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Monday, 17 August 2015

The Exorcist

When my son was about eight, he asked what was the scariest film I had ever seen.

“Well,” I said, “there are quite a few, but one of them is so scary that even its name is too terrifying to say.”

No eight year-old would ever let me off that easily, and when it became obvious he was not going to give up, I said that I would only tell him when he was eighteen. For now, all I was prepared to say was that it began with an ‘e’. “The rest is too frightening to think about,” I repeated.

“Excalibur” he said without hesitation, trying to guess.

“I don’t think there is such a ....”

“Yes there is,” he said, “what about The Executioner?”

“Even if it was I wouldn’t tell you,” I said after again having been corrected about the existence of such a film.

“Excrement,” he guessed. I really doubted that one, but not wanting to risk being found ignorant a third time I simply repeated what I’d said already.

This continued on and off for the next few weeks, with him trying out the names of various films, or anything he imagined might be the name of a film, beginning with ‘e’, and me continuing to repeat I was not going to tell him until he was eighteen.

“Ectoplasm?”

“I’m not saying.”

“The Epidermis?”

“I’m not saying.”

“Endoscopy?”

Wherever did he learn these words?

“The Exorcist,” he said one day, eyes bright in triumph.

“Look, I’ve already said, I’m not going to ...”

“Oh! For goodness’ sake,” my wife said, “just tell him and then we can put an end to this stupid game. Otherwise we’ll all have gone mad long before he’s eighteen, assuming we’ve not strangled you first.”

“It’s too frightening to think about,” I persisted lamely, “even the title.”

Poster: The Exorcist

It must have been around April, 1974, that I first saw ‘The Exorcist’ at the ABC Cinema in Leeds, soon after its U.K. release. Masses wanted to see the most talked about film of the year, and Leeds audiences were swelled by swarms of Bradfordians whose local council had banned it.* Three of us from the rented house we shared, myself, Nick and Brendan, joined the queue that stretched along Vicar Lane, creeping slowly forwards. A clergyman and a couple of helpers walked up and down handing out leaflets, trying to persuade us that the film was the work of the devil. I saw no one leave the queue. Upon reaching the door we were told “Sorry there’s only one seat left, and it’s the last one”. Nick and Brendan pushed me forward and went off to the pub trying to conceal their relief at the reprieve. I nervously went inside to see the film on my own.

I have never been so petrified in all my life. I sat in the dark clutching the arm rests, flesh creeping, my face twisted into a rictus grimace, involuntary tears streaming from my eyes. It is the quality of the sound as much as the images that makes cinema so powerful, and they had the volume right up, especially as the nauseating voice of the ancient demon Pazuzu rasped from the throat of Regan, the twelve year old girl possessed by his spirit.

Nick and Brendan saw it fairly soon afterwards, and a few weeks later we decided to see it again. The second time the cinema was three quarters empty. A few rows in front of us, on her own, was an old witch of a woman rustling a big bag of popcorn, cackling loudly at just about everything she saw and heard.

“Whoa! What a shot!” she shrieked as Regan’s vomit blasted Father Damien Karras, the exorcist, in the face, lodging behind his spectacles like a clump of porridgy green pus. “Bet you can’t go round again,” she squealed after Regan’s head had spun full circle, cracking and crunching the neck. And she just snorted hysterically when the demon told Karras how his mother spent her time in hell.

It put the film in an entirely different light. For the next few weeks our house grated to the sound of Exorcist impersonations. Loud rasping shouts of “Karras, Karras,” scraped like sandpaper from room to room as Brendan raucously yelled “your mother cooks socks in hell” all the way down the stairs from his attic bedroom. It is a good job the walls of our terraced house were thick enough to avoid disturbing the neighbours. It was very rare to hear any sound from them at all.

