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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Philip Roth's invaluable advice to writers

I like the story about the young novelist, still waiting tables, who approached Philip Roth, proffering a copy of his newly-published first book.

It was called "Balls". Roth admired the title. Said he couldn't believe he hadn't used it himself. Then he advised his fan to "quit while you're ahead". He explained that writing was torture, that you had to throw most of it away because it wasn't any good and the young man really should stop now before he did lasting damage to himself.

When this story made the rounds some said that a successful old man like Roth had no right to be putting off anyone young and up and coming.

I don't agree. Roth said what he thought. That most novelists, like most musicians, are never going to achieve anything like the acclaim they feel they're entitled to and they really might be better off doing something they can succeed in.

And the more important point is that if the fire to write novels really burns inside you, rather than just the desire to become a successful novelist, then nothing Philip Roth says is going to make any difference.

As Laurence Olivier used to say, if you want to be an actor, you are an actor. If you're not an actor you didn't want it badly enough.


Sunday, May 06, 2018

It must have been a posh girl who drew Van Morrison to Cyprus Avenue.



Last night I was in Belfast talking about Uncommon People in a pub called The Dark Horse at the Cathedral Quarter Festival.

After we'd finished local music boffin Stuart Baile took me on a quick tour of Van Morrison's Belfast. We went past the modest terraced house on Hyndford Street where he grew up, through the Hollow, the small park round the back of the house named in "Brown Eyed Girl", and up to Cyprus Avenue (above), a broad thoroughfare with beautiful old stone houses either side.

Cyprus Avenue is clearly a cut above. There's probably a Cyprus Avenue near where you live, the faintest dropping of the name of which would send clear messages to the people you grew up with.

Stuart and I were picturing Morrison as a young teenager taking the long way back from school to have an excuse to dawdle down Cyprus Avenue. Maybe it was in the hope of seeing some posh girl living in one of the grand houses.

Always seems to me one of the most powerful things that drove people to want to be rock stars: the desire to impress posh girls.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

The Wanstead Tap is almost enough to tempt me to move East



I had fun last night talking about "Uncommon People" at the Wanstead Tap. In fact it was the world premiere of my magic lantern show, which I was pleased about.

The Wanstead Tap, I discovered, is not in Wanstead but in Forest Gate. It's not a pub so much as a beer shop/performance space/cafe/bar.

It was started three years ago by local TV producer Dan Clapton when he took over a building in a railway arch at the bottom of a cul-de-sac, equipped it as a bar and started putting on spoken word events. Its full story is here.

They only open three evenings a week, usually when they have entertainment. Turns coming up after me include Viv Albertine and Michael Rosen. They do a lot with the local book shop so authors can sign and sell.

It's fully seated, everyone can see and hear and it's got A/V facilities. All the locals I talked to said the same thing. They're very lucky to have this nearby.

They are.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Going back to my old school after fifty years

I left school after my A-levels in the summer of 1968. I hadn't been back since. When, in recent years, I'd been up in Yorkshire visiting family I'd driven past the place and toyed with the idea of just asking if I could have a look around. I never got round to it.

Then somebody from the school got in touch with me after I'd appeared on a recent BBC show about Whistle Test. I told her I was visiting the area on book promotion duty and I would like to drop in. She arranged it all. It was a fascinating experience.

When I went there it was a classic northern grammar school of a certain vintage. The stern central building was designed to look older than it was. They began adding modern buildings in the 50s and 60s. The boys who showed me round assumed that the one that housed the school hall had been there for ever. Actually, the foundation stone was lain in 1958. I know because I was present, in short trousers, at the ceremony.

Lots of it had changed, obviously. What used to be the library was now a reception area. The headmaster's office was in the room where I did English. The rooms that used to accommodate an entire class were now used for small tutorial groups.

People asked me if it seemed smaller than I remembered it. No, it didn't. Did it smell the same? No, it didn't.

The boys in the music room were learning to play "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses. I can only hope they are as rigorous in punctuating that correctly as we were encouraged to be by Mrs Ellis back in 1962.

I told the headmaster that the thing I most often thanked my education for was what Mrs Ellis used to call "clause analysis". This involved taking apart sentences and identifying the different parts of speech. The headmaster, who is of course way younger than me, told me this was coming back into fashion after thirty years in the cold. "There's nothing new in education."

Every now and then on my tour I turned a corner and found myself whisked backwards. Different things triggered it. The corner of the playground where I once put my hand in my pocket and discovered half a crown I didn't know I had. The feeling of an 19th century bannister worn smooth by the hands of decades of boys. A leaded window though which you could look out at the same sky. The steps up to the Lecture Hall where I first recited Wilfred Owen's "Strange Meeting", a poem I still know by heart. The parquet floor of the school hall (above) where I played Troilus in "Troilus And Cressida".

I'm glad I did it.


