Monday 31 May 2010

Michael Chabon - Maps and Legends

Maps and Legends
by Michael Chabon
250pp, Fourth Estate Ltd, £8.99

Olivia Laing
The Observer
Sunday 11 April 2010

The novelist Michael Chabon loves comics. He loves Sherlock Holmes, young adult fiction and those classic ghost stories of the kind produced by MR James. He is also painfully aware that genre fictions such as these are not generally considered current reading material for upstanding intellectual adults. His sense of defensive outrage on the part of such books, so influential on his own work, has fuelled this cri de coeur, an eloquent if decidedly partisan plea for the definition of what constitutes decent literature to be expanded and made more elastic.

Chabon's theory is that the prime function of writing should be to entertain the reader. He is also sure that writers used to be considerably less snooty about providing this essential service, and that it is only recently that the notion of entertaining has become so devalued. His defence is witty, original and only slightly marred by the fact that most of the 16 essays contained in this collection were originally written for quite different purposes. Many were initially reviews and some – such as the detailed and faintly carping account of Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy* – do not add much to his central thesis, which is that edgy and compelling books frequently arise from the borderlands of fiction.

His take on Sherlock Holmes is particularly convincing, revealing far more complexity and skill in the workings than one is accustomed to seeing. But for all his gleaming acuity as a critic, Chabon is at his strongest here as a memoirist, and the two standout pieces both concern his own development as a writer. The first, "Maps and Legends", records his boyhood in the partially built utopian city of Columbia, which was constructed according to ideals that it couldn't possibly live up to. The second, "Golems I Have Known", is a strange, circling essay that charts Chabon's own shifting sense of himself as a writer and a Jew by telling a linked set of stories about golems, those clay men of Jewish mythology.

Both pieces are charged with an infectious excitement about the possibilities of writing, but only one is true. The other is a false memoir, a self-conscious lie, and it serves to underline Chabon's brilliant, heartening sense of the writer as swashbuckler, advancing into unmapped territory in search of, if not the truth, at the very least a whopping story.

* Chabon was lucky to get away with this because the slightest criticism of Pullman is a no-no in the pages of the Guardian and the Observer, where, ironically, he has taken on a somewhat saintly status alongside the likes of Jay-Z and Sam Taylor-Wood...

Sunday 30 May 2010

Neddy Seagoon

... by his daughter, Jenny:

Dennis Hopper RIP

Dennis Hopper, 74, Hollywood Rebel, Dies

May 30, 2010

Dennis Hopper, who was part of a new generation of Hollywood rebels in portrayals of drug-addled misfits in the landmark films “Easy Rider,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Blue Velvet” and then went on to great success as a prolific character actor, died on Saturday at his home in Venice, Calif. He was 74.

The cause was complications from metastasized prostate cancer, according to a statement issued by Alex Hitz, a family friend.

Mr. Hopper, who said he stopped drinking and using drugs in the mid-1980s, followed that change with a tireless phase of his career in which he claimed to have turned down no parts. His credits include no fewer than six films released in 2008 and at least 25 over the past 10 years.

Most recently, Mr. Hopper starred in the television series “Crash,” an adaptation of the Oscar-winning film of the same title. Produced for the Starz cable channel, the show had Mr. Hopper portraying a music producer unhinged by years of drug use.

During a promotional tour last fall for that series, he fell ill; shortly thereafter, he began a new round of treatments for prostate cancer, which he said had been first diagnosed a decade ago.

Mr. Hopper was hospitalized in Los Angeles in January, at which time he also filed for divorce from his fifth wife, Victoria Duffy, with whom he had a young daughter. Mr. Hopper issued a news release citing “irreconcilable differences” for the filing.

“I wish Victoria the best but only want to spend these difficult days surrounded by my children and close friends,” he said in the release.

Mr. Hopper first won praise in Hollywood as a teenager in 1955 for his portrayal of an epileptic on the NBC series “Medic” and for a small part in the film “Rebel Without a Cause,” which starred James Dean, who was a friend of his.

