Thursday 31 January 2013

Frank Sinatra - Top Ten (maybe...)

Related image
The Top Ten Sinatras
An Audiophilia Top Ten.
JANUARY 2, 2013

On New Year’s Eve, I sent a message to our own Harry Currie, the world’s foremost Sinatra scholar and an incredible singer in his own right, requesting an almost impossible task, at least for him. It’s only that I’ve known him literally my whole life (plus a little begging) that he concurred. For Harry, compiling a Ten Best list of Sinatra recordings is akin to asking him ‘who’s your favourite kid?’.
His email reply was ‘…that’s a tough one - at times he was effervescent, at times introspective, and no one has ever touched him when he was at his best in both categories. I’ll do my best. No particular order.
July 1960. Capitol.
July 1960. Capitol.
January 1958. Capitol.
January 1958. Capitol.
September 1958. Capitol.
September 1958. Capitol.
April 1955. Capitol.
April 1955. Capitol.
January 1957. Capitol.
January 1957. Capitol.
January 1954. Capitol.
January 1954. Capitol.
March 1967. Reprise.
March 1967. Reprise.
August 1954. Capitol.
August 1954. Capitol.
March 1962. Capitol.
March 1962. Capitol.
November 1962. Reprise.
November 1962, Reprise

Swing Easy and Songs for Young Lovers were the first recordings with his developed, mature voice, and Nelson Riddle. Come Fly with Me, with Billy May - Wow! Close to You was his most introspective and adventurous, with the Hollywood String Quartet. Point of No Return, his last Capitol LP, with Axel Stordahl as arranger. Listen to When the World Was Young. I listen, and it still moves me. The Capitol years were his very best, with a few during Reprise. The British album is a personal favourite because of arranger Robert Farnon — Bob sent me the chart of The Very Thought of You which I sang with the Kitchener — Waterloo Symphony Orchestra and Victoria Symphony, and I transcribed for Windjammers. Other albums are close, but I think these are my picks.

Cheers, Harry

Wednesday 30 January 2013

Keith Crombie of the Newcastle Jazz Cafe: a tribute on film

This is Duncan Davis's tribute to his friend Keith Crombie.

Keith Crombie created a tiny piece of Paris in Pink Lane, a small back street in Newcastle upon Tyne. His Jazz Cafe became a haven for music lovers, artists, students and eccentrics. 

Many famous actors visiting the town would unwind there after a performance at one of the cities theatres and some of the worlds greatest jazz musicians would congregate there after an official gig in the area.

Film maker Duncan Davis, a friend of Keith Crombie for 35 years, felt that the Jazz Cafe needed to be recorded.

Unfortunately Crombie died during filming,

Newcastle came to a standstill as his friends joined him on his last journey from Pink Lane, through the centre of the city, a tiny bit of which he transformed into a Parisian Jazz Cafe...

Film by Duncan Davis

Look out for Len Flynn, the genial barman from The Crown Posada!

Tuesday 29 January 2013

Last night's set list

At the Fulford Arms, York: -

I'll Follow The Sun
Tell Me Why
Love Art Blues
Human Highway
Till There Was You

The night finished off with a Velvet Underground-like jam session, minus Mo Tucker and John Cale, but otherwise recognisable (see above). Continued requests from the floor for each & every performer to play Tiger Feet were met with derision.

Sunday 27 January 2013

Paul Buchanan Interview in The Vinyl District

By Jon
Published: January 9, 2013

If you’re like me, perhaps you take to Facebook a wee too often some evenings sharing music. And perhaps this shared music strikes a chord with a friend who is equally as effusive with the “like button.” And perhaps the invitation arises that affords an opportunity to put said friend—Chad Clark of Washington, DC band Beauty Pill—in contact with the musician inspiring the evening’s muse, Paul Buchanan of The Blue Nile, whose brand new US release, Mid Air is in stores now. Well, perhaps you’re reading that conversation at present. —Ed.

Chad Clark: One of the things that attracted me (and many others, I’m sure) to The Blue Nile was the band’s daring and imaginative use of sonic texture. There was always a delicate, elegant, painterly quality to the records that seemed deeply felt, deeply considered. Some of the early sounds were almost non-musical: the sound of bicycles wheels spinning and such. Always at the center of it was your voice and your imagistic words.

This is something that influenced me greatly as a musician to experiment and explore textures in the studio. This “texturalism” (for lack of a better word) leads me to a few different questions. It seems to me that The Blue Nile was sort of is its own impossible-to name genre. Would you agree?
Paul Buchanan: I suppose we pursued our own shared imagination. What was important was the sense of the song, so recognisable licks were out. We tried to create the world in which the person in the song belonged.

