Vicious but fair?

Desert Island Discs. We all do that thing where we pick our choices, yes? Or get part-way through, or come over all excited and find we’ve chosen twelve that absolutely have to be in there, before – having treble-checked with a responsible adult that it’s a relentless, brain-jangling, relationship-busting eight – we combust. Eight. Only.

Life lurches, again: this theoretical bastion of ease, this very symbol of Beebism and aural-pastoral reassurance becomes yet another bloody angst-apocalypse. Shit! Is this COOL ENOUGH? Are there at least two tracks here that only four people in the UK would have chosen? (In my case) given that I’m happy to sling out the universe of ‘classical’ – entirely through ignorance – do I have to give a wee nod to Free-form Jazz/Black Music/DEVO/Albanian Prog Rock? How much exactly am I performing here?

There’s something thrilling, maybe, about that rash and dangerous and in my case heavily instinctive culling of Stuff That Is Undeniably Wonderful. But that instinct does run up against both the maths – bollocks! Eight! – and the pictures that inevitably waft in. Palm trees. Sand. Lizards. Blazing mirages. How many mournfully introspective indie toons can I lever into this, realistically? Do I let the sunniness dictate – or the potential loneliness? (Confession: loneliness not an issue in my case). To what extent is this a practical choice, meant to ‘see me through’ and how much a validation, a deep, heartfelt pattern from the soul?

I’m a part-time supporter of plenty of stuff but maybe particularly Desert Island Discs. Occasional listener. Sometimes turner-offer, mid-way, too – or even earlier if the music is crap and the interviewee dull and posh – and *this happens*, right? (Here’s a brutal truth: there are a lot of oldish worthies on this programme. There is that sense that D.I.D does represent the Beeb in that most of the folks you’re gonna be listening to went to private schools then did something grand. That’s how the universe is, for sure but it’s a pret-ty significant turn-off for this particular listener).

But let’s get to the fun bit: the bit where we can argue. My choices. Will be trying not to overthink these but will undoubtedly fall right into that trap of making my case, for each. *Fatal*, I know.

Toon numero uno:

Nightswimming – R.E.M. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahJ6Kh8klM4

Don’t even think about arguing. One of the great, beautiful and (sure) most deeply melancholy noises ever made by humans. Needs to be there. Everything humans have ever been is in this. It’s a towering achievement.

Two:

Keys to your Heart – The 101-ers. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tx8bM05mmQ4

Yup. Obscurish but no apologies. The guitar sound and the understatement; the almost-acoustic thrum. The soul-punk heartiness of the Strummer vocal. The call to goodness. Joyful and invincible.

Three:

This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) – Talking Heads. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVoPzA0g3Ac

There are plenty Talking Heads toons I could have chosen – three or four from the unsurpassable ‘Fear of Music’ album alone. Gone for this because of its colour, its lovely meandering depth… and (maybe unusually for me) because of its sheer musicality. Speaks to something – to many things – close.

Disc four:

Poptones – Public Image Limited. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8e2CTB9oeQ

Political, in a sense. Metal Box is a truly extraordinary racket: provocative, difficult, rich. The veil through which we must pass is a real protagonist. Lydon is defying you to dare to walk on through. For me, that’s part of the brilliance – that these guys are seeking to go ‘right past music’. You might find it offensive or pretentious. People I like think it’s some sort of weird Germanic(?) Prog Rock… and hate it. The glimpsed-at imagery – forests, murderous intensity, ultimate banalities – shrieks genius, to me: likewise the trickling guitar and mad, subversive bass all over this album.

Disc five:

It Doesn’t Make It Alright – The Specials. https://uk.video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=mcafee&ei=UTF-8&p=the+specials+it+doesn%27t+make+it+alright&type=E211GB384G0#id=1&vid=d1ffe800b70ef0e618cd018eddb510f3&action=click

Loved and indeed still do love The Specials. Could have chosen anything from The Greatest Number One Of All Time (Obviously), Ghost Town, to the soaring Free Nelson Mandela. Chose this for its modest typicality and preciously non-precocious message towards anti-racism – which may be the message for the age, yes? Elsewhere the obviousness and ‘worthiness’ might be clunky: not with these guys. The Specials have truth and magic.

Disc six:

Transmission – Joy Division. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dBt3mJtgJc

Something essential and pure and simple going on here. Something which destroys radios, or the whole concept of ‘air-play’. A riff, one of the great bass-lines, some strangely affecting vocals. A storm of purifying angst. Curtis paraphrasing and somehow raising the bar that Costello hoisted with Radio Radio: annihilating ‘the fools trying to anaesthetise the way that you feel’. Stripped-out, godlike; a new wave. Of its time, of course… but timelessly fresh, I reckon.

Bloo-dee Nora – disc seven:

Trying not to let the clamouring Bunnymen and Cure and Nina bloody Simone, fer Chrisssakes(!) in. So actively disallowing too much historical, proportionate consideration. Instead, going back to Poor Old Soul – Orange Juice. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmpNSpzx2wI

Another understated worldie. Ridicu-literate and jangly and full of that utterly authentic integrity that Proper Songwriters can find and can offer us. Defying the tsunami of pap and of casual, idle affairs. Strumming towards something crystalline and gobsmacking.

Then charging on… to disc eight, where it does get scary.

Except I’m re-committing to this idea that on another day five of these get changed, so all pressures are off. And it doesn’t matter that this dates me. I can surge on, irresistibly and fearlessly. I can and am going to tell you that Radiohead have been the greatest rock and roll band of the last twenty-plus years… and that therefore I must and can and will go to their stack of stonking, enriching missives.

