Monday, 31 January 2011

so un holy (the farm shop)

Trashed farm shop, with graffiti inspired by Portishead and I Haunt Wizards (Gnomzxx), in the village of Northrepps, Norfolk, January 2011. Photos by Sue Palmer

For Portishead's video for Numb, see here

birdland (patti & max)

'But if I see before me the nervature of past life in an image, I always think that this has something to do with truth. Our brains, after all, are always at work on some quivers of self-organisation, however faint, and it is from this that an order arises, in places beautiful and comforting, though more cruel, too, than the previous state of ignorance. How far, in any case, must one go back to find the beginning?' (W.G. Sebald, 'Dark Night Sallies Forth', After Nature) 

On Saturday, after the funeral of an old friend in a witheringly cold north Norfolk, we drove to Aldeburgh to see Patti Smith at Snape Maltings. She was performing 'Max', a spoken word and song tribute to WG Sebald, as part of a symposium to mark the 10th anniversary of Sebald's death - with Richard Mabey, Rachel Lichtenstein, Robert Macfarlane and others - and the launch of Patience (After Sebald), Grant Gee's new film essay in response to The Rings of Saturn (which includes contributions by Tacita Dean, Iain Sinclair, Adam Phillips, Dan Gretton etc.).

Patti was astonishing. At the age of 64, in white dress shirt trailing cuffs, black jacket, jeans, boots, and Lennon glasses, she looks like a cross between Keith Richard and an Easter Island statue, her long face breaking into a disarming smile, her voice a blowtorch. Her marshaling of blooded energy in songs that she heats over time and brings incrementally to a shamanic boil wholly belies her apparent 'age'. At times she vibrates and burns like magma, at others she's like a wistful kid, then in a flash ancient, weathered, beyond the clumsiness of gender, a voice from elsewhere.

'Whispering madness on the heathland of Suffolk. Is this the promis'd end?' (Sebald, After Nature).

At one point, a woman near the front shouted, 'Patti, you're a goddess!' 'A shabby one', she replied, with a quiet laugh.
('With a laugh that's a rustling turned inwards', Sebald, After Nature). At another point, a young pissed guy shambled up to her at the lip of the stage, shouting and flicking v-signs: 'This is shit, man. And your audience is shit!' With an exquisite softness and without judgement, she tried to give him his money back. The young punk and the mother of punks; it was clear where the radical energy, openness, humanity and attack lay. After he left, bundled unceremoniously out of the door by an unnecessarily assertive punter, she said: 'Too bad he left when he did. Cos the next song features 27 punk guitarists, and it's specially for him'.

She combined readings from Sebald's associationally layered meditation/poem After Nature ('what is this being called human?') with accompaniment from her daughter Jesse on piano and a young composer Michael Campbell on guitar and vibraphone, with songs (including the song she wrote with Springsteen, 'Because The Night', 'Pissing in a River' and 'Ghost Dance', and a startling cover of Neil Young's 'Helpless' - 'Big birds flying across the sky / Throwing shadows on our eyes'). In addition she read a poem she'd written about Sebald, and shared musings on her own circuitous links to this place via Herman Melville and Billy Budd, Benjamin Britten, her Norfolk ancestry (the Harts), her love of Sebald - her friend Susan Sontag had first recommended him to her - and of the sea.

She opened up the quiet apocalypse of Sebald's poem, made it immediate, available, pulsing, an animate and fluid landscape of memory, illumination, displacement and loss edging towards lament and song. And - a white-hot highlight for me - she sang a staggering, ecstatic version of 'Birdland' from Horses, her wing-flutter hands articulating and sculpting space, taking flight, lifting us all up up up in to the belly of the spaceship within a theatre whose beamed roof mirrors the ribcage of some vast upturned sea vessel:

His father died and left him a little farm in New England.
All the long black funeral cars left the scene

And the boy was just standing there alone

Looking at the shiny red tractor

Him and his daddy used to sit inside

And circle the blue fields and grease the night.

