Monthly Archives: December 2014

Spit Spot

Immigrant au pair, visa status unknown, brain washing children in her care at the local park.

This is the kind of claptrap that would generally be seen in The Daily Hate-mail or The Scum. The report would continue to say that the female, who was said to have come in on the east wind, meets with a male artist and match seller to brainwash the impressionable youths with ‘fantasy tales’. Yet this is exactly what occurs in the formidable P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins. This makes for an indulgent and easy read during these festive days and nights.

Mary-Poppins-walt disney and PL Travers

The tales were drafted when the writer was recuperating from a serious illness,

to while away the days, but also to put down something that had been in my mind for a long time.

I went to a screening of this iconic cinematic work last Xmas at FACT Liverpool. Oh! to see it through the eyes of a child. It is quite trippy, but now as an adult: singing, dancing penguin waiters, choreographed sequences on rooftops and an Uncle who appears to be high (literally) on laughter. Say no more! I also was quite disturbed by the fact that I actually found Mary Poppins, the domestic goddess with routine and a slight hint of healthy anarchy, strangely quite attractive.

mary poppins

I went to see An Audience with Julie Andrews earlier this year, a chat show-like occasion at the Liverpool Echo Arena. This had to be the most surreal event of the year. Andrews did not look a day over 10 years younger than when she was actually playing the part of Mary P. The evening concluded with the compère for the night, Aled Jones, encouraging the audience to sing along (Julie just smiled appreciatively) to ‘Climb Every Mountain’, complete with a backdrop screen of the lyrics. I momentarily thought I’d been had and it was actually a U.K.I.P convention, expecting a rendition of Cabaret’s ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’, to follow. ‘SPIT SPOT!’

At times the tales in the actual book of Mary Poppins have a slight dark edge, Mrs Corry sticking star wrapper papers onto the night sky, for instance. They remind me of the work by The League of Gentlemen. I do wonder whether it is wiser to introduce the stories to my three-year-old nephew, perhaps when he is a little older. But for now he is safe with the film. Just keep away from the singing Bird Woman.

bird woman

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A sense of belonging

In the coming year, I really want someone to stand up – and I really hope it will be Ed Miliband – to say something along the lines of: I’m a migrant, you’re a migrant, some of my best friends are migrants. Some came as children, some fleeing, others as students. They have brought things to us and have adapted to the ways in which we do things, strange though we have sometimes found each other.

Some of them came further back in the past, to fight alongside us when things were dark. They fought against an ideology that said that some people were made superior by blood and biology and that put millions to death to preserve this nonsensical pseudo-scientific theory of racial purity.

We, the descendents of those that fought together against it, refute that ideology completely. We know that although we are an island, we have never been insular. Rather, our influence has always extended beyond our shores. Our language has travelled around the globe and, despite the fact that our influence has not always been benign, our hope is that our words can become something of a unifier.

What would Britain be without immigration? Perhaps our roads would be muddier and wonkier, our castles made of wood, not stone, and large swathes of it might be forest, not farmland. More recent arrivals have brought food, music and literature: the joys of life. Migrants, their children and grandchildren, have nursed us through sickness, taught our children and built our houses. They serve as magistrates, stand as MPs, read the nightly news. They are as bound into the fabric of our country as a plant from the Americas is to our soil and our diets.

Anybody with any sense can see that strength comes from this, not some outdated, horrendous notion of ‘purity’ or ‘separateness’, but a blending and mixing of backgrounds, experiences and histories that creates a patchwork, linking us to Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia. We are joined via great-grandparents who perhaps had to leave or perhaps chose to, and decided to come – perhaps a little reluctantly – to the industrial powerhouse that we were, leaving behind more pleasing scenes that would never entirely leave their hearts.