Going for No Surprises. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5CVsCnxyXg

Those words; those chimes; that worldly, artful irony. Squeezing out sparks, squeezing out the essence of where we’re at. Somewhere dark, thin, bland, un-worthy.

A heart that’s full up like a land-fill

A job that slowly kills you

Bruises that won’t heal.

Hardly a laugh a minute, but there is plainly, obviously, undeniably beauty and insight and truth, here… and therefore protest. Could be I’m saying (with these choices) that folks who are somehow active are my chosen company for a spell on a desert island. Make of that what you will.

Now. Who comes with you?

Oof. Just been asked which one I keep. In the spirit of punktastic and diabolical cheek… I’m keeping Whiteman in Hammersmith Palais, The Clash!

In a similar spirit, can see me adding Things I Forgot to this *definitive list*…

Multifarious apologies for any cruelly intrusive adverts that may interfere with your listening.

Ted Lasso.

Two series in, so what do we think?

We think it’s pret-ty close to wonderful. We think it’s gobsmackingly surprising that something which we feared was gonna reek of America(na), of franchises, of that whole dumbing-down of the universe by checking in so constantly with the Gods Who Dance With Schmaltz turns out to be a rampaging, intelligent, bright and even poignant force for good. (Good telly; goodness in humanity).

We have fallen about, and blubbed. We’ve darn-near turned off – maybe when Ted’s made-for-American TV-isms have flown irritatingly over our heads again… but then been utterly compelled, both by the humour of the Overall Thing and by the brilliance of the sporting intel.

Say what?!? Sporting intel? Yes, even when – as always – the live sport can seem clunky and in danger of failing the myriad authenticity tests so immediately and rightly hoisted by pedantically maniacal fans like my good self. (We know footie. Don’t fuck wiv us*). YES, sporting intel, because whoever is writing/directing/playing/making this stuff does understand football (enough) and, remarkably, coaching, too.

*In fact the live sport here is waaay better than most; though admit the bar has been set appallingly low by almost every football film or series in history. Players can play, mostly, ‘live’ matches are 80% there and the changing-room vibe is decent, plus.*

Ted Lasso (the programme) makes a zillion jokes about Ted Lasso (the coach) not knowing the rules, the history, the zeitgeist in which football booms and busts and yaknow, breaks us. But – in case, friends, ya missed it – this is all knowingly done. The outstanding awareness and generosity and wisdom embedded in the Lasso Method – coaching as transformative, civilising mission, which *really does* look to empower players/individuals, through appreciation, prompting, enquiry, support – utterly squishes any idea that this Dumb American is some under-informed fraud. NO. Ted is a wonder-coach; that’s what this story is about. A bloke who, despite being absurdly out of place, re-defines the quality of that place… by being wonderful… and sophisticated… and deeply, inviolably human.

Everything is faith. That corny, hand-written sign above the door, that says BELIEVE. That ethos, where something we might need to dare to call brotherhood (and critically, authentic sisterhood) grows, becoming essential to the execution of strategies on the pitch and the veracity of the drama beyond it. If there is a tension around Ted’s flirting, or outright crazy street-meme-dancing with and through banalities-which-might-be-profundities and vice-versa, somehow it works. People love him and he bloody deserves it. We’re mercifully and pointedly not hearing anything about god, here, but the series is an ode to faith.

(Minor note. I’m a sports coach so do have some knowledge of how teams are selected, motivated, organised. It’s clear to me that Ted/the writers have a good understanding of where coaching is. Lasso’s relentless good-humour should not obscure the objective – which goes beyond any kind of ‘good guys can win’ schtick. Ted is enacting a very contemporary thread towards building ownership/decision-making/power within the player. The camaraderie and the community-of-souls thing is of course a necessary co-host to all this developing positivity. But the leadership smacks of informed, elite-level choices towards empowerment).

So Ted is a humble genius and a daft idol. Vulnerable, through family breakdown and trauma – separated, father a suicide – prone to anxiety attacks which we see, on camera, in a popular TV series. Further evidence that this world-franchise-monster is overwhelmingly a force for good in the universe. (Except that’s daft, right?)

This is a Big Television Event and it has resources. Unlike many hiked-up projects that might fall into that category it shares the quality and the stories around. Hard to find a character that isn’t well-drawn, generously developed, real enough to make us laugh or cry or root for them. (Can’t stand Awards Ceremonies so didn’t watch the Emmys but apparently it won a shedload. No wonder. Great casting, looks excellent in almost every scene, scripts top-level).

Coach Beard is brilliant – lugubrious and wise and kinda delusionally-in-lurv. He gets ‘his own episode’. Rebecca Welton is stunning and hilarious and extraordinarily multi-dimensional. Her relationship with Keeley Jones, who is willing herself rather magnificently towards Being Someone, whilst oozing with love for those around her, is knock-out and frankly, emosh. Lots of this is frankly emosh, whilst knowing exactly how close it tiptoes to that aforementioned schmaltz.

In short – because I really could go on, about Coach Nate, Mae in the pub, those daft three Greyhound supporters and Miss Fuckwitch and (Our New Hero) Sam Obisanya and (That New Pantomime Villain That I Ju-ust Think We Might Finish Up Loving) Jamie Tartt – you need to make an effort to see Ted Lasso. On Apple TV. It’s popular but grown up. There is sex – and especially via the softening but formerly hardened street-warrior Roy Kent – there is lots of fu-uck-ing language. So what? More importantly, this is a ludicrous but self-aware and ‘issues’-aware smash. A celebration. A reminder that cynicism – probably ours – is bad and that love stories can be good.

Fertile Neglect.