It was if someone had spread butter on all the fine points of the stars

'Cause when he looked up they started to slip.

Then he put his head in the crux of his arm

And he started to drift, drift to the belly of a ship,

Let the ship slide open, and he went inside of it

And saw his daddy 'hind the control board streamin' beads of light,

He saw his daddy 'hind the control board,

And he was very different tonight

'Cause he was not human, he was not human.

And then the little boy's face lit up with such naked joy
That the sun burned around his lids and his eyes were like two suns,

White lids, white opals, seeing everything just a little bit too clearly

And he looked around and there was no black ship in sight,
No black funeral cars, nothing except for him the raven

And fell on his knees and looked up and cried out,
"No, daddy, don't leave me here alone,

Take me up, daddy, to the belly of your ship,

Let the ship slide open and I'll go inside of it
Where you're not human, you are not human".

But nobody heard the boy's cry of alarm.
Nobody there 'cept for the birds around the New England farm

And they gathered in all directions, like roses they scattered

And they were like compass grass coming together into the head of a shaman bouquet

Slit in his nose and all the others went shooting

And he saw the lights of traffic beckoning like the hands of Blake

Grabbing at his cheeks, taking out his neck,

All his limbs, everything was twisted and he said,
"I won't give up, won't give up, don't let me give up,

I won't give up, come here, let me go up fast,
Take me up quick, take me up, up to the belly of a ship

And the ship slides open and I go inside of it where I am not human.

I am helium raven and this movie is mine",

So he cried out as he stretched the sky,

Pushing it all out like latex cartoon, am I all alone in this generation?

We'll just be dreaming of animation night and day

And won't let up, won't let up and I see them coming in,

Oh, I couldn't hear them before, but I hear 'em now,

It's a radar scope in all silver and all platinum lights
Moving in like black ships, they were moving in, streams of them,

And he put up his hands and he said,

"It's me, it's me,
I'll give you my eyes, take me up, oh now please take me up,
I'm helium raven waitin' for you, please take me up,

Don't let me here, the son, the sign, the cross,

Like the shape of a tortured woman, the true shape of a tortured woman,

The mother standing in the doorway letting her sons

No longer presidents but prophets

They're all dreaming they're gonna bear the prophet,

He's gonna run through the fields dreaming in animation

It's all gonna split his skull

It's gonna come out like a black bouquet shining

Like a fist that's gonna shoot them up

Like light, like Mohammed Boxer

Take them up up up up up up

Oh, let's go up, up, take me up,
I'll go up,
I'm going up, I'm going up
Take me up, I'm going up, I'll go up there
Go up go up go up go up up up up up up up

Up, up to the belly of a ship.
Let the ship slide open and we'll go inside of it

Where we are not human, we're not human".

Well, there was sand, there were tiles,

The sun had melted the sand and it coagulated

Like a river of glass

When it hardened he looked at the surface

He saw his face

And where there were eyes were just two white opals, two white opals,

Where there were eyes there were just two white opals

And he looked up and the rays shot

And he saw raven comin' in

And he crawled on his back and he went up

Up up up up up up

Sha da do wop, da sha da do way,
sha da do wop, da sha da do way,

Sha da do wop, da shanna do way,
sha da do wop, da shaman do way,

Sha da do wop, da shaman do way,

We like birdland.

A spirit passed, and the hair on my flesh stood up.

Yes yes, my god, we like birdland too. A (not so) shabby goddess took us there by the hand, a force of nature, an old old soul.

This being called human.