Perhaps those migrants came because they believed us when we spoke of our love of fair play and justice, of ‘live and let live’. They might have come because we never surrendered, never gave in to the jack-boots, because we fought on the beaches. That makes it even more ridiculous to me that today, the political descendents of those who did take money from fascist dictators, who donned their black shirts and silver flashes, who shouted ‘Death to Jews’ or trumpeted ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’, now seek to convince us that they hold the key to what Britishness is and that they are the keepers of the flame. It is rubbish.

Not our Briton of the Year

Not our Briton of the Year

It doesn’t matter if you drive a white van or a vintage Jag, if you believe that there is a ‘THEY’, who can be ‘SENT BACK’ to some imaginary ‘OVER THERE’ and all problems will be magicked away with them, you are being sold a pup. The problems that afflict our society don’t stem from Europe or the Middle East, or anywhere else. They don’t come from people of a different colour, or religion, speaking a different language to you. They have been caused by mostly old, mostly white, mostly men – certainly greedy – taking more than they are entitled to and leaving the rest of us to fight over the scraps. Migrants didn’t crash the banks, vote to sell off the NHS to healthcare companies they own shares in or spend your money on duck homes or moat cleaning.

We can continue down this road to the end, refuse every visa to every scientist researching medical cures, every student attracted to our universities, break apart more families, close the doors and say no more. Our country would be no richer and certainly far poorer. Or we can draw a line, say no more ground will be given to the racists and nationalists. Of course we need to set criteria, but they will be fairly applied. Of course we need to verify information, but you will be treated with dignity while we do. If you are looking for a base for study, for innovation, for entrepreneurship, to love who you want to, to raise a family in peace and freedom, as so many have done before you, join us. Welcome. We come from many places, but we all belong here.

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Is a New Year’s resolution really the solution?

Every New Year, people flock to try out the latest fitness crazes and fads. Purchase lotions, potions and electronic contraptions in order to trim and slim, but feed their egos. I personally think the best way to get fit is to employ what I call the ‘Charles Dickens Method’; basically, go on massive walks for a good few hours. Allegedly the writer would take the air daily and spend his walking time reflecting and working on the structures of his novels.

charles dickens in his studyI always find it a tad ironic that people will drive to a gymnasium to maybe then hit the treadmill for twenty minutes. I have often thought that electricity in the gymnasium is in fact powered by the people pounding the machines, cycling and rowing, feeding a ginormous electrical generator to fuel the lights for the establishment.

Another favourable way to slice off the poundage is to dance like a maniac to disco tunes, like Olivia Newton John’s track, Physical.

Or perhaps, you could don some silver hot pants and boogie around a local roller disco, just like Sir Cliff Richard in the video, Wired for Sound. I advise readers of a nervous disposition to please refrain from viewing this music video nasty. Once seen, never ever forgotten. Please note this was released at the time when punk was storming the establishment!

If you are insistent on picking up a DVD with the latest celebrity, please – before you do I wholly recommend this classic, Zsa Zsa Gabor’s, ‘It’s Simple Darlings’:

No other fitness guru will attack the workout in the calm and tortoise-slow manner than this famous-for-being-famous star. She even has the assistance of two hunky henchman to help her into positions, in between innuendo-rich dialogue that would not be out-of-place in a Benny Hill Script.

You may not lose weight through the exercises but I can guarantee you will with laughter.

Remember, it’s simple darlings!

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Writing Liverpool

Coming home for Christmas can contain a mixture of emotions, perhaps depending on where you are returning to and from which departure point. Along with the tins of Quality Street to attack and relatives to catch up with, returning to Liverpool always super-charges my creativity, as if the old brain had been plugged into the mains. Partly that is because I know so many talented individuals here and that can’t help but inspire, but also it is the fabric of the city itself.

Pushing my infant son along the street in his buggy, my thoughts took a sudden detour into Helen Forrester’s Depression-era wanderings with her baby brother in Twopence to Cross the Mersey. (Since copied by a thousand similar ‘misery memoirs’, a recent re-read confirmed that this tale of everyday poverty in the Thirties still shocks and informs the reader. Very much recommend picking it up!) Thankfully my legs weren’t as bare as hers, as we walked into the teeth of the gale that never seems far away in a Liverpool winter.