I have a memory which is tough to shake. It’s an earlyish one, probably from my late teens – a time when I was developing the political-philosophical anger that still rages. I was also in many senses finding a voice.

Simply cannot remember where or why or how I finished up listening to Dylan Thomas reading some of his poems… but I did. This was waaay pre-internet so could it have been radio? Who knows. I had found the man’s work prior to this event (and loved it) but never heard him read or speak. I was – and I know these two words don’t fit together – I was relatively shocked.

To a spiky youff from Grimsby he sounded like a posh English public schoolboy. Inflated. Pompous. Weird. But not Welsh. So un-believable.

A similar thing happened the first time I heard Kyffin Williams speak – only more so. Another toff, another fake Welshman; another medium-shocking disappointment.

Of course this is prejudicial nonsense… but it is also true. To this English-born now long, long-term resident of Wales, conscious of his own fraudulence, it hurt a little that class, that privilege had intruded so jarringly into *even this* – the sacred world of art and of the heart.

And yet Thomas (in particular) and Williams remain profound icons: in the writer’s case partly because he plainly was in some senses a big-hearted radical – at least in terms of style – and, frankly, his background wasn’t that posh. He just performed like that; believing, I imagine, that the booming suited the pomp and circumstance and mischief around the great themes of his work. But it was weird, hearing him, back then. It was a blow to my punky idealism and to the notion that hopefully, despite Thatcher *and everything* the Home Counties/Great Families domination of the universe might be vulnerable to our Northern, fraternal surge.

I still hope that what we might call The Creative Spirit can come from anywhere and be recognised: that Ordinary Folk, as well as those with time and privilege, can turn out art that is visible and moves and reflects us. However, the times again may be conspiring against this.

The author David N Thomas will probably never read this: if he does, I hope he takes the trouble to get beyond the title and the sense (that may rise in him) of liberties being taken at his expense. They are not. His book Fatal Neglect, which cuts away the sleazy distractions and outright porkies around Dylan Thomas’s death, is gripping, bold and mildly revelatory. I am bastardising his title to hint a little at the unsavoury richness he uncovers.

I say mildly revelatory because, let’s face it, many of us knew that the ultimately frail but often monstrous, boozed-up genius who gifted us Under Milk Wood had been ill-served by his inadequate compadres and the criminally arrogant doctor who oversaw his death in New York. We just didn’t have the evidence. David N proves we were denied it.

Dylan remains the co-author of his own rather grisly end – naturally – having been a drinker and a slob who mixed with or was surrounded by drinkers, drug-takers, neurotics, hypochondriacs, the privileged and the indulgent. He was in bad shape before the bronchopneumonia (obvious but undiagnosed by Feltenstein, the doctor who took charge) tipped him towards coma and death. There were *factors* – used erroneously as fact by that same doctor – which seemed to suit the romantic view of a soul destined to self-destruct: chiefly alcohol and that lack of restraint and self-care. Feltenstein was myopic enough and cheap enough to build his flimsy diagnosis and his fatally shabby treatment entirely around this most readily-available construct; something that went on to symbolise and/or haunt the extinguished poet for fifty years and more. Dylan Thomas became the extravagant drunk who killed himself with booze.

The book unravels that convenience and in doing so exposes the various inadequacies of Brinnin – the agent – and Reitell – the lover, nurse and editor. The wider group that I may with ironic klaxons a-hooting choose to call American Friends are also skilfully, damningly implicated. Fatal Neglect is about shallowness, selfishness and self-interest as much as it is a comprehensive gathering and disassembling of medical fact and half-truth.

These shitty people get skewered, for their ‘lack of anchorage’ and whilst contriving their cover-up.

Brinnin, the agent, arguably more than anyone. He failed utterly on his duty of care towards a plainly unhealthy man. He worked him, even when Thomas was visibly ill or barely able to speak, to fund his own, appallingly glitzy lifestyle. (To be fair, the Welshman had a penchant for robbing or de-frauding the chancers, suckers and sponsors around him but his Canadian-born American agent was different level). Annual European tours, first class travel, cruises: all on other people’s money. He proved to be similarly profligate in respect of his responsibilities towards scheduling: D N Thomas reveals the extent to which Brinnin needed Dylan to graft and set him to it.

Liz Reitell shares some of the same disconnect from common decencies. She thinks she is Everything, as though Caitlin doesn’t exist or have rights and she, too, drives the dangerously exhausted writer on, carelessly or callously. She shares a good deal of responsibility for the years of edited truth, too; notably overseeing the travesty that was Brinnin’s book about those last days. Reitell is a talent, a shrew, a liar… but going through this, who isn’t?

I like that a sharp wee tome about medical minutiae becomes a scrupulously fair but fierce judgement upon people who barely need to care. Because they have stuff covered. Life, money, travel, expectation. Even the honourable medical men who were horrified at what Feltenstein did closed ranks to protect the hospital and staff who capitulated to the invading, overpowering Doc.

Everything is both material and context. For me Fatal Neglect has travelled well, crossing almost seventy years of myth and mischief around the relatively public demise of one of the great figures of modern literature. (If I have sounded belligerent towards Dylan Thomas that too, has been a fraction of the whole. The opening to Under Milk Wood still strikes me as one of the great, sustained moments in musical prose. The man was flawed, oh yes but by god he was something special).

Which is way it feels satisfying, feels right, that we now know he did not simply drink himself to death. Indeed he should not and would not have died, back in ’53, had he received prompt and professional medical attention. He had pneumonia before he was admitted to hospital. He was given shots of the wrong stuff. Nobody dare tell the fella Feltenstein – who had no authority – that this wasn’t just about the hooch. ‘Friends’ mostly failed him, too – as did those who came to tell the story. Some were duped, some criminally covered-up. Class, money, appearances, disappearances. Editing. Protection.

