Commandments for the biographer


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richard-holmesBelow are two little extracts from a radio programme I listened to today: Patrick Malahide reading extracts from This Long Pursuit (2016), by Richard Holmes, which is a meditation on the art of biography and on 45 or so years of life as a biographer. The book is Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4 this week, so five 15-minute episodes, Monday to Friday. (I’ll put the link for the radio programme at the foot of this post, however the BBC will not allow open access to the material indefinitely — it will be available for 29 days from today).

I am interested in Holmes at the moment as I’m reading his The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic generation discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (2008), which is really excellent, and my next read will be his often recommended Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic biographer (1985).

So, in this episode Holmes is talking about teaching on the MA programme at the University of East Anglia (where he was professor of biographical studies from 2001 to 2007), and he offers the following 10 Commandments for Practising Biographers (which, in fairness, I must report he offers as ‘an ironic postscript’)

  1. Thou shalt honour biography as living, experimental, and multifarious in all its forms.
  2. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s novel for there are as many rooms in the mansion of non-fiction as there are in the house of the fiction.
  3. Thou shalt recognise that biography is always at best a celebration of human nature and all its glorious contradictions.
  4. Thou shalt demand that it be greater than gossip because it is concerned with historical justice and human understanding.
  5. Thou shalt require that it chronicles an outward story — the facts — only to reveal an inward life, a comprehensive truth.
  6. Thou shalt see that this truth can be told and re-examined again and again unto each generation.
  7. Thou shalt greet it as a life-giving form as it is concerned with human struggle and the creative spirit which we all share.
  8. Thou shall relish it as a holiday for the human imagination for it takes us away to another place, another time, and another identity, where we can begin to reflect quietly on our own lives and come back refreshed.
  9. Thou shalt be immodestly proud of it as it is something the English have given to the world, like cricket and parliament, and the full cooked breakfast.
  10. And, lastly, thou shalt be humble about it for it demonstrates that we can never know, or write, the last word about the human heart.

The other part of the episode that caught my attention was the following, which he refers to as ‘The Lifespan Litany’, which puts things in perspective:

  1. American Redwood tree: 500 years
  2. Galapagos tortoise: 190 years
  3. African elephant: 90 years
  4. Modern European man: 75 years
  5. Canadian grizzly bear: 25 years
  6. German Shepherd dog: 12 years
  7. Cloudy Yellow butterfly: 1 year
  8. Worker bee: 5 weeks
  9. Adult mayfly: 1 day

As I say, this [the link to the episode, which is part 3 of 5] will only remain available on the BBC iPlayer until mid-January (14th):




Benjamin Clementine


Just discovered this guy (Benjamin Clementine); what a find! Born in  London in 1988 but ran away to Paris as a teenager. Lived rough on the streets of Paris for a while before being discovered and making a name for himself in music and art circles. Returned to London and recorded his first recordings Cornerstone (EP), Glorious You (EP), and At Least for Now (2015). Winner of the Mercury Music Prize, 2015.

Performing here (above) at a Burberry menswear show, January 2016. Love the way the fashionistas are torn between the show they came to see (and be seen at) and this marvellous creature at the piano (like a reincarnation of Dr Simone).

And this (below) is the first piece of BC music I heard; a little clip of him singing this — the title track from the Cornerstone album — featured on a programme on BBC Radio 4 (a reflection on solitude and creativity), and as soon as I heard it I thought “Who the fuck is that?” and started Googling.

And, finally, a short report for Channel 4 News


Greatest Hits, 1980s


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Recently I have been doing stuff that has brought the 1970s, 80s, and 90s to mind for me again (notes for a memoir), particularly the 1980s. And, because I have been doing a series of lists on this blog (movies, music, books &c), I thought I’d curate a list of 1980s music. The decade was actually a really interesting time musically (and culturally). The 1960s and 70s hoover up a disproportionate amount of attention when it comes to post-War popular music and culture but, it seems to me, a very good case can be made for the creativity of the 1980s too, as I believe this play-list testifies.

As always when one does something like this one has to deal with the question of what is it you mean when you produce a Top 10 or Top 20 (or in this case a Top 30)? Do you mean your own favourite tracks from that decade? And if so, do you mean your favourite 1980s tracks now or do you mean these are the tracks you liked 30 years ago?

The answer to these two questions are — firstly — yes, I mean my own favourite music from the decade: I’m not going to give time and space and attention to anything I do not like, am I?, even at the cost of having a somewhat distorted representation of the decade. (Can one really have a credible list of music from the 1980s and not have Madonna or Michael Jackson featuring, or, indeed, Bruce Springsteen, Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, Shakin Stevens, Diana Ross or the Nolan Sisters, you may ask?)

And — secondly — yes and no: which is to say, mostly the list is stuff I liked at the time but there are groups I like now which I did not like so much at the time — The Smiths, for example; it wasn’t that I disliked The Smiths especially, it was more that I was unmoved by what they were doing; I was slow to catch on, I guess, about 10 years behind the curve. And similarly there is music I liked at the time which I really do not like at all now. What’s here is about 85% / 15% — 85% stuff I liked then and now and 15% stuff I like now but maybe not so much at the time.

To underline or highlight this — i.e., that in this presentation there is an irreducible measure of me looking back 30 years on (as opposed to a true reflection of the 1980s) — sometimes I’ve chosen modern versions of 80s classics, The Cure’s ‘Love Cats’, or Prince’s ‘Kiss’, for example, or that rather excellent version of ‘Wordy Rappinghood’ by the Tom Tom Club — sometimes because I like the rearrangement musically, sometimes because I like the video, and sometimes to show that these compositions have staying power and can sustain rearrangements and renovations (which for me is one of the indicators of quality in something).

And then there is the whole business of choosing things because you want to present some form of narrative, either a narrative about yourself or about the decade — the 1980s was a super politicized decade, certainly in Britain and Ireland anyway, with Thatcher and Charlie Haughey, H-block hunger strikes, Brixton and other inner-city riots, the Miner’s Strike, Abortion and Divorce Referendums in Ireland, boycotts of Apartheid South African culture and products, and then Ronald Reagan and the intensification of east-west relations (cruise missiles in Europe, “Star Wars”, and so on).

And, of course, an awful lot of 1980s music was explicitly political, perhaps more so than in any other decade — Billy Bragg and UB40, obviously, The Specials (‘Ghost Town’ and ‘Free Nelson Mandela’), The Clash, The Jam too and lot and lots of one-offs — Fine Young Cannibals’ ‘Blue’, for example: ‘My hometown is falling down, I’m mad about that…’). And Band Aid was political in its way too — political with a lowercase ‘p’ — and, I would argue, acts such as Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Culture Club ought to be viewed using a somewhat politicized lens too (culturally they were enormously significant).

