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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

One great war story they won't make into a film

One of the many advantages of never having taken part in a war is you can have such uncomplicated feelings about it.


Vera Atkins: A Life In Secrets by Sarah Helm is the very complicated story of the often cold, always inscrutable woman responsible for sending volunteers into German-occupied France for SOE in order to fulfil Churchill's slightly Trumpian threat to "set Europe ablaze".

One hundred of the four hundred people she sent fell into German ends. At the end of the war she went into the chaos of "liberated" Europe to find out precisely what had happened to them. This quest took her into German prisons, former Gestapo headquarters in Paris and the sites of concentration camps. What was driving her? The need to do the right thing by the young women she had, unknowingly, sent to their deaths? Or did she want to ensure that she was the person whose version of the truth was the one that found its way into the official record?

And who exactly was she, this lady with the cut glass accent and the profoundly English sense of propriety? As Sarah Helm's book gradually reveals Vera's whole life was something of a lie. Thanks to the accident of her birth it had to be.

When I was a quarter of the way in I couldn't believe that this book hadn't been made into a film and that I hadn't already seen Kate Winslet or Cate Blanchett turn up on some chat show sofa talking about what a great opportunity this was to play "a very strong woman."

By the time I got to the end I was no longer wondering. The fates the agents met had been the kind not even Aaron Sorkin could have turned into inspiring drama. The qualities that made Vera Atkins effective were the same ones that made her unpopular.

Although her book is full of examples of unimaginable courage Sarah Helm leaves the purple prose in the drawer and refrains from describing anyone as a heroine. Maybe that's why it feels like the truth.



Friday, July 28, 2017

When Scott Walker was Robbie Williams big

During the Scott Walker Prom at the Albert Hall on Tuesday night I looked around at my fellow concertgoers and thought, this is what most pop concerts will be like in the future - people gathering to enjoy a re-creation of something which was originated long before. A bit like the rest of the Proms in that respect.

The hall was packed with people who, by the looks of them, weren't born in 1967, back when Scott Walker was as big a star as Robbie Williams. In their eyes Scott Walker is a misunderstood genius, an indie pioneer, a prophet without honour, a man who apparently had to wait until today to get his due. This narrative is repeated by Luke Walker in a review in The Guardian.



It's not quite the way I remember it. Scott Walker was a very big deal in the Walker Brothers but he was still a very big deal as a solo artist. His albums were in the shop window. He was played on the radio. He had his own TV series. And it wasn't stuck away in late night. It was prime time BBC television.

As for "the albums struggling commercially", the first three were all top-three hits and the fourth might have done the same if he hadn't made it more difficult for himself by putting it out under his birth name Scott Engel. Then he made a few albums of covers just to run down his contract. As for his name fading he had a big hit with "No Regrets" when he rejoined the Walker Brothers in 1976.

Scott Walker was never actually forgotten. He was simply adopted by another generation and they preferred to think they were the ones who discovered him.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Social media and BBC pay cheques

The unveiling of the BBC pay list provoked lots of comment on social media. None of it was very interesting. 

On Facebook and Twitter people were either falling over themselves to tell you how the BBC was the best bargain in Britain and therefore every penny it paid was money well-spent or they wanted to tell you that it was about time the whole featherbedded lot was privatised. Such positioning statements are largely for show or to keep in with mates and useful contacts.

Meanwhile all the real chat about who was worth it and who was getting away with daylight robbery had tactically withdrawn into Direct Messages on Twitter, individual emails from Gmail accounts, texts and indignant WhatsApp groups.

Maybe this is a tipping point for social media. We've seen the same thing in recent elections. If people are going to say what they think they're going be increasingly choosy about who they say it to. We don't really know any more about what the mass of people think than we did back in the days when nobody asked their opinion about anything.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Weather fronts don't "rock up". Nor do rock bands.

Just heard the weatherman on BBC Radio Four talk about when some weather front would "rock up".

I talked about the rockification of everything in "Uncommon People". Now that we no longer have actual rock stars we have rock star chefs, politicians or cyclists instead.

