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Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Ram

When Paul McCartney’s long playing record Ram came out in 1971, a lot of people hated it. They were especially irritated by the embarrassing sight and sound of Linda McCartney and her wooden, astringent vocals. Why was she on the record anyway: as if it were a primary school music class where everyone has to join in enthusiastically banging tambourines and triangles, even the talentless? She was even accredited fully as co-creator, which no one really believed.

I simply dismissed it. It was not The Beatles. I was fed up with it emanating from Brendan’s room in the shared house. After all, I had more sophisticated tastes. I was a knowledgeable connoisseur of serious music like progressive rock, particularly Jethro Tull who had just released Aqualung. How could the McCartneys’ frivolous and inconsequential warbling possibly compare?

The only legacy, for me, was that even to this day, whenever we drive past a certain cut-price supermarket I sing the following mondegreen:
Lidl Lidl be a gypsy get around
Get your feet up off the ground
Lidl Lidl get around.
I mentioned this recently in commenting on another blog about post-Beatles Paul McCartney. I looked up the lyrics to discover that the actual words are “Live a little” from the track Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey who “had to have a bath or he couldn’t get to sea” – another misheard lyric, it’s “berth”.

One thing led to another and I ended up recently getting the CD as a birthday present (I don’t do streaming). What a revelation! Judging it inferior to Jethro Tull was being Thick as a Brick.

I now think Ram is amongst Paul McCartney’s best and most innovative output: so rich in ideas – melodies, harmonies, arrangements, decorations, quirky bits – almost every part of every track is different. It‘s an amusing, joyful record, a bit late-Beatles, like the brightest parts of Abbey Road and The White Album.

Another reviewer describes it as a “domestic-bliss album”. Despite personal and contractual pains in disentangling himself from the Beatles, Paul was now living a contented and enviable lifestyle, very happy with Linda and children in their rural retreat. You hear it throughout. And Linda’s voice is just about OK too, or at least you get used to it. 

Maybe I liked Ram all along but did not want to admit it.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Review - Erich von Daniken: Chariots of the Gods?

Erich von Daniken: Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past (2*)

In 1965, through the Top Deck Shandy promotion mentioned in a previous post, I acquired a book by Frank Edwards called Stranger than Science, originally published in 1959. It was based upon the author’s American radio series which described things beyond our scientific understanding, such as Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs), the Loch Ness Monster and a man who suddenly disappeared in full view of several witnesses. I’m not ashamed to admit it was a favourite which I enjoyed enormously and devoured uncritically.

I don’t know what became of my copy, but in 1974, Book Club Associates sent me another of the same genre: Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Daniken, which was a best seller on first publication in 1968. Although not as satisfying as Edwards’ book, it covers much of the same material and has remained on my bookshelf ever since.

The central proposition is that at one or more points in our pre-history, the earth was visited by aliens with unimaginable powers who influenced early human culture. We may even be descended from them.

I would dearly, dearly like to be able to believe this but, well, let’s not kid ourselves, most of it is complete bollocks. Much of our most popular fiction, such as 2001: a Space Odyssey and Raiders of the Lost Ark, draws upon similar ideas. It might excite your imagination but no one else claims it to be true.

To support his proposition, von Daniken argues that ancient structures such as the Egyptian pyramids demonstrate higher technical skills than were available at the time they were built, and that prehistoric texts such as the bible contain descriptions of aircraft and advanced technology. They could therefore only have been created by extra terrestrials or by lessons learned from them.  

To give just a few examples:

He claims that the Sarcophagus of Palenque in the ancient Mayan Temple of the Inscriptions in Mexico, as drawn above on the dust jacket, shows a spaceman sitting in a rocket;

He contends that the Nazca Lines in the Peruvian desert are the remains of spaceship landing sites built to alien instructions;

He suggests that the biblical account of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back at Sodom is actually a description of a nuclear explosion.

He believes that the Tungusta event in Siberia in 1908 was another nuclear explosion.

The book is packed with this sort of stuff. The trouble is that a little googling reveals that most of these things can be accounted for by more plausible, more mundane explanations. For example, evidence strongly suggests that the Tungusta event was actually caused by an asteroid bursting around five miles above the earth’s surface, and there are now more plausible scientific theories of how the pyramids were built.