Mr. Hopper confirmed his status as a rising star as the son of a wealthy rancher and his wife, played by Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, in “Giant” (1956), the epic western with Dean.

In those years, he was linked romantically with Natalie Wood and Joanne Woodward.

Yet that success brought with it a growing hubris, and in 1958 Mr. Hopper found himself in a battle of wills with the director Henry Hathaway on the set of “From Hell to Texas.”

The story has several versions; the most common is that his refusal to play a scene in the manner that the director requested resulted in Mr. Hopper’s stubbornly performing more than 80 takes before he finally followed orders.

Upon wrapping the scene, Mr. Hopper later recalled, Mr. Hathaway told him that his career in Hollywood was finished.

He soon left for New York, where he studied with Lee Strasberg for several years, performed onstage and acted in more than 100 episodes of television shows.

It was not until after his marriage in 1961 to Brooke Hayward — who, as the daughter of Leland Hayward, a producer and agent, and Margaret Sullavan, the actress, was part of Hollywood royalty — that Mr. Hopper was regularly offered film roles again.

He wrangled small parts in big studio films like “The Sons of Katie Elder” (1965) — directed by his former nemesis Henry Hathaway — as well as “Cool Hand Luke” (1967) and “Hang ’Em High” (1968).

And he grew close to his wife’s childhood friend Peter Fonda, who, with Mr. Hopper and a few others, began mulling over a film whose story line followed traditional western themes but substituted motorcycles for horses.

That film, “Easy Rider,” which Mr. Hopper wrote with Mr. Fonda and Terry Southern and directed, followed a pair of truth-seeking bikers (Mr. Fonda and Mr. Hopper) on a cross-country journey to New Orleans.

It won the prize for best first film at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival (though it faced only one competitor, as the critic Vincent Canby pointed out in a tepid 1969 review in The New York Times).

Mr. Hopper also shared an Oscar nomination for writing the film, while a nomination for best supporting actor went to a little-known Jack Nicholson.

“Easy Rider” introduced much of its audience, if not Mr. Hopper, to cocaine, and the film’s success accelerated a period of intense drug and alcohol use that Mr. Hopper later said nearly killed him and turned him into a professional pariah.

Given nearly $1 million by Universal for a follow-up project, he retreated with a cadre of hippies to Peru to shoot “The Last Movie,” a hallucinogenic film about the making of a movie. It won a top prize at the 1971 Venice Film Festival, but it failed with critics and at the box office.

Mr. Hopper edited the film while living at Los Gallos, a 22-room adobe house in Taos, N.M., that he rechristened the Mud Palace and envisioned as a counterculture Hollywood.

It was there that his drug-induced paranoia took full flower, including a period in which he posted armed guards on the roof.

“I was terribly naïve in those days,” he told The New York Times in 2002. “I thought the crazier you behaved, the better artist you would be. And there was a time when I had a lot of energy to display how crazy that was.”

Mr. Hopper was seen mostly in small film parts until he returned to prominence with his performance in “Apocalypse Now” (1979).

In a 1993 interview with the British newspaper The Guardian, Mr. Hopper credited Marlon Brando, a star of the film, with the idea of having him portray a freewheeling photojournalist, rather than the smaller role of a C.I.A. officer, in which he was originally cast.

But Mr. Hopper’s after-hours style continued to affect his work; in “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” a documentary about the making of that film, the director, Francis Ford Coppola, is seen lamenting that Mr. Hopper cannot seem to learn his lines.

After becoming sober in the 1980s, Mr. Hopper began taking on roles in several films a year, becoming one of the most recognizable character actors of the day.

He earned a second Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his role as the alcoholic father of a troubled high school basketball star in “Hoosiers” (1986), and he honed his portrayal of unhinged villains in films like “Blue Velvet” (also in 1986), “Speed” (1994) and “Waterworld” (1995), as well as in the first season of the television series “24” (2002).