And then there is the whole thing of not picking something because it doesn’t have a good video (Moving Hearts’ ‘Hiroshima Nagasaki Russian roulette’ from 1981, for example, which I cannot find a good video for and so I have decided not include it); or, for example, when choosing a Madness track, I actually wanted to go for ‘My Girl’ from 1980, but in the end I went for ‘It must be love’ from 1981, just because I think the video better.

The answer to all these is No, I haven’t bothered with any of such consideration very much, at least not initially — I’ve simply picked my favourite tracks from the era, and, believe me, that has been job enough. However, when whittling down my track selection from well over a hundred to 50, then to 40, and then finally to 30, these kinds of consideration did play a part (to some extent).

And, yes, of course I’m cheating by slipping in a few extras here in the introduction.


1980: ‘So Lonely’ by The Police is from the 1978 album Outlandous d’Amour, it was a hit a chart success for the group in March 1980.

1980: From their first studio album Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, ‘There, there, my dear’ was a hit for Dexys Midnight Runners in July 1980. I love this for its razor sharpness, razor sharp sound and lyrics too.

Dear Robin
Hope you don’t mind me writing, it’s just that there’s more than one thing I
need to ask you. If you’re so anti-fashion, why not wear flares, instead of
dressing down all the same. It’s just that looking like that I can express
my dissatisfaction.

Dear Robin
Let me explain, though you’d never see in a million years. Keep quoting
Cabaret, Berlin, Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Duchamp, Beauvoir, Kerouac,
Kierkegaard, Michael Rennie. I don’t believe you really like Frank Sinatra.

1981: From the 1980 album More Specials, ‘Do Nothing’ was a chart success for The Specials in January, 1981.

1981: ‘Wordy Rappinghood’ was a chart success for the Tom Tom Club in July 1981, however what we have here is the group doing an acoustic version of it 30 years on and it’s really excellent, I think.

1981: From the album Complete Madness (1982), ‘It must be love’ charted for Madness in December, 1981

1982: From the 1982 album, The Gift, ‘A Town called Malice’, a hit in February 1982 for The Jam

1982: From the Live im Frühjahr 82, ‘Da Da Da’ from Trio (love this video)

1983: ‘Love cats’, The Cure, from their 1983 album Japanese Whispers, however, I’m not sure when this video was done but, clearly, it was some years later (a piece of class)

1983: ‘Speak like a child’, The Style Council, from Introducing the Style Council (1983)

1983: ‘Snot Rap’, a hit for comedian and broadcaster Kenny Everett in April 1983, which I think captures the era rather well (it’s interesting to note how commonplace rapping was even as long ago as this). Kenny Everett had a series of characters, one of whom — the guy in leathers in this video — was called Sid Snot.

1984: From the album Welcome to the Pleasuredome (1984), ‘Relax’, from Frankie goes to Hollywood

1984: ‘Smalltown boy’ Bronski Beat, from the 1984 album The Age of Consent

1984: ‘Sex crime (nineteen-eighty four)’, Eurythmics, from the 1984 (For the Love of Big Brother) album

1984: ‘It says here’, by Billy Bragg, a great swipe at the tabloid press in Britain (the tabloids have been greatly diminished since the 1980s; I believe you would need to have lived through it to fully understand the power these rags and the rag-masters who owned and operated them had, which is part of what makes it such a really strong composition), from the 1984 album Brewing up with Billy Bragg; Bragg performs his song here in the BBC Breakfast Television studio — breakfast television was very much a novelty in 1984.

1985: ‘How soon is now?’, The Smiths, from their 1985 album Meat is Murder

1985: ‘Brand new friend’, Lloyd Cole and The Commotions, from the 1985 album Easy Pieces

1985: ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’, Band Aid, the finale to the London end of the Live Aid event, Wembley Stadium, 13 July 1985 (a really great day, a landmark in British and Irish culture) and, in the circumstances, a pretty good rendition of the song too given that everyone must have been exhausted!

1985: ‘A pair of brown eyes’, The Pogues, from Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, their second studio album released in August 1985

1985: ‘This is England’, The Clash, from the 1985 album Cut the Crap

1985: ‘Bring on the dancing horses’, Echo and the Bunnymen, a chart hit for the group in October and November 1985 (from the album Songs to Learn and Sing)

1985: ‘The road to nowhere’, Talking Heads, from the 1985 album Little Creatures

1985: ‘Suspicious minds’, Fine Young Cannibals, from the album Fine Young Cannibals (1985)

1986: ‘Happy Hour’, The Housemartins, from the album London 0 Hull 4 (1986)

1986: ‘Kiss’ was a hit for Prince and the Revolution in March 1986 (from the album Parade), however the video here is a tribute to Prince filmed at the Burning Man festival in Nevada in 2016 (which I think a fabulous tribute)

1987: ‘With or without you’, U2, from The Joshua Tree (1987)

1987: ‘Way Down in the Hole’, Tom Waits, from the 1987 album Frank’s Wild Years

1987: ‘End of the world as we know it’, REM, from the Document album

1988: ‘Waiting for the great leap forward’, Billy Bragg, from his 1988 album Workers’ Playtime

1988: ‘Sweet Jane’, Cowboy Junkies, from the Trinity Session album (1988)

1989: ‘Nothing ever Happens’, Del Amitri, from the 1989 album Waking Hours

Into the Woods (on drama and dramatic structure)



how-stories-work-john-front-coverBeen reading John Yorke’s Into the Woods: why stories work and why we tell them (Penguin Books, 2013); it is really marvellous. Often when I’m reading something I’m struck with I reproduce an excerpt from it, just as a taster — a couple of pages or so. This following extract is from the closing chapter (pp. 212-14).

‘All our story-telling theories have one thing in common, all revolve around one central idea: the incomplete is made complete; sense is made. It sounds simplistic to say that ordering is at the root of storytelling, but ordering is absolutely about how we navigate the gap between our inner selves and the outer world. Indeed, the ‘home’ we have talked about throughout this book is our inner self and our journey into the woods is a journey to everything beyond. Our attempt to make sense of things encompasses the psychological process: how do we bring inner and outer into balance, how does subjective meet objective, how do we square want and need? How do we fit in?

‘Whether psychological, sexual, or societal, each of our story definitions is built around the same principle: order is made out of chaos; sense is conferred on an overwhelming world. An inciting incident blows a seemingly ordered reality into a thousand fragments, then a detective arrives to hunt down the culprits and restore things to their rightful place.

‘We’ve already seen that the three-act structure is a product of this process. It’s the corral within which we marshal reality, a structure that comes as easily to us as breathing. Ordering is an act of perception, and it is this action that gives us narrative, rhetoric, drama. As the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker puts it, ‘It is no coincidence that [the] standard definition of plot is identical with the definition of intelligence… Characters in a fictitious world do exactly what our intelligence allows us to do in the real world.’ Our intelligence behaves like a detective. It’s sent on a mission, assimilates the available evidence, finds the truth that’s out there and brings it to heel. All narrative is at one level detective fiction. The narrative shape — the dramatic arc — is merely an externalisation of this process. All stories aren’t just quests, they’re detections.

