A diary collection of words and images from the past year. By Billy Mann
Includes a lot of sarcasm and dark humour, a review of a film that made me cry and a micro story about a boy with an imaginary Dad.
Satire, Your Highness
Cartoon comment on the Charlie Hebdo massacre
Different Voices, from UK politicians.
George Osborne’s Britain
A diplomatic request
The PM’s undaunted courage
The Film That Makes me Cry: Local Hero
IMDB says nothing about blubbing. No warning to keep the tissues at the ready. Local Hero is often described as a comedy. Quirky, wry, gentle. Those are the other words most commonly used. Weepy, no. And the storyline offers no hint at the emotional turbulence you might soon be entering. So maybe it’s just me being a big cissy. Wouldn’t be the first time I lost the plot.
Crackpot Texan oil magnate Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) gets the idea that a small Scottish fishing village would be a marvellous acquisition for his so-rich-it-makes-you-sick company, Knox Oil and Gas, so he sends an Executive Gopher named MacIntyre (because that sounds Scottish, yeah, played by Peter Riegert) to close the deal and get the pipeline pencilled in.
On his arrival in Scotland, “Mac” is met by some local dork called Oldsen (a young Peter Capaldi), who attempts to steer him through a tartan microculture that includes a lawyer-cum-publican/hotelier (Denis Lawson) who tapdances while standing on a chair shouting “Stella”, which happens to be the name of his ever-randy wife; there is a super hardwood marine biologist played by Jenny Seagrove who, after delivering a short lecture on the North Atlantic Drift, ends up helping Oldsen to find that pistol in his pocket; then later comes a scene in which a very whisky-pissed Mac calls Texas from a red phone box on the harbourside to report to amateur skywatcher Happer the nightly doings of the Aurora Borealis.
Happer is delighted because it relieves him from the urge to murder his enthusiastic aversion therapist. Plus bits of business involving a salty Russian seafarer and overflying warplanes. You can see how it got the “comedy” tag, and I haven’t even mentioned the thing with the rabbit. And you can see how Mac ends up smitten.
This is all top material from a very talented writer/director, with photography and music (Mark Knopfler) to match. But I did, on first viewing, find myself asking halfway through, “but what is this film actually about?” After not very much thought, I lazily came to the conclusion that it was not a How Things Never Go According to Plan story but a love poem to Scotland and the Scots. A bit slushy, yes OK, but never mind. It’s only a film.
And it is this thought that prompted the lump in my throat at the end of the movie when, having failed in his mission to secure the Knox refinery deal and mutilate one of planet Earth’s most beautiful locations, Mac returns to his frigid steel-and-glass Houston apartment. He stands at his kitchen counter wondering what to do next, the hushed march of oil capitalism buzzing gently outside. He pulls from his coat pocket a handful of pebbles and shells and spreads them out on the work surface. The scene fades to black, then reopens 4,500 miles away, where, on the harbourside of a small Scottish fishing village, we hear ringing from an empty red phone box.
An edited version of this article appeared in the Guardian.
Welcome To West Street
Election T-shirt design
Pangea 2? (maybe 3, not sure)
In the name of equality, can someone please start the objectification of Demelza?
Princess Charlotte of Cambridge is born. Her name is Charlotte, Elizabeth, Diana.
Make Your Mark Today
It is over. Stop crying. Have a cup of tea. Hatred rules.
Thoughts on the outcome of yesterday’s General Election.
The Bones Of Headway
Review, The Long Weekend, by TS Strachan
It’s a good trick if you can pull it off. Place your reader straight into the shoes of the protagonist. So, there you are, lounging at a street café in early 1950s Madrid, waiting for your new best friend Rodolfo to arrive, when a total stranger invites himself to sit at your table and proposes an intriguing project. All he wants you to do is bump off some fatcat American general, who is shortly to arrive in the city to pave the way for the establishment of US military bases on Spanish soil. Just as a side issue, there is a massive pay packet attached to the endeavour, and if you don’t say yes, you will be forced to return to your native Britain, which is still wallowing in a mood called Postwar Grim. Plus, you will have to “face the music”, which in the case of the book’s hero and notional killer, Tom Field, are the consequences of writing dodgy cheques. It’s a no-brainer.