It truly was a shocking film, but it also has hilarious aspects some will always refuse to acknowledge. In Miami, Father Mark Karras, an Orthodox priest who had conducted exorcisms for real, sued the creators of the book and film, alleging they had based the story on him, having fictionalised his name, personality and professional life. He claimed that some characteristics of the film were so offensive he had been exposed to public humiliation, embarrassment, scorn and obloquy. William Peter Blatty, the book’s author, was forced to testify that he had never previously met nor heard of him.**

And then there were the town councillors and eccentric individuals who wanted the film banned, such as the outspoken Dr. Rhodes Boyson, a Conservative Member of Parliament with unruly mutton-chops and a pantomime Lancashire accent (all Lancashire accents are pantomime to Yorkshire ears), who had previously been a headmaster. Indeed, in a large number of towns, including Bradford, the film was banned, resulting in ‘Exorcist Bus Trips’ taking groups of people to neighbouring towns where it was showing. Later, the video version was not officially cleared for sale in the U.K. until 1999.

But my favourite proscriber has to be the Tunisian government who banned the film on the ground that it presented “unjustified” propaganda in favour of Christianity.***

*                   *                  *

In the end I did hold out without revealing the film’s name until my son was eighteen, in spite of his repeated assertion “It’s The Exorcist, isn’t it?” and my refusal either to confirm or deny it.

“Only someone with an autistic spectrum disorder could be so obstinate,” my wife kept complaining. I know they secretly think I’ve got Asperger’s Syndrome, and I also know they must be wrong, because if I did have Asperger’s Syndrome, I would find it difficult to empathise with people, and I wouldn’t know what they were thinking, would I?

Shortly after conceding that my son had been right all along, the film was shown very late one night on television, and I videotaped it.

“Don’t you dare watch that while I’m in the house,” my wife said. I wondered whether I dared watch it while she wasn’t. Eventually, one morning when alone, I found the courage to put it on. I could only bear it for ten minutes before I had to turn it off due to boredom.


* It was rather inconsistent of the two city councils because two years earlier we had to go to the Bradford Odeon to see ‘A Clockwork Orange’ which had been banned in Leeds. 

** The Times 30th May 1974 page 9. Father Mark Athanasios Constantine Karras later became the Archbishop of Byzantium.

*** The Times 11th March 1974 page 2 and 25th February 1975 page 6.

Reproduction of The Exorcist poster is believed to constitute fair use.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Eric Kershaw's Guitar Class

Memories of a guitar class run by one of Britain's top swing-era guitarists.

Once upon a time, there were so many local authority evening classes it was hard to know which to take. There was an enormous choice of crafts, arts, sports, languages and examination subjects, but you had to make up your mind and enrol promptly or you would find your preferences full to capacity. From the nineteen-seventies to the nineteen-nineties, I brushed up my French, learned to recognise wild plants, studied the history of the cinema, explored my family history, played clarinet badly in an orchestra, tried to improve my writing skills (I know, it doesn’t show), and grazed my knees on a climbing wall in preparation for a scary weekend up rock faces in Borrowdale. I even retook my ‘A’ levels.

But if you look now, the informal classes once enjoyed by so many have closed. There are hardly any on offer at all. They began to disappear around ten years ago after a government “consultation” concluded (ignoring their popularity) that publicly subsidised evening classes were no longer needed because of alternatives such as television, libraries, the National Trust, English Heritage, museums, art galleries, the internet and the University of the Third Age. Funding was diverted into basic skills training for the unemployed: numeracy, literacy, information technology and work-based courses. The only publicly funded classes were to be those that led to approved qualifications. By 2008 over a million places had been axed.

Sue Blackmore summed it up in the Guardian in 2009 after a disappointing experience at a sculpture class. All that she and the other participants wanted was, unsurprisingly, “to do some sculpture.” The friendly young teacher would have been delighted to oblige, but no, to be funded the course had to lead towards a BTEC (Business and Technology Education Council) ONC (Ordinary National Certificate) qualification. It was bogged down in the blinkered bureaucracy of today’s educational ideology: aims, objectives and personal learning goals. The whole of the first term was taken up in putting together a portfolio of design investigations to achieve twelve learning outcomes, such as being able to “discuss and develop ideas with the advice of your tutor”,  and “identify potential hazards in the craft room”.  And all they had wanted was to do some sculpture!