The weather, the streets, the mix of people, the often brutal living and working conditions: there is something about this city that commands your attention and demands you put pen to paper. Over the years many have tried to analyse why that should be, but I think few come as close as this quote seen hanging on the wall at the Museum of Liverpool:

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Take a taxi, sit in a bar, wander around – even while paying for your shopping or in the dentist’s waiting room – the stories leap out at you. There are no boring people, my mother once said, every person has their story. Mothers tend to be right on these things, as on many others, galling as it is sometimes to acknowledge.

And Scouse families – Carla Lane’s Boswells among them – seem to drive this verbal narrative on. From your earliest years they will be telling you stories of people you are only possibly supposed to remember, old friends, distant relatives, many long dead, and they want to hear yours in return. As a shy teenager, the demand to ‘perform’ when it was my turn had me tongue-tied and stammering – but I still can’t finish a piece of writing until I have read it aloud. If it doesn’t work to my ear, I know it won’t work on the page.

So as well as stuffing myself with Christmas treats, this holiday will see me gorging on all the city has to offer, from theatre to opera, as well as the continuous play that goes on around the dinner tables and in the streets of my home town.

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The trick is to keep stealing

My nine-to-five role as a trainer at Liverpool John Moores University involves having to do many presentations and lead workshops. I live by what I preach: fail to prepare, prepare to fail. I find that the TED talks are a fantastic online resource to exploit, to use, to inspire. As they themselves say:

TED is a platform for ideas worth spreading. Started in 1984 as a conference where technology, entertainment and design converged, TED today shares ideas from a broad spectrum — from science to business to global issues — in more than 100 languages.

And as Pablo Picasso put it,

Good artists borrow, great artists steal.

Here are some of the talks that I have seen in 2014 that have inspired and energised me:

Ken Robinson: How schools kill creativity
Carl Honore: In praise of slowness
Anne Curzan: What makes a word real
Jason Fried: Why work doesn’t happen at work
Stefan Sagmeister: The power of time off

picasso by millerBut don’t take my word for it, go and have a little explore for yourself. The trick is to keep stealing!

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If only freedom of speech meant knowing when to be quiet

Twenty-four hours after the big day, by now hopefully the major disappointment should be fading. I refer, of course, to the possible inability – if in certain parts of the US – to sit in a cinema and watch North Korean assasination romp (words you never thought could belong together) The Interview.

Personally, having caught a bit too much of an earlier Seth Rogan-James Franco offering, This is The End, a thousand years could pass without me needing to witness this comedy pairing again, but realise I probably don’t speak for all. To each their own. But I do wonder about all those manning the freedom of speech barricades this holiday season and their seeming unfamiliarity with this particular xkcd cartoon:

free_speech

It is surely an ultimate act of assholery to depict the assassination of another country’s leader, however much of a despot they may be, and play it for laughs. Especially when you come from a nation with a long history of assassinating leaders who cause you displeasure. That third panel seems to me to have particular resonance in this situation: too often Hollywood, if not America itself, is immune from the consequences of its actions. Payback – like taxes – is for the little people, not the overgrown children at the top of the Tinseltown food chain that few dare say no to. Even when the ‘boss’ does mention that perhaps a scene is going a little too far and needs to be reshot, the cry goes out that this is Art and artistic expression cannot be constrained.

North Korea seems to have been the butt of  jokes for so long now that perhaps the creative team behind this movie didn’t expect to provoke so much ire. From Team America: World Police to Kim Jong-Un Looking at Things, the narrative has been established that this is more of a tin pot dictatorship than a Pol Pot one. Yet the numbers dying there in recent years – although likely to be never finally confirmed – suggest that there’s not much to laugh at north of the Demilitarized Zone. Even Cold War vintage Bond never went as far as to off a real Soviet leader on-screen, instead using rogue generals or shadowy organisations such as SMERSH to add a drop of reality to a gallon of fiction. Satire has its place, but Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Spitting Image’s depiction of the Thatcher era suggest that it is an ineffectual weapon at bringing about regime change.