Mr. Hopper had several artistic pursuits beyond film. Early in his career, he painted and wrote poetry, though many of his works were destroyed in a 1961 fire that burned scores of homes, including his, in the Los Angeles enclave Bel Air.

Around that time, Ms. Hayward gave him a camera as a gift, and Mr. Hopper took up photography.

His intimate and unguarded images of celebrities like Ike and Tina Turner, Andy Warhol and Jane Fonda were the subject of gallery shows and were collected in a book, “1712 North Crescent Heights.” The book, whose title was his address in the Hollywood Hills in the 1960s, was edited by Marin Hopper, his daughter by Ms. Hayward.

He also built an extensive collection of works by artists he knew, including Warhol, Ed Ruscha and Julian Schnabel.

Born on May 17, 1936, in Dodge City, Kan., and raised on a nearby farm, Dennis Lee Hopper moved with his family to San Diego in the late 1940s.

He studied at the Old Globe Theater there while in high school, then signed a contract with Warner Brothers and moved to Los Angeles.

Mr. Hopper’s five marriages included one of eight days in 1970 to the singer Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas. He is survived by four children, all of the Los Angeles area: Marin Hopper; Ruthanna Hopper, his daughter by Daria Halprin, his third wife; a son, Henry Lee Hopper, whose mother is Katherine LaNasa; and Galen, his daughter by Ms. Duffy.

On March 26, surrounded by friends like Mr. Nicholson and David Lynch, the director of “Blue Velvet,” Mr. Hopper received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Looking frail, he began his brief acceptance speech by sardonically thanking the paparazzi for supposedly distracting him and causing him to lose his balance and fall the day before. He continued, “Everyone here today that I’ve invited — and obviously some that I haven’t invited — have enriched my life tremendously.”

Dennis Hopper: In memory

By Roger Ebert

Dennis Hopper's career began as an actor of alienation in movies like "Rebel Without a Cause." His career as a director began with "Easy Rider." His career as an art collector began went he bought one of Andy Warhol's soup can paintings for $75. His career as a drug abuser began at around the same time, and he told me, simply and factually, "I spent some time in a rubber room."

Then he got clean and sober, and his careers started all over again, as an actor, as a director, as a photographer much in demand, as a painter, as an icon. Hopper's death came Saturday at age 74, surrounded by family and friends in the modernist house he built on Venice Beach in Los Angeles and filled with modern art.

For Hopper, life was an art form. His acting took such shape because he was able to reinvent himself as a character. More than many actors , he created characters we remember vividly for themselves: James Dean's sidekick in "Rebel," Marlon Brando's drug-crazed acolyte in "Apocalypse Now," the terrifying gas-sniffing pervert of "Blue Velvet," the town drunk in "Hoosiers," a hit man in "Red Rock West," the villain in "Waterworld."

He was also an intellectual, although that side was masked by his somewhat notorious drug abuse, gradually escalating from the 1960s until about 1983. Some of those years were lost.

"I was thinking I had no life or any memory really until now," he told me one day in 1990. "There's always this fear of not being able to make the films, not being able to do the work. I don't think anybody, no matter how successful they get, ever loses that fear. If you've ever had a period of time, where you weren't allowed to work--maybe because you were doing drugs and alcohol, but you didn't know that was their reason--then the fear is always with you."

He was an honor student in school, he developed an early love of Shakespeare, he studied under Thomas Hart Benton as a child, he studied Method acting with Lee Strasberg, his photographs commanded gallery prices, and as an art collector he was early onto Pop Art and his collection became famous and influential.

As a director, he practiced a classic style. "I'm back with John Ford and Huston and Hawks--and Hathaway," he told me. "I learned a lot from Henry Hathaway when I was acting in 'The Sons of Katie Elder'." That would have been gratifying for Hathaway to hear; Wikipedia reports that on "From Hell to Texas" he refused Hathaway's instructions for 80 different takes over few days.