Leeds College of Music, Woodhouse Lane 1990s
Leeds College of Music, Woodhouse Lane, around 1990

Thank goodness none of this claptrap was around in the autumn of 1974 when all I wanted to do was to learn to play guitar a bit better. I went along to Leeds College of Music on Woodhouse Lane and, unsure of which course to do, was steered by the enrolment clerk towards “the one with Eric Kershaw, the guitar book author.” I’d never heard of him, but she said his name with such reverence I signed up there and then.

Eric Kershaw (1916-1983), I soon discovered, was one of the top guitarists in Britain during the nineteen-thirties and nineteen-forties ‘swing’ era. Before the war, “Eric Kershaw and his Rhythmic Guitars” appeared regularly on the B.B.C. National and Northern radio stations, and later he played in the leading bands of Jack Parnell and Cyril Stapleton, and in countless West End shows. However, he was best known for his internationally best selling book ‘Dance Band Chords for the Guitar’ first published in 1946, which had sold an amazing seven and a half million copies. He had been appointed lecturer in plectrum and jazz guitar at Leeds College of Music in 1970, a post he held until his retirement in 1981.

Eric Kershaw: Dance Band Chords

The evening class was superb. For much of the time we played through his arrangement of around a hundred popular songs from the thirties, forties and fifties which he had put together as a medley. It began with ‘Just You, Just Me’ and ended aptly with ‘The Song Is Ended’. There were separate bass, rhythm and “stave solo” parts for which he had written out the music by hand. He had then made cyclostyled (‘Gestetnered’) copies collated into books concertinaed together with sellotape.

“Look after these and don’t walk off with ‘em,” he warned as he handed them out, “you’ve got no idea how long it takes to stick ‘em all together.” We were allowed to take them home, but he wanted them back at the end of the course.

Most of us played from the solo part because Eric persuaded us we needed to learn to read music. He played the rhythm accompaniment himself, and also the ‘turnaround’ chord sequences which linked the songs together. Strangely, his own guitar was fairly ordinary. “The kids* have pinched all the best ones,” he explained. He didn’t seem to have a proper plectrum either. It looked to me like he used an old tiddlywink.

Top Hat, White Tie and Tails
Extract from Eric Kershaw's teaching book: stave solo and rhythm parts for 'Top Hat, White Tie and Tails'

“O.K. guys,” he would announce (we all being guys), “number thirteen, ‘Buddy Can You Spare A Dime’,” and off we would go, some coping better than others. I was not a proficient sight reader at all, but my main problem was Eric’s accompaniment which he played from memory. He didn’t just play the rhythm part and turnarounds as written, he slipped in all kinds of modified chords, riffs and decorations with absolute mastery. I just wanted to listen to what he was doing. Some of his phrases might easily have sounded corny, but from him they were perfect.

I demoted myself to playing accompaniment. That introduced me to dance band rhythms of which I had been only vaguely aware, such as quickstep, waltz, fiesta, rumba, tango, bossa nova and beguine.

There were also the solo pieces he showed us. One of them, ‘It’s the Talk of the Town’ (the 1933 pop standard), I practised for hours and became pretty good at it, although I would struggle to play it now.

Talk of the Town for guitar by Eric Kershaw
Eric Kershaw's arrangement of 'Talk of the Town' for guitar

Some of us met several times outside the class to play guitar, although for me this lasted no longer than a few months. I remember one chap whose distinctive double-barrelled surname I saw again on an office door a quarter of a century later when I attended a conference in the Education Department at Exeter University, but it was the summer vacation and he wasn’t around. Another student gave the impression of being seriously dim-witted, until he began to play his guitar, at which he was outstanding.

