Speak, memory! It is a late afternoon in late summer in Southsea, and a ten-year old boy is in the hallway on hands and knees refereeing a tight football match between two teams of miscellaneous action figurines. An easy sunlight flows through the window in the kitchen where his father is fiddling with the cassette player. Boba Fett kicks a marble past Evel Knievel to make it 7-6 to England. Then comes a sound.
Jjjarr-je-jjjarrr-jjjjarrr–je jaaarrrrr jjjje jjjjjjaarrrrrrr-jarrrrr-jjjjeee jjjjjaaaaarr.
The sound is of a swirling accordion. (In fact it is a piano accordion played by Forere Motlohelo of Sotho, though of course the boy knows nothing of this.) Round and round it goes. The boy frowns. Ddum! There is a sudden single drum beat atop its own echo, like a gunshot in a well. Then another, Dddum!, then two more, then a tumbling mass of beats and twanging bass guitar and the rhythm is a wagon full of swarthy grinning bandits in bandanas rollicking through a rocky desert, and the boy’s shoulderblades begin to twitch and his head begins to bob. Bow-ba-dow-ba-ba, de-bow de-ba ba-ba, be dow be da daa dee-daa dee-daa. Looking up, he sees his father is likewise twitching and bobbing.
Then sliding in casually on top of this alien exotic groove comes a pale voice which states that ‘it was a slow day, and the sun was beating on the soldiers by the side of the road’ in a perfectly relaxed sort of way and in doing so commences a forty-five minute surrealist poem which kicks down some hitherto unknown linguistic door in the boy’s mind, opening up a great new space where words can make not only the whole world but endless weirder worlds beyond, just by the way the words sound when put next to one another. Medicine is magical and magical is art, the boy in the bubble and the baby with the baboon heart. And it’s very, very groovy.
Did the scene described above really occur? It feels like it did but memory is tricksy. Chances are it was gradually rather than epiphanically that Paul Simon’s album Graceland came to influence me more than any other cultural item save perhaps Rhymes without Reason by Mervyn Peake. And while in this self-indulgent self-analytical mode I think too of early blissful reading experiences, when I first experienced true contentment in books: The Wind in the Willows in Lower Remove 1, read aloud in a circle of four so-called ‘advanced’ readers while intermittently gazing out the window at the towering chestnut waving in the wind from outside the school gate; Just William and Professor Branestawm all ploughed through in ‘Library’ lesson, my slender frame wedged into a favourite spot betwixt the legs of a metallic bookshelf; the Susan Cooper series Over Sea, Under Stone which I read, terrified, during a lengthy confinement to the sick bed. But did any of them contain such zip-crack-pop word combos to worm into my unconscious like staccato signals of constant information, a loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires and baby... Did any of them provoke such puzzling visions as She is physically forgotten but then she slipped into my pocket with my car keys? To this day I cannot survey in suitable awe one of England’s cathedrals with seeing angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity and thinking Amen, allelujah!
Allelujah! San Miguel el Gove enters the lions’ den with a piece in The Guardian lauding the success of free schools and posing the question: why does Ed Miliband (or anyone else) oppose them? In the adjoining comments the moronic inferno predictably rages; masochistically, I have been sifting through it looking for an answer to Gove’s question. What are the arguments against free schools? Filtering out the two default Guardian-reader complaints (these being (1) Gove shouldn’t be allowed to write in Comment is Free, which should be Free only to those whose Comments I agree with; and (2) Tories are literally evil and their actions are motivated by a desire to harm children) I find the central objection is that free schools (and, by extension, academies) are likely to be too good and parents will want to send their children to them. To understand why this is an objection, you must accept this premise: it is better for two children to both attain a base level of mediocrity than for one of them to attain it and the other exceed it. Along with this comes a view of parenting in which mothers and fathers who want to do the best for their children (read books to them, teach them how to count, take them to museums etc), are not ‘good parents’ but ‘the parents with the sharpest elbows.’ And that’s it.
I know a man who even into his forties was a genuine, Soviet-supporting Marxist. He once in all seriousness expressed to me the view that ideally all children should be taken from their parents in infancy and raised by the state. I used to think he was madder even than the average forty-year old Marxist with that one, but on reflection that policy is indeed probably the only practical way you could sustain a society in which nobody was ever allowed to exceed mediocrity; otherwise you’d be forever beating down sharp-elbowed parents like a game of whack-a-mole at the funfair.