‘Storytelling, then, is the dramatization of the process of knowledge assimilation. The protagonist in drama mimics both the author’s and reader’s desire — all are detectives in seek of a truth. In every archetypal story a protagonist learns — in exactly the same way we do. We are both brought face to face with the consequences of not learning — we will remain unenlightened — and thus, if we continue to read or watch, we choose to learn too. The assimilation of knowledge is in the very cells of drama — a character’s flaw is merely knowledge not yet learned. In seeking to rectify that flaw the story progresses, with the character’s gradual learning imitating the process of perception.

‘Drama therefore mimics the way the brain assimilates knowledge, which is why it’s identical to both legal argument and to the basic essay structure we are taught at school. It is why theme is essential and why it arises unbidden from any work. Consciously or unconsciously, all drama is an argument with reality in which a conclusion is drawn and reality tamed. We are all detectives seeking our case to be closed.

‘But this doesn’t just apply to drama.


(p. 214) ‘Take any factual book, or treatise, any piece of journalism and you will see a strikingly familiar pattern, one in which the author will actively pursue a specific goal (the point they are trying to make), positing a theory, exploring it and coming to a conclusion. The writer becomes the protagonist. What all these different forms of narratives are doing is behaving like detectives, enclosing phenomena into linked chains of cause and effect. Their structure is identical to dramatic structure.

‘Drama, then, is our argument with reality shown. Thinking is sequential, and ideas, as Susan Greenfield has said, are a series of facts linked by the idea that ‘this happens because of this’. As one point is proved, we link it to the next, striving for meaning, and in so doing story is born.’

john-yorkeJOHN YORKE is a British television producer. Following graduation from Newcastle University, Yorke joined the BBC as a trainee producer in the 1980s. He started out in radio but switched to television in the 1990s becoming script-editor and eventually executive producer for Eastenders, the BBC’s flagship primetime continuing drama (i.e. “soap opera”). Shortly after the turn of the century he left the BBC and went over to Channel 4 as Head of Drama whereat he commissioned show such as Shameless, Sex Traffic, and the award-winning Omagh. (In the book — p. 182 — Yorke says that Shameless is really just a modern take on The Waltons, which is sort of funny when first you encounter it [considering the FUBAR world of the Gallagher family] but then you think about what he says you realise that there’s a lot of validity to it, and, let’s face it, having commissioned it, he ought to jolly well know.) Eventually, however, he comes home to auntie, as Head of Drama Production, in which capacity he has been responsible for Life on Mars, Robin Hood, The Street, A Class Apart, Waterloo Road, Holby Blue, Truckers, and Skins, as well as looking after various series of Spooks, Hustle, and New Tricks. If you are not familiar with British television let me just say that this is a very impressive track record. He is also the founder of the Writers’ Academy at the BBC (for more on John Yorke and on this whole subject visit


Top 10 novels


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Portrait James JoycePortrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce (1916) is a fabulously constructed coming of age novel about a young man growing up in 1890s and early 1900s in Ireland, coming of age both as a young man and as an artist (the novel is as autobiographical as one of Vincent van Gogh’s self-portraits is a portrait of the troubled painter). Also, the book is of interest in terms of the history of literature because this is a novel written at the dawn of 20th century modernism, this [Joyce’s Portrait], Picasso’s work and the poetry of Ezra Pound and Robert Frost, for example, constitute the output of a generation, which, in retrospect, become elevated to the status of ‘an Age’ (the Age of Modernism).

at-swim-two-birdsAt Swim-Two-Birds, by Brian O’Nolan (1939), is an exceptional comic masterpiece; a novel [and exceptionally novel it is too] about a university student staying in his uncle’s house in Dublin who never goes to college at all (to his uncle’s chagrin) but instead stays in his room most of every day composing a novel about a man who is writing a novel which involves a very strange mix of characters, a group of whom get together at night when the novelist is sleeping and start rewriting the novel so that havoc is unleashed on the novelist (i.e. the novelist in the student’s novel: there are at least 3 levels of story in At Swim-Two-Birds, the university student, the novelist in the in the university student’s novel, and then the insane world within that novel, which is the novel the fictional novelist in the university student’s novel is creating). I reread this every five years or so and each time I reread it I find it funnier than I remember it. Of all these books, a la ‘Desert Island Discs’, if a great wave came and swept away everything I possessed save one thing, this is the one thing I would want to save or retrieve if I could.

The-Siege-of-KrishnapurTroubles (1970) or The Siege of Krisnaphur (1973), by J.G. Farrell. Both of these are Booker Prize winning novels, and they are just fabulous in every way. All of Farrell’s great novels are about the decline and fall of the British Empire: Troubles is about the last days in the south of Ireland and The Siege of Krisnaphur is about the so-called ‘Indian Mutiny’ of 1857 (in which can be seen a foreshadowing of the end of the British empire in India less than a century afterwards). If forced to pick one of these, however, I would go for Troubles, I think, just because of its comic dimension (there are a number of really brilliant comic moments in Troubles, particularly when the Brits from the Big House go down into the village pub and sing the British national anthem [‘God Save the King’] just to show the local yokels who’s still boss, and the locals just stare at the lunatic party of elderly, feeble clowns thinking “What in the name of fuck is the matter with these people?”).

Remains of the DayThe Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro (1989). Love this book, so taut and polished. Story about an old school English Big House butler and his painful blindness to the woman who loves him (the worst pain of all is to feel nothing). Tessa and I read this book to one another (each a chapter, turn by turn) in my bedroom in Edinburgh one weekend when it first came out. As I was reading it I remember being struck by how easily it read; because of the way it was composed and polished no sentence tripped you up, it was the smoothest read I’d ever encountered, and yet the power of it, the emotional hit of it, was immense.

Life of PiLife of Pi, Yann Martel (2001). This is a wonderful book, a wonderful story, wonderfully well managed. An Indian family who live in a part of India that was not British but French (Pondicherry) and who make their living by means of their ownership of a zoo (or at least some zoo animals) decide to leave India (where they do not fit in so well in Indira Gandhi’s India) and immigrate to Canada. They charter a cargo ship and load up all their stuff onto it along with all their animals and set off. However a storm blows up and wreaks havoc on the junky cargo ship and everyone and everything is tossed out onto the unforgiving blue-green deep. Pi (who is about 13 or 14 years old) is the son of the owners of the zoo animals; he is nick-named ‘Pi’ because he is clever and curious boy who loves riddles and puzzles and mysteries and learning and so forth, and he is especially good at maths (the precocious kid is also interested in religions and, although a Hindu, experiments with various other creeds). Anyway Pi ends up in a life boat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger, a zebra, an orangutan and a hyena, which, as anyone can imagine, would be a super difficult menage to manage at any time, but especially when you’re in the middle of the Indian Ocean with no food and no water.

