Archive | November, 2008

Songs for St Andrew's Day

Posted on 30 November 2008 by JamesHamilton

Sooner or later, the national anthem is going to have to make way at internationals for songs more closely related to the individual countries of the UK. If we stop making her listen to that awful Georgian dirge, perhaps the Queen will come along once more. She used to be at the Cup Final, every year, or so it seemed.

But which songs? The Scots have already been polled. I’m half-Scot, and I hate the winner. Flower of Scotland is of 1960s vintage, and passive-aggressive in the extreme. Too young, too chippy. A coming nation surely needs something more confident.

And when you have this, what can you lack?

[youtube=http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=vBKBI7DOLHA]

The Welsh already have and use their song, of course, but I wonder if the soccer people don’t feel that it has too many rugby connotations? If so, there’s always this, which makes me regret not having the blood:

[youtube=http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=uEGgoi6zawg]

I don’t know what to suggest for Northern Ireland, and given its recent history, I don’t like to stick my neck out. Which leaves England. And England’s a problem.

Jerusalem for example, belongs to the Conservative Party Conference nowadays . It’s quite hard to sing, too. I Vow To Thee My Country is morbid, and imposes lyrics onto Holst’s admittedly excellent melody. Land of Hope and Glory invites sarcasm, and is too reminiscent of the Proms. Abide With Me , sung at every Wembley Final, is moving but sad (did you know its author died only weeks after finishing it? Of TB: he knew what was coming).

With all the moving and inspiring songs out of contention, we are left with the ridiculous. I suggest that England adopt two songs. This, for home matches. It’s my song for St Andrew’s Day:

[youtube=http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=uC8SPHdOYeQ]

Come on – just imagine our Captain, our man for the big occasion, leading the Lads through the second verse. And think what it’ll do to Capello’s English.

And this one, of course, for away matches. Especially the ones which AREN’T against…

[youtube=http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=wveW9Tw2JKE]

I can’t remember where I came across it, but it’s been one of my favourite snap descriptions of the future ever since: the English sinking away into history giggling..

It was all a joke, chaps; the whole thing, right from the start.

WODEHOUSE UPDATE: so much for my “6 pages a day” as PG’s upper limit – his record, it turns out, was a quite astonishing 27.

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Wodehouse and Blogging Word Counts

Posted on 29 November 2008 by JamesHamilton

P.G. Wodehouse spent the dying days of World War II shuttling from one address in France to another. His had been a travelling life, so this wasn’t in itself any sort of obstacle to getting the writing done. Nevertheless he used a letter to an old friend in England to complain that, where once a novel had taken him three months to write, it now took six. The old vim had gone.

He was touching sixty by then, and had been flattened not just by the public reaction to his German radio broadcasts but by the death, at forty, of his beloved stepdaughter Leonora. Readers of Robert McCrum’s biography of Wodehouse can see his life beginning to come unstuck earlier than this – the lights on his dashboard start to blink even before the great sequence of Jeeves novels get underway in the ’30s. But the War finally finished the man he had been. How much older sixty seems sixty years ago, even among men who have spent lives of wealth, success, comfort and universal affection.

What does it mean, turning out a novel in three months? Right Ho, Jeeves is about 100,000 words long. By PG’s reckoning, taking redrafts into account, he’d end up writing in the order of three times as much actual text as would eventually appear in print. Assuming 300,000 words then, we are looking at a likely output of 100,000 words per month, or approximately 3300 per day, or 12 double-spaced single-sided pages.

Given that this was all done on a manual typewriter, and that there is no evidence that PG could touch-type (his clean copies were always produced by a nearbly office bureau or tame professional typist), I doubt that 12 pages was really possible. But he might well have managed 6. PG worked all the hours, and plotted his novels in intense detail. He had his style down pat by the ’30s, and the combination of those factors would enable him to churn quality pages out faster than his woollier, allegedly more literary competitors.