Much as I would like to, I can’t say I have ever been very clued up about postwar(s) Spain and life in the dark corners of the Franco regime. I still don’t know much, but in The Short Weekend some of the details hit home. In T S Strachan’s Madrid you can smell the fear. It’s right there, hanging in the air of conspiracy. If there is a sense of place, it is more psychological than physical. Yes, this is Madrid, and it feels like a city emerging from trauma. Yet the mood is the thing. Here we witness Tom Field being jerked around endlessly by his conspirator-assassins. They drive around a lot, slipping envelopes of money back and forth, hammering out the precise methodology of murder they intend to unleash on the visiting Yank when he arrives at the train station. Field pulls a practical joke on his new employees when they foolishly hand him a grenade and ask him if he knows what it is. And always in the background there is Field’s belief that he is constantly being watched and sized up for the task in hand. He visits a local prostitute, Pili, and we sense trouble immediately. He will fall in love with her, won’t he? Or will he be forced to kill her? Can there be a happy ending to this tortured venture?
If it’s cloaks and daggers you are after, there are plenty here. Everywhere you look there are shifty-looking characters, fags hanging from their lips, muttering stuff out of the side of their mouths about overthrow and revolution. And there is an epic chase that will have you spinning this way and that, wondering who is still alive and who is hiding where, and did they have a gun? The word mêlée doesn’t even begin to describe it. It is a quick read, quite visual, as if the story might better have been a movie (in black and white, of course).
But there are some things movies can’t do and one of them comes in a description towards the end, when Field finds himself stranded helpless in a church and face to face with the resident clergyman, Father Ramón: “He had that not unpleasant odour that priests often have.”
Review: Hamlet at the Barbican
Can’t believe the outrage that has been voiced in the media world over the “to be, or not to be” bit being shunted to the front of the play in a production of Hamlet currently playing at London’s Barbican theatre. We attended the first night on 5 August and I immediately found that seemingly audacious move really quite remarkably fitting. It features Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet Prince of Denmark, contemplating and fingering some of his dead father’s possessions. The speech in this poignant moment seems perfectly natural and marks out the production from the start as being existential. This version explores the parent-child relationship in ways I had not considered before, so for that reason alone it gets a thumbs up from me. And congratulations also to the hoards of Bendettes who managed to contain themselves until the very end of the play. Only then did they consider the question, “to squeal, or not to squeal?”
Listening to a radio quiz programme last night called All the Way From Memphis (BBC Radio4 Extra) – a panel show thing on the subject of pop music that features Andrew Collins and Tracey MacLeod as its team captain’s – the former Altered Images singer and contestant Clare Grogan nominated Neil Diamond as her “most underrated” yet very successful artist. She even played a snippet from Song Sung Blue to illustrate her profound disgust at the lack of recognition afforded this American singer-songwriter who, she says, was one of her mum’s favourites (along with Herb Alpert).
Mention of Neil Diamond caused three memories to shoot immediately into my head. The first is the sketchiest and I cannot be sure it actually took place, but it features an episode of the US television sitcom The Big Bang Theory in which the characters Howard (a lowly rocket scientist) and Amy (a neuro-biologist and “not-girlfriend/friend who is a girl” of theoretical physicist and Stephen Hawking groupie Sheldon Cooper. Howard and Amy, as I recall, go on a pseudo ‘date’ at which they attempt to bond “for the good of the group”. They fail, but on their way home they discover a shared passion for Neil Diamond’s music. Obviously, they end up cruising the streets of Pasadena in joint rapture singing Neil Diamond songs, a greatest hits CD of which just happened to be in the glove box of Howard’s car.
The second Neil Diamond memory is slightly spooky. Yesterday I was browsing a charity shop in Brighton and the background music in the shop was a compilation of Cliff Richard songs from the 1960s. One of them, ‘Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon’ I recall as both a Neil Diamond original and a fantastic cover by Urge Overkill in the Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction. But, yes, I might have got all or some of that wrong.
