Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Barrow Full of Rocks: Remembering Russell Hoban

I am finding it hard to be too downcast about the death of my favourite writer, Russell Hoban. Why? Because the days surrounding his passing have been so full of Hobanesque drama and apophenic events. It's hard to be sad when available evidence suggests the spirit of this great man is alive and well and thriving among us - somehow.

I first came across his work when I was preparing to fail my English A-Level (if you're one of my 1980s or 1990s employers, of course I actually passed it... honestly... that's why it's on my CV).

'Kleinzeit' was recommended to me by my tutor at Exeter College, along with Tolstoy's 'The Death Of Ivan Ilyich', as material guaranteed to get my whistle whetted while writing an extended essay on 'Death In The Novel'. I don't recall anything about the latter, but the former had me enthralled from the off. The lead character's warped distillation of life experience into one long battle of wits with symbolism and weirdness spoke to me. His personal exchanges with the 'A-to-B' of his illness, with 'Sister' with the London Underground and with yellow paper - that's yellow A4 paper - was fun and thought-provoking.

Further Hoban reading rewarded me with an incrementally deeper understanding of a surreal world that I believed I could sometimes glimpse - a world where words and sentences are infused in objects like blue veins, where the shimmering sheen of 'reality' only loosely covers the nebulous 'moment under the moment'. Entire cities, in Hoban's world, are given voice and soul - and there's a recurring melancholy for the purity of childish thought, too. His books for children, at least the ones which aren't mere animal stories, are sometimes enlightening and visionary. Secrets are in there; secrets that are too good to be kept among kids alone.

I continued to read Hoban through my teenage years, my twenties, my thirties and into my forties. Each new novel (and he was remarkably prolific of late for a poorly octogenarian) added something new to the great Hoban mix: I sometimes think his work is like one of those magic pictures made out of dots. Look at it long enough through defocussed eyes and a truer, surprise image will rise up before you.

I give this man much credit for helping me, and many others, to study this world in a different way. And on one level, what I suppose would be the metaphysical, it seems the universe has been determined to click 'like' on the great big Russell Hoban Facebook page in the sky ever since the man himself logged off for good, suddenly, last week.

First came an email from my mother, about a Russell Hoban Christmas book she was unable to find. On the day he died. Then followed a higher than usual count of 'FJ' numberplates on cars: which is my own potentially cuckoo barometer for symbolism in my waking life (hey, I *am* diagnosed mentally ill, so cut me some slack - OK?).

And then came the finest and funniest and most reassuring of all. Walking around the new secret weekend food market near my home, I came across a lovely antique wheelbarrow parked mysteriously against a railway arch - chock full of rocks. A barrow full of rocks. Morrows cruel mock. Arrow in a box. Harrows full of crock. A repetitive motif in 'Kleinzeit' is this little phrase, presumably misheard and replayed through the drugged and dying mind of the unfortunate Kleinzeit. A barrow full of rocks. Bzzzz.

It raised a smile on an otherwise wet day, the first weekend without a Russell Hoban on this earth.

I'm very sad that he has died, but I am also thankful to have known a piece of his mind through his work. And I will forever be grateful for the peculiar tint he has given my worldview spectacles.

So goodbye, Mr Hoban. And thank you.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Reaching out.

Erk. My growing obsession with establishing some kind of connection between centuries old and young gathers pace.

I still dream of bringing Mr Vincent Van Gogh to the present day, of course, and in-so-doing rescuing his paintings from the prisons which cage them. Not for me, the cosy 21st Century Dr Who worldview of the tortured artist locked in history, waiting patiently for a Timelord to unveil the merit and acclaim that time has heaped on his Dutch shoulders. Oh no. My visionary version of events is a rescue mission, pure and simple: these priceless paintings need to be sprung from their temperature-controlled cells and pasted up on walls. Perhaps squat walls. Perhaps not. But given back to Vincent, whatever.