I can’t really think of “peers” who worked in a similar terrain. Did you regard yourselves as having peers or did you feel like you were working in a field of your own? If so, was that lonely? Or did you enjoy the feeling of making your own world?
Yes, we were in our own world, and just doing the best we could to capture the idea. We had no money, no phone.

The Blue Nile’s sonic adventurousness proved to be subtly groundbreaking. Did you have conscious ambitions to break ground, to innovate? Or, were you just following your instincts? Did you just innocently happen upon those ideas or was there a sense of deliberate design to the path you chose?
Circumstance and limitations shape what you do as much as your imagination, don’t they? Marrying the two is a step forward. You’re right—we stumbled on ideas and followed our instincts. We played the way we could play.

From a certain perspective, the minimalism of Mid Air seems like the most austere departure from The Blue Nile’s densely layered, appointed aesthetic. For the most part, Mid Air is just your voice and piano and there’s a strongly solitary, plaintive character to the record.
Yes, we talked a lot about depth, height, distance, etc. in the band. For Mid Air, the important overall picture was different, the frame of the imagination was solitude, separation from the city outside in that moment.

You’ve done spare song arrangements, but would you agree that Mid Air is the farthest you’ve gone in this direction? What inspired that? Sometimes artists react to their past; was the spareness of Mid Air a way of “shedding” the Blue Nile’s sound? Or was it purely about what suited these songs?
I didn’t plan it, it’s just what came out; I suppose it reflected how I was feeling. I don’t envisage doing this again – but you never know. For now, I want something more candy stripe, but for Mid Air, it was important the sound and the music were consistent with the title.

The brevity of the new songs seems like a deliberate choice. Most of these songs are just over two minutes long! The Blue Nile was known for its extended cinematic overtures, hypnotic, repeating songs. Many of them were two or three times the length of the songs on Mid Air.
When I listened back to the dictaphone, the ideas seemed compact and complete. I didn’t elaborate on them; I hoped all together there was a sense behind the record, and each chapter played it’s part.

Was it a conscious struggle to keep these songs lean in length? Was it to accompany the sparseness of the arrangements? It seems “humble” in a way. Or was the length just natural to this set of songs? Having previously worked with longer forms, did you find that it demanded discipline? Did the brevity take more work or less work?
I hoped that within the time of each song there was another geography, if you accepted the importance of each note, and the spaces, then time would change.

There’s a paradox in your work and it seems even more acute on this album. Your songs have great mystery, but the words are often very plain. You seem to mostly adhere to common spoken language. It is pretty rare that you will use an overtly intellectual or exotic word, but still there’s an enduring literary quality.

You seem to work in inference and suggestion. The unadorned simplicity seems honed and carved, hard-fought-for. This is in contrast to, for example, Elvis Costello—someone who frequently entangles the listener in dense wordplay. Your songs seem the opposite: perfectly distilled.

The opening line of “Buy A Motor Car” is this: “Buy a motor car and drive somewhere you believe…” It’s not fancy language, but there’s a lot of emotional information there. There’s the choice to use the somewhat antique word “motor car,” which suggests nostalgia. And then there’s the graceful abstraction of “drive somewhere you believe…” Does this stealthy simplicity come naturally to you or do you work to keep the language plain in your writing? Or is this just a gift?
Somehow the plainness works better—I don’t want to get in the way of someone listening, and prefer to find expressions we all use. Using “motor car” is to suggest a timelessness or location, or more precisely a sense that the memory is not absolutely in the present moment, which I try for at times. Mostly, I am trying to keep the ground open in the hope of suggesting shared or collective emotional experiences and feelings, so I don’t like to interrupt that with specifics.

Are there other songwriters you admire?
The list of songwriters I admire is endless—I don’t know how they do it. In some ways I am doing the same drawing over and over, trying to get it right.

Is it ever important to you to be “understood” in a linear, literal sense? Or would you consider yourself always an abstract impressionist?
At best, I would be hoping to invoke the unconscious, that life cannot be boiled down to straight lines.

I have, for example, no precise understanding of what exactly transpires or has transpired in “The Wedding Party.” I don’t know whether it’s confessional/ personal or whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. The words are almost as elliptical as a haiku and the picture is slightly out of focus. 

There’s no way for me to precisely understand what happens in that song, but I do get a strong feeling of sadness from it.

Are you comfortable with this mystery? Are you okay if people only leave a song with a general sense of tone and not specific story or text?
Yes, that is what I want…for someone to apply the general colours to their own life and experience. To their own love story.

“Two Children” has a rosy, sweet hopefulness to it. It took me by surprise until I gave it further thought and realized that you have many songs that are brightly optimistic and grateful in The Blue Nile canon. There is even ecstasy there.