Clearly I should have added something about the unchecked growth of the verb "rock up", which is now so widespread that even weather forecasters, who used to be dull and sort of proud of it, feel they should use it to lend their bulletins a raffish air.

"Rock up" isn't mentioned at all in the 2008 edition of Jonathon Green's Dictionary of Slang so it must be a recent thing.  But it's not all that recent. According to the OED it was first recorded in a dictionary of South African English in 1996 where it meant "to arrive, turn up, esp. casually, late, or unexpectedly".

Strikes me that two things never turn up casually or unexpectedly. One is a weather front, which takes weeks to build up; the other is a touring rock band, which is encumbered by so much equipment and so in thrall to the soundcheck that it is incapable of doing anything quickly and without fuss.

If rock bands could get on, get it on and get off without fuss they would be a good deal more popular than they are.


Monday, July 03, 2017

Here's a thing the Beatles didn't do very often

I was at the Chalke Valley History Festival this weekend, talking about Sgt Pepper with Giles Martin and Kevin Howlett.

These are two men who've heard more unreleased Beatles session tapes than anyone.

Over dinner beforehand I asked them to confirm what I had always suspected: that The Beatles didn't swear much.

Giles and Kevin thought about it and then said that the Beatles swore but only occasionally. When they did it was in extremis. It wasn't part of their standard flow.

That's one of those things which underlines just what a different the world of fifty years ago was.

Back then most of the swearing was done by men doing heavy work out of doors. It wouldn't have been heard in public or in a white collar environment. The EMI studios was a white collar environment.

If you were to eavesdrop on any bunch of people at work in 2017 on the other hand, from a band in the recording studio to people trying to fix an I.T. system,  I think you'd hear quite a lot of casual, even playful profanity.

I wonder when that started to change.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

These two interviews stopped me in my tracks.

The first is A Major In Mosul, another example of the New York Times podcast The Daily, which seems the state of the art when it comes to doing daily news with sound. In this they talk to Ben Solomon, a NY Times journalist who has been embedded with a unit of the Iraqi Army whose job it is to clear ISIS forces out of Mosul street by street, hole by hole, in what promises to be the bloodiest street fighting since the Second World War. One of the points he makes is that the ISIS soldiers are an unusually difficult foe for the simple reason that they expect to die.

The second is Sam Harris's long conversation with Graeme Wood, the author of The Way Of The Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State. Wood set out to talk to the people within ISIS about what they believed, why they had joined up and how they saw it all finishing. Strangely enough, he says it was a lot of fun. This is an amazing listen, particularly when it gets on to the details of the End Of Days.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Why Fiona Apple's version of "Across The Universe" is the only Beatles cover that's better than the original

I wrote a piece for Saga to mark the 50th anniversary of "Sgt Pepper". I said there was only one cover of a Beatles song that was better than the original. This was asterisked in the print version but not named in the version online.

On Twitter and Facebook people were speculating what I could be talking about. Was it Joe Cocker's "With A Little Help From My Friends", Stevie Wonder's "We Can Work It Out" or Earth Wind and Fire's "Got To Get You Into My Life"?

If I'm honest (as the footballers say) I don't actually like any of those records. I don't like Ella Fitzgerald's "Can't Buy Me Love" for the same reason. They're all cases of people being told "you've got to do a Beatles song", realising they can't improve on the original record and then doing their own unnecessarily ornamental version just because they're the kind of artists who can.

To my ears they don't sound right. They're overdone. It's like hearing lines from The Sopranos declaimed by some actor of the grand tradition. They're all so American (particularly the Joe Cocker one) and they remind me of how British the Beatles were. They weren't ones to indulge their emotions.

Fiona Apple's version of "Across The Universe" is the only record of hers that's every done anything for me. I only heard it because it's used at the end of "Pleasantville". What I like about  is it goes the other way from the cover versions mentioned above. If anything it's slighter sparer than the original. And it seems to work slightly better in her blank after-hours style than it did in the original. I play it a lot. For me it's the only Beatles cover I would reach for in preference to their original.