The turning point of his professional career came when he directed "Easy Rider" (1969) and starred in it with Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson; it was the movie that lifted his close friend Nicholson from obscure B movies into a stardom that lasts to this day. "We left America with a little motorcycle picture," he recalled, "we took it to the Cannes Film Festival, and we came back with a hit in our hands." The picture won the festival's Camera d'Or award, for best first film. "All of a sudden I was an auteur," he said.

The film cost $400,000 and grossed $60 million (in 1970s dollars) in its first three years in release. When I was writing a screenplay at 20th Century-Fox at the time, a producer moaned to me: "We're making these war movies and Westerns, and every producer in town has his nephew out in the desert shooting a motorcycle picture."

Dennis Hopper had no affectations. He was friendly, accessible, easy to talk with. He'd had great success without the affliction of great stardom. He was only 18 when he was signed by Warner Bros, 19 when he made "Rebel Without a Cause" (1956), and in those days when Hollywood was a studio town, he made friends and found work quickly, especially in countless episodes of TV dramas. Among his pals as a young man was John Wayne; they had their Republican politics in common.

At the end it was widely reported that he was broke, but in part that was because of a deathbed dispute with his wife, Victoria Duffy, about the disposition of his art collection. Visibly ill, he made one of his last appearances on March 26 at the dedication of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Describing himself as "a farm boy from Dodge City, Kansas" as he accepted his star, he said "Hollywood was my college."

Friday 28 May 2010

The Stories of Ray Bradbury

Mythologist of Our Age
Why Ray Bradbury's stories have seeped into the culture.

By Nathaniel Rich
Posted Monday, May 10, 2010, at 9:59 AM ET

Ray Bradbury is one of the most prolific writers of our time—and our parents' time, and our grandparents' time. As he approaches his 90th birthday, he continues to publish, his pace slowed only slightly by a stroke that requires him to write by dictation. (His daughter is his amanuensis; he calls her on the telephone and she faxes him back the typed pages.) Thanks to Fahrenheit 451, now required reading for every American middle-schooler, Bradbury is generally thought of as a writer of novels, but his talents—particularly his mastery of the diabolical premise and the brain-exploding revelation—are best suited to the short form. Two of his better-known novels, The Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine, are story collections in disguise, and even Fahrenheit 451 began as "The Fireman," a short story. So while the Everyman's Library edition of The Stories of Ray Bradbury—which includes only 100 stories and runs a mere 1,059 closely printed pages—represents just a microscopic fraction of Bradbury's work, it's not a bad place to start.

The best stories have a strange familiarity about them. They're like long-forgotten acquaintances—you know you've met them somewhere before. There is, for instance, the tale of the time traveler who goes back into time and accidentally steps on a butterfly, thereby changing irrevocably the course of history ("A Sound of Thunder"). There's the one about the man who buys a robotic husband to live with his wife so that he can be free to travel and pursue adventure—that's "Marionettes, Inc." (Not to be confused with "I Sing the Body Electric!" about the man who buys a robotic grandmother to comfort his children after his wife dies.) Or "The Playground," about the father who changes places with his son so that he can spare his boy the cruelty of childhood—forgetting exactly how cruel childhood can be. The stories are familiar because they've been adapted, and plundered from, by countless other writers—in books, television shows, and films. To the extent that there is a mythology of our age, Bradbury is one of its creators.

Science fiction dates as quickly as any genre, and Bradbury is not entirely immune to this. The futuristic rocket ships he wrote about in 1950 look a lot like the first-generation NASA rockets; the music of the future is Rachmaninoff and Duke Ellington; and in the terrifying "Mars is Heaven," the planet bears an eerie resemblance to Green Bluff, Ill., right down to Victorian houses "covered with scrolls and rococo." But the reason Bradbury's stories still sing on the page is that, despite all his humanoid robots, automated houses, and rocket men, his interest is not in future technologies but in people as they live now—and how the proliferation of convenient technology alters the way we think and the way we treat each other.