Talking of boys in bubbles, the birth of the Princeling George forced people paid to comment on such things to take one of two paths: wild speculation/extrapolation, or conversely, ‘I-really-can’t-understand-what-the-fuss-is-about-is-it-just-me?’-ism. Private Eye’s cover epitomised the latter line with its usual savage satirical wit (ahem): “Woman Has Baby.” But it’s hardly strange that there has been a fuss. This woman’s baby establishes a clear line of succession in the British monarchy for the rest of the century. The issue of royal succession, particularly in periods where there has not been such a clear line, has been somewhat important in shaping British history.
What a curious bird the musical Les Miserables is. A disjointed tale of undeveloped characters sung through in four or five emotionally-manipulative melodies. The film of the musical is stranger still because it contains one of the most extraordinary pieces of acting I’ve ever seen. Anne Hathaway’s performance of I Dreamed a Dream is the real deal, like Sinead O’Connor’s video of Nothing Compares 2 U, only more so. After this incongruous dramatic brilliance she promptly pops her clogs (not really a spoiler as it happens stupidly early) and the film quite collapses, somehow being both too rushed and too slow. But that Anne Hathaway is something else…
Test Match Special fans know that a major part of the cricket commentary’s appeal is the amount of talk that’s not about cricket at all. The BBC’s online text over-by-over coverage isn’t in the same class, but there’s still some good stuff in there. This from yesterday, after bad light stopped play:
Anthony Ainley, the actor who played arch villain The Master in Doctor Who in the 1980s, had the honour of an obituary in Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack after he died in 2004. An opening batsman for The Stage and London Theatres CC, he “usually took his cricket teas alone in his car – possibly because, according to one report, he ‘despised cheeses of all kinds’.”
Do you ever worry about the scale of chicken slaughter in the world? Sometimes at Asda, contemplating a pack of six chicken thighs, for example, I think, well that’s three chickens that have laid down their meagre little lives right there… And there are so many packs on the shelves. And so many Asdas in the country. Not to mention Tescos and the rest. Then think of all the KFCs across the globe, dishing out bucketfuls of legs and wings 24/7. And of course we cannot exclude my beloved Nando’s’ role in this unimaginable daily massacre.
Best not to think about it really. I do love chicken thighs. All of which queasy musing gives me an excuse to trot out the anecdote about the best compliment I have ever been paid in my life (feel free to skip if you’ve heard this one before).
It occurred on the island of Crete, in a tiny family-run Taverna close to the grim disco strip of Malia. Its keeper spoke good if eccentric English and he used it to complain at length about my compatriots and their behaviour on holiday. “Why you need get so drunk?” he asked as he brought out our bottle of enjoyably vile retsina. “Why you want get nakt? Why you want take clothes off in street and get nakt?”
I couldn’t honestly answer, and nor could Mrs Brit. We were both fully clothed and had no intention of getting ‘nakt’ in his street. While our starters were preparing he pulled up a chair to continue the theme. “Why you want shout? I not come to your house and SHOOOOOOUT in your street. Why you want do that?” He cupped his hands in front of his mouth and demonstrated, literally, the business of “SHOOOOOOUTing”.
I couldn’t help but agree with his gist, though I did make the observation that his own compatriots were more than happy to take money from mine in return for drunk-making liquors. He conceded the point with good grace.
I ordered up the special, which the Taverna-keeper kindly translated to me as “Chicken chops.” It was a platter of chicken thighs, wings and things cooked in some sort of oregano seasoning and was sublimely delicious. I attacked the plate with carnivorous greed, using fingers and teeth to pick off every last morsel til there was nothing but a heap of gleaming, decimated bones. The keeper took our plates back into the kitchen and then a few minutes later hurried back to deliver it, the greatest compliment I have ever been paid in my life:
“Sir! My wife, the cook… she ask me to tell you…She say, You really know how to eat chicken!”
My daughter C (who turns four this Wednesday – tempus fuggedaboudit!) is a natural dancer. With the Brennan pumping out tunes at random she will stop mid-sentence and, finding a rhythm to her liking, launch into an often wild improvised routine. The other day I Know what I Know from Graceland came on and she instantly got the groove. Her shoulderblades begin to twitch and her head began to bob in a way I recognised. She said don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party? I said who am I to blow against the wind . As the rest of the family joined her on the dancefloor I could not help but wonder whether these bonkers bouncy words would worm into her subconscious as they did mine. I imagine so: these are, after all, the roots of rhythm. And the