Speaking of ineffectual weapons, perhaps one’s perception of North Korea shifts when they are near neighbours. I remember taking a train to work and refreshing Twitter to find out what was happening with a missile that had been launched in my general direction. Luckily – or perhaps not for the scientists that had designed it – it splashed down somewhere in the sea off Japan. And had it not, it no doubt would have been intercepted. Still, it is hard not to feel that there is not giving in to threats and then there is not grabbing the tiger by the tail in the first place.

The Vulture story referenced above quotes Amy Pascal of Sony Entertainment Pictures as saying she is not sure,

how to deal with Japanese politics as it relates to Korea so all I can do is make sure that Sony won’t be put in a bad situation.

Japanese relations with both sides of the Korean divide are usually quite fraught, to put it mildly. At any time, it should not be unexpected that a Japanese parent company might ask its foreign subsidiaries to avoid putting the North’s back up. But at a time when delicate negotiations between the two countries are pushing along like the proverbial glacier, when you realise what is at stake, perhaps artistic expression should sit down, preferably in a back seat, and keep its mouth firmly zipped.

If this latest round of talks don’t result in anything, then I don’t think we’ll ever see them again. We’re both in our late 80s, so we have to accept that we might not be around for much longer. She is constantly in my thoughts. When I think of how I have been unable to do anything to help her all these years, I quietly say sorry to her.

Japan is currently seeking information about a number of its citizens – possibly more than 800 people – who were abducted and taken to North Korea in the 70s and 80s. The clock is ticking as more than one family member has died not knowing what happened to their relative. Information provided in the past has since been shown to be false and remains that were said to be those of certain abductees turned out not to belong to the stated person.

And while the arguments may run that threats should never be responded to, that Art cannot be trammelled by mere politics, that ends up giving cold comfort. The name of Sony is so synonymous with Japan that stating that Sony Entertainment Pictures is an independent American company holds little sway. Via torrents and the campaign for the right of Hollywood to do as it pleases, there will be more chance of seeing The Interview this Christmas than there will be of the Arimotos seeing their daughter Keiko.

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It’s Warhol actually, as in holes, Andy Warhol.

If you want to get under the silver wig of Andy Warhol this festive break down, you can do so at the exhibition currently on display in Liverpool Tate Gallery. In his twenties in NYC, Andy aspired to be just like Truman Capote and his fixation with celebrity and the fame machine was a theme that permeated his work. He desperately wanted to stand out, at one stage in his early career if he couldn’t make tie ends match up, he’d just cut them off.

In his book ‘The Life and Death of Andy Warhol’, Victor Bockris relates how Muriel Laton, an interior designer who was struggling to support her own gallery, planted the seed that in turn helped Warhol to become an art sensation. He was too late to paint the cartoon style that had made the careers of the likes of Roy Lichtenstein.

Laton asked Warhol, ‘What do you like most in the whole world?’
To which the Pop artist replied, ‘I don’t know, what do I like most in the whole world?’
‘Money!’ she replied. ‘You should paint pictures of money.’
‘Oh gee,’ Andy gasped, ‘that really is a great idea.’
She continued, ‘You should paint something that everybody sees every day, that everybody recognizes….like a can of soup.’

The money, the cans of soup and the Marilyn Monroes, the work that helped to make him and put the popular in Pop art, are all on display in this exhibition.

andy-warhol-9-dollar-black-blue-diptych

The standout image for me was the Silver Elvis, a faded black screen-print of the King, a life-size figure slashed with silver paint, drowning the image, giving it a ghostly appearance, like a giant silver screen that is losing power, fading away but still radiating.