How do bloggers compare with this rate of output?

The number of bloggers who are genuinely prolific in the long term and who maintain any sort of writing standard is, of course, vanishingly small. James Lileks is one who springs to mind.

I’m prone to blogging hiatus, for one reason or another, so can’t be termed prolific. Furthermore, almost everything I’ve blogged has been typed, at speed (50wpm last time I measured it) straight into a browser unedited. This alone calls the quality of the output into question. But mine are the only wordcount figures I have to hand, so here they are.

I started blogging seriously in March 2004 by opening a Typepad blog following a year or two’s tinkering with Blogger. Since then, I have posted approximately 960,000 words. That comes out at just short of 600 words per day, or a little over two of PG’s double-spaced, single-sided pages. I haven’t compensated for periods of hiatus: if PG can keep going regardless whilst in a German internment camp, so could I have done in safer times.

The question in my mind is – if I’ve written the equivalent of six fattish paperbacks in four and a half years, whilst being relatively lazy about it, what on earth has Norm clocked up, say, or Brian Micklethwait?

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Cole Porter and P.G. Wodehouse

Posted on 28 November 2008 by JamesHamilton

Clive’s mentioning of Patricia Barber’s rendering of “You’re The Top!” reminded me to post this passage from Robert McCrum’s Wodehouse biography. “Anything Goes” is the greatest musical of the twentieth or any century, but its creation was anything but smooth:

Towards the end of his life, Wodehouse published an account of the day when (Cole) Porter, who had been gadding about Europe, arrived with his music. The three men (Wodehouse and Guy Bolton being the other two), lacking a piano, repaired to the casino, where Porter ran through the numbers he had completed, including You’re The Top and Blow, Gabriel, Blow, at a keyboard in the corridor leading to the gaming tables. Their meeting was interrupted by a pleasantly intoxicated young American socialite who, mistaking Porter for the casino’s entertainer, asked him to play I Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight. When Porter laid aside the score and obliged without protest, the young man began to cry. ‘That song hits me right here… Just been divorced, so can you blame me for wondering?’

“We made sympathetic noises (Wodehouse continued), and Cole played You’re The Top. The intruder came weaving back through the door. ‘Forget that stuff,’ he said. ‘Do you know a number called The Horse with the Lavender Eyes? It drove us down from the Plaza to the church. Dawn said the horse had lavender eyes,’ he continued brokenly, ‘so we sang the song all the way down the avenue. Dawn O’Day, that was her stage name. Pretty, isn’t it?’ He rose and laid a small column of 100-franc chips on top of the piano. ‘What’s that for?’ we asked. ‘For him,’ he said, indicating Cole. ‘He plays okay, but he picks out rotten numbers.’”

Quite apart from all the obvious points around the tragedy of Saki’s death in the Great War is the fact that he and Cole Porter never met, yet in many ways Porter is H.H. Munro’s musical twin.

[youtube=http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=QWgaToemGkY]

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Writing Tips From P.G. Wodehouse, and a Contrast

Posted on 27 November 2008 by JamesHamilton

It was just a silly idea that I had for a novel. It would have to get past the Wodehouse trustees to have any chance of publication. Perhaps if I made old Plum a leading character it would soothe their feelings. So I’ve been reading Robert McCrum’s brilliant Wodehouse: A Life – the paperback edition uses the same cover photograph as the earlier Donaldson effort.

(And there goes another novel. “I’m working on a novel.” “No, neither am I!”

But I did come away with some P.G. tips. And some other thoughts besides. Here they are.