Three weeks before Christmas, Eric revealed he would not be taking the class any more. “It’s knocking me out,” he complained. The following week another lecturer appeared. Despite a display of unshakeable self-assuredness he did not know much about guitars. No doubt he was knowledgeable in his own field, but his attempt to teach us song structures was not well received. We wanted to play our guitars.

“Name any song,” he said, standing at the piano confidently. “Just name any song and I’ll show you how easy it is to work out the chord structure.”

After an awkward silence which seemed to go on for ever, the dim-witted student had a rare flash of inspiration.

“Er, Albatross,” he mumbled in a dopey voice, referring to the slow guitar instrumental by Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac.

The lecturer’s eyes drifted slowly to the far top corner of the room and then back again, his expression as vacant as the student’s.

“Er, I don’t know it,” he said. “What about ‘On the Street Where You Live’?”

This lecturer’s other bright idea was to enter us for a general musicianship exam. Without any preparation or idea of what to expect, I found myself in a practice room with an examiner who asked me to clap rhythms back to him, sing sequences of notes he played on a piano, and answer questions about musical notation and harmony. He said I had a good ear but should try to sing an octave lower. I think I managed as good a mark as anyone else, but it was far short of the pass standard.


Leeds College of Music Letter 1975

The one benefit of being abandoned by Eric was that he never asked for his cyclostyled books back. I still have both the rhythm and solo parts, and many hours of pleasure they have given me too. It might be of interest to scan and post them whole, but they are probably copyright (the original music publishers’ rather than Eric’s), and I may already have pushed my luck too far with the extracts above. I can, however, safely show you the contents list I wrote out on the front.

Eric Kershaw's teaching medley

Surprisingly and encouragingly, Leeds College of Music, which now describes itself as “a specialist music conservatoire based in the Quarry Hill cultural quarter of Leeds,” still offers short courses in acoustic guitar. The second level course, which costs £200 for fifteen evening sessions of ninety minutes, aims to enhance your key guitar skills with open chords, barre chords, basic improvisation, song styles, broken chords, riffs, strumming patterns and theory. I’d go for it if I lived near enough.

The words “key” and “skills” only hint at what must lie underneath in the course specification. I’m not sure whether Eric would have bought into all the paperwork involved, I suspect not. The lecturer who took over for the last couple of weeks had to spend his first twenty minutes sorting out Eric’s muddle of a register. You certainly would not get away these days with making it up as you went along, nor with “on completion of this course you will have played guitar with a tiddlywink.” The old College of Music building in Woodhouse Lane is now a Wetherspoons pub. I think Eric might have liked that.

Another public provision that has suffered massive cutbacks is the library service. Shortly after the guitar class ended, I came across Eric’s LP ‘Time To Swing’ in the wonderful Leeds Record Library. Of course I taped it for my own use, as we all did then, and I still have it. With Johnny van Derrick on violin, it falls into the same genre as Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli, but shines with its own distinctive style. There are those who say Eric and Johnny were just as good, if not better than their older and more famous counterparts.

Time to Swing: Eric Kershaw

Of course, I can’t upload it here – you get copyright strikes for that kind of thing – but the recording has now re-emerged in MP3 format as part of ‘The Eric Kershaw Quintet – Hot Club’ which you can sample by following the link.

Track 7, ‘Until the Real Thing Comes Along’, begins with Eric playing in the same legato chordal melodic style as employed in the ‘Talk of the Town’ music above. In track 9, ‘Maybe You’ll Be There’, the violin takes the melody at first, but Eric’s exquisite accompanying chords and phrases are exactly the kind of thing he did in the evening class. My favourite, though, and it’s a difficult choice, is probably track 5, ‘Broken Date’, which begins with Johnny van Derrick’s haunting gypsy violin before Eric just as movingly comes in. That would definitely be one of my eight records for ‘Desert Island Discs’.

The MP3 recording is so much clearer than my (now digitised) old tape from a crackly library record. After all these years I’m going to pay for the download. 


* Eric’s son, Martin Kershaw, also became a top session guitarist. He has played with just about everyone you can think of.