Similarly, I'm not entirely sure how much of our modern world Mr Charles Dickens would approve of. I find it increasingly easy to walk around London with an inherited sense of wonder at the miracles of the age: the under-construction Shard, the buzz of helicopters, the silver tubes of airliners tracing through the sky. How great, how amazing, it would be to show all these things to Mr D. But then I check myself with the thought that Mr Dickens might prefer to stay in the car. I'd be tempted to run him out of town for some fresh air. If he's not into the fellows walking into public houses without hats on, I fantasise, he's hardly going to appreciate the scallies drinking Special Vat outside William Hill.

The more I read of Dickens, the more I want to reach out and forge that spiritual connection between our respective centuries. But, however hard I look, I don't see that desire reciprocated. Where the mighty, ingenious and entertainingly original American-born writer Russell Hoban is clearly laying out his retirement-age London for future generations to savour - tube journey after walk after cafe after park - there is no indication, anywhere, that Mr Dickens was ever scribing for an age more advanced than his own. Maybe the need to have seen it all and to report to some future audience, like a time-sensitive recce mission, is a truly modern phenomenon?

Whatever, I feel sure Mr Dickens would be glad to see his works still in print in 2011. He might be more than a bit surprised - but pleased all the same. And for the time being, I'm happy to try to see modern London through the same kind of Victoria-tinted spectacles as he would have worn. It's a push, a big push, but sometimes I feel rewarded with just the merest hint that I might be on vaguely the same page. That's something to aspire to, isn't it?

Friday, 6 May 2011

And then punk happened...

Pop music. What a journey! It started life as the fad of the new-born teenagers - a frivolous craze that parents knew little Johnny and Jenny would one day grow up and out of. It exploded through rock'n'roll and went on growing. As time passed and it developed through a myriad of styles and attitudes, so did public taste. Opinions were formed and quickly divided. Some pop became worthy of serious attention - the rest became wholly disposable.

Lines were drawn; battle lines, sometimes. Mods v Rockers. Hippies v Squares. Punks v Straights. To the unconverted, pop remained disposable nonsense. Then, for a brief moment in time, that very disposability was what held our collective public interest. The cheap, three-minute throwaway product wormed its way into our hearts and minds.

Nowadays, pop is transcient - but no longer disposable. It has become the must-keep manna of the masses, the stuff that unites us all. It has value - commercial, artistic, cultural, spiritual and (even) historical value.

Experts are on hand to guide us back through the decades and remind us what happened and when. There are many, many books, films, radio shows and TV documentaries out there, poised to loftily explain the lineage between, say, The Beatles and Blur - almost always relying on the "and then punk happened" bit to explain away the convoluted 70s.

But as anybody who got involved at any stage of the game, to any degree, will confirm: it's just not that simple. Right now, there will be a Danse Society fan somewhere who had a road to Damascus moment sometime in 1981 and who has lived his life accordingly ever since. There will be a volunteer hospital driver in Birmingham who extraordinarily played bass for the MC5 at Wembley Stadium in 1972 (it's true - he's called Derek Hughes). And by that same token, there will be a kid in Lancashire somewhere who will go to see Effluence play and have his life changed during the course of a three minute song.

Regrettably, nobody lives forever and some of the older guard are slipping through our fingers. Time marches on, and with the passing of people also goes the memories, the stories, the impressions of the innovators as well as those who were just lucky enough to be there. All their stories are important, and all of value to the collective consciousness that surrounds music. Rather than the rigid story that is played out on doco after doco, music has a living, organic history. The resurgence of garage rock or the whole Robert Johnson story - if you think about it - is testament to that.

We music fans, writers, performers, record buyers and specialist enthusiasts all have tales to tell - and with the internet age, a great opportunity to tell them. Please do so, and do it now. Contribute to the big picture and make it bigger: let's leave the people of tomorrow with a better legacy than "and then punk happened..."

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Oh, for the wings.

Aerophobics have got it all wrong. God *does* want us to fly and he *has* given us wings. And rotors and jet engines and rockets and propellers and helium and... everything that our fellow aviators, the birds, would seem to lack.