This is especially vivid in "The Murderer," in which a man is locked in an insane asylum for destroying "machines that yak-yak-yak." "If you're wondering why it's so quiet here," the madman tells his psychiatrist, "I just kicked the radio to death." The story, as might be expected, reveals the patient to be the only sane person in a world indentured to electronic stimuli. But Bradbury's skill is in evoking exactly how soul-annihilating that world is. After the psychiatrist leaves the madman's cell, he returns to his office to busy himself with his work. The terminology might be antiquated, but the mania is not:

Three phones rang. A duplicate wrist radio in his desk drawer buzzed like a wounded grasshopper. The intercom flashed a pink light and click-clicked. Three phones rang. The drawer buzzed. … The psychiatrist, humming quietly, fitted the new wrist radio to his wrist, flipped the intercom, talked a moment, picked up one telephone, talked, picked up another telephone, talked, picked up the third telephone, talked, touched the wrist-radio button, talked calmly and quietly, his face cool and serene, in the middle of the music and the lights flashing, the phones ringing again …

Bradbury is no ideologue, however, and he is certainly not a Luddite. The collection's most poignant speech, after all, is spoken by a robot. In "I Sing the Body Electric!" the mechanical grandmother stands before her skeptical, adopted family, and tries to win them over. "You ask what I am?" she says. "Why, a machine. But even in that answer we know, don't we, more than a machine. I am all the people who thought of me and planned me and built me and set me running. So I am people. I am all the things they wanted to be and perhaps could not be, so they built a great child, a wondrous toy to represent those things." It soon becomes clear that the clockwork grandmother is not trying to make this family, crippled by the death of their matriarch, love her. She is trying to make them love each other again. Deep down in their metallic hearts, Bradbury's machines are as human as their inventors. They yearn to feel, to love. The tragedies occur when human beings start acting like machines.

The exuberance of Bradbury's prose is at times almost childlike in its purity. You don't need to look further than the exclamatory titles he gives to so many of his stories ("Gotcha!" or "Have I Got a Chocolate Bar for You!" or "Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!"). But his vision is vast enough that he knows what lurks on the other side: disillusionment, disorder, cynicism. For Bradbury doesn't only do science fiction; he also, in equal proportion, does horror. ("Without Ray Bradbury, there would be no Stephen King," King once wrote.) And as these stories remind us again and again, nothing is more frightening than when the chaos of the real world intrudes on the blissful cocoon of youthful innocence. The irony in many of his stories is that the innocents are the adults, while the children are devious little homicidal maniacs.

Bradbury is an optimist at heart, but his head knows that hope may not be enough. He's seen the future, and it's not all grand pink-stoned chess cities on Mars and houses that tidy up after you. It's also knowing that the world is about to end and that there's nothing to do but lie under the covers and wait for oblivion to come. It's a room full of robots telling stories about the people who made them, long after the human race has vanished from the earth. It's a man in a space suit falling through the cosmos at 10,000 miles an hour, feeling his brain disintegrating, wondering what he can do "to make up for a terrible and empty life" in the final moments before he passes into nothingness. You read Bradbury with a growing sense of wonder and joy. It's only on reflection, after the stories take up residence in your head and crawl deep into the dark cracks and corners, that the wonder mutates into something closer to dread.

Thursday 27 May 2010

Powder Man by the absolutely fucking great Geoff Hattersley

"Fuck off!" he shouts.
"Get fucked!" I shout back.
It's how Jacko and I
say hello every day,
it keeps him happy
and amuses me too.
He's the powder man
who keeps the machines going,
it's a back-breaking job.
He prowls the factory
with a head full of films
like Full Metal Jacket,
punching things as he goes,
people if he's that way out.
In a U.S. Marine haircut
he'll say, "Outta the way, Buddy."
His neck's thicker
than some girls' waists.
"I'd shag any woman,"
he informs me,
"except for one."
He doesn't say
which one.