Fatal Neglect made me feel angry, in a good way. It shines a light into both the petty, alcohol-fuelled drama-queendom of Dylan and Caitlin and the uglier, truly privileged ease of some of the Thomas Groupies. In doing this, it may have found another moment; when more chancers, toffs and tossers – Johnsons and Goves and Hancocks? – are serving up incompetence and worse, safe in the knowledge that they can wallow. Because some folks still don’t really need to care.

Black and British. And everything.

Those of you who have been following my hopefully endearingly shambolic adventures into YouTube &/or the universe of books will know that I have fallen, of late, into what I might ill-advisedly call a theme: that of race, or racism. I have recently done ‘reviews’ of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s “Why I’m No Longer Talking…” as well as Layla F Saad’s “Me and White Supremacy” and now I’m into David Olusoga’s excellent contribution, “Black and British – A Forgotten History”.

This is not to say that I’m entirely lumping them together as a single subject – that would be offensively crass, right? – but there are unarguably significant crossovers between the three books and therefore it feels reasonable (enough) to gather them in for some reflection. Having said that, I’m only posting the “Black and British” review here; if you want the rest go find my #YouTube channel or delve deeper into earlier posts on this platform.

It was a specific, particularly deep conversation around the ideas of radicalism and liberalism/illiberalism which sparked off this blog, mind, prompting the foolishly urgent need to de-clutter my own head of this, if I may?

I know, I know. I should stop doing this Under-rehearsed Brain-dump Thing; it’s indulgent and inevitably error-prone. But I don’t mind risking embarrassment or worse and frankly it feels more honest to be flailing around with the possibility for self-exposure adding a little edge to the proceedings. And this fear of saying the wrong thing seems especially pertinent, here.

I have a friend who spars with people, more often and more challengingly and with more insight than anybody else I know. He is therefore a tremendously invigorating bloke to be around. Saw him coupla days ago and because we rattled into Deep Meaningful Stuff around socialism/liberalism, campaigning/activism, Eddo-Lodge and What You Can Actually Say, this post – originally just a review of sorts of the Olusoga – is in danger of becoming a rounding-up of wider themes. With the usual apologies for the usual, unattractive stream-of-consciousness, let’s crack on.

David Olusoga I like. Great TV work plus I love his punchy, witty, take-no-shittery on the twitters. Daily if not hourly, he completely dismembers dullish white blokes who think they’re being Pretty Reasonable, Actually. Crucially, he does it with some real wit.

“Black and British – a Forgotten History” is a weighty and accomplished book, of immense scope, covering stories that the author thinks add significantly to our understanding of what it has meant and what it still means to be Black and British. I say this because it strikes me Olusoga makes great choices about what to cover and makes no bones about swerving biggish chunks of what might seem to be essential if that material is covered well or comprehensively elsewhere. So I certainly learned stuff; enlightening, revealing, fascinating, poignant stuff as it were from the fringes. Hence the subtitle “Forgotten History”.

One example: I’m not sure I knew anything about Charles Wooton, and yet you will see (if you bother to click on the video) that the story of his desperate hustle through the streets of Liverpool – so compellingly told – was absolutely central to my experience of and learning through this book. What Olusoga calls Wooton’s ‘lynching’ is both horrifying and a little familiar; the evil of murderous racism on our streets feeling uncomfortably close, to me, in this era of race-fuelled, hate-filled populism.

There is much else to say about this very fine history book but I am content enough that my flawed review grabs a hold of enough of the thing to persuade you to read it, if you haven’t. “Black and British” is simply a 9 out of 10-er; intelligent, readable and with a tremendous historical/social-political scope. Get on it.

But hey, that conversation. In a kitchen in Bristol, appropriately enough, given Olusoga’s connections to, and work within, that fascinating city. I’m with my mate, the Dangerously Brilliant Mind. (Hey if you read this, ****, forgive the intrusion(s): massively respect your intelligence, integrity and… we ‘ave a larf, too, right?)

Don’t remember what sparked off the particular line of enquiry – probably an opening exchange in which we spoke about recent reading – but we soon got into his ‘specialism’ around political/philosophical convictions.

Hilariously, on reflection, this was about 9 am on a Saturday morning, after I’d stayed over with the family. And yes we were socially distancing as far as possible.

**** is a profoundly good, honest, caring man; hard to categorise entirely, politically but certainly not a right-winger. He does, however, have an intellect which is so penetrative and well-armed with reading and with knowledge that it feels austere. (This is not a criticism: it’s an acknowledgement of his fierce brilliance – which I have said, is bloody invigorating).

He has come to identify as a liberal rather than a socialist, in part because he is appalled by narrow, clubby, deliberately intimidating politics from The Left. ****, (who is broadly lefty), thinks there is a kind of evil in the meanness and acute tribalism amongst the Activist Left, whom he would argue, seem to hate what we might call ordinary Labour supporters more than they hate Tories. In fact, maybe they hate everyone who isn’t them?

Of course this is what Tories and Centrists have typically argued so again I put on the record that neither of us fall into those categories. My Bristolian comrade feels it simply ain’t viable to support alongside or with this group – and he does support the majority of ‘Labour Causes’. In short, the illiberal nature of some ‘core lefties’ offends him.