Halcyon Gallery

It is a metaphor for the demise of cinema today. Films now are competing with the need for instant gratification. They can be viewed on iPads, phones or laptops and seen anywhere. The cinema has resorted to gimmickry to try to sell movies; practically everything is being offered in 3D. Thankfully, 2014 has seen films like  ‘Lilting’ and ‘Ida’ prove how powerful a film can be when seen on the big screen, or the ‘forgetting chamber’, as Quentin Crisp called it.

There is a room that replicates a NYC happening and tries to convey what the atmosphere of the Factory must have been like. At first it’s exciting but the repetition of loud and explicit S & M video montages soon becomes mundane, again I guess what the Factory must have been like, a type of candy floss techno hell.

What is striking in this Liverpool show is the vast quantity of commercial output on display. A wall of Interview front covers harks back to a period when celebrity was something to aspire to and not the infectious social disease it has become. Warhol cited, ‘everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes’, but the reality now is ‘everybody will be famous for fifteen seconds on the internet.’

I think my favourite Warhol work is his preliminary sketches for window design, his commercial art-work. A period when works were hand sketched, drawn and painted. A whole school of craftsmanship.

CommercialWarhol1

If you feel like finding out more about the artist, I recommend the film ‘Basquiat’ about the underground graffiti artist which sees the Thin White Duke, Mr David Bowie, stick on a silver mop and camp it up as Andy. The excellent ‘I Shot Andy Warhol’ takes you into the curious mind of Valerie Solanas, who did just that, as well as writing an infamous missive called The SCUM Manifesto – nothing to do with The Sun newspaper – but the Society for Cutting Up Men, her one woman party.

You may wish to see some of the films that Warhol directed himself, like Empire, BlowJob or Chelsea Girls. ‘My Hustler’ is a dirty rude little flick that mixes desperation with sleaze and is quite bitterly funny.

There is also the fabulous track by David Bowie, Andy Warhol, which failed to impress the artist. With lyrics, like

Andy Warhol looks a scream, hang him on my wall,

I wonder why?

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The Professor of Pop

I think the best term for this musician, this pure artist is the Professor of Pop.

kate bushShe has an almost academic approach to her work. I am talking about Kate Bush. As winter sets in, I find that one of the most luxurious comforts is to laden the fire with logs, light scented candles and allow myself the pleasure of losing an hour with her delightful, epic piece of work, Fifty Words for Snow.

I do not believe in regrets but I must confess one of my failings of 2014 was to secure a ticket to her live show. The descriptions of this total theatre experience have left me envious of those who did manage to attend. It was grating to hear the gutter press moan about the fact she chose not to sing Wuthering Heights. Lambasting her for choosing not to perform a song she did in another lifetime. It is the equivalent of asking Picasso to paint his early pieces or Hockney to re-do his infamous Splash painting.

But what else can you expect from the media, an industry that pushes Simon Cowell’s vehicle for contrived entertainment, to promote a throwaway singer (of sorts), not an artist. I always ask people who even attempt to engage me in conversation about this type of car crash television, who won three years ago? Ninety percent of the time, I am given a complete blank look. Everyone remembers Susan Boyle, but that’s possibly because she defied the conventions of what a pop star should look like, fake body parts, perfect teeth and a saccharine brain. I don’t even think that show was X Factor, but all of this modern coliseum-like entertainment all blends into one. Apologies, I digress, I will get off my soap box and leave Speakers’ Corner for the time being. I must have had ‘Ranty Pops’ for breakfast.

With Kate’s work, there is WORK behind the work. I like the fact that she does not bow down in the digital temple of commercialism, vomiting out album, tour, dvd, album, tour REPEAT. She releases the material when it is ready. One thing she cannot be described as is pusillanimous in her approach. It is all about the process. Graft equals craft!

