a mention, even if only in this second list, because I probably spent a good third of the time between my 9th and 11th birthdays being Legolas. Outwardly, I was a very quiet child. What was going on inside, though, was anything but.

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Aug 2008

With a few minutes to spare…

In honour of today’s date, 8-08-08, those of you who also spent the late 80s / early 90s dancing ’til you dropped whilst gurning like a loon in English fields, should be taken right back by this classic…

Ah, those were the days. Now. Anyone got any Veras?

In. Yer. Face!

EDIT: Actually, given what’s currently going on over in China, this would probably have been a more appropriate choice…

One for the chill-out tent, that.

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