We talk about this and I’m not disagreeing. Then, because we can get into controversial territory and ver-ry frequently do, **** (who is no racist, no right-winger, no mug) expresses concerns about some of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s contributions, in her own field of activism. Is her important work – the books, podcasts, public advocacy – nevertheless in danger of suppressing legitimate debate because by accident or design it may be closing down or narrowing viewpoints towards a kind of puritanical activism? (Should add here that a) my pal has read and listened to Eddo-Lodge and b) that both of us are fair-minded enough and wise enough to appreciate the obvious dangers, re- Middle Aged White Blokes failing to get the ironies currently circling and blowing their klaxons).

We do know that overhelmingly it’s Black Voices that are oppressed. Both of us have and do support anti-racism. And we are not so weak-minded as to be saying all activism is kinda fascistically predicated on nastiness and brutal, exclusive oppositionism; activism is necessary, is wonderful, is essential.

**** is I think merely making the argument for intelligent, humane, broadly inclusive campaigning. He makes a bold, contentious point and I have some concerns about these views but am also clear that I have felt conflicted about whether or not to Say Anything… because I’m a White Bloke!

More ironies, possibly, but I think I am on here and Youtube doing this stuff despite knowing my voice is less important, less relevant to this discussion than a black voice might be – and arguably has less rights(?) – but also because, conversely, it feels wrong to shut up for fear of committing some transgression. White Angst? You bet. But part of my real experience.

I fully understand that the last couple of paragraphs may either seem perverse, or worse; racist. I already regret that I’ve probably conflated leftiness with Black Activism; this does all of us a disservice. Maybe I will go back and edit, or maybe just re-offer the thought that this sense that something ‘illiberal’ and possibly injurious can associate itself with activism – particularly, perhaps, when there is understandably acute anger in the mix.

This has little to do with the review posted below… of a really good book which I heartily commend you all towards. My de-tour has been about how we try to oppose social and political evils – which we must, urgently, together – whilst maintaining as much of our human generosity as we can. But hey, read the books!

Falling & Laughing & Everything.

Another #lockdown ramble but this time with a (dare I say it?) vaguely feminist theme. Three books collide. I muddle through & find some love, inspiration & a whole lot of things that fall under the *challenging* label. Stupidly, I talk about them, without editing down my flaws: feels more honest.

So if you like Jean Rhys/Viv Albertine/Grace Maxwell & feel the force; or if you kinda get that maybe we need to support 50% of the population a tad better; or if you love The Slits, or Orange Juice, dive right in. There’ll be a welcome.

 

‘On Bear Ridge’: Sherman Theatre. A view.

Did that thing again where you try not to learn or know anything about the event, beforehand; with some success. Wanting to look – really look – and listen without too much intelligence or baggage, or prejudice.

Wasn’t sure, for example if the ‘Bear Ridge’ of the title was in Wyoming or the Black Mountains or Beacons of Wales. Wasn’t sure  if this might be a one-man jobber, in fact, having just heard, yaknow,  ‘Rhys Ifans’.

Have been absent from the Sherman for too long, so interested in the vibe, the thrum around the foyer and the feel of the place. In truth both the foyer/bar/lounge-upon-laptop space and the auditorium are pret-ty ordinary, eh? (No offence). They function, rather than lift the soul. But hey – deep breath, glass of water, focus… and in.

Into an atmospheric world. Snowy, non-specific somehow, despite the occasional name and the constant flow of memory. Bleak uplands; rocks that shadow and maybe fore-shadow; a homestead almost abandoned.

Ifans is lying in the snow, stirring then into something stirring. Words. Sure there is some drama here and a brooding, evocative set but this (we soon learn) is utterly about words performed.

John Daniels and his wife Non and their home, farm, shop: their source. Rich with their own history but poverty-stricken, isolated or struck down by unspecified change. A murderous, bi-polar world, with wintry-but-noble John and Non beset by a creeping, catastrophic now.

We hear planes, we hear tell of the City by the Sea. We learn that old ways and the Old Language are being throttled by something new and hostile.

Indeed there ‘really is’ a war going on: witness the arrival of a Captain, complete with great-coat and gun and his own, enervating torment. A Captain who nearly wastes the Slaughterman, emerging from the cellar.

All sounding bit ‘stagey’, bit ‘symbolic?’ Fear not. The cast of four are strong – Ifans and Rakie Ayola particularly so – and the lyricism and wit and and angularity of the piece places it substantially beyond the ordinary, the predictably-familiar. This is absolutely about the spirit of something but Ed Thomas conjures plenty of real life: convincingly so via his *Kollwitzian (and therefore universal?) couple.

John Daniels is that daft Welsh butcher from up on the hill, with the lived-in beard and shoulders bearing against tragedy and loss – of son, of memory, of tongue. He is that… but he is more. Nonnie, his steadfast wife is with him, always (and therefore always against the grain of the times); stoic on the one-hand, strong-willed and hearty on the other.

In truth I found the Captain a tad less convincing: not sure if this was through less crystalline writing or by dint of the performance on the night. (Something about the mix of threat, near-affability, body-language, direction, maybe, that didn’t ring entirely true? Maybe I need to see again.)

Ironically but hardly accidentally, the apprentice/slaughterman (listening to “White Riot, if I am not mistaken, when emerging from the butcher’s cellar?) was a full participant in the weaving of stories rather than the cleaving of meat or ‘action’. He pours tea and/but he too, has poetry. Local, individual-but-communal richnesses are suggested: the central ‘act’ (the brutal overwhelming of Twm) is described.

‘On Bear Ridge’ felt like a significant piece of theatre – some stood to applaud.

It is poignant love song and it is protest song. The piece bears witness to the betrayals, insidious and unseen and to the malevolent ‘othering’ all around us. These humble, magnificent characters are invested in The Biggest of Things – seeking out poetry and meaning both in their language and in material life. Tragically, change, history, progress and/or cruel inertia is burying them.