Flying with feathered-wings, like a bird, seems an incredible waste of energy. The amount of effort those poor little things put into each flap must be tortuous. And what's with that slapping sound that comes from pigeons at take-off? That's got to hurt, right? Poor birds. No wonder they're always squawking.

It's worth noting that early man-made flapping machines singularly failed to get off the ground. Aviation would-be pioneers who tried to fashion feathery wings out of wood and wire never got off the ground and very often plummeted into the sea - we've all seen the funny film clips. It was only when mankind steered sensibly away from this route, electing to pursue a more mechanical means of getting airborne, that things really started to take off.

Watching the International Space Station streak overhead this week at a height of some 200 miles has been a fantastic experience. I urge everybody to have a look at it when conditions permit. It's the 21st Century pinnacle of our achievement in getting (and staying) off the ground - the latest stage of a journey that started with Montgolfier and his chums in their hot air balloons.

Balloon flight is a fine thing, I'm happy to be able to confirm, having had the pleasure of one myself. My first and only balloon take-off was intense, as this joy-flight (alongside my late photographer chum Colin Wallace) was from a busy agricultural show ground. We were tethered to the ground by a bloody great big strap while the vast bubble over our heads was inflated and heated. The basket buffeted and rocked about until the strap was released and - rather like an empty shampoo bottle blobbing to the surface of a hot bath - the ground shot away from under us and we were sucked at runaway speed into the skies of East Exeter.

Once up there, the silence and windlessness was astounding. We were lighter than air, so every little puff of wind carried us sideways without restriction - the net feeling was of being in a weird vacuum. I quickly identified my house and neighbouring fields and roads from above and, as we gained height and started to drift towards the coast, I could not only see but hear clearly what was going on down on the ground.

Kids waved, people in traffic jams pointed through their windscreens. Horses ran away from us while cows stood their ground and stared, mooing faintly into the sky from their meadows hundreds or thousands of feet below our fragile-seeming basket. We crept closer to the treetops at sunset and our eventual landing, in a farmer's field close to Sidmouth, was relatively gentle - although we did end up being tipped onto one side. It was a good feeling, to finally clamber back out onto the green grass of terra firma with that special new experience tucked away.

I've always enjoyed flying, before and since that fantastic balloon run. My first time aloft came courtesy of my dad, who'd paid for me to have a pleasure flight around Exeter Airport during an air day. He had been a corporal in the RAF, so he knew all about it already - and left me to enjoy this short and fascinating prop-driven flight by myself.

The school's RAF cadet corps opened up yet new flying opportunities - including one-on-one flying lessons in a battered and paint-chipped RAF Chipmunk training aircraft. This noisy beast gave me and my early-teenage school pals an opportunity to strap into a parachute suit, grab a joystick and throttle and take these beasts into the air ourselves (under the watchful and unshockable care of a qualified flying instructor, of course). We would spin the Chipmunk around the skies a bit, maybe do some aerobatics, then bring them back towards a runway approach. Much, much better than lessons and kind of like an Atari video game - only not rubbish.

Summer camps overseas gave us even wilder opportunities which I remain massively grateful for. Thanks to the cadet force, I enjoyed three separate helicopter flights - including a tree-clipping adventure in a Gazelle and a classic feet-over-edge dangling adventure tethered to the open sides of a Sea King air-sea rescue chopper. Priceless.

But perhaps the most outrageously spectacular flying experience I have yet had (apart from maybe a stunning aurora borealis display seen through the windows of a 747 bound for Heathrow from Seattle) was in the humble Hele's School cadets glider.

This was a peculiar beast in several parts that would need to be assembled, by hand, using the combined strength and skill of several boys over much of an afternoon. The open cockpit would be bolted to the fuselage and each of the enormous wings fixed with butterfly bolts. 'Flight' (and our teachers-cum-cadet officers insisted on calling it that) would be achieved by stretching a very long elastic band in two directions away from the front of the craft, and then twanging the glider forward. The unfortunate lad in the cockpit would be catapulted forward at high speed across the school field towards a busy-looking dual carriageway, getting airborne for about ten seconds and up to an altitude of maybe four feet.