When people characterize you as a melancholic/anguished singer, do you feel that this is fair? Or do you feel that it is overly narrow? Have people have overlooked the happier aspects of your work?
I understand and can see that it is true. I don’t think there is anything wrong with admitting the things that advertising misses out, but in the end I hope there is a belief in our spirit, and our capacity to love and imagine love. Ecstasy is a perfect word for unconditional love, or liberation from what oppresses.

There seems to be a faintly devotional character to some of your lyrics, but it is very rarely made explicit. My sense as a fan is that you’re a person of faith—I could be wrong about this, of course! I only know you through your music—but this is usually only very faintly insinuated in your songs.

Do you consciously limit or craft the presence of spirituality in your songs? Or do you just write what you feel and not worry about whether it pushes the songs closer to or farther from that kind of expression?
I believe in the way people used to believe we could land on the moon. I don’t know the physics, but I suppose there is evidence of humanity yearning. Describing God causes so much trouble—the hope for better, and an awareness that some things lift you out beyond yourself is as much as I can express.

The Blue Nile had a song called “Sentimental Man” and I kind of regard you as being defiantly proud of that characterization. Would you agree? Do you think that the modern world undervalues or disparages the word “sentiment?”
I think commerce often shifts sentiment off to the side, except a very base kind to elicit reaction. People are more complex and refined in their empathies and feelings for others I think. Watching TV with the sound down is an example; you still react, because you are getting the information you need without the distraction of words. I find it sad music is sometimes played beneath the news. People’s sentiments are far more advanced than that.

Because of time between releases, many fans perceive you as a perfectionist, but I don’t. I feel that the value of so much of your work—and certainly this is the case for Mid Air—is in the vulnerability. I feel like there has always been a vulnerability in your voice and you don’t try to sing “perfectly.” If you did sing “perfectly,” your singing would be boring. And it’s not, it’s compelling!

So, speaking for myself, I regard you as someone who pursues truth more than perfection. How do you feel about being regarded as a perfectionist? Have you struggled with perfectionism?
I struggle with my own inabilities, but have come to regard work as a learning process; simplicity and keeping the mind clear is good. When I’m an old man I’ll remember all the trials and failures and that’ll save time! At times I’ve got mixed up, but always in pursuit of the shape that is already in the stone of the idea. I wouldn’t know what perfect is really, except in terms of how much any song manages to be true to its self. Besides…it almost always eludes me.

You have one of the world’s most beloved singing voices. Do you have influences on your singing? Were you always aware of the power of your voice? Did you sing as a child? Do you sing often? Or just when you’re writing or recording?
I am blushing. I could never seem to fit in the key in school, and I guess at home now I sing, sitting around in the kitchen playing the guitar or in the living room with a piano, and of course sing hopelessly along with records.

I can’t sing the way singers I love do, so I just try to make sure there is no affectation, and sing like I was talking to someone. It also depends on the person I’m seeing saying the things. I suppose the most important things are the meaning of the words and the tone of how they are being said. People register honesty, so to gain that trust you have to make sure the singing is not about you singing.

You have very boldly built Mid Air on just two chief elements; your voice and piano. It seems to me this takes confidence to be so exposed. Would you self-regard as a confident singer?
No, I hope for the best ! Plus, I’ve heard some of the outtakes…

The Blue Nile’s music seems to be dating very well—time has been kind to those records and they still sound fresh and classic. Is this something that’s important to you? Are you conscious of building a body of work that will last? Walk Across The Rooftops and Hats are being reissued and your bandmates oversaw the remastering process. Have you heard those albums recently? What are your thoughts on those albums now?
We tried to make something that wasn’t obviously of a certain time. When I heard those records recently, I was struck by the love and hard work that had gone into them. The best of it, somehow, happens when you forget yourself, and almost go beyond the thoughts that have got you there.

Do you expect you will continue in the stark, plaintive direction suggested by Mid Air or do you feel that this is a “one-off” project?
I’m glad I recorded Mid Air. It must have been how I was feeling because I didn’t set out to write or make a record, it came out pretty direct and directly out of circumstances. I didn’t add to the structures or arrangements because it came from somewhere true, and I just followed it.

Is there a possibility of another lushly designed Blue Nile album? What do you think the future holds?
I keep saying the next record will be a comedy, and it will. I am following the songs I have, which seem to me joyful and affirmative, and tender but with strength in them. I would love to reaffirm some ideals that were lost and challenged along the way. I would like it to have some golden light in it, and good feeling.

Paul Buchanan Official | Facebook

Thursday 24 January 2013

Keith Crombie's Newcastle Jazz Café to reopen?

Club would be music to Keith Crombie’s ears

by Joanne Butcher
Evening Chronic
Jan 17 2013

EFFORTS are being made to re-open Newcastle’s Jazz Cafe following the death of Keith Crombie.
The cafe closed following his death just before new year.