Thomas’s first play for fifteen years reiterates his conviction that a) our words must be sung, from the ridge-top to the City by the Sea and b) that traditional theatre – that is theatre predicated on words not tricks, pyrotechnics or that which would be original – defies and endures.

(I say this having been conflicted about whether drama this word-centric conciliates too much, is too dry, too easy, too necrophiliac, even?)

But no – and this may be another of the play’s triumphs – Ifans and Ayola make dynamic once more the notion that in live performance phrases carved with care, well-acted, can transport, can question, can impact upon us. The writer’s contribution is made.

 

 

*As in Käthe Kollwitz, the great socialist artist. (Do not John and Non have something of the Beautiful Beleaguered Peasant about them? In a wonderful way?!?

Wise Children.

Let’s gush, for a moment. For this really could be the best night I ever had at the theatre. The most enjoyable, the most delightful. ‘Wise Children’ at the Bristol Old Vic. Let’s rush backwards before we really go in.

My Angela Carter phase began about thirty-odd years ago. Meaning that the fuss around ‘Company of Wolves’ (I think) precipitated a period of reading and as it were, familiarisation. I’ve been on Team Carter ever since, howling along with that extravagant wolfiness, dancing with the seductive, luxuriant-but-plain otherwordliness – the prismatic fable.

She speaks for all of us who won’t behave, or take a reasonable look at things, or deny the imagination. And I love that. All her values are charged.

Carter knows that, sees that everything is a dance, a ‘story’, a place to soak up or unpick life’s sexiness. She has dumb blokes like me both skewered by her electrifying awareness, the force of her sexual politics… and yet even I feel somehow liberated, too. She became one of my goddesses – the boss, in fact, the matriarch, the guru or Senior Lecturer to them all.

I arrive in Bristol, however, strangely unburdened by anticipation. Neither foaming nor twitchy, just tired-ish and *swallows heavily* actually unaware that the family mission (booked as so often by my brilliant wife) was to see a Carter extravaganza. Yup, because if I ‘did hear anything’ I had completely forgotten that ‘Wise Children’ was Angela’s baybee!! DOH!

(In my defence, I often go to events deliberately underinformed; can be a great way of stimulating good, engaged and unencumbered watching and listening. I think probably I had, in this case, chosen to swerve any conversational build-up with this Healthy Neutrality in mind: arse that I am).

The Bristol Old Vic is a striking venue. The redeveloped gathering-hall and bars feel all of grand and intimate, cool and wonder-ful. The auditorium remains gorgeously old-school. But the play, the play…

In her programme notes, the Artistic Director speaks eloquently of Carter’s ‘wonder tales’ – of her ‘mythical truths’. In a couple of words, Emma Rice – for it is she – delivers, triumphantly on both wonder and story fronts.

The production is deliciously ablaze and dancing and singing and charming and blisteringly poignant. It’s musical in every movement, every moment. Though ostensibly we should note, a story of Common People, it positively soars and swoops and sinks and seethes (and I do mean positively) with transcending love, with issues, with comedy. This is channeling Catherine Tate as well as the redemptive power of sisterhood.

Performances are great; feels ridiculous, superfluous or  just downright wrong to single anyone out in the mercurial melody and flow. ‘Wise Children’ is built around Nora and Dora’s invincible closeness but the wonder may be springing more from the overall vision.

The word ensemble feels a tad pretentious here; this lot make a fabulous group. The playing and moving together is the making of this: chapeau, then, to both the Director (Rice) and to Etta Murfitt (Choreography) and Ian Ross (Band). Acting contributions – for example Gareth Snook’s magbloodynificent Dora – are utterly matched, supported, made possible by the whorl of song or arc of a move.

It’s enormously human: there is tremendous fun, melancholy and there is sexual abuse. There is music hall and there is hilarious shagging. There is betrayal. There is the flawed love of a ‘family’ and the cruel arrogance of a jumped-up thesp. There are ‘men’. Winged, we flit through the generations – sometimes gleefully, sometimes we find them loaded with more or less repressed trauma.

Dora: We in Brighton already?

Perhaps above all, there is a generous intelligibility to all this. It’s so beautifully entertaining without ‘going over our heads’. Wise Children is, in the finest sense, an achievement through community, through simplicity: you don’t have to be a Proper Theatre-goer to receive this. Just let the magic do its work.

Flick through the programme and it figures. The company oozes talent (I know, they all do but bear with, bear with): this posse is bursting with musicians and dancers. It’s not incidental that Patrycja Kujawska studied violin or that Mirabelle Grimaud can ‘move a bit’, as well as sing so movingly. Or that the credits include so much in the way of circus, dance, fairytale.

I’m guessing that Rice found a refuge as well as an inspiration in the ‘simple joys’ of the fable (and its ‘high priestess’, Carter) after a challenging period in her career. Thank god she did. Thank god she renewed and rebooted and gathered in again. This production really is as wonderful as anything I’ve seen. So yes…

What a joy it is to dance and sing!

Wise Children is now a cause as well as a glorious production. (7% attend Private Schools, 42% of Bafta Winners in 2016 went to… you guessed it).

Rice and her team are doing their bit to a) tell stories/tell women’s stories b) oppose sexism and oppression c) demystify the arts, whilst enchanting us d) get Or’nary Kids into theatre and theatre roles.

They are training us. To experience. To be travelling players. Wow.

 

The Tide Whisperer – in Tenby.

The Tide Whisperer speaks of many things. It declaims them, from atop a scaffold, a harbour wall – or it signals them from the clifftop.