Geoff Hattersley " is a powerful and uncompromising poet " (Ian McMillan, Poetry Review), “stubbornly proletarian” (Darrell Hinchliffe, PN Review), “a welcome subversive” (Ray Hearne, Iron), “a laureate of the displaced” (Jim Burns, Prop), “authentically unpleasant” (James Keery, Poetry Review). “strange and savage and incomprehensible” (Tim Cumming, Billy Liar), “a more sophisticated writer than his anecdotal, start-anywhere manner may imply” (Sean O‚Brien, Sunday Times). “He doesn‚t get by on raw feeling alone, he has a certainty of touch that is often elegant” (Derrick Buttress, Bogg).”I can‚t think of many other contemporary poets who can represent the rhythms and tensions of our times as successfully as Geoff Hattersley” (Jim Burns, Scratch). “He has an holistic approach that goes well beyond the confines of the poetry sphere” (Steve Davies, Odyssey). “He tells it as it is and sometimes very wittily” (Anne Bowen, Poetry Wales). “He proves that the ingredients of our dull domestic lives can be made into provocative poetry” (Paul Donnelly, Odyssey), “characterised by a breezy wit and a robust faith in the vernacular” (Chris Greenhlagh, Times Literary Supplement), and there are “those who love it for its resolute straightforwardness and its refusal of the commonplace tricks of poets on the make” (Bill Hudson, The Penniless Press). “Hattersley presents himself almost seamlessly as a part of his working-class environment” (Ian Gregson, The North). “The bleakness, the irony, the disappointment, the turns and twists of Northern working class life could hardly be better conveyed” (Brian Merrikin Hill, Pennine Platform), although he “finds more surrealism in Barnsley than Barnsley itself would choose to recognise” (Roger Caldwell, Poetry Wales). His is “an accessible poetry of alienation” (Martin Stannard, The North), “punchy and to the point” (Terry Kelly, Shields Gazette), “cheeky, imaginative, cerebral, witty” (Douglas Dunn, Financial Times), “saucy” (Anthony Thwaite, Sunday Telegraph), “the real thing” (Tony Charles, Stride).

"For it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye."

funny animated gif


Wednesday 26 May 2010

Tonight's set list

At The Habit, York: -

I'm Just A Loser
One More Time
Love Song
Rescue Her Tears
Tell Me Why

Two young dudes brought a keyboard and did a killer version of One For My Baby.

Miles Davis...

...would be 84 today.

Familiar-looking busker at the Monument

Appeal in Salinger copyright case

An appeal against the banning of a book promoted as a sequel to JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye has been given the go-ahead.

In July, a judge in Manhattan's federal court blocked the US publication of 60 Years Later: Coming Through The Rye by Swedish novelist Fredrik Colting.

On Friday, an appeals court sent the case back to the federal court.

But in its ruling, the appeals court made it clear it expected Salinger's trust to prevail.

"Most of the matters relevant to Salinger's likelihood of success on the merits are either undisputed or readily established in his favour," the court ruled.

Salinger died in January at the age of 91.

When banning publication in July last year, Judge Deborah Batts concluded that Colting's novel too closely mirrored Mr Salinger's 1951 classic.

In her 37-page ruling, issued in Manhattan, she said the main character in Colting's novel - Mr C - was "an infringement" on Mr Salinger's main character, Holden Caulfield.

Colting claims his book, featuring a character based on Salinger's hero, is a literary commentary not a sequel.

The book came out in the UK in June last year.

The Catcher In The Rye, first published in 1951, is a tale of adolescent alienation which became one of the most influential American novels of the modern era.

The novel sees Caulfield wandering around New York and railing against the establishment, following his expulsion from boarding school.

Colting's novel sees 76-year-old Mr C - who the author has admitted is based on Caulfield - escape from a retirement home and head to New York.

Both books end near a carousel in Central Park.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Is it fixed, Terry?