There are however some things in the book which seem to defy explanation. It seems unbelievable that during the first or second century B.C. the Greeks were able to construct a complex clock-like machine, now known as the Antikythera mechanism, which followed and predicted the movements of the moon and sun through the zodiac over decades. It incorporated 37 bronze gear wheels of a complexity not seen again until the fourteenth century.

Similarly, some of the supposed UFO sightings are a mystery: such as the incident at Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1965 when a considerable number of witnesses – von Daniken states 58 – saw a large, glowing red flying object. Although it has since been suggested that it may have been an in-flight refuelling aircraft and boom, a quick online search reveals later incidents that remain harder to explain.

What I really disliked about the book, though, is that it is appallingly written and organised. Perhaps something has been lost in translation from the original German, but online cross-checking of events and phenomena reveals numerous discrepancies and inconsistencies in details, names and dates, suggesting sloppy scholarship. Chapters supposedly on one topic jump across other topics, times and locations. Descriptions and interpretations are blatantly embellished, one-sided and tendentious with little attempt at balance. Some part of the book are entertaining, but much is tedious. I have marked and supervised several Ph.D. theses in my time, and believe me, von Daniken’s stuff would fail outright.

Why did I keep it so long? I suppose I must have enjoyed it in 1974. Not any longer. It’s going to the charioty shop of the gods. I wish I had re-read Stranger Than Science instead.


Key to star ratings: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up. 

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Mists: a tale for Halloween

Vintage Coca Cola drawing Ending a family walk through the sun-dappled woods of the Sussex countryside, we headed to the village shop for an ice cream, a reward for our exertions on the hottest day of the year. My son chose a bottle of Coke, the real thing, cold and misty from the fridge, thirst-quenchingly irresistible. I decided to have one too. 

“Do you know what it is?” He sounded worried. “Are you sure you can handle it? It won’t send you hyper will it?”

I had never seen him look so concerned. You would have thought it was still the original recipe with coca leaves. I felt like a child asking for a glass of absinthe or some other inappropriate, drug-infused concoction.

“How old do you think I am?” was all I could say.

It must have been forty years since I’d last had Coca-Cola. We got through crates of the stuff in the local coffee-bar when “Happy Days” culture ruled the world, even in Yorkshire. We sat there through the autumn and winter months when we should have been working for our ‘O’ levels, making each bottle last an hour in the hope of being allowed to stay without buying another. The owner’s patience extended only so far as the table space.

“We used to drink loads of it,” I remembered.

My son frowned as I finished most of the bottle in one go. The distinctive spicy taste brought back memories of another walk, all those years ago, on Halloween, at the dead of night through the eerie gloom of the cemetery.

Cemetery in mist

Halloween was not for tricks and treats in those days. If noted at all, it was as a rarely-observed remnant of pagan, pre-Christian myths and legends: a night you might just dare mention ghosts and ghouls in jest.

“All Hallows Eve!” someone said in the coffee bar. “You wouldn’t want to walk through the graveyard tonight.” Was it my idea, or Ron’s, or Neville’s? I am no longer sure, but none of us noticed Bill and Frank sniggering at the next table.

The cemetery lay beside the river on a quiet stretch of road out of town. Neville, Ron and I made our way through the deserted winter streets, shoulders hunched, misty breath thickened by cigarette smoke, eyes firmly ahead, not seeing Bill and Frank surreptitiously following behind and then turning off.

The iron gate opened with a heavy groan. We hesitated, then stepped into the blackness. Icy moisture dripped from trees. Footsteps echoed through the chapel arch. There were vague silhouettes, high gravestones, angels whispering omens of destiny, bent and broken wings, limbs writhing and twisting, stiff from decades of decay, grasping for us, reaching for our ankles, dragging us to their cold graves.

The fog thickened as we neared the end of the cemetery. River mist. On top of the bank was a muddy track back to town. As we climbed, two floating spectral figures emerged above us and a chill voice spoke out in incantation.

“Be ye ready. For in such hour as ye think not the reaper cometh.”

Neville froze like a gravestone effigy. I screamed in terror. Ron turned and fell down the bank. Bill and Frank, unable to keep up the pretence, broke down laughing, almost falling after Ron, their prize for shivering in the bushes. 

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” my son said. I did warn you. It’s got caffeine and sugar. You could have a heart attack at your age.”

I looked at the empty bottle in my hands. It was plastic, thin, insubstantial, not thick and heavy like they used to be. The surface cleared as it warmed, and the mist evaporated like the mists of time.