Mostly, it beams them in, in between those ears, through headphones offering both a private view and a rich, collective experience.

We’re in teams. We gather in the de Valence, in Tenby, on a coolish but viable September evening, passing racks of kit and rakes of guides or staff or stewards on the way in. I’m red.

In the hall, that scaffold supports an almost-anarchic electro-sculpture, alive with scenes around the town, the water, the world. There are presences – on the stage there’s a bloke who might be a fisherman, dragging for something. There’s a woman in shadow, or grief, or both. There’s a chair… and sand… and then a sitter.

Soon enough the screens will break through the chatter and the scaffold will host an entry, a monologue, a man opening the themes. Refuge; flux; the search for harbour. Then urgency, bombs, carnage: we’re driven out, in our teams, to the sea.

There’s a kind of prose-poem playing between those ears, an evocation of things remembered, things left. The ‘Tudor Streets’ walk with us, with the 30 or 40 reds as we carry that context with us to the beach. I wonder if we might have left our shoes and socks, as we traipse across that sand, past the golden cockle-women and the strewn chairs, to the waiting boat.

The sea, then. Central and essential to the piece. We join it for an hour, maybe, in transit or stalled, circling or encircled, at the mercy of – who knows? Pirates? Police? The evil whim of an indifferent or hostile world?

Two stories. That tragic woman – one of the Boat People – and a young, male Russian(?) who transgressed into loving another. Danger and escape, or not.

Sometimes we sit, ‘pointlessly’. Sometimes we ‘make good progress’ through the chop. Always the invitation – the compulsion – to listen and to feel the stories trawl through us. The headphones make us victims; there can be no distraction, no interaction; we can only immerse, not escape.

Ashore, that man from the scaffold is back, in the bandstand. He is Welsh, he is Corbyn-like, he is a refugee: he was Mayor!

We march on, down, again, inevitably, to the auditorium of the harbour, cobbles becoming sand once more. The three central characters and the swaying cockle-choir and the backdrop of the town await: a staging, a denouement between our ears. My friend Jane wept, almost uncontrollably.

So *things I liked*. The whole, the experience, the physical elements – from walkabout to water, to the inescapable word. (Different groups did different things: I’m glad we were mostly on that sea, in our coats, inside our headphones). Impossible not to be affected – subtly or profoundly – by the leaving, the returning, the rise and fall.

Personally though, I am left with a sense that maybe I/we might have been challenged more. Despite the scope of the piece – and the budget – this was traditional community theatre. (I know, I know – community theatre can be wonderful and revelatory, stay with me!)

The stack of tellys was okay but hardly original. I didn’t need the Guernica reference. I felt the character Pearl didn’t need that name. My comfort, in the face of these atrocities, remained relatively un-shredded. This could, of course be my own inadequacy but there’s an argument Tide Whisperer might have screamed or torn at us some more.

Levels of Hurt.

Bale’s two interventions. Ramos. Karius. Salah. Wow.  The word is probably ‘dramatic’.

Dramatic but cruel? Dramatic and relatively just? Depends where you’re at. As a neutral, the result felt a tad generous to the slightly haughty Spain-based gentlemen but they were (in some sense) classier and more comfortable on the night. Predictably.

Modric was absurdly unhurried as usual; Marcello – without engaging annoyingly flamboyant mode – was cool. The Liverpool midfield were not; most of the Red Men, were not.

For much of the game, Milner and Wijnaldum and Henderson fluffed things or threaded passes straight to the opposition. Both the Englishmen did that thing where they make the case against themselves, as top international players. They looked bloody ordinary – and one-paced.

Wijnaldum was mostly worse than that, for the first hour plus,  but almost looked to have settled, arguably unhelpfully, by about the eightieth minute.

The passing out from defence was similarly twitching between the poles of freneticism and wastefulness. Klopp seemed generally impassive on the sidelines but the disappointment at the level of sheer nervousness and consequent lack of fluency and fire must have hurt him. Not much worse than not turning up for a massive, massive game.

By my reckoning only Mane and Robertson did themselves justice – certainly in terms of forward, or forward-thinking play.

Sure we can credit Modric (mainly) for the suppression of the Liverpool Way, but I can’t be the only one who (whilst acknowledging Real’s impressive ease) also feels they might really have been vulnerable to the kind of exhilirating rampage Klopp’s team have been serving up all year.

Instead Ramos and Morcello and co went relatively untested.

Of course it’s easy to be critical after the event but I did wonder during the game why the Liverpool coaches were not more animated and maybe proactive. (Presumably Klopp tried to light a bonfire at halftime, rather than counselling calm and measured improvement?)

If Klopp was content to concede possession and look to counter-attack – that’s maybe only to be expected, right? – then okaaaay, except that conceding possession against the most successful team in European Cup/Champions League history will surely invite trouble in the end? Plus – in my view critically – Liverpool have thrived via a pacy, open matrix rather than an italianate(?) deliberately staccato slow-then-alarmingly-quick approach.

Firmino wants to flick things and move; Mane wants to run, Salah wants to turn and race. Much of this starts from halfway and/or springs from periods of pressure,  from within the energy and context of an athletic, confident, free-running team. In my view that kind of team might be more of a threat to Ramos’s relative lack of legs, Morcello’s arrogance etc etc.

In short I think Klopp missed a trick – or his players were too awestruck to express their natural way. That’s a tad frustrating.

The genuinely sad and inevitably damaging removal of Salah was of course a factor – though already Liverpool’s performance seemed both muted and on balance likely to stay that way. The dancing Egyptian might plainly have unzipped the Madrid backline at any moment and the watching world was robbed of much of that frisson.