It was scary, uncomfortable and not really worth doing, to be honest. I imagine health and safety execs soon put an end to it anyway.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Pop go the weasels.

Remember real pop stars? I do. Back in my day we had *proper* stars. They were unapproachable because we considered them somehow better than us. They were artists who had something to say and an interesting way of voicing whatever that was. They lived better and more beautiful lives on our behalf - we wanted them to be dynamic and risky and entertaining, and to live full lives that we could enjoy and learn from, entirely vicariously, while still holding down a job at Woolworths. It was a valuable relationship, the one between a pop star and his or her audience, and a lot could be earned and learned from it - on both sides.

Then, of course, something quite revolutionary happened. Punk brought a new way of thinking, and a new way of approaching music. Singers and musicians were no longer pedestal-straddling demagogues - suddenly they were ordinary people, just like you and me. Perhaps even a bit thicker. "Here is a chord," we would famously read. "Here is another. Now go form a band." The relationship between band and audience changed - some would say for the better. I say it just changed. The audience were suddenly onstage and, while I like my mates to be pop stars, I like pop stars to be pop stars too.

You'd think there would be a third course, but there is not. This was proved quite lucidly to me as I stepped out of the tube station at Greenwich North last night.

The short walk along the illuminated path towards the O2 - a massive circular tent owned and named by a mobile telephone company - was like a nocturnal stroll through a haunted Dystopian forest. Three massive video screens to my right showed, on a loop, Eliza Caird (a singer who has chosen to rename herself after a character in 'My Fair Lady' - namely Ms Doolittle) handing over her sports shoes to a young man. The Mastercard slogan underneath the sponsored footage declared: "Giving something back to the fans - priceless." Can you see what's wrong with this picture yet?

Talented pop singer though she may be, why would this young man want this young lady's trainers? Why should it be a big deal for him? For her? Or for Mastercard? Teenagers in the mid 1970s would climb over each other at concerts to try to grab a scrap of Donny Osmond's shirt - is this somehow a throwback to this kind of hysteria? Is texting a mobile 'phone message to a Mastercard competition line the modern equivalent of scurrying backstage to try to grab an autograph from Jimmy Page as he is rushed into a waiting car? Or is this showing us that Eliza is down with the kids? Happy to mix with the rest of us - even hand over her shoes, for God's sake, to appear as human as the rest of us? Nah. That's just as unlikely.

The bleak picture widened as I got closer to the dome. Not only Eliza, but Tinie Tempah (not real name) and Rod Stewart (real name) were offering clothing and other personal items to 'fans' under the same Mastercard banner. A 30ft picture of Rod had been stuck to the floor. Even at that size, and that close up, the Mastercard small print on the side of the ad that accompanied Rod's face was beguilingly small.

The event I was attending was billed as the 'Brits After Party' and on the way out, ordinary people like you and me were given VIP laminates as "a keepsake". Do they get us into a party, then? "No. They're just a keepsake." A laminate, something to wear on the bus home - to pretend that you are someone, because you look like you get up close and personal with pop stars?

Not an after party. Not an after party VIP pass, either.

The gig itself was bleak. A man called Mark Ronson (real name) stood behind a metal desk while failed pop wannabes like Rose Elinor Dougall joined in a karaoke routine of other people's songs. At least Rose's face - which turned to permanent thunder when she found she could not hear her electronic drumpads through the expensive monitors pointed at her ears) was, to quote Mastercard again, quite priceless.

A pass that isn't a pass, a party that isn't a party, a group of people that are not a band? Not good. And when a credit card company jumps into the frame with an advertising concept that seeks to create some kind of mythical star-fan divide and then bridge it, as a magnaminous and fun gesture, I for one call time.

Pop, as predicted so many years ago, has eaten itself. And we all know what happens next.