  1. Focus. Wodehouse was determined from his schooldays that he was going to be a writer and nothing else. McCrum’s account of his early work habits remind me of Philip Larkin’s. The day job over, both men dedicated the evening and much of the night to writing. Wodehouse took one evening off every week, but would otherwise keep going until perhaps 2 a.m. Larkin would take a late-evening drinks break with colleagues – Wodehouse ploughed on through without stopping. Wodehouse had no hobbies apart from an enduring interest in Dulwich College’s rugby team, no love interests, no visible distractions at all. McCrum wonders if his case of adult mumps didn’t power down his libido, as it tends to do.
  2. Sell your work, try to sell your work, don’t hide behind a mask of “individuality” or “creativity”. Good stuff always sells in the end, but you have to keep going until then.  At one stage, while still holding down a full-time banking job, Wodehouse would be receiving in the order of eight editorial replies to his submissions per day. Clearly, most of these would have been rejections.
  3. Learn the trade. Wodehouse wasn’t Wodehouse from the beginning. The Jeeves era was a thing of middle and old age. Short stories, novels, writing for children, satirical verse, humorous fillers and columns – he wrote everything and anything. Of course, the fierce intelligence and talent was there, to an unusual degree, and this would have helped him, but Wodehouse is famous for more than clever butlers. It was school stories first, then “Your Food Will Cost You More!” in the 1906 General Election. Then pulp fiction in New York. Then writing lyrics for Jerome Kern. The unsung dialogue in Cole Porter’s Anything Goes is his (I remember an amateur performance where the orchestra  drowned out the singers, leaving us watching in effect an amusing Wodehouse play that was interrupted now and then by meaningless instrumental numbers). By the time he turned 40, Wodehouse knew in detail what he was good at and had earned both the right to focus upon it and the wealth to support him in the meantime.
  4. Keep professional notebooks. The entries in Wodehouse’s notebooks and commonplace books are numbered for future reference. It’s obvious reading them that he is always on the lookout for material, always combing his environment for ideas. If he makes some small observation that might not be useful for two weeks, ten months or five years, he doesn’t rely on memory to preserve it for him. He was a David Allen before the time.
  5. Work hard. Larkin never did make the jump to full-time professional writer, although after the publication of his Oxford anthology probably he was in a position to do so. But then, Wodehouse, who did, was not one of the twentieth century’s great academic librarians and reformers and builders, which Larkin was. But once Wodehouse did go full time – only two years after leaving school – he used the extra time available to him to repeat what had been his evening routine across the rest of the day. No shit in shuttered chateau he, and no doing his hundred words before spinning out the rest of the day in birds and booze .
  6. Wodehouse appears to have been willing to talk to almost anyone about anything. There’s a powerful curiousity there, especially in his earlier years. It’s an open, apolitical curiousity, positive, interested, and warm. Records of fly-by conversations cram his notebooks. I wonder if Ian MacEwan does this, or Julian Barnes?
  7. His stories and novels were always ruthlessly plotted before a word of text was typed. It’s this intense respect for the conventions of storyline that make his many novels each similar enough to attract repeat readership, but each unique enough to reward it.  That requires hard background work and deep knowledge of writing as craft.
  8. The notebooks are full of instructions to himself. They were going to be re-read. “Try this..” crops up time and time again.
  9. Draft and redraft. Wodehouse did between three and ten drafts of everything, and where necessary would start all over again on a piece.

“I do seem to have been monstrously productive” wrote George Szirtes here. And here he says “When I was twenty-five I thought nothing could be better and more impossible than having a book of poems published. It seemed desperately unlikely, given the circumstances: the transplantation, the second language, the lack of education, the necessity of making a living and supporting a family, the indifference of the literary world, not to mention my doubts about my talent. And all those years and years of luck it would take: the luck conspicuously missing from my parents’ lives.”

GS doesn’t mention that it takes hard work for years on end before you get to where he is now. If you don’t follow those links, GS is the subject of a dedicated exhibition in Cambridge, has just had one of those dreadful academic guides written about his work, and has just brought out a Collected.