At his funeral on Monday, hundreds joined a New Orleans-style procession through the city’s streets

Now, regulars are coming together to try to carry on Mr Crombie’s vision for the jazz venue, which attracted performers from across the globe over its 20-year history.

The Pink Lane Jazz Co-op group on social networking site Facebook asks for members and investors to join a community-led bid to re-open the cafe.

The building has been closed for over a week since the landlord cancelled the lease.

“A group of local residents, jazz lovers, musicians, poets and others are forming a community co-operative with the aim of running Newcastle’s iconic Jazz Cafe, which closed following the untimely death of the proprietor Keith Crombie,” the group says.

“We plan to preserve the commitment to live jazz and poetry and the unique ambience of the venue established over the last 20 years.

“Our first objective is to negotiate with the landlord and any relevant authorities to re-open the Jazz Cafe as soon as possible.”

It was standing room only on Monday as Mr Crombie, nicknamed ‘The Jazz Man’, was laid to rest at St Thomas the Martyr Church in the Haymarket.

Musicians played a final farewell to the 74-year-old as they followed his coffin, in a horse-drawn carriage, from the Pink Lane cafe through the streets.

Mr Crombie had run the Jazz Cafe for more than two decades, turning it into a mecca for visiting performers and music aficionados.

He died on December 29 after being admitted to the city’s RVI with a lung infection on Boxing Day.

Last week, locks were changed at the venue and a possession notice appeared on the doors.

But landlord Mike Tilley, the founder and managing director of nearby Newcastle Arts Centre, said it did not spell the end of the cafe and welcomed moves to reinstate it as a jazz venue. He said the lease had been forfeited in order to secure the building.

Mr Tilley said: “In its current condition it cannot operate.

“Our aim would be to see a live jazz venue there again, as Keith put his life and soul into making the Jazz Cafe work.

“But it needs major investment.”

Keith Crombie vents:

Last night's set lists

At The Habit, York: -

(solo): -
Love Song
Is It Only The Moonlight?
Southern Man

(The Elderly Brothers): -
Cry To Me
Proud Mary
Let It Be Me
When You Walk In The Room
You Got It

A crazy night in The Habit - quiet to start with, but very busy later. Some great music from Sarah Horn, Colin Rowntree and Simon Micklethwaite. A trip to Bar 1331 was unnecessary but delightful.

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Art and Winter...

Tales of Winter: The Art of Snow and Ice

Winter was not always beautiful. Until Pieter Bruegel painted Hunters in the Snow, the long bitter months had never been transformed into a thing of beauty. This documentary charts how mankind's ever-changing struggle with winter has been reflected in western art throughout the ages, resulting in images that are now amongst the greatest paintings of all time. With contributions from Grayson Perry, Will Self, Don McCullin and many others, the film takes an eclectic group of people from all walks of life out into the cold to reflect on the paintings that have come to define the art of snow and ice.

Available to watch on BBC iPlayer for seven more days

Tuesday 22 January 2013

John Burnside: Something Like Happy review

Something Like Happy by John Burnside - review 
A short story collection with a chill in its bones

Stuart Kelly
Saturday 19 January 2013

Readers familiar with John Burnside's poetry, novels or memoirs will be well aware of the unique mythology that he has been assiduously, slyly and persistently building across his creative work. Burnside's is a world of secrets, disappearances and silences, of cautious redemptions, misunderstood epiphanies and surreptitious joy, where what we think of as reality is always fraying into the surreal, the insane and that which is beyond our understanding. As such, Something Like Happy, his first collection of short stories since Burning Elvis, puts the reader into familiarly unfamiliar territory, but in an unsettling way. For those unacquainted with his sublimely terrifying oeuvre, this is the place to start.

A short story collection, ideally, should have a sense of internal cohesion without its contents becoming variations on a theme, and a sense of the unexpected without the stories becoming a display of separate virtuosities. Burnside negotiates a sure‑footed path through these different traps. Some stories suggest that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophies; others are resolutely in the here and now. There is a clutch of stories about older women and the way they feverishly control their desires. Others have a more obvious connection: late in "Lost Someone", the reader realises that they already know how the story will end, since it is a different perspective on the events narrated in "Godwit". Some of the connections are so subtle as to be like an itch.

"Slut's Hair" is almost archetypal Burnside. A woman, in a Dundee tenement, is stuck in a relationship where her husband's aggressive interrogations about her happiness are a form of torture. When she reveals she has toothache, and they can't afford a dentist, he resorts to whisky and a pair of electrician's pliers (a typically sharp-eyed detail). He then goes off to the pub, leaving her alone: the classic miserabilist Scottish short story would end there. But in Burnside's version, it segues into her finding a creature – "at first she thought it looked like a tiny, malnourished cat, only it was blue and too small even for a kitten; then, as her eyes adjusted, she saw that it was a fox, or something like a fox, with that keen clever face a fox has in children's books". Just as her husband returns home drunk, she realises it has escaped her grasp – if it ever was there – leaving behind what some call dust bunnies and what is sometimes called in Scotland slut's hair. The very next story – a far more "realistic" affair – uses the phrase "slut's hair" in describing the contents of a schoolboy's desk. That hazy, horrid uncertainty of connections makes the individual stories chime and resonate with each other in a re‑readable way.