Mel Brooks - The Hitler Rap

Woman Becomes Grand Old Graduate At 94

A Californian woman has proved that education is a lifelong pursuit by graduating from college at the grand old age of 94.

Hazel Soares, who has six children and more than 40 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, has become the world's second oldest person to earn a degree.

She admitted that in collecting her art history honours she had fulfilled a 78-year ambition.

Born in Richmond, California in 1915, the Great Depression had stripped her of her first opportunity to attend college after graduating from school in 1932.

"Unless you had some help, it would have been impossible to go," Ms Soares said. "However I never lost the desire.

"It's taken me quite a long time because I've had a busy life. I'm finally achieving it, and it makes me feel really good."

The veteran was congratulated by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who delivered the keynote speech at Mills College, an all-women's school in Oakland.

She was cheered on by classmates and family members during the ceremony.

"The biggest thing that we can all learn is that we're never too old," said Regina Hungerford, Ms Soares' youngest child.

But her mother does not plan to relax after finally achieving her goal.

She will forgo the common post-graduation gap year to work as a museum guide in the San Francisco Bay area.

"There's no reason why you could not go back," Ms Soares added.

"Some people do give up the idea or postpone the idea. It's too late. It's too much work. They may not realise that, once you try it, it's exciting to go to school."

She has still got a little bit of learning left to do to claim the world record though.

In 2007, Nola Ochs of Kansas became the world's oldest graduate when she received her honours from Fort Hays State University, aged 95.

Now 98, last week she proved she is in a class of her own and pushed the academic-age bar higher by collecting a master's degree in liberal studies.

Ray Alan RIP

Lord Charles was unavailable for comment


Sunday 23 May 2010


A rare glimpse of Jim relaxing at home (Oh Jesus! Pray for Carole!)...

Peter Sellers - by Michael Sellers
Lots of stuff you've probably heard before - but if you haven't, it's only up until Thursday

Stan Laurel speaks

One of the earliest FNB on record recalls his life in showbusiness:

Friday Boy Quiz: Name the pub from where this snap was taken.

The winner bags a copy of Slim Whitman's greatest hits, including an extra track - Slim's remarkable version of Dylan's Blind Willie McTell.

Saturday 22 May 2010

Ian and Terry ... Get a Room!

Raw Spirit: Iain Banks on Islay

The first signpost you see coming off the ferry at Port Ellen on Islay has only two words on it; it points right to ARDBEG and left to BOWMORE. Brilliant, I thought; a road sign that is made up of 100 per cent of distillery names; a proclamation that you are on a Island where making of whisky is absolutely integral to the place itself, where directions are defined by drink!This was, patently, a great place to start the distillery tour. I love Islay whiskies. There are seven working distilleries on the island - pretty good given that there are less than three thousand people on the place - each producing their own distinctive whiskies, and I have a deep affection for all of them. I have favourites amongst those seven basic malts; but they're basically in my top twenty Scotches. This may, I suppose, over the course of the next two or three months as I visit distilleries throughout Scotland and taste whiskies I've only ever heard of before (and in a few cases, never heard of before), but I doubt it will make that much difference; it's hard to believe there are tastes as dramatic as the Islay malts that have somehow escaped the attention of me and my pals.

The reason I've taken to them so much is, I suppose, that Islay whiskies are just generally bursting with flavour. Actually, make that bursting with flavours, plural. I came to the realisation many years ago that I like big, strong, even aggressive tastes: cheddars so sharp they make your eyes water, curries in general, though preferably fairly hot, Thai meals, garlic-heavy Middle-Eastern mezes, Chilli-saturated Mexican dishes, hugely fruity Ozzie wines and thumpingly, almost aggressively flavoured whiskies (for the record things I don't like are: Brussels sprouts, marzipan, cherries and Amaretto. Plus one other category of foodstuff that we'll come to's a bit embarrassing).