The vintage drawing of a Coca Cola bottle and the cemetery photograph are understood to be in the public domain.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Review - Andrew Davies: A Very Peculiar Practice


Andrew Davies: A Very Peculiar Practice (3*)

Continuing my interest in campus novels, A Very Peculiar Practice was originally a 1986 BBC television comedy series set in the health centre of a fictitious low-ranking university somewhere in central England. It was written by the prominent television writer Andrew Davies, and starred Peter Davison in the leading role as newly appointed young doctor Stephen Daker. I didn’t watch it at the time, but this book is the ‘novelisation’ of the seven-part series, with each chapter corresponding to an episode.

Everything takes place to the background of short-sighted opportunism I recognise from my own university experiences: funding cuts; redundancies; bullying, the introduction of managerialism and business practices; the push for external funding while short changing the students. In other words, changing the nature of universities from being trusted guardians, creators and communicators of knowledge who provide a public service into dubious commercial outfits who rip-off customers and employees alike in order to maximise profits. If it was not for the values and ethos of the staff these things would have gone much further than they already have. 

The book is very much of its time, with nineteen-eighties sexist humour, predictable sitcom plots and stereotypical characters. The head of the practice is a going-to-seed drunken Scot. Another colleague is a self-seeking ruthless advantage seeker. A third is a bisexual feminist sexpot who sees everything from the women’s point of view. We also come across the high-achieving workaholic professor, the scheming vice chancellor and the impossibly perfect girlfriend. The central character feels completely out of his depth, but turns out of course to be far more up to the challenge than his lack of self-belief leads him to expect. Also, in a surrealist twist, there is a creative writer in residence who in discussing and thinking about his writing is actually discussing and thinking about the plot and characters of A Very Peculiar Practice.

But if you can put up with all of this, then it’s an extremely funny book.


Key to star ratings: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up. 

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Stair Rail

Soon after moving to our current home more than a quarter of a century ago, I fitted a handrail to help my ageing father and mother-in-law get up and down stairs. They hauled themselves up, breathless, unbending backs and aching knees, and eased themselves down, woodwork and bone groaning as one.

I remember bringing it home on top of the car, which was a bit risky because at 14 feet long (4.25 metres) it stuck out both front and back. It’s a pig’s ear handrail – a reference to the cross-sectional shape, not the quality of fitting.

Sadly, my father and mother-in-law no longer need it. I fitted it for them. Even in my darkest moments, I never thought it would be for me.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny
Haeckel’s 1874 drawing of stages of development in the embryos of
fish, salamander, turtle, chick, pig, calf, rabbit and human.

Professor Clarke stood at the blackboard with assured elegance. It was not just the beauty of his layout and lettering, it was the poise of his whole demeanor. Arm outstretched, extending exactly the right proportions of wrist and cuff beyond suit sleeve, he grasped the chalk delicately between thumb and forefinger, and with an economy of effort, calmly progressed through his lecture. What a privilege to be in the presence of such a highly esteemed international reputation.

He was talking about pre-natal and neo-natal human development: physical and mental growth before and around birth. He concluded with a short quotation. None of us quite caught it. He said something like: “Antigen capital file genre.”

In those days students weren’t given all the slides and notes on the internet to learn and parrot back in examinations. We used to read around lectures. We went to the library and made notes from text books and academic journals. We even owned quite a lot of expensive text books ourselves. So before long I worked out that what he had actually said was: “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” Furthermore, I understood what it meant: a chunk of lecture succinctly summarised in three words.

The point is, as became clear when we later learned about how we acquire the power of speech and language, if we don’t understand something, if we cannot make sense of how the words fit together, we find it difficult to say. Think of the novelty song Mairzy dotes and dozy dotes and liddle lamzy divey.

Twenty years later the children were laughing.

“I bet you can’t say “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppercorns,” said my wife, and recited the full verse, faultlessly. She followed it with “She sells sea shells …” as an encore.

“The British soldiers’ shoulders,” I added, not to be outdone. “The Leith police dismisseth us,” and then out of nowhere, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”

Within a few days my eight year old son had got it. “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” he would tell anyone who would listen. At school, he was in Mr. Price’s class.

“Hello Mr. Price,” he said. “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”

“Aunty Jenny was late for what?” queried Mr. Price.