There are lots of readers in Burnside's stories, but only two named authors stand out. In "Perfect and Private Things", the university lecturer specialises in Weldon Kees, a poet whose life story is a miniature of Burnside's obsession with strange disappearances. "The Deer-Larder" features an aging, ill narrator who receives emails seemingly unintended for him, from a man writing a biography of Maupassant. The narrator – both more clever and more stupid than the reader – thinks it an elaborate online game around Maupassant's "The Horla", his correspondent's attempt to do a Lovecraftian "Weird Tale". The truth is far more eerie.

Violence simmers under the surface of every story, breaking out in the kind of stark detail that becomes unforgettable (in "Roccolo" there is the puncturing of a bird's eye with a needle, in "A Winter's Tale" the narrator's illness is put in perspective with him giving a lift to a young man wearing make-up and fishnets with a gash in his leg). Almost all the stories have a wintry setting or a nip in the air or a chill in the bone.

As mentioned, one story is even called "A Winter's Tale", and the whole brings to mind the Shakespeare scene that gives that play its title: the child, Mamillius, tells his mother "a sad tale's best for winter", and she asks him to "do your best / to fright me with your sprites; you're powerful at it". He whispers a story the audience never hears. Burnside is powerful at it, and yet the reader feels the whole time that they too might have missed the whispered real story, and that they are just eavesdroppers on an unmentionable tragedy elsewhere.

Monday 21 January 2013

Winners & losers

Michael Winner, who has died aged 77, was one of Britain’s few commercially viable film directors; he also followed a late-flowering vocation as a belligerent restaurant critic, becoming one of the country’s most outrageous and opinionated food writers.  
In the course of a film career lasting some 40 years, he made more than 30 pictures, among which were sharp social comedies such as The System (1963) and The Jokers (1966). But he derived his wealth and lasting reputation from later Hollywood hokum such as the frenzied and graphically violent Death Wish series.
Preceded by his faux film noir capers such as The Mechanic (1972) and The Stone Killer (1973), “all long on gore,” as one observer put it, “and short on sense”, Winner’s controversial blockbuster Death Wish (1974), starred Charles Bronson as a middle-class architect on a gory mission of vengeance after street muggers murder his wife and rape his daughter.
Many critics complained that Winner’s film exploited American paranoia over rising urban violence. “Michael Winner stacks the deck to make vigilante justice the only recourse against widespread crime,” declared one. The public, on the other hand, could scarcely get enough of the action; cinema audiences burst into applause each time a mugger was shot on screen, and even the celebrated American reviewer Judith Crist, admiring its theme of “Aristotelian purgation”, confessed to numbering the film among her guilty pleasures.
Most American film writers took Winner seriously as a director, admiring his swift efficiency and unerring knack of coming in on, or under, budget. But in Britain he was widely regarded as a flaky, loud-mouthed show-off. Certainly Winner was always larger-than-life. He drove a Rolls-Royce, paid no attention to his appearance (he was notorious for his jumble sale jackets and single pair of battered shoes) and was rarely seen without an enormous Monte Cristo cigar.
Portrayed as “offensive, loud and bumptious”, Winner’s egregious manner provoked comparison with Genghis Khan and even close friends found him “cherubic, cheerful and dreadful”. Flamboyant, often boorish, he was, in many ways, his own worst enemy. 

Woody Allen - Hypochondria: An Inside Look

Hypochondria: An Inside Look
Woody Allen
Published: January 12, 2013 

WHEN The New York Times called, inquiring if I might pen a few words “from the horse’s mouth” about hypochondria, I confess I was taken aback. What light could I possibly shed on this type of crackpot behavior since, contrary to popular belief, I am not a hypochondriac but a totally different genus of crackpot?

What I am is an alarmist, which is in the same ballpark as the hypochondriac or, should I say, the same emergency room. Still there is a fundamental difference. I don’t experience imaginary maladies — my maladies are real.

What distinguishes my hysteria is that at the appearance of the mildest symptom, let’s say chapped lips, I instantly leap to the conclusion that the chapped lips indicate a brain tumor. Or maybe lung cancer. In one instance I thought it was Mad Cow.

