Friday, 31 July 2020

One reads for pleasure. It is not a public duty.

The Uncommon Reader I've been watching Season 1 of The Crown again and particularly enjoyed episode 7, Scientia Potentia Est*. Poor Princess Elizabeth struggles with the intricacies of the UK constitution, schooled by the Vice-Provost of Eton under the beady eye of his pet raven. It was a singular education, tutored at home with her sister Princess Margaret. Apparently she speaks French like a native thanks to her governesses.

If we're to believe The Crown, the Queen's educational achievements have never been tested in the way that your average British teenager would recognize. Alan Bennett's fictional Queen Elizabeth II is also lacking in knowledge and appreciation of literature. In his humorous 2006 novella The Uncommon Reader Queen Elizabeth discovers a mobile library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace and out of politeness borrows a book, something by Ivy Compton-Burnett, which she describes as "too hard going altogether." Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate is her second, more enjoyable choice, and the Queen is soon an avid reader. Unfortunately this leads to a less conscientious performance of her duties, neglectful even, as she prefers to lose herself in a good book. Her private secretary is not pleased.

The Uncommon Reader can be finished in a couple of hours and is a wormhole through which to discover new writers, for example the previously mentioned Ivy Compton-Burnett. I wonder how much of Bennett's own preferences are mirrored in Queen Elizabeth's thoughts. Why would you want "to give Henry James a good talking-to?" and is it really worth reading Dr Johnson when "much of it is opinionated rubbish?" And is it a good or a bad thing when a book of Ian McEwan or A.S. Byatt is "leaped on by any attendant dog, worried and slavered over and borne to the distant reaches of the palace or wherever so that it could be satisfyingly torn apart."

There can't be many who envy a monarch's life of duty and courtesy. Those who marry into it often struggle. Perhaps someone could put together a list of essential reading for the new Royal, literature "about other lives. Other worlds."

* Beloved quote of librarians and researchers: knowledge is power.

Monday, 27 July 2020

The culmination of a lifetime of struggle

A Cure For Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage It was going so well. In the Prologue to A Cure for Gravity Joe Jackson describes an eventful 1975 gig in Basingstoke. He follows up with musings on where his love of music came from, his first musical memories (The Runaway Train, and Exodus), his working class upbringing in Portsmouth and first attempts at gigging. And then, aged sixteen, he has to choose what to study for his A-Levels. It was an important decision, because what you chose to study in 1970s England could limit your further education choices and consequently what sort of job or career you ended up in. I should know. My own plans had to change for the sake of the headmaster's timetable. I discussed my future options with Mum, as did Joe Jackson, whose mother suggested he become a librarian. His reply? "A librarian! I might as well be buried alive."

Aaargh! Yet another writer relying on an over-used, sloppy trope. Here's an educated man who talks about the problems of musical labels such as "classical", yet is happy to classify a diverse group of people by their choice of career. It's surprising, since as a child, the "little branch library" was his "favorite place in the world", and he "didn't buy books" because he could borrow them from a library. As a poor student he manages to get hold of the score for Beethoven's Ninth from - you guessed it - the library. How did all that stuff get onto the shelves? How was it possible for a working-class lad to educate himself if he had a passion but no cash? It was because of a librarian! They come in all shapes and sizes, just like the musicians and music lovers that Jackson artfully portrays in his memoir.

There, I've got that off my chest, so what about the rest of the book? A Cure for Gravity only takes us as far as Joe Jackson aged 24, when he achieved success with his first album, Look Sharp!. I've been a fan since a friend introduced me to his album Beat Crazy. His writing style is engaging and he has some cracking descriptions, such as "Beethoven .... is like one of those inspired chefs who can just throw a tomato and an onion and a couple of herbs into a pan and somehow manage to produce, in a few minutes, something both original and utterly delicious. Brahms, by comparison, is the musical equivalent of jam-sweetened porridge." I enjoyed the book as much as I did Tracey Thorne's Bedsit Disco Queen and Mark Ellen's Rock Stars Stole My Life!. It brought back memories of my own brush with the music industry in the late 1980s; svengali managers, mad drummers, goth bands who were nice as pie, and smart young men who were rude, ungrateful and arrogant.