But in all other respects, everything GS lists as being true in his circumstances was favourably different for Wodehouse. Wodehouse began his career when the demand for writing was at its height, demand from the hundreds of dailies, weeklies and monthlies that Edwardian England supported in the absence of radio and television. It isn’t easy, but it is more easy, to amount to Barbara Cartland levels of productivity when your world wants it. (In the Forties Wodehouse wondered out loud how young writers got started anymore..) By the time GS began his career, poetry’s popular audience had all but gone. And Wodehouse’s parents had been both lucky and rich; Wodehouse was born middle class English at a time when that was an even greater piece of unlikely fortune than it is now; Wodehouse was educated expensively by men passionate about his passions.

Well, autre temps, and autre pays.

I can’t close without reference to Wodehouse’s dividing the human race into poets and golfers. You feel the truth of this instinctively. And the golfers with so many centuries’ catching up to do.. My professional experience was that sports psychology worked better for the poets. Top golfers are hard, hard bastards with personalities of teak. Nor can I close without saying, once again, that Right Ho, Jeeves! is the best book ever written on human psychology. It may be shorter than those flappy textbooks in Psy 101, but it’s all in there, believe me…

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Andrew Pitcairn-Knowles: Pioneer Sports Photographer

Posted on 23 November 2008 by JamesHamilton

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Andrew Pitcairn-Knowles (1871-1956) was one of that lost British type, the cheery, never-take-no-for-an-answer, not-quite-eccentric-thankyou pioneer. Photographs of him show an open, confident man, whose face says “buy me a beer,” or would do had he not been a pioneer of health farms as well as photo-journalism. The raging beauty in the front row, second left, is his wife. Around her are German women in one of the very first German female hockey teams. They look like decent people. All long dead, and their descendants probably have tattoos.

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PK and wife brought golf to Germany too: this page is taken from Sport Im Bild, the magazine he founded, and it makes you appreciate Stefan Zweig’s contempt for the fashion in female wear before the 1914 war. Garden golf is about all you’ll manage when you’re dressed like a steam pudding.

Pitcairn-Knowles’ pictures are in an exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood until January, which isn’t much use to me as I’m in Edinburgh. But if you are similarly stranded in the sticks, there’s this excellent book from which this selection of his work is taken.

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Sports photography as we would recognise it had to wait for the late Victorian acceleration in shutter speeds, but when that acceleration came, it wasn’t sport that first showed its face, but humour: this is by PK but might as well be Lartigue’s.

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PK’s heyday was the Edwardian era, and by then football had taken its long-term form as a working class ghetto cult. But other sports were still finding their shape: this couple appear to be winning some sort of drink-driving competition. The grand prix circuit that led to F1 was already in existence, but the way forward was far from clear.

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It was one of the lost beauties of amateurism: sports could evolve freely and without hindrance. Experimentation was possible. New things could be tried that weren’t drugs or Prozone.

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A lot of early sports journalism is mocking: the British wanted diversion from their games, and not all sporting experiments were serious. Laughter and absurdity were major themes. Your reaction to adversity was an uncomplaining one, which produced a culture capable of liking itself, enjoying itself, able to present an unburdened face to the world. Bertie Wooster called it “wearing the mask” and it’s why there wasn’t an Edwardian Pink Floyd.

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What about Hardy and Houseman, I hear you say, and in the case of the latter, who was a near-neighbour of John Cameron’s in Tottenham at this time, you have a point. But both of them had a tendency to place their troubles in the past: the furrowed brow would be Roman or, at the very least, pre-industrial. PK caught the last of the pre-industrial sports before they disappeared. Imagine all those lost country jobs and pointlessly slaughtered chickens when cockfighting was banned. Die-hards carried on for a while, substituting pound sacks of aniseed for their erstwhile Rhode Island Reds.

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Some readers will remember the old half-time snacks. When we had faces, too. The Amazonian tribes who fear that a photograph will steal their soul have some kind of a point, although, as Martin Amis says, these days one shot alone won’t do it. Repeated exposures are required… PK’s Edwardian emulsion was tricky to employ but had that Mephistophelean power. Daguerrotypes were a devil’s Victorian weapon of choice, but by nineteen-seven a lighter, if less immediately effective tool came into favour.