3 The BarracksA John McGahern novel, The Dark or The Barracks. As I progress with the composition of this post I realise that rather than being a list of the best novels I’ve read (which is what was originally intended) this is actually a list of the books which for one reason or another mean most to me, which is not the same thing at all. Howsoever, what of it?; such things are inevitable (and I’m sure the same is true of the movie and music lists I’ve posted in recent weeks). These two books, which I read when I was young (I read them in the early 1980s so would have been 18, 19, 20, that sort of age), had a profound effect on me. Man they NAILED some key aspects of the experience of growing up in Republic of Ireland (especially rural Ireland). McGahern may have been writing about the 1940s and 50s but they were still super relevant viz the 1960s and 70s (The Barracks was first published in 1963 and The Dark in 1965; and, ironically, given that they are about repression in conservative and authoritarian Catholic Ireland, they were banned! [and McGahern lost his job as a school teacher because of them, because the church disapproved of them, pushed out of his position by church pressure] and I think when I first read them Irish publishers were challenging the ban by ignoring it and simply reissuing them and inviting the authorities to take whatever action they dared, which of course they did not, that time being the age of the Boomtown Rats and Moving Hearts and many other forms of saying “Fuck you and your peasant Catholic bullshit state”). Coming of age novels again; autobiographical too, apparently [which if read closely are even more shocking than they might appear at first].

this-boys-lifeTobias Wolf’s This Boy’s Life (1989). OK, so there are a disproportionate number of coming of age stories in this list! This is cracker, however. It’s the story of a troublesome but likeable kid, Jack, in a one-parent family; Jack’s mum goes from one abusive relationship to another until she simply gets tired of moving and reestablishing herself in various places [the story moves from Florida to Utah to Washington state] so she stays with this dreadful clown, Dwight, who is mean and stupid and petty, and is especially cruel and abusive to Jack (“One day you’ll learn that I know a thing or two about a thing or two” is one Dwight’s idiot refrains, which is especially funny given that the guy basically knows nothing at all, and the only way he can prop up his sad-sack manhood is to dominate and bully a 13 year old boy). Jack withdraws into a private world where idiot Dwight cannot reach him, so much so that Jack gets lost in his own make-believe world and, as a result, is able to present himself as a first-class student and athlete (forging and fabricating whatever documentation is needed) and so successfully cons his way into an elite school on a scholarship (which of course he fucks up because he is not the person he pretends to be at all; but he escapes Dwight, which is all he really wanted to do, and, later, as testified to by this book, becomes a writer, and an especially good one too).

In-Cold-BloodIn Cold Blood, by Truman Capote (1966), is regarded as the original non-fiction novel (others would dispute this, pointing to one or two earlier examples, but what cannot be disputed is that this was one of the first and one of the most successful of this type of book). It tells the story of a horrific slaughter of a family in rural Kansas in 1959 by two sad-sack no-goods low-lifes. Capote tells the story of the slaughter, of the impact it has on the community, and of the investigation and trial, and also how these two killers came to do this terrible thing (i.e. their backstories). After their conviction the two killers fought off the death penalty for five or six years with appeals and so forth but eventually they are executed, and Capote follows this part of the story too. It is a really chilling, terrific, excellent piece of work, powerful and compelling, and, evidently, it took a lot out of the author too (who spent years on it) for he never really did anything of any significance afterwards. But, no matter, this is a masterpiece.

SuccessSuccess, by Martin Amis (1978). I’m surprised to learn that this was published as early as 1978 (I read it in the mid-1980s); I would have guessed that this novel was later because I always regarded it as a critique of what came to be called ‘Thatcherism’, however, Mrs Thatcher was elected to the premiership in 1979, and moreover what became known as ‘Thatcherism’ was constructed after that (from about 1981/82 onwards). Success tells the story of two brothers [actually half-brothers] who share a flat in west London. Terry, the younger of the two, is less well educated, less fashionable, less successful with women, and works in what his posh brother refers to as “the blacking factory”, which is actually to do with finance in the City of London. Gregory, the posh guy, has the better bedroom in the apartment (the master bedroom), works in an art gallery and goes to all the desirable parties and so on. (Terry is grammar school educated and Gregory is private-fee-paying-parkland-school-educated polished off with three years in an Oxford college.) For the first third of the novel Gregory has all the authority and credibility. But then Terry begins to become credible, and slowly but surely Gregory is revealed to be less than credible. And, of course, by the end of the novel Gregory is fully revealed as a fraud and a fantasist and a rather sad character while Terry has become all-powerful. Except that Terry, who we root for all through the first half of the novel, turns out to be a monster (who at one point kicks a homeless person to death just because he can, because he’s in a bad mood, and because he has come to despise weakness). I read this book as a sort of reflection of the struggle between the so-called grandee ‘Wets’ in the Tory party and the up-and-coming Thatcherites who all seemed rather Terry-like to me (Norman Tebbit versus Francis Pym, for example). Real Amis fans would choose Money or London Fields or The Information, of course, but, while I also like these Jon Self novels, I was really struck by the simplicity and elegance and humour of Success.

Hilary-Mantel-Wolf-HallWolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (2009), tells the story of the rise of Thomas Cromwell, who in the 1530s and early 1540s was Henry VIII’s chief secretary (Henry, son of Henry VII, second generation of the House of Tudor which wrestled the the crown of England from the great Plantagenet line in the 1480s and held on to it until the death of Elizabeth, Henry VIII’s daughter [by Anne Boleyn], in 1603). Cromwell came from a lowly background (his father was a former soldier and sometime blacksmith and alehouse owner in Putney, a hamlet on the muddy riverbank of the Thames west of London), so to rise so high was a huge deal in what was still a super-aristocratic world. But, actually, quite a few of the people brought through by the Tudors were non-standard socially, Cardinal Wolsey, who first identified Cromwell’s talents and schooled him in the arts and craft of serving a prince, was the son of a butcher from Ipswich (Wolsey was Henry’s chief minister before Cromwell), the Boleyns made a huge proportion of their money in (and first came to prominence in that world because of their role in) iron foundries (especially viz the making of cannons), and then, later on, under Elizabeth, you had the Cecils and Walter Raleighs and so on. This was partly because the old aristocracy had destroyed themselves with half a century of warring in the so-called War of the Roses but partly also because the Tudors themselves were essentially outsiders (their claim on the crown was questionable, to say the least) and never fully trusted the old order and so had to bring new men through in order to run the system. In fact, class and the changing order of Renaissance Europe is one of the main themes in this fabulous read, as exemplified in this passage here (below) where Thomas Cromwell sits down with an aristocratic brat, Harry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, (who thinks he has power because of his title and his castles and his men-at-arms) and puts him straight on a few things (p. 378):

‘How can he explain it to him? This world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of a promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.’

Another 10 movies


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Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) in Woody Allen's Vicky, Christina, Barcelona (2008)

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) in Woody Allen’s Vicky, Christina, Barcelona (2008)

As happened with my music lists, since publishing my Top 10 movies I’ve been haunted with second thoughts. Rather than substituting items and endlessly tinkering as I did with music (until I’d rewritten the majority of the list), I’m simply going to publish another list.