The third and final Neil Diamond memory I owe to my sister, Izzy, a big singer-songwriter fan from whom I received much of my musical education. She had the habit of magicking up records, both singles and albums (as they then were, in them halcyon days of vinyl), from nowhere, and one day a Neil Diamond greatest hits album appeared. The thing was, and this has remained a lifelong source of curiosity for me, one corner of the album’s sleeve had been mercilessly chewed by an animal, which I presumed to be a dog. The culprit could well have been our own dog, Bonji, for all I know. That’s how good my memory is. Anyway, Cracklin’ Rosie was my favourite. Thanks, Sis.
Bowie T-shirt design
David has an imaginary dad he calls Jack. His real father, Patrick, is undisturbed by this. David tells Pat of the daily conversations he has with Jack, but never once is Pat tempted to compare his parenting skills with Jack’s.
On a recent visit to Ireland, I managed to get all boiled up about several things, but the one that pissed me off the most was being unable to top up my phone account at an ATM.
The background, briefly, is this: whenever I go on holiday in Europe, I do not add an Internet Booster to my account until I arrive, check out the local wi-fi possibilities, and decide what my requirements might be for the duration. No sweat, usually, because, you can buy Boosters as you go.
Unfortunately, in this case, the purchase of my first Booster (looks like wi-fi is not a big priority in smalltown Ireland) cleaned out my account, so I needed to top up. Stupidly, I confess, I had forgotten my account details, so I could not use SMS to top up. So the only answer I could see was to find an ATM and top up there. Cue the bad temper.
I could not find an ATM anywhere that offered phone top-up. And before you jump on me with the very sensible statement of the bleeding obvious that not many smalltown ATMs ANYWHERE offer phone top-up, I even tried a bigger town (Portloise) and what I think is actually a city (Galway) … But now I am starting to sound patronising.
Oh, well, in for a penny. The thing is, the problem with Ireland is that in many respects it resembles mainland Britain. They have the same models of cars, they are gluttons for the pub lunch, they watch crap telly. But in other respects it is very different. In fact, it’s another country. They prefer brown bread. Their moral compass is still in the hands of the church. And they are not that bothered about connectivity, it seems. Hats off to them, I say.
Logic tells me that the blame for my irritation lies squarely with ME. But I just can’t resist having a playful pop at the Irish. I think I probably feel kind of entitled, in a smug way, especially since Liverpool took so many of them into the bosom of the north docks area in 1846 (or was it 1847?) after the Spud Famine. So on that note, I will end on a well-worn Irish joke. Q: What did the Kerry fella call his pet zebra? A: Spot.
There has been a lot of moaning recently about the BBC. The award winning writer/producer/broadcaster/’funnyman’ Armando Iannucci has been swinging his verbal axe across the airwaves and in print saying HANDS OFF, you motherfuckers. This is because some members of the current government see the Corporation as an outrage, a lefty mouthpiece and a socialist thorn in the side of the free market. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? The BBC is funded through an annual licence fee. This is a compulsory payment that entitles the license holder to own and use devices that can receive radio and TV transmissions. In other words, if you don’t buy a licence, you can’t listen to the radio or watch the telly. I am not sure what the rules are concerning the use of computers and the world wide web to access these products, but to enemies of the BBC, it is seen as a crafty form of taxation, and one that in a fair world would be replaced by a subscription system, in which customers can pick and choose their broadcasting according to taste. In other words, if you don’t want Strictly Come Dancing, you will not be asked to pay for it.
On the surface, this does not sound too outrageous. Subscriptions are, after all, optional, a contract entered into freely, supply and demand, etc. But that, for me, is not the chief issue here. To illustrate my position, think for a moment what kind of society we would have were, say, education delivered in the same way. Or health, or refuse collection, or wars in other people’s countries? There are many aspects of modern life that come to use via the mechanisms of state and local agencies. If Tony Blair had asked each and every one of us to ‘subscribe’ to the Iraq War, would you have said yes and reached for your wallet?