Distinguishing between different styles of Islays, the most obvious micro area lies in the south, on the shore stretch of coast - extravagantly frayed, wildly indented, profusely hummocked ad multifariously cragged - facing south east towards the Mull of Kintyre.
The three southern coastal whiskies of Islay - with Laphroaig in particular providing the radical example - constitute what is almost a different drink from whisky. The distinction is that sharp; I know several people who like their drink, love their whisky - be it the stuff you'd serve to somebody who has severely overstayed their welcome or the special reserve you'd only bring out for the most special of special occasions - who hate Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig with a vengeance. Of the three, they usually especially hate Lagavulin and Laphroaig, and, out that pair, reserve their most intense aversion for Laphroaig. ... The Islay distilleries are all pretty spoiled when it comes to setting. The two least favoured are Bruichladdich and Bowmore, the former because it's just a pleasant assemblage of buildingsby a nice wee village on a stretch of shore which is by turns sandy and rocky, with a broad, shallow sea loch in front and low, tree-lined hills behind (see, its actually in a pretty damn spiffing situation, but we are talking relative values here); the latter because it's roughly similar context on the opposite side of Loch Indaal and is part of the town of Bowmore. In fact, the distillery's so intergrated into the rest of the town that, when its stills are producing, the excess hot water helps to heat the municipal swimming pool next door. Again, Bowmore, Islay's effective capital, is a fine, attractive little town and no disgrace at all to the smart, tidy distillery on its southern perimeter, it's just that the other Islay distilleries are so much more dramatic in their surrounding.

The three south coasters look out to the long arm of the sea that is the ? well, to be honest I'm not sure. Even after scrutinising my dad's old Admiralty charts I can't decide whether it's a sort of out-pouching of the Irish sea, part of the Atlantic or the start of the sound of Jura. Anyway it's deepish water, and can be wild in a winter storm. Small islands - more like jagged scatters of rock - pierce the water offshore and the distilleries look sort of nestled into the broken folds of the sea -facing, land, as if they've squatted there amongst the boulders, lochans and trees and then sort of wriggled about to get themselves hunkered down and comfortable.

They look elegant. They have whitewashed walls, black roofs and black detailing, pagodas standing proud, clipped lawns ad a general air of discreet pride. Handily, all of themhave their names in VERY LARGE LETTERS painted in black on their tallest seaward walls, so if you take photo from the right angle you never need to scratch your head and mutter, Well, I think it looks like Laphroaig, but maybe it's Ardbeg ...
Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain sit in even more dramatic scenery, wedged at the bottom of steep hillsides as though teetering on the brink of falling in to the sea, looking respectively across and up the sound of Jura, with the Paps of Jura across rising in an appropriately, if colossally, mammiform manner across the water. There used to be a quite spectacularly complete but rusty wreck lying at a steep angle up on the rocks just along the coast from Bunnahabain - I remember seeing it from the ferry as we approached Colonsay, a dozen years or so ago - but the same stormy seas that drove the ship there in the first place have pounded it to pieces since and there's little left to see now.

Given its remote and wild situation it seems almost odd that Bunnahabhain produces what is in some ways the lightest, least dramatic Islay whisky; it's still quite oily and salty while being moderately sherry-sweet and has a hint of peat, but it's a mellow drink compared to the others, and also compared to its dramatic, throw-down setting. I feel I'm kind of damning it with faint praise here, but it's actually a very fine malt, and if all the Islays were as ferociously heavy hitting as Laphroaig, brandishing their peat, smoke and iodine in your face, the island would lose a great deal; Bunnahabhain is more the strong, silent type, and none the worse for that. Quite a lot of it goes into Black Bottle, making it perhaps the best reasonably- priced blend on the market, certainly for Islay lovers.
Extracts from Raw Spirit by Iain Banks published by Century; The Random House Group Limited
Hey, buy the book. I read it last year while being driven around Skye in search of something resembling August weather and it certainly coloured my whisky purchasing on the island and en route back to the land of the semi-free.

Most of the photos are from