Two further points about these film lists: firstly, I am aware that real film boffs might well Roger Moore an eyebrow at the likes of Rob Roy and The Untouchables below, while classics such as Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Jackie Brown (1997) are unlisted. The reason for this is that I simply really enjoyed these two movies (I’ve seen them both several times) but also I include them for being such perfect templates of Hollywood movies, as it seems to me — rather like perfect pop songs, ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’ or ‘Dancing Queen’, say, you just have to admire the perfection and simplicity of such creations. Moreover, I think it really means something that hundreds of millions people have seen your movie and have come away from the event feeling they’ve been involved a really good story. (And in any event I have already listed works by Billy Wilder and Quentin Tarantino.)

The second point I wanted to make about this list has to do with its organisation: this time, instead of listing the films chronologically according to their release dates (as I did with the previous one), I’ve listed them chronologically according to the periods in which the narratives are set, so 1700s, then 1800s, and then 1900s, and, correspondingly, 1920s, then 1940s, then 1960s and so on.

1. Rob Roy (1995, dir. Michael Caton-Jones; screenplay Alan Sharp, based on the Walter Scott novel).

In the Scottish Highlands in the 1700s Rob Roy McGregor (Liam Neeson) tries to steer his highland tribe through the post-Union world with its commercial realities and political uncertainties (the kingdoms of England and Scotland were united in 1707 following the financial collapse of Scotland). Rob borrows money from a money-lending aristocrat (John Hurt) with which he plans to buy cattle and fatten them on McGregor land for resale. However, the money is stolen before it gets to Rob (stolen by associates of the people that loaned it) and because of this Rob finds himself on the hook for the money and, eventually, on wrong side of the law (but of course the authorities are the real crooks). Also starring Brian Cox, Jessica Lange, and Tim Roth (with Roth giving one of the best bad guy performances of all time).


2. The Piano (1993, dir. Jane Campion; screenplay Jane Campion)

Sent from Britain in an arranged marriage type scenario, a mute woman, Ada (Holly Hunter), and her young daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin), are left with all their belongings, including her prized piano, on a New Zealand shoreline. The man who becomes her husband (Sam Neill) is a good man (if a little dull) but life as a first generation settler in New Zealand has no place for a sodding grand piano! However, the piano is how Ada expresses herself and without it she wilts. George Baines (Harvey Keitel), who is like a Maori mulatto or a Brit ‘gone native’ or something along such lines, manages to get the piano off the seashore and back to his place (Ada’s husband sold it to George who is a neighbour — a woman, of course, having little or no property rights in such a world — he traded it for a load of timber). Ada then begins to give George elementary piano lessons (just so she can come and play her own piano) and just as dawn follows night one thing leads to another which creates tense, life-altering conflicts for all concerned. Powerful, moving, a work of art (with what I think the best sex scenes in any film — which, by the by, are not at all graphic, on the contrary, their impact comes from restraint and splendid story-telling construction and really wonderful performances).


3. Lawrence of Arabia (1962, dir. David Lean; screenplay Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, based on the writings of T.E. Lawrence)

All-star cast including Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn and Anthony Quayle, in a classic epic narrative which tells the story of T.E. Lawrence, the maverick British officer who successfully untied and led the diverse and sometimes warring tribes of the Arabian world in the fight against the Ottoman Empire (which was allied with Germany and the Austria-Hungarian Empire) during the First World War. (Actually, the movie made stars of Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif who were totally unknown before this —  the movie was a huge success, taking 7 academy awards altogether, including best film, best director, best cinematography and best editing.)


4. The Untouchables (1987, dir. Brian De Palma; screenplay David Mamet).

Legendary crime boss Al Capone (Robert De Niro) rules Chicago. A large part of the Capone empire has to do with bootleg alcohol (which in the era of Prohibition is virtually a licence to print greenbacks). Prohibition agent Eliot Ness’s (Kevin Costner) best efforts to take Capone down fall short, mostly due to widespread corruption within the city’s police and local government agencies but also because of a certain lack of ruthlessness on his part (i.e. he does things four square too much). Recruiting an elite group of lawmen who will not be swayed by bribes or fear, including Irish-American cop Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) and Italian-American Giuseppe Petri/George Stone (Andy Garcia), Ness renews his determination to bring Capone to book. The film is a perfect exemplar of the ‘Somebody wants something and has trouble getting it’ storytelling template.


5. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, dir. John Huston; screenplay by John Huston, based on a novel by B. Traven)

A pair of American ne’er-do-wells (Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt) with a get-rich-quick scheme in Mexico: they convince an old prospector (Walter Huston) to take them up into the Sierra Madre range in search of undiscovered seams of gold (because gold was mined up there a long time before). They do find gold, eventually, but they also find that their real problem in life is not lack of good fortune or of good prospects but rather their own characters (which is to say, their inability to manage good fortune).


6. Ace in the Hole (1951, dir. Billy Wilder; screenplay Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman).

Unscrupulous newspaper man Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) goes way beyond the pale to max up a story about a man trapped in a mine in New Mexico. Tatum has worked his way half way across the country going from from job to job (and territory to territory), most of the time in a downward trajectory, but with this story (which he manipulates to create a media sensation) he sees an opportunity to put him right back on top again. But the circus metastasises into a horror show (when the gods wish to destroy you they first give you everything you desire).

7. Goodfellas (1990, dir. Martin Scorsese; screenplay Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi, based on the book (Wiseguy) by Nicholas Pileggi).

A young man grows up in the New York and New Jersey mob world and works hard to advance himself through the ranks of the crime system. He enjoys his life of money and luxury, but is oblivious to the horror of it all. However, drug addiction and resultant carelessness ultimately unravel his life’s work. The ultimate mobster movie, really, for it captures the shabbiness and pettiness and paranoia of this world while also clearly understanding why it would have such powerful allure. Great performances from Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Ray Liotta and from an altogether wonderful cast.


8. Short Cuts (1993, dir. Robert Altman; screenplay Robert Altman and Frank Barhydt, based on the writings [sketches & stories] of Raymond Carver)

A day in the life 22 people in LA (a day in which the earth trembles in the late afternoon). Also these storylines interact with one another (loosely). All-star cast: Jack Lemmon, Julianne Moore, Mathew Modine, Robert Downey Jr., Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Frances McDormond, Andie MacDowell… A really wonderful weave of storytelling, film-making, and ensemble acting. In my view, a contender for the ultimate portrait (film representation) of what it was like living in the last decades of the 20th century.


9. Being John Malkovich (1999, dir. Spike Jonze; screenplay Charlie Kaufman)

In this quirky cult-favorite comedy, unemployed New York City puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) reluctantly takes a temp job as a filing clerk for the eccentric Dr Lester (Orson Bean). While at work, Craig discovers a portal that leads into the mind of renowned actor John Malkovich. When he lets his attractive co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) in on the secret, they begin both an unusual business scheme and an odd relationship that involves Craig’s restless wife, Lotte (Cameron Diaz). The first time I saw this movie I did not know anything about it (and had not heard anything of it) and I remember thinking ‘wtf is going on here?’, but in a nice way, it was a really wonderful, super-funny trip (just my kind of comedy).