“It means when a baby grows in its mummy’s tummy, it starts off like a little tadpole, and then looks like a little frog, and then like a little bird, and then a little horse, and then a little monkey, and then a little baby.”

That guy recently passed all his law exams.

What a pity that Meckel and Serres’ theory of embryological parallelism, perfectly encapsulated in Ernst Haeckel’s catchy phrase, illustrated by his somewhat dishonest drawing and so urbanely recapitulated by Professor Clarke, has been discredited as biological mythology.


Haeckel's 1874 illustration of embryos is out of copyright.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Review - Two Early Campus Novels

Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim Malcolm Bradbury: Eating People Is Wrong

Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim (1954) (4*)
Malcolm Bradbury: Eating People is Wrong (1959) (2*)

I used to enjoy campus novels – stories about university life – immensely.

As a mature student, I soaked up the BBC’s 1981 adaptation of Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man with Anthony Sher as Howard Kirk, gripped by the unconstrained, free-thinking lifestyle it portrays, and wanted it for myself. Not until I read the actual novel many years later did I realise what an objectionably selfish snake the anti-hero is.

Later, having somehow pulled-off the unlikely trick of getting a job in a university, I was greatly entertained by David Lodge’s campus trilogy, Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work, written in the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties. There was a lot in the wranglings between staff, pointless activities and scrabbling for advancement that rang true, as did the chaos lower down the academic hierarchy depicted in Tom Sharpe’s Wilt which I experienced first-hand on moving to a Polytechnic.

In recent weeks I have been catching up on two early campus novels from the nineteen-fifties: Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Malcolm Bradbury’s Eating People is Wrong. Both books are very much of the nineteen-fifties in the social attitudes they portray. I guess they helped frame the way we thought of provincial universities during the nineteen-sixties when I was at school, unsuccessfully applying through UCCA.

Lucky Jim (1954) was for me the most enjoyable of the two. It ages well and is often hilarious. As David Lodge points out in the introduction, the humour comes not only from Amis’s wonderful comic timing in the handling of situations, but also from his original, educated but classless writing style, which often makes use of original twists to everyday turns of phrase:
To look at, but not only to look at, they resembled some kind of variety act…
He’d found his professor standing, surprisingly enough, in front of the Recent Additions shelf in the College Library…
Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way.
I found myself sympathising with the predicament of misfit young lecturer Jim Dixon, and felt very satisfied at the end when he walks off with the girl and everything else. However, many of the comic situations, for example when Dixon accidentally burns holes in his Head of Department’s bedsheets whilst staying at his house, and his subsequent attempts to conceal the damage, could be in any comic novel rather than one specifically set in a university. It could be from a Brian Rix Whitehall farce. I might well look out for more by Kingsley Amis.

Eating People is Wrong (1959) I found less than satisfactory. It concerns the prematurely old-fashioned Professor Treece and his difficulties in making sense of the changing post-war world of the nineteen-fifties. There are too many characters, none very likeable, most under-developed, too many switches of viewpoint from the thoughts, opinions and dilemmas of one to those of another and then to those of the author, and a tendency to tell rather than show – all the things that writing experts say you should avoid, but who are they to find fault with the acclaimed founder of the famous MA in Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia? It is no real defence that these things appear to be conscious and deliberate.

I suppose the novel resembles university life where people fall into and out of each others’ lives without reaching any kind of resolution, to an incessant background buzz of brilliant yet pointless wordplay. Much of the dialogue would not be out of place in an Alan Ayckbourne play. Perhaps it tries too ostentatiously to be clever by trying to generate too many epigrammatic quotations, and twists and turns to accepted clichés:
With sociology one can do anything and call it work.
... it had always seemed to Louis that a fundamental desire to take postal courses was being sublimated by other people into sexual activity;
… if you are interested in [old] houses, you know what the world is like and it is not like you.
… soon it won’t be necessary to go to America. It will all be here.
After nearly two hundred pages of nothing much happening, a subversive writer called Carey Willoughby arrives to give a talk and declares: “With my sort of book theres no resolution, because theres no solution. The problems aren’t answered in the end because there is no answer. They’re problems that are handed on to the reader …

Was Bradbury referring to himself?

Having grasped all of this, scoring it two stars is mean. I’m sure I would get more out of it on slow second reading, but life’s too short.


Key to star ratings: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.