The work needs to be listened to in one sitting, in its entirety. I encourage readers to listen to the album Fifty Words for Snow this season. An atmospheric, bold, collection of pieces inspired by Winter.

fifty words for snowWhat an idea of genius to have Stephen Fry list off different words that describe snow to a mesmerising soundscape with interjections by Kate, like a musical blizzard, a chilled frost wind.

It may depict the coldness of the season, but it warms the heart.

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The Pope of the Paparazzi

One of the advantages of the internet is that on a winter’s day, you can navigate all around the world and visit the finest art establishments, without even leaving the house. Today in Blighty the wind is howling like a possessed hound. So let’s visit NYC.

Liverpool has its Shakeshaft, Paris its Brassai and New York has Weegee, a self-styled showman who created a pulp fictitious persona, the father of tabloid culture. He would boldly proclaim,

My name is Weegee. I’m the world’s greatest photographer.

Born Arthur Fellig in 1899, the photographer was nicknamed Weegee by the office girls in Acme Newspapers – after the Ouija board – for he had an uncanny way of always arriving at the scene to capture a moment.  Weegee helped to found the tabloid culture that is still apparent today. His images capture humans at their most vulnerable and bare. Photography that produces compositions that incite emotion based on the subject matter alone. Sensationalist and sensual, an acute portrayal of human nature. From two lovers embracing, to a burning building, all of his images transport the viewer into the very heart of the experience.

The summer heat in a New York apartment, forcing the residents to sleep on the fire escape, radiates from the picture.

heatspell HEATSPELL, 1938 (NAKED CITY, SUNDAY MORNING IN MANHATTAN)

You can practically smell the perfumery of two old broads, all war paint and fur, out to enjoy an evening in the city, whilst one onlooker’s envy cannot be hidden:

the criticTHE CRITIC. MRS.CAVANAGH AND FRIEND ENTERING THE OPERA, 1943 (NAKED CITY, THE OPERA)

Never officially trained, he used the darkroom of Acme Newspictures as his university, honing his craft and training his eye whilst working on other people’s images. His pictures of New York and her people are like a carnival of the Electric Jungle. The book Naked City (1945) went on to be exhibited in Museum of Modern Art and helped to shape urban American consciousness.

In his book Weegee on Weegee, the artist frankly lays down the passion for his craft, a love for New York and its people,

My camera… my life and my love… was my Aladdin’s lamp.

His catalogue of work is like a visual love letter between him and the city, a composition of magic.

crook

I had so many unsold murder pictures lying around my room…I felt as if I were renting out a wing of the City Morgue.

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A perfect synergy

Like pretty much everyone on Earth, I love Moleskine notebooks. They are beautifully crafted yet solid enough to survive the punishments of travel. Then they also come with a history that sets them apart from other stationers: the illustrious writers who made their name, and the company that was brought back to life after the original makers went bust.

As you may remember, I also love The Little Prince. So imagine how my heart and wallet was open to this:

image

Nice work, marketing team!

Inside it is mostly the usual Moleskine day-to-page diary that I can’t seem to function without, but there are some sweet little touches here and there. The back cover has a favourite quote from the book, the paper insert features another, as well as passport details for our small royal. Not forgetting the ‘Adhesifs en Edition Limitee’. The eternal child in all of us couldn’t fail to be excited by these limited edition stickers:

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When I was a child, I remember my mother taking time out of the busy pre-Christmas schedule – usually on a Sunday, it would probably be raining – to copy out the birthdays and important anniversaries from the old diary to the new. I might sometimes sigh over her shoulder at the months and months I had to wait until my birthday, but I loved the ritual of marking the year’s important events. One of those essential yet time-consuming life admin tasks that can fill you with a nerdish glee as they progress.

I haven’t filled out this one yet, but I am very much looking forward to doing so, as well as to seeing what the year held within its pages has to bring.

For some, who are travellers, the stars are guides.
For others they are no more than little lights in the sky.

Pour les uns, qui voyagent, les etoiles sont des guides.
Pour d’autres elles ne sont rien que de petites lumieres.

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