10. Vicky, Christina, Barcelona (2008, dir. Woody Allen; screenplay by Woody Allen)

Two Americans, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), arrive for a stay at a friend’s place in Barcelona. Visiting an art gallery, they meet seductive painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who invites them to make a visit to his part of the country. Sparks really ignite when his fiery former lover (Penélope Cruz) arrives on the scene. Sexy, funny, classy, beautifully scripted, wonderfully filmed, and great performances throughout.

Top 10 Movies


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big_lebowski_ver3As with previous top 10 lists the films listed are in no particular order, which is to say, being number one on the list is not in any way more prestigious or significant than being number 6, or 8.

1. The Big Short (2016, dir. Adam McKay; screenplay Adam McKay and Charles Randolph, inspired by and partially based on the book by Michael Lewis).

Oddball Wall Street wizz Michael Burry (Christian Bale) realises that a huge proportion of subprime home loans are clearly in the default-danger zone (this is 2007 and ’08, i.e. the run-in to the recent [global] financial crash). Burry bets against the American housing market by spending more than a billion dollars of his investors’ money on credit default swaps. His actions attract the attention of banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), hedge-fund specialist Mark Baum (Steve Carell), along with one or two other opportunists who — having crunched the numbers — recognise what’s afoot. These men make billion-dollar fortunes by taking full advantage of the impending economic collapse in America. The movie is done like a docudrama but it is much more than that would suggest (it is wonderful storytelling, the dialog in particular is sparkling; and there are excellent performances throughout). It is like a early 21st century version of a Robert Altman movie (Short Cuts, say — Short Cuts on speed with a little Angel Dust mixed in).


2. The Matrix (1999, dir. Lilly and Lana Wachlowski [as the Wachlowski Brothers]; screenplay Lilly and Lana Wachlowski [as the Wachlowski Brothers]).

A computer hacker learns about the true nature of the world we live in, and, in so doing, becomes involved with a group of underground warriors fighting against this “truth regime”, which, in fact, is a total lie, just an illusion — a fabrication, a dreamworld we all partake in, while in reality everyone is enslaved in little pods with the life force being sucked out of us (this is the Matrix). Keanu Reeves is the lead actor and he joins a rebel group that includes Lawrence Fishburne, Carrie-Ann Moss, and Joe Pantoliano. Hugo Weaving is wonderful as the lead baddie-borg, a machine generated hologram type creature (in some ways — at least in so far as it is utterly relentless and virtually indestructible — not dissimilar to the T-1000 cyborg in Terminator 2).


3. The Big Lebowski (1998, dir(s). Joel and Ethan Coen; screenplay Joel and Ethan Coen).

Jeff Daniels plays Jeff Lebowski (aka “The Dude”), an LA waster (a dope-smoking, White Russian-drinking, bowling alley rat); he is assaulted as a result of mistaken identity — a very rich man, also called Jeffrey Lebowski, was the intended target. In the course of the assault, in addition to the physical damage done to him, the Dude suffers damage to his junky property (a soiled rug, a broken door and so forth) and so, seeking what he hopes will be a little easy money, he asks for compensation from the rich man. However, instead he ends up being roped into something else altogether. The rich man’s trophy wife has been kidnapped and Rich Man Lebowski wants Poor Man Lebowski to deliver the ransom payment demanded by the kidnappers. However, The Dude’s bowling team pals (John Goodman and Steve Buscemi) see an opportunity in all this, an opportunity that does not come along every day for men who spend the best part of their week involved in bowling alley tournaments… (What could possibly go wrong?)


4. Pulp Fiction (1994, dir. Quentin Tarantino; screenplay Quentin Tarantino)

Justly celebrated for its ironic tone, witty, eclectic dialogue, fabulous violence, and non-linear storytelling, the movie is a weaving together of connected shorter one-day-in-LA stories. John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson play two hitmen who work for Marsellus, a gangland boss, who seeks to fix a fight in which “Butch” (played by Bruce Willis) “goes down in the 5th”. Meanwhile, a small-time rip-and-run duo (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) decide to rob a café where, unfortunately for them, Marcellus’ hitmen go for breakfast following a really rough morning’s work.


5. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989, dir. Woody Allen; screenplay Woody Allen).

An eye-specialist is having an affair with an unstable woman who — once it becomes clear that the doctor is not going to leave his wife of 25 years standing (for this deluded air hostess) — threatens to reveal their affair and so ruin the man’s happy home life confection (just as her hopes and dreams have been fucked up by this man’s selfishness). Meanwhile, Cliff Stern, a small-time documentary film-maker (and, in the sense that the relationship has lost all its fizz, unhappily married), falls in love with another woman, an associate producer who works with his super-successful brother-in-law, Lester (Alan Alda), who is a presenter of arts programmes on national network television. By way of his wife’s influence, Cliff is given a commissioned to do a biographical profile of Lester (i.e., Cliff has been thrown a scrap from the rich man’s table) and with every day’s filming and editing Cliff hates his subject more and more, a view which he thinks he shares with the intelligent and serious-minded associate producer who he is attempting to seduce (Woody Allen plays Cliff and the associate producer is played by Mia Farrow).


6. Terms of Endearment (1983, dir. James L. Brooks; screenplay by James L. Brooks, based on the novel by Larry McMurty).

Texas belle Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) is a hard-to-please mother, however, pain-in-the-ass she may be, but by no means is she always in the wrong; in particular she is correct in her negative assessment of the shallow young man her daughter (Debra Winger) decides to marry. Nevertheless, in the face of her mother’s protests, Emma, the daughter, marries Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels), a junior college lecturer teaching literature and liberal arts. When, just as Aurora had predicted, the marriage produces unhappy results (mostly resulting from Flap’s cheap-ass college campus cheating with graduate students), Emma eventually leaves him, and, kids-in-tow, returns home to mother. However, at just this time, thrillingly, Aurora is becoming involved with her next door neighbour, a former astronaut (Jack Nicholson), a fabulous arrogant bastard who Aurora has always affected to despise for his arrogance and disreputable carry-on but now, surprisingly, in the twilight of her days she finds that this unlikely guy may have the key to her lock.


7. The Man who would be King (1975, dir. John Huston; screenplay by John Huston and Gladys Hill, based on a Rudyard Kipling story).

Two ne’er-do-well British soldiers in India (back in the heyday of the British Raj) decide to clear out of India and set up for themselves, selling their military expertise, superior western rationality, and British common sense to the tribal warlords of Kafiristan. However, it may be that what they have decided to do has more mystery and meaning than they could ever have guessed at… (excellent epic adventure yarn starring Michael Caine, Sean Connery, and Christopher Plummer).