In terms of Match-winning Moments, let’s concentrate on Bale’s extraordinary overhead. Throw in the fact that it was *more possible* for a left-footer to do what he did than a right… and we are still left with something impossible. Impossible and magnificent and staggeringly, wonderfully worthy. And how hilarious that all of us thought immediately of Ronaldo’s ego flinching at the sight?

The other Madrid goals were clangers off-the-scale: mortifying to watch. Paul Hayward has rightly led the calls for understanding of the possible dangers around these freakish and traumatic moments. Let’s just add that maybe we all have a kind of duty of care to Karius and then move on, hoping that he can, with help and support,  gather himself and respond.

Madrid are champions and they deserve it. They may be fortunate though, that the real Liverpool did not show up; that Liverpool might have hurt them.

Arrest that man.

Radiohead are maybe too bright, too cool, too thoughtful to do triumph. Certainly when I see them in Ippodromo delle Cascinee, Firenze that’s one of the thoughts I’m left with.

This not to say they were in any way a disappointment – quite the reverse. I’m psyching myself up here to make the argument that Radiohead (as Pil allegedly once did, with music) went right past triumph.

The venue, immediately west of the spectacular cultural honey-pot that is Duomo City/Uffizi City/Michelangelo’s David City was impressively good-natured, given the enormity of the gig. 55,000 (with all due respects) just for Radiohead. Some booze, some dope, some annoying pushers-towards-the-front but mainly an energy-flow entirely appropriate to the parkland, Arno-side setting.

Yes, the intelligentsia. And yes a mixed, international crowd. Mainly Italians – obviously – mainly disinterested in support James Blake.

I would have felt sorrier for JB but for the very personal feeling that he was dull: that if you’re ploughing the singery-songwritery soulful geezer with pleasantly diverting things to say furrow then you really better have some searingly beautiful or excitingly challenging things to say. Maybe especially if you actually sound a bit like you’re in love with the main act.

Folks around me passed the time in chatter, or by gently exercising limbs they knew would later be either active or aching or both; legs, feet.

James Blake was fine but I can’t imagine why anybody would want to see him/them live. Not outdoors, at a festival – not unless they wanted to sleep, or snooze, in the sun, before gathering for the pardee some time later. I repeat that I barely do mellowness and move on.

After one of those waits overflowing with incongruously malicious references to guitar roadies – surely for fuck’s sakes he’s tuned that seven times! – Radiohead. In Florence, in a balmy park.

Going to swerve the set-list (which I imagine will see them through Glasto and beyond?) because… why spoil things? Will, however, say that things open with two recent numbers, from the MoodMusicacious Moon-shaped Pool. The first challenge.

It’s low-key – or relatively – it’s quietly, authoritatively bold. They know and we know they could have Tuscany frothing if they’d opened with Creep! Radiohead choose their way differently.

It’s melodic and beautifully executed. Yorke is absurdly note-perfect, given the fact that the songs are simply bloody tough to sing – near impossible for us blokey mortals. Crucially (for me) there is nothing masturbatory-placatory or obvious about any of this. As the gig shimmers and gathers and places its prisms beneath our feet, we are not experiencing the soporific.

Instead we get a firework display. No – we get an expressive lightshow and a run of commanding, explosive anti-songs. We get proper Radiohead.

I expected this but somehow this is the principle expectation they exceed. They know that at any moment they can launch the event somewhere different, somewhere Rockier, more Triumphant. They eschew this option, magnificently.

Ok, we could argue that Radiohead don’t do hits; that their ‘anthems’ are hardly Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. This is true. But the running order of this gig – plus the reinvention of certain numbers, plus the commitment to the fiercely angular – marked out an extraordinary level of faith in what they do.

Radiohead do challenge. They annihilate the idea that music is ear-candy. They write intelligent noises but noises you’re gonna have to work at (listener). In Firenze they were soo-perlatively right on mission.

The players in the band – whom I’ve heard are so crazy into-it they’re almost completely barking – fabulously execute. The show is stunning, the racket intense, almost defiantly monotone at the mid-point, with spangly, ripped-up riffs and twiddles and demonic, headshaking vocals.

The crowd love it… but not in that normal, easy-ecstatic way. The response is muted, is subtler than yer average blowout. And then they (the band) stop.

There are (minor spoiler alert) two encores. Firstly a bunch of wonderful ‘songs’ then a break and then two or three(?) more.

Tonight there’s a stand-out, wonderful singalong moment but don’t expect too many fag-lighters (or iphones) illuminating the dumb adulation. There is no dumb adulation. There’s more a coming together as the band recognise that most of the audience get it, get off on that… and us punters give something back. Just not crazy whoops and fistpumps.

I love the guitar-playing in Radiohead. The way it bolts and flashes and twinkles but rarely simply grooves. Tonight this was (almost shockingly) only one of the stunning slabs building the noise.

Two drumkits, loopy, monumental bass and the dancetronic divertogizmos. All weaving and throbbing and denying the banal. Either winkling something out or blasting a hole or laying some magic, be-jewelled carpet.

Probably we have to acknowledge Yorke’s magnificent singing – though it doesn’t feel right to offer this absolute primacy.

Our Thom is looking slightly worryingly artsy – flamenco student? French poet? – what with that naff sub-pony barnet but… the boy comes through, bigtime. It can only be from him that the yearning and caring and hurt and political charge truly springs. And it does, powerfully, for hours.

Enough. Radiohead sound immaculate but they also have soul. We walk out through the park fired up and clear that a) music matters b) things can be rich and deep, and magical, without conciliating.