W.G. Sebald, After Nature (trans. Michael Hamburger), New York: Modern Library, 2002

For Aida Edemariam's Guardian interview with Patti Smith (22 January 2011), see here. For Stuart Jeffries' Guardian article (25 January 2011) about Patience (After Sebald), see here. For a Guardian podcast of a conversation with Grant Gee about Sebald, see here. For the original 1975 recording of 'Birdland', see here

Photo of Patti Smith by Annie Leibovitz

Monday, 24 January 2011

mush, bagels & duckling

'Real names didn't mean anything to these guys. They didn't introduce by last names. I knew guys that had been hanging out together for five or ten years and did not know each other's last names. Nobody cares. You were introduced by a first name or a nickname. If you don't volunteer somebody's last name, nobody'll ask you. That's just the code. The feeling is, if you wanted me to know a name, you would have told me' - Joe Pistone (AKA 'Donnie Brasco').

The recent arrest in the New York region and in Sicily of more than 120 reputed Mafiosi from the five big families - Gambino, Colombo, Genovese, Bonanno, Luchese, as well as deCavalcante, di Maggio, Mannino, Inzerillo - brings to light some new 'made men' nicknames.

As a kind of addendum to an earlier post about Mafia names ('Little Charles the Cat Eater', 16 October 2008) - and with a nod at recent news that undercover British policeman Mark Kennedy's nickname among the environmentalists he infiltrated for 7 years was 'Flash' - the list below is drawn from last week's mass federal indictments in the US, in the wake of the FBI operation named 'Mafia Takedown'.

Luigi Manocchio ('The Old Man', 'The Professor, and 'Baby Shacks' - so named purportedly because of his frequent liaisons with women); Vincenzo Frogiero ('Vinny Carwash'); Anthony Cavezza ('Tony Bagels'); Joseph Carna ('Junior Lollipops'), Jack Rizzocascio ('Jack the Whack'), Bartolomeo Vernace ('Bobby Glasses'), Andrew Russo ('Mush'), Benjamin Castellazzo ('The Claw' or 'The Fang'), Dennis deLucia ('Fat Dennis' or 'The Beard').

Also, 'Johnny Cash', 'Baby Fat Larry', 'Johnny Pizza', 'Lumpy', 'The Bull', 'Meatball', 'Louis Ices', 'Marbles', and 'Skinny'.

Meanwhile, I've been reading sociologist Diego Gambetta's fascinating Codes Of The Underworld: How Criminals Communicate (Princeton University Press, 2009), which devotes a chapter to nicknames. There's a great section about derogatory Sicilian nicknames, triggered by the fact that the Sicilian word for nickname - 'nciuri - means 'abuse'. Gambetta writes, for example, about a fishmonger known as Gioiellere ('The Jeweller') because his merchandise was said to be as expensive as diamonds.

Gambetta also explores some Mafioso names I haven't come across before, metonymies inspired by physical features: u'Buttigghiuni ('Large Bottle'), Faccia di Pala ('Shovel Face'), Cosce Affumate ('Smoked Thighs'), Scillone ('Pendulum'), Mussu di Ficurindia ('Prickly Pear Mouth'), and Pinzetta ('Tweezers'). Others related to psychological or behavioural features include: Farfagnedda ('Stammer'), Tempesta ('Storm'), Parrapicca ('Few Words'), and Abbruciamontagna ('Burnt Mountain', hot temper). And then there are the hit men whose names are stripped of threatening connotations: Scarpuzzedda ('Little Shoe'), Anatreddu ('Duckling') and il Ragioniere ('The Accountant') ...

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

the words that maketh ...

Four links to rather different kinds of material doing the rounds at the moment: all of them about language's constitutive power - what words do - and in particular the relations between language and violence.

They can be approached in any order.

PJ Harvey's new single 'The Words that Maketh Murder', from her forthcoming album Let England Shake:

Keith Olbermann on US television,
in the wake of the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords - in a long forthright speech to camera, he dismisses the role of violence in political rhetoric within democratic processes: see here

Martin Chulov in The Guardian (19 December 2010) with the extraordinary story of the Q'uran handwritten by a commissioned calligrapher using 27 litres of Saddam Hussein's blood over a period of two years in the late 1990s, and what on earth to do with it: see here

And finally, gently corrosive and hilarious guerrilla interventions in the streets of London by Charlie Veitch and the Love Police, megaphones in hand: 'Everything you read in the mainstream media is 100% true ...'