8. The Godfather parts 1 and 2 (1972 and 1974, dir. Francis Ford Coppola; screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, based on the novel by Mario Puzo)

Even though they are stand-alone movies, Godfather 1 and 2 are the same story from the same book, and both are masterpieces of film-making from the same production team, so I’m going to put them together in one slot. In Godfather 1 (1972), aging crime lord Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) attempts to school his hothead son, Sonny (James Caan), in the dark arts of power management. However, following an assassination attempt on the old man (because it’s 1947, things are moving on, and Vito is still living in the wartime and prewar world) the don’s youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), joins in the family business, which, hitherto, he has rejected (going off and fighting in the U.S. armed services in World War II, for example, instead doing something in the family business, and courting and marrying a WASPy fair-haired New Englander). Because of his hot-headedness, Sonny gets himself killed, but Michael, it turns out, has the true gift for this life — as the old don has always said “Each man has but one destiny”, and this, it seems, is Michael’s. Godfather 2 (1974) then tells the story on either side of the original film (sandwiching the original), which is to say, the story leading up to the events of Godfather part 1 (which, as I’ve indicated, takes place in the late 1940s) and what happened afterwards (i.e., taking the story on into the 1950s and early 60s). The trailer below is for Godfather part 2.


9. In the Heat of the Night (1967, dir. Norman Jewison; screenplay Sterling Silliphant, based on a story by John Ball).

A top class African American detective (Sidney Poitier) from Philadelphia visiting relatives in Shitholeville, Mississippi, in a time of heightened racial tensions helps a redneck cracker cop (Rod Steiger) to investigate a murder (initially the local yokel cops finger the black guy from Philadelphia as the murderer, just because he’s a negro heading out of town, he’s wearing a good-looking suit, and he’s got more cash in his pocket than is right for a negro to be in possession of, so he must be involved in some kind of funny business, so they reason [if you could call it that]). Great [Oscar-winning] performance from Rod Steiger as the initially hostile leader of the redneck cops, who is, of course, ultimately turned away from his blinding racist heritage such that he comes to recognise a good man when he encounters one (which is a movie version of one of the hundreds of thousands of small victories of that nature which in concert make for a wave of social change, a wave that the movie seeks to both contribute to and reflect).


10. Roman Holiday (1953, dir. William Wyler; screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, Ian McLellan Hunter, and John Dighton, based on a story by Dalton Trumbo).

I really love this movie, which is a straight forward feel-good feature (really sweet and innocent and, watching it nowadays, one cannot help but think of the circumstances of Princess Diana’s death in Paris in August 1997, comparing and contrasting the two holiday weekends, and in particular the newshounds hungry for a hot princess story and what they’re willing to do for it). Audrey Hepburn plays a princess (from some minor European royal house) in Rome for some official engagements who after some function slips away from her stuffy entourage to have a look at the city for herself for a few hours. However, she gets lost and at dawn the following morning finds herself waking up on a park bench. An American writer (Gregory Peck), who works as a stringer for a news agency, happens upon her and recognises her, despite the fact that she pretends to be someone else in a weak-sauce attempt to avoid a scandal. The hungry newshound plays along with her little make-believe and all the while he’s thrilled at having stumbled upon one of the best stories he has ever encountered (to which end, as he shows her around the city, encouraging her to do wilder and wilder things). She is having such a wonderful time, one day runs into the next, and eventually they end up having spent a whole weekend together (all perfectly innocent fare, of course). But they end up catching feelings for one another, which puts them both in an awkward situation because both are pretending to be people they are not.

Top 10 non-pop tracks


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Another music list, this time non pop-music.

As with previous top 10 lists the items listed are in no particular order (i.e. being number one in the list is not in any way more prestigious or significant than being number 6 or 8, say).

1. Nixon in China (1987) is an opera by John Adams, Peter Sellars, Alice Goodman et al (Adams did the music, Sellars the theatre production [and the original concept was Sellars’], and Goodman the libretto with choreography by Mark Morris), first performed in the Opera House in Houston, Texas, in October 1987. This is my favourite opera: when I first saw it — on Channel 4 television in the UK back when Channel 4 was doing lots of interesting stuff — for the first time I got a sense of what opera could do (and, at the time, I was not someone who had interest in opera at all, which, in fact, at that time, I regarded it as stupid shit for rich people who wanted to appear and feel cultured, but this production enlightened me — educated, entertained, informed and challenged me). What we have here is the opening 10 minutes or so, ‘The People are the Heroes Now’ and, towards the end, the more famous ‘News, News, News’ (this video is from a performance at the Met in New York City in 2011, which, in fact, I listened to on ‘Live at the Met’ at the time — which was relay-broadcast on on RTE Lyric FM).

2. Kimiko Ishizaka playing Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ (which date from the 1740s); ideally I would have one of the recordings of Glen Gould performing these (my favourite being the recording from 1981) but I could not find a good video for it; and also I like this video here (with the score and the little digital bar-pointer) so this is what I’m going to go with.

3. George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ (1924). Apparently Gershwin wrote this while shuttling by train between Boston and New York City (I think he was rehearsing a show in a theatre in Boston at the time, and, of course, he lived in New York City). One can hear the rush and drive of an early 20th century train in the composition, I feel, and even the clickity-clack hither and thither, hoot and whistle of Grand Central — this being the same age as FitzGerald’s Great Gatsby, of course, the jazz and flapper age —, the energy and swirl of what we would come to know as the ‘American Century’ (which such pieces not only reflected but, reflecting them, also added to its factualization).

4. And the foregoing puts me in mind of the following (for some reason): Tom Lehrer’s ‘Elements’, which is the periodic tables of elements set to music from a Gilbert and Sullivan show from the 1880s (Pirates of Penzance: ‘I am the very model of a modern Major-General’). This piece can be found on several Tom Lehrer album releases in the 1950s (Tom Lehrer in ConcertAn Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer, and More Tom Lehrer) but this recording is from 1967, a concert performance in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Stick around to the end of the video where he does an older version of ‘Elements’ which is also very good.)

5. And this is possibly my favourite piece of music of all these: ‘A Few of My Favourite Things’ performed by the John Coltrane Quartet (Belgium, 1965). ‘A Few of My Favourite Things’ is, of course, a Rodgers and Hammerstein song from The Sound of Music (theatre show, 1959; film, 1965) but here it is taken off into a new dimension altogether (and all the better for it).

6. One thing is suggesting the next now such that the list is somehow composing itself! I intended to have something by Abdullah Ibrahim (I think) and I could have chosen any of half a dozen pieces from him, however, here he is with his band from 1968 (Ibrahim on piano), in Hamburg (apparently), performing a piece called ‘Jabolani’ (Joy).

7. ‘Debe’, Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabaté, from their 2005 album In the heart of the moon; filmed at Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 2005. Love the sound these guys make and love this album, which is one of my favourites of all my albums (never drive anywhere without it).