The point is, I am always certain I’ve come down with something life threatening. It matters little that few people are ever found dead of chapped lips. Every minor ache or pain sends me to a doctor’s office in need of reassurance that my latest allergy will not require a heart transplant, or that I have misdiagnosed my hives and it’s not possible for a human being to contract elm blight.

Unfortunately, my wife bears the brunt of these pathological dramas. Like the time I awoke at 3 a.m. with a spot on my neck that to me clearly had the earmarks of a melanoma. That it turned out to be a hickey was confirmed only later at the hospital after much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Sitting at an ungodly hour in the emergency room where my wife tried to talk me down, I was making my way through the five stages of grief and was up to either “denial” or “bargaining” when a young resident fixed me with a rather supercilious eye and said sarcastically, “Your hickey is benign.”

But why should I live in such constant terror? I take great care of myself. I have a personal trainer who has me up to 50 push-ups a month, and combined with my knee bends and situps, I can now press the 100-pound barbell over my head with only minimal tearing of my stomach wall. I never smoke and I watch what I eat, carefully avoiding any foods that give pleasure. (Basically, I adhere to the Mediterranean diet of olive oil, nuts, figs and goat cheese, and except for the occasional impulse to become a rug salesman, it works.) In addition to yearly physicals I get all available vaccines and inoculations, making me immune to everything from Whipple’s disease to the Andromeda strain.

As far as vitamins go, if I take a few with each meal, over time I can usually get in quite a lot before the latest study confirms they’re worthless. Regarding medications, I’m flexible but prudent because while it’s true antibiotics kill bad bacteria, I’m always afraid they’ll kill my good bacteria, not to mention my pheromones, and then I won’t give off any sexual vibes in a crowded elevator.

It’s also true that when I leave the house to go for a stroll in Central Park or to Starbucks for a latte I might just pick up a quick cardiogram or CT scan prophylactically. My wife calls this nonsense and says that in the end it’s all genetic. My parents both lived to ripe old ages but absolutely refused to pass their genes to me as they believed an inheritance often spoils the child.

Even when the results of my yearly checkup show perfect health, how can I relax knowing that the minute I leave the doctor’s office something may start growing in me and, by the time a full year rolls around, my chest X-ray will look like a Jackson Pollock? Incidentally, this relentless preoccupation with health has made me quite the amateur medical expert. Not that I don’t make an occasional mistake — but what doctor doesn’t? For example, I once convinced a woman who experienced a mild ringing in her ears that she had the flesh-eating bacteria, and another time I pronounced a man dead who had simply dozed off in a chair.

But what’s this obsession with personal vulnerability? When I panic over symptoms that require no more than an aspirin or a little calamine lotion, what is it I’m really frightened of? My best guess is dying. I have always had an animal fear of death, a fate I rank second only to having to sit through a rock concert. My wife tries to be consoling about mortality and assures me that death is a natural part of life, and that we all die sooner or later. Oddly this news, whispered into my ear at 3 a.m., causes me to leap screaming from the bed, snap on every light in the house and play my recording of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” at top volume till the sun comes up.

I sometimes imagine that death might be more tolerable if I passed away in my sleep, although the reality is, no form of dying is acceptable to me with the possible exception of being kicked to death by a pair of scantily clad cocktail waitresses.

Perhaps if I were a religious person, which I am not, although I sometimes do have the intimation that we all may be part of something larger — like a Ponzi scheme. A great Spanish philosopher wrote that all humans long for “the eternal persistence of consciousness.” Not an easy state to maintain, especially when you’re dining with people who keep talking about their children.

And yet, there are worse things than death. Many of them playing at a theater near you. For instance, I would not like to survive a stroke and for the rest of my life talk out of the side of my mouth like a racetrack tout. I would also not like to go into a coma, to lie in a hospital bed where I’m not dead but can’t even blink my eyes and signal the nurse to switch the channel from Fox News. And incidentally, who’s to say the nurse isn’t one of those angel of death crazies who hates to see people suffer and fills my intravenous glucose bag with Exxon regular.

Worse than death, too, is to be on life support listening to my loved ones in a heated debate over whether to terminate me and hear my wife say, “I think we can pull the plug, it’s been 15 minutes and we’ll be late for our dinner reservation.”

What worries me most is winding up a vegetable — any vegetable, and that includes corn, which under happier circumstances I rather like. And yet is it really so great to live forever? Sometimes in the news I see features about certain tall people who reside in snow-capped regions where a whole village population lives to 140 or so. Of course all they ever eat is yogurt, and when they finally do die they are not embalmed but pasteurized. And don’t forget these healthy people walk everyplace because try getting a cab in the Himalayas. I mean do I really want to pass my days in some remote place where the main entertainment is seeing which guy in town can lift the ox highest with his bare hands?