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Stay young and beautiful if you want to be loved is my advice, and here is a Low Countries gentleman who has listened. Haven’t skates changed? Did they ever really need that long medieval toe? Was it something to do with weight distribution on uncertain ice?

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Don’t believe it when people tell you that Edwardians didn’t smile in photographs. And don’t believe them when they say that when Edwardians weren’t smiling in photographs, it was because they had bad teeth. I don’t smile in photographs because I have bad teeth. But when faster shutter speeds came in, out went the absolute need to pose pictures. Daguerrotype victims had to sit still for hours while their souls were yanked from their bodies. But this PK shot here is spiritually Polaroid.

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Youth gazes off into the future. But these are Edwardian days: you don’t want to do that.. and by the time of the Great War, PK was choosing better horizons: he returned to England from Germany and opened a health farm. His grandson keeps the family way alive. I’m having this for lunch.

(If you can make it to the exhibition in London, do: there are a lot more where these came from, and they’re all good. Failing that, do buy the book and justify my using the images here: it’s a treasure (pick up the Taschen complete Camera Work while you’re at it and get the best of the more felt and sombre side of Edwardian photography.)

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TitanADSL

Posted on 21 November 2008 by JamesHamilton

It wasn’t so long ago that this blog had readers at the Guardian, the Times, Time Out London, the PM programme, Radio 5 Live, BBC Online and, I am told, within Blair’s kitchen cabinet. A year plus of disruption and the consequent reduced frequency and quality of posting has done for most of that I imagine.

Which is a pity, because I want to give some good publicity to my new ISP, TitanADSL. Courtesy of a certain national landline telephone provider, they have had to move mountains to get me up and running. It has been a frustrating time for me and for them, but I was always kept up to date with what was going on, both via email or via phone calls. Their service in that respect has been absolutely excellent – a stark staring contrast to just about every other organisation I’ve had to deal with since moving up in September.

You don’t often get to say this, but: I couldn’t be more pleased with the way I’ve been treated. I recommend them unreservedly. TitanADSL.

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Back Soon?

Posted on 15 November 2008 by JamesHamilton

The “internet” symbol on my router lit up last night for the first time. It still won’t actually CONNECT me to the entity of that name, but that must come soon, and when it does, I’ll be back properly.

They’ve demolished the nineteenth century pavilion at the Edinburgh Academicals ground. When you are surrounded by so much Architecture with a capital A, it’s too easy to overlook minor but excellent buildings. Perhaps it had become dangerous, but all I can say is that had that building been in Sutton, it would have been the best thing in the borough.

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40 Today

Posted on 11 November 2008 by JamesHamilton

Before:

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After:

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I’ve always admired the kind of man who can find himself a hairstyle and just stick to it. I hope that’s what I’ve done. But I can never match the expression with which I came into the world, although I feel it on the inside most days.

I was born at eleven o’clock, fifty years to the minute after the guns fell silent in France, to find everyone silent, solemn and blackarmbanded. There were over a million alive then who fought: now there are three.

My own family were just girls in 1914-18, but I had two grandfathers at El Alamein and a third invalided out of the RAF. I’ve grown up in peace. Clive James compared that feat, in a century like the twentieth and now the twenty-first, to the old silent movie trick of standing in front of a house’s falling frontage and being saved by an open window. That rings true for me.

(Insert age-related reflections of your choice: I think it’s time for a pint)..

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Studs Terkel

Posted on 03 November 2008 by JamesHamilton

I’m not one for heroes, but there are those whom I admire, and some of them threatened to go on for ever. There aren’t many who can shock, depress and upset you by dying at the age of 96.

“Hard Times” was always my favourite of his, and of that, the interview with Jerome Zerbe. You can hear all of his interviews in (Realplayer, I’m afraid) audio here.

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