Sunday, April 15, 2018

Instead of writing a song about being on the road here's a blog

Perugia's an ancient hilltop city in Umbria. Every year it's taken over by the International Journalism Festival. Hundreds of young hot shots descend on this place from all over the world and deliver presentations on what to do about Fake News or How To Interview a Really Dangerous Person or How To Get Round Censorship When Running A Website In The Middle East. The sessions take place all over this most picturesque of towns and in the evenings the restaurants are full of people listening to the sound of their own voices as they slip smoothly from their own tongue to English to Italian and back.

What I was doing here you may well wonder. I was invited by the organisers, presumably to provide some light relief and because my 1971 book has been published in Italy by Big Sur. I was interviewed by Luca Valtorta from La Repubblica in the splendour of the Teatro della Sapienza, which dates back to 1362. I was worried there would be just a few people scattered across the stalls but it was full. This is probably thanks in no small part that entrance to the festival is free and therefore the student population of Perugia tends to show up. You can watch the session here.

I've been to well-organised festivals before but this was on another level. There were two interpreters stationed in a booth backstage at my event and people could listen on headphones if they had difficulty with the languages. All the sessions from all thirteen venues were streamed live throughout the day and archived the minute they were over. Then the organisers gave you a ticket which bought you dinner plus wine at one of a number of partner restaurants throughout the town. Everything worked as it's supposed to.

As a bit of gentle run-up to this appearance at the festival my Italian publishers organised a whistlestop tour of Milan, Turin and Rome, which took in five live radio interviews, as many interviews with journalists, two appearances at bookshops and an hour's chat to a bunch of students at Scuola Holden, which is a storytelling academy in Turin. To get to all these appointments took long train trips, colourful journeys in the back of city cabs, often going the wrong way up one-way streets, and a two-hour coach ride in the Italian equivalent of a Greyhound, sitting behind a man who made no less than twenty-one separate phone calls in its course.

After just four days of this kind of schedule I felt as spaced out as most musicians feel after four weeks on the road. I see what they mean. Either you're trying to wake yourself up because you have a performance to do or you're trying to calm yourself down because you know you need to sleep. You're either starving hungry or you never wish to see an item of food ever again. Either you want to jabber excitedly or you want to check out of the conversation completely. There's no inbetween. Luckily I shall not be writing a song about it.


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Another reason Harry Truman's my favourite President



The day FDR died Harry Truman suddenly had the biggest job in the world thrust upon him – at the very moment when that job was hardest to do.

Hitler was still alive, the war in Europe wasn't over, Stalin was seeing what he could get away with, there were senior people in Washington who thought Germany should be reduced to an agrarian economy, the war in Japan was looking as though it might cost a million American lives and this guy from Missouri who looked like a small-town haberdasher, which is what he had been, was suddenly behind the desk of the man who had been widely regarded, both in the USA and abroad, as the saviour of the world.

Over the next three months he had to make the most momentous decisions any President has ever had to make: to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, to back democratic governments in Europe, to extend the credit needed to rebuild a continent, to walk into a room at Potsdam with Stalin and Churchill, neither of whom knew him from Adam, and tell them how things were going to be.

It's a story I never get tired of reading. This new book has lots of detail I didn't know. When Truman got back to the White House at the end of those three months this is what he did.




Sunday, March 18, 2018

Did an LP ever get anybody into bed?



In the 1970s you could ask a girl back to your place "to listen to my albums" without being openly laughed at.

Why was that? Primarily because the only way you were going to hear Neil Young's "Harvest" or Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On" at the time they came out was to go to the home of somebody who owned a copy. The experience of listening to records like these simply wasn't available any other way. Saying "I have a record" was a legitimate overture.

As well as the small bump of delight that came from hearing something you hadn't heard before, there was also the fact that certain long playing records imbued their owners with prestige. In the early 70s I was aware there were other males who spent their disposable cash on cars rather than records but reasoned correctly there was no future in a girl who was more impressed by an old MG Midget than the new album by Todd Rundgren.

There was also something intimate about the two of you just listening to a record in your room, a place with no other facilities or distractions. It wasn't like watching a video was to become in the following decade. Responding to a record was something both personal and public. There was nothing to look at apart from each other and the album cover. In this way playing a record to a girl turned into a form of wooing. With a little bit of luck the record – its sound, its appearance, its fresh, unscratched surface, its manifold associations – would melt the space between you and render possible things that without it would have been impossible.


But you could overdo it with the boudoir albums. When I worked in the record shop we would smirk knowingly at the would-be Lotharios who came in to get an import copy of Roy C's album "Sex And Soul". This was a standard Southern Soul album which opened with the line "a man can't go no further than a woman let him" and had a woman on its cover apparently delighted that she has extended just such permission. They were clearly planning to use it to facilitate a seduction.

 I've never been convinced that any albums "worked" just like that. Maybe that was just my failing.