The book was published in 1999, before Simon Cowell decided that anyone with the right attitude could make it in the music industry. Jackson has experienced working as an independent musician in addition to as part of a promoted, industry-backed act, in the guise of Koffee 'n' Kreme, who came to fame on New Faces, a 70s precursor to The X Factor. His success came with the good fortune never to owe his record company money, which guaranteed that he could do pretty much whatever he liked. But that was the "culmination of a lifetime of struggle." His story is not about becoming a pop star, nor is it about fame. It's a warts and all exposé of the hard work that goes into making music and making money from it. Jackson concedes that there was a bit of luck in how he eventually "made it", but his book stresses the other elements of success: education, intelligence and hard work.

In the last chapter, Jackson muses on the future of music in a world where our cultural agenda is being shaped by "the bottom lines of big corporations who want to sell us stuff, and preferably stuff that’s easy to sell." He says, "if we want music to survive, we must teach kids to appreciate it." And so I'd like to end my review with a quote about learning, by one of the musicians that Joe Jackson admires. Frank Zappa said, "if you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library."



More stuff

Thursday, 16 July 2020

The problem of society's expectations

Girl, Woman, Other How could a white person know what it's like to be a BAME woman in the UK? A good place to start is to read Bernardine Everisto's Girl, Woman, Other.

The book tells the stories of twelve interconnected characters: young daughters, middle-aged mothers, the childless, the celibate, monogamous and polyamory. From new born children to a woman in her 90s, all have experienced discrimination and abuse because of their skin colour and their gender.

It starts with Amma, who's into threesomes and whose play is about to be performed in London, where many of the characters were born and raised. The pleasure is in discovering aspects of each character's life that one can relate to. You might not be BAME, but you may identify the teacher Shirley's pride that "she’s the one who’s made it, not her older brothers who didn’t have to do any housework or even wash their own clothes, whereas she had to spend her Saturdays mornings doing both". Shirley has known Amma since they were at school, but "began to feel self-conscious of her body around her friend" after Amma came out as lesbian. In her profession she believes "intelligence is not innate ... it's acquired", which underpins her desire to help children who show promise. One of these is Carol, who studies at Oxford then works in the City. In a very poignant scene, teacher and student meet after many years when they're invited to Amma's luvvie party.

None of the characters is perfect, just as in any society. Amma kept her "predilection for big tits quiet because it was un-feminist to isolate body parts for sexual objectification". Gas-lighting of women is practised by women too. And Yazz is forced to look at her own prejudices when her white friend Courtney, who has read Roxane Gay, warns against playing 'privilege Olympics', that "privilege is about context and circumstance".

So, a white person may not be able to appreciate the problems of a BAME person, but a woman (or womxn) will certainly relate to the problems of the characters in this book. As Megan/Morgan says, "being born female isn’t the problem, society’s expectations are".

I give the book only 4 out of 5 stars and you may wonder why. As ever, it relates to my predilection for certain sorts of endings.

Thursday, 9 July 2020

What's with the teeth?

The Power and the GloryIs there anything more that can be said about Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory? Three things spring to mind.

First, there are the teeth: Mr Tench the dentist, cautious because "Any dentist who's worth the name has enemies", the mestizo with his two protruding yellow fangs, and the jefe (Chief of Police) with his incessant toothache. No-one in the story has a perfect set of choppers.

Second, there are the references that can be traced back to Greene's Mexican travelogue, The Lawless Roads: the black beetles that "exploded against the walls like crackers", mosquitoes "flashing through the air to their mark unerringly", and uncomfortable travel "bouncing up and down to the lurching slithering mule's stride".

And finally, there's the whisky priest's impossible dilemma, "the slave of his people, who may not even lie down in case the winds should fail". He remains at large to perform mass and hear confessions, yet puts his flock in danger by doing so. "It's your job - to give me up. What do you expect me to do? It's my job not to be caught", he laments, having witnessed an innocent young man taken hostage in order to flush the padré out. Unlike the humble and pious martyr Young Juan in the forbidden Catholic story books, the priest is certainly not happy to go to his death.

So, there you have it. My six penn'orth of opinion to add to the mass of words written in praise of this great book.