8. Again here I could have chosen any of several pieces to represent the work of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt so ‘De Profundis’ (1980) is going to have to do representative duty (Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir).

9. Yet another representative piece, a William Byrd mass for 4 voices, sung here by the King’s Singers (Byrd was a composer in the court of Elizabeth, the last of the Tudors, and although born a Protestant became increasingly drawn towards Catholicism, which was not a healthy direction of travel in England in that period).

10. Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach (1976). Einstein on the Beach is an opera in four acts, written in 1975 and first performed in Avignon (France) in 1976 (and like a lot of such productions — see also John Adams’ Nixon in China, above, for example — it is really a collaborative production, based on a concept and a series of sketches by theatre producer Robert Wilson, along with the input of writers Christopher Knowles, Samuel M. Johnson, and Lucinda Childs, not to mention the performers and technical people and others who helped shape and give form to what we now know as Einstein on the Beach). This part here (known as ‘Knee-Play 5’) is the closing piece of the opera, recorded in New York City in 2012 by members of the production staged by the Brooklyn Academy of Music.


Top 10 music videos


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A couple of weeks ago I published a list of Top 10 music tracks (pop music) and I’ve been tinkering with it since, taking stuff out and putting other tracks in and so on. I’ve made at least half a dozen changes to the list I published originally. Anyway, the upshot of it all is that I’ve decided to do another music list, this time focusing on music videos.

I should mention that I have chosen to understand ‘music video’ in a fairly catholic way, so that in addition to the music video as that term has come to be understood since the early 1980s — which is to say, a product for promotional purposes that is produced in addition to the audio recording (the audio recording being the lead product), usually an Art House job (such as the Laurie Anderson video below, or the U2 video for ‘One’, or The National’s for ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’) — I have also included here few things that, strictly speaking, are not ‘music videos’ in this sense: Joni Mitchell’s ‘Coyote’ is a live performance, for example, she was one of the artists asked to perform at The Band’s last show in November 1976, which is featured in The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s documentary film on the group and their farewell gig.

As I said in the previous post, sometimes a piece of music cannot be separated from the performance or recording of it (or from the video or film associated with it), or what it represents viz-a-vis a moment in time (or a period of time). The Neil Sedaka one below from 1959 is included here because it is such a wonderful example of old school white boy pop. I genuinely love everything about this video/film/performance/production (call it what you will), from the nobby white boy dance to the gum-chewing girls in the audience who, no doubt, went on to marry meat-head cops and suburban snake-oil salesmen and vote for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and, in the coming cycle, will shine some granny-bright on Fuckface von Clownstick, aka Donald Trump (of course I’m being horribly presumptuous in saying such things, but wtf). This was the kind of music my parents felt was respectable listening and viewing, ‘good fun’ as they might have put it, unlike, say, Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis with their ‘gyrations’ and ‘carry on’. And, of course, (it goes without saying) Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Tom Waits, and Radiohead et cet, (i.e. everything after the end of the ‘Chatterly ban’ and the Beatles’ first LP) they did not even consider to be music at all, just vile nuisance noise.

1. Laurie Anderson, ‘O Superman’ (Big Science, 1982)

2. Belle & Sebastian’s ‘Nobody’s Empire’ (Girls in Peacetime want to Dance, 2015)

3. ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, The National (High Violet, 2010)

4. Neil Sedaka’s ‘O Carol’ (Saturday Night Beech-Nut Show, 1959)

5. ‘Coyote’, Joni Mitchell (Hejira, 1976)

6. ‘What’s going on?’, 4 Non Blondes (Bigger, Better, Faster More!, 1992)

7. U2 ‘One’ (Achtung Baby, 1991)

8. Radiohead ‘Idioteqe’ (Kid A, 2000)

9. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds ‘Breathless’ (Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, 2004)

10. Pulp, ‘Common People’ (Different Class, 1995)

Top 10 Tracks (pop music)


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I AM going to do a series of posts which are lists — favourite movies, favourite novels, best loved music, paintings, sporting moments, and so on. I am going to start with music.

It has been much more difficult than I expected — and, of course, I had expected that it would be difficult to select just 10 pieces from the hundreds of pieces I’ve come to know and love over the years.

However, it has been difficult in ways I had not anticipated too — sometimes, for instance, a piece of music cannot be separated from the performance or recording of it (or from the video or film associated with it), or what it represents as a moment in time.

And then there is the whole issue of the fact that what I’m doing with this is making a blog-post so that to some extent the visual aspect of what is being selected for presentation has to be given consideration too.

London, garden of Ingall House, Dulwich (a college residence), middle 1980s

London, middle 1980s; garden of Ingall House (a college residence), Dulwich (south London).

And then, inevitably, biographical considerations come into play as one seeks to massage some kind of shape to the list as a whole. Even if one eschews biographical considerations altogether, there are a host of other ways in which a list can be combined into a collection (rather like one might put together a mixtape for a friend), which is to say, it is very difficult (it seems to me) to simply offer up 10 tracks which have no connection one to another at all as a collection (i.e., picked without any awareness that they are to be part of a list of ten, especially when what one is actually doing is putting together a blog post which will have a heading such as ‘Top 10 Tracks’!!).

As a result of these difficulties (along with some others) I think I will probably produce a number of ‘Top 10 Tracks’ before I finish, one for the music from my period, so to say, and another for the music of the period between the end of World War 2 and when I was born (i.e. the middle of the 1960s), and then another for the early part of the 20th century and so on. (I might even do a separate list just to do with pop music videos, for instance, because there is simply too many wonderful things that have not made the cut for this list — if I look through all the items I had in this list at one time but which subsequently got taken out for one reason or another, I see a lot of really special stuff, Tom Waits, Radiohead, Brad Mehldau, Belle & Sebastian, P.J. Harvey, Nick Cave…)

By the by, apologies if you come to this post one day and something that is supposed to be here has been taken down from YouTube; this is always a risk one takes when doing a post such as this (I might try to see if I can source audio files for each of the tracks as back-ups).

Finally, the tracks listed are in no particular order (i.e. being number one in the list is not in any way more prestigious or significant than being number 6 or 8, say), however, there is (to some extent) a biographical aspect it.


1. Nina Simone, ‘In the morning’ (‘Nuff Said, 1968)

2. Van Morrison, ‘Summertime in England’ (Common One, 1980).

3. Paul Weller, ‘Come on, let’s go’ (As is Now, 2005)

4. ‘Down to Zero’, Joan Armatrading (Joan Armatrading, 1976)

5. ‘Sawdust & Diamonds’, Joanna Newsom (Ys, 2006)

6. Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ (The Velvet Underground, 1969)

7. ‘Just like Tom Thumb blues’, by Bob Dylan (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)

8. The Bad Plus (with Wendy Lewis), cover of Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ (For All I Care, 2008)

9. Eric Bibb, ‘Shingle by Shingle’ (Good Stuff, 1997)

10. Feist, The Park (The Reminder, 2007)