Summing up, there are two distinct groups, hypochondriacs and alarmists. Both suffer in their own ways, and traits of one group may overlap the other, but whether you’re a hypochondriac or an alarmist, at this point in time, either is probably better than being a Republican.

Sunday 20 January 2013

Edouard Manet at the Royal Academy

Manet's portraits: the artist on the knife-edge of photography
With his snatched street scenes and glimpses of private moments, Manet's portraits are snapshots seen through the gaze of the artist, as a new exhibition at London's Royal Academy reveals

Philip Hensher
The Guardian
Saturday 12 January 2013

Manet was the last French painter to love black for a very long time. The museum habit of placing him among the Impressionists has a curious effect. In New York's Metropolitan Museum, stepping from the interminable Renoir rooms into the Manet room produces a shock; stepping back produces another one, not quite in reverse. Renoir, who believed and said that black did not exist, that all shadows had a colour, apparently succeeded a painter who loved the knife-edge contrasts of black. The intense matadors of Manet give way to the smiling pastel matrons of Renoir; dramatic costumes, as if for a stage performance or a last appearance in the arena, are succeeded by a natural sincerity. Black disappeared after Manet, not to reappear until Matisse. Pleasingly, the aged Renoir lived to be deeply shocked by the black horizontal bar in Matisse's Intérieur à Nice, now in Philadelphia.

Visitors to the Royal Academy's new blockbuster Manet exhibition will be immediately struck by the glowering, Spanish-flavoured black, which separates him so strongly from the next generation. But on the other hand, there are aspects of Manet's painterly practice that root him powerfully in his own time, and strongly influenced the generations that followed – not just in painting. The age was one that was fascinated by what Gerard Manley Hopkins was to call "dappled things" – the effect of coupled light and dark in flecks and movement under trees and in urban shade. "All things counter, original, spare, strange; whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) with swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim"; Hopkins' catalogue starts to surface elsewhere, in Manet's first mature paintings, and maintains a powerful presence in the art, music and above all painting of the rest of the century.
Dapplement surfaces in the great Musique dans les Jardins des Tuileries of 1862, somehow both epic and domestic in scale, and is the thing that saves it from direct comparison with the social panoramas of William Powell Frith, across the Channel. An all-enveloping rippling light turns it into a study of atmosphere. Dapplement, with its unpredictable emphases and shadows, its world of half-glimpses and dramatic clarity, determines what meaning Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe might possess. Dapplement had occasionally interested earlier painters, and Le Linge of 1875 pays some homage to the great series of laundress paintings of Fragonard, a century before, where the figures are almost lost in bursts of light falling on steam.
A subsequent generation, including Renoir in the Bal du Moulin de la Galette, which recapitulates Musique dans les Jardins des Tuileries, used dapplement to create a rippling uniformity in a diverse scene. Manet's fascination was rather different. It is used to demonstrate the unpredictable object, the startling contrast, the grotesque event with the unexpected fall of direct light amid shade. It combines the detailed passage with a grand sweep of crepuscular shade, the closely observed with the mysteriously vague. Dapplement was a tool for him, like the sudden emergence of a social group into the light from deep shade, like the curious group in Le Balcon at the Musée d'Orsay, or the great Dejeuner dans l'Atelier in Munich. It froze a moment in all its
curious combinations, as photography was one day to do. Dapplement in Manet is much more like the dappled observations of his friend Chabrier's piano piece "Sous-bois" – a work so strange I remember repeatedly stopping while learning it as a boy, unable to believe that a composer of the 1870s could intend these sounds. Manet's late Un Bar aux Folies Bergère hung over Chabrier's piano; it is nice to think of the mercurial musician looking up as he played. Manet's dapplement resembles the gorgeous and unpredictable shifts between soloist, septet, chorus and orchestra, between foreground and sweeping backdrop, which Berlioz found for the end of the fourth act of Les Troyens in the late 1850s. It resembles, too, the bizarre juxtapositions in Madame Bovary, such as the declarations of love against the cries of an agricultural auction, and, much later, the freakish shifts of direction in the poetry of Manet's friend Mallarmé – his early "L'Après-midi d'un Faune", like the Debussy orchestral prelude, is an ode to dappled light and the bizarre, erotic contrasts it produces.
Manet's art is devoted to the wrong thing in the wrong place, unpredictably caught out and spotlit by the fall of light or the pitiless gaze. Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, with its outrageous combination of clothed male figures and nude, or deshabillé women, was defended by Zola on the grounds of classical precedent. (Not quite as much as Zola claims, however.) There are Giorgione landscapes and Titian interiors that exploit the same contrast. But Manet's point is the indecency of the contrast in a contemporary context – the very fashionable little tassled cap on the head of one of the men is the most obscene thing in the painting. Similarly, in the
sumptuous Olympia, what turns the nude into a shocking study of a prostitute? It is the clothes – the clothes the maid wears, the orchid in the hair, the black ribbon about the neck, the pearl earrings and the bracelet, and above all, the slippers – that transform the nude. There are franker 19th-century studies of the female form, such as Courbet's Origine du Monde, but none so ingeniously obscene.