So maybe it is best not to think of the BBC as a service in the active, transactional sense but as a cultural investment that safeguards a way of life and a desire for some kind of interesting, entertaining and educational circumspection. In other words, you might not like all of it, all of the time, but you know it is good to have and to have around for future generations to make use of (yes, even CBBC), so shut up and cough up the annual £140, or whatever it is. Be thankful it exists, because if my parents had been asked to pay as you go on Jackanory, I am not sure I’d be the person I am today.
● Further reading on this subject.
12 September 2015
Man gets stuck on Mars.
Man grows potatoes on Mars.
Man grows potatoes on Mars using rehydrated human faeces as a fertiliser.
Man grows potatoes on Mars after inventing a device that makes water.
Assisted by a supernerd back on Planet Earth, the colleagues who left Man on Mars are able to return to ‘bring him home’.
* Please remember to return your 3D spectacles when leaving the cinema.
As part of the rehabilitation I have been engaged in since suffering a stroke three years ago, volunteering has become a mainstay. I help in educational workshops and one of them is in the education block of an inner city prison. I have joined classes in which I offer advice on writing and editing to prisoners who are involved in making their own “in-house” magazine. After 3 sessions, I was required to undergo security vetting should I want to continue. And once I had been successfully vetted, I was required to attend a day’s security awareness training. That took place yesterday.
For obvious reasons, I cannot go into much detail. When it comes to prisons in the UK, what happens behind the big wall and the barbed wire stays there.
So, the stories about the various grisly methods of self harming (eating razor blades, pulling out your eyes) will have to wait, as will tales of the latest synthetic drugs and the methods of delivering them into prisons from outside (drones are popular).
What I can mention are two impressions that stood out. The first is that the stated duty of care undertaken by the British state inside a prison is far greater than the duty of care it exercises outside in the community. If somebody wants to kill themselves outside a prison, the will to prevent them doing so is minimal. Inside a prison, wheels and machines exist to prevent suicide.
The second impression is that prison operate as closed systems. This is obviously a statement of the obvious, but the ways in which each system in each prison works is determined separately. They are all required by the department of Justice to meet certain requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights, but beyond that and the ways in which they meet those requirements are determined locally. This opens the door to internal systems that play out beyond the scrutiny that might normally apply to other departments of state. The question therefore arises as to whether the taxpayer, as the ultimate financier of these systems, should be entitled to oversee them in some way, either through the media or through some other form of representation.
Reading Pop Art: A Colourful History, by Alastair Sooke, I was introduced to a 1961 self portrait by Peter Blake (with badges), who is said to have been one of the key originators of Pop Art. The image was striking, and more so when on holiday in Mallorca recently I came across a 1993 portrait by Eduardo Arroyo, 2 Passage Dantzig in the Fundación Juan March. For some reason I came to see these two pieces as relations, part of an everlasting, ever growing family.
Why they put Meryl Streep on the posters for this film I will never know. She was in it for about 5 minutes, and unfortunately came over like a Bad Thatcher. It was Carey Mulligan’s film, and she did a good job, as did her screen husband Ben Whishaw. Yes, it was very simple in a very simple and simplistic way. I am not sure some of the details regarding class did not totally squander any chance of SOD (suspension of disbelief). I find it hard to believe that women of the class played by Carey Mulligan’s character would be as articulate as this particular laundry slave was. I half expected her to break into Milton at one point, so at ease with the spoken word was she.
The vote in the House of Lords requesting the government delays its cuts to tax credits until a proper damage report has been compiled, seems fairly unimportant, just another scrapbook entry for the political spods. But it also seems like some kind of tide has turned when a government has managed to make enemies of the most establishment figures in society’s very established establishment. Who needs a red coat to be a revolutionary?
I will visit this exhibition at the Barbican again before it closes, but first impressions are that the chairs were only a very small part of their extensive work in design, architecture, graphics, education. The Eames repertoire is bloody endless, and their energy awesome. The momentum of their trendiness was ably assisted by Frazier Crane, and if occasionally they come across as creepy precisionists, it is a small price to pay.
If Brighton really is as full of perverts and deviants as the BBC1 TV series Cuffs would make us believe, it should be awarded special status as an area of outstanding sociological interest.
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