Dressing up is the source of much joy and bizarre contrast in Manet. Go back to the incomparable Manet room in the Metropolitan, and look around. The beautiful Mlle V en Costume d'Espada has the face of a
handsome boy, and would pass as a matador but for one thing – the painter's voluptuous enjoyment of her unmistakably feminine bottom and swelling belly. Next to that, an absurdly upright 1866 matador with
showy, excessive sideburns seems to be dressing up as a man, too, as does the little boy with a serious expression carrying a sword that is far too big for him. And then the limp Christ with the angels, their expressions not sweet and generalised, but very much studies of hard-faced Parisian women, perhaps women whose trade is the laying out of corpses – what to make of that? Was Manet quite serious?
Manet retained a detached relationship to the subject matter of paintings that challenged even the most sympathetically inclined of his contemporaries. Gautier was alarmed by the combination of realism and topic in Le Christ Mort et les Anges. Zola, in the course of his spirited defence of Manet, was not quite right to say:"Feeling that he was making no progress by copying the masters, or by painting Nature as seen through the eyes of individuals who differed in character from himself," Manet "came to understand, quite naturally, one fine day, that it only remained to him to see Nature as it really is, without looking at the works or studying the opinions of others." The detachment from artistic tradition comes not through complete freedom, but from a willingness to examine and break the rules of presentation. This urge has, it turns out, resulted in a series of cunning traps laid for the oversophisticated. There is a large body of critical work about Manet's
last major painting, Un Bar aux Folies Bergère, either decrying its impossible depiction of a reflection, or talking about the subtle fantasy that results from this impossibility. It took until 2001, and the reconstruction of the image by an Australian art historian, Malcolm Park, before the scene was shown to be perfectly plausible. Manet had just taken the greatest care to make the scene look as impossible, and indeed ineptly constructed, as he knew how.

Portraiture, which is the focus of the Royal Academy's show, had become still more hidebound by the advent and influence of photography. As one of the great early photographers, Nadar, remarked in his autobiography, the advent of the carte de visite type of photographic portrait "spelled disaster. Either you had to succumb – that is, follow the trend – or resign." Carol M Armstrong reminds us in the RA catalogue that Manet's friend Baudelaire had been similarly scathing about photography's impact on society in his Salon of 1859, speaking of the moment when "our squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal".
Manet's portraiture is devoted to the image that is controlled not by the conventions of the form, still less of the acceptable conventions of emerging photography portraiture, but by the gaze of the artist. If some of the portraits, such as the famous one of Zola, follow the conventional format established by Ingrès, others, such
as the portrait of Mallarmé or La Dame aux Eventails in the Musée d'Orsay, return to the fantasy portraits
of Fragonard, and seem to draw inspiration from a blurred photographic print. Others revel in the momentary impression, even of a face glimpsed in the street in a dumpy, unconsidered posture in mid-movement, as if thinking that painting could achieve through imaginative action what photography, as yet, was not technically capable of. In the portrait Berthe Morisot au Bouquet de Violettes she is caught between poses, slowly
moving into an amused smile. There are curious urban scenes to make Diane Arbus wonder; the grouping of the balcony, or the marvellously awkward and grumpy mother and daughter against the strangest of geometric backdrops in Le Chemin de Fer, now in Washington DC. These are moments that might have
been glimpsed in the street, from the window of a moving hansom cab, by a device not yet perfected. Or alternatively, by an unresting and ceaselessly inventive eye, with a perfect visual memory, apparently in need of little mechanical help. It is difficult to tell.

Zola was quite right to base his defence of Manet on the painter's perfect eye. It was an eye of great purity, and one that came to an ironic and undermining position after the long years of argumentative apprenticeship in the studio of Manet's master, the salon painter Thomas Couture. (The scholar Beatrice Farwell remarks, surprisingly, that Manet was "the last great French painter to receive a long and academic training".) What the eye saw, however, was not completely unprejudiced. It was the observation of the visual moments that would most offend, most alarm, most bewilder; a face in a street, a line of railings and a suggestion of rising steam, a momentary pattern of dappled light that reveals, of all things, a naked woman sitting with two well-off young men in a forest glade, turning and smiling. What do these things mean? The startled eye closes; turns away; turns to something else, with amusement, but no certain claim to be making any kind of statement about anything but the fall of light.

Saturday 19 January 2013

Friday night

Nothing stops a Friday Boys night out!

Hitler finds out Loic Remy has joined QPR

Not the most PC post - we apologise to our more sensitive readers...