p.s. Here's Seamus Murphy on the making of the films for Polly Harvey's Let England Shake:

The album is a dense world of Polly's vision, but what interested me most was exploring the eccentricity and enigma of England. The present exists in a complicated relationship with the past and England's island status, and her relationship to her land, geography and tradition is fundamental to the country's psyche. Contemporary England springs from colonial adventures, military ambitions and industrial prowess. It is also shaded by fading power and its military role in modern geopolitics. To open myself up to a country I live in but rarely shoot, I took a road journey around England. I approached it as I would a foreign country, traveling wide-eyed with minimal equipment — light and alone. I documented life first-hand in classical reportage style, using available light and real-life situations, this time with sound and pictures. I normally have the still silent image as my universe. I photographed, directed and produced the films myself, and worked with editor Sebastian Gollek in Berlin to complete the project. The ballroom scene from Blackpool is one of my favorites; it has what I hope for in any project, to find the extraordinary in the ordinary and to be ambiguous enough to allow personal interpretation. I am not trying to deliver a message. Just showing what I saw, how I saw it and, sometimes, how I would like it to be.

For a pre-release stream of the entire album, see here.

Thanks to my friends Pete Harrison and Tim Etchells for a couple of these links, culled from their own web pages.

Monday, 17 January 2011

unfinishable invitation

In memory of David Bradby, 1942 - 2011

I first met David Bradby almost 35 years ago, as a first-year student at the University of Kent in 1976. Throughout my undergraduate course in French and Drama, David was my core tutor, teaching in both areas of the joint degree (and in their overlap). As a teacher, David was the most energized of enthusiasts, passionate about French culture, reading, and theatre as a social, political and aesthetic tool for thinking into and re-fashioning aspects of life. His ability to make ideas and practices available and exciting without diminishing their intellectual complexities was genuinely remarkable. Alongside a handful of other inspiring young lecturers, David opened my mind and changed my life. I still remember his playfully performative lectures and interactive seminar discussions about texts by Aragon, Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, Céline, Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet and Duras, and my wide-eyed pleasure at David’s accounts of Beckett and the Théâtre du Soleil. Then there were the trips he organised to Paris, taking a small gang of us to performances, drifts to the Buttes-Chaumont and other Surrealist sites, couscous in Belleville, and sorties with a wildly unpredictable young performer from the Théâtre du Campagnol whose flat we all shared.

For us as students, in addition to being massively impressed by his impeccable French and the relish with which he launched into it, David was intellectually challenging, illuminating, hilarious (at times mischievously so, eyes and smile a-twinkle), and consistently the most buoyant and invitational of encouragers. In particular, in those luxurious days of the lengthy one-to-one tutorial conversation around one’s own essays, he was rigorously attentive to the detail of thought and its articulation, and extraordinarily generous – lending books and journals, suggesting other materials and people one might pursue, making connections to one’s own performances as a student, and so on. Like the very best teachers, he invited us to listen closely to our own emergent energies and enthusiasms, and provided stimulus and courage for their further unfolding into a proactive engagement with ideas, practices, forms, people, and contexts. He was, quite simply, the best teacher I have ever had.

One of the qualities I most respected and enjoyed, particularly in his role as supervisor of my postgraduate research on Brook, was David’s wonderfully refreshing ability to deflate pomposity in the most generative and enabling of ways, never hurtfully (and I imagine David having a chuckle at my flounderings with this text). Somehow he was sensitively attuned to what I was up for in terms of critical feedback, and how best to pitch it and draw my attention to my own excesses or blind spots. One small example: in an early draft chapter, David pointed out a particularly ridiculous purple prose section I had written, an instance of a sort of bombastic verbal pebble-dashing that, in truth, meant very little. In the margin he wrote: ‘Who do you think you are – Melvyn Bragg?’ Reading this was like receiving the Zen master’s whack on the back of the head with the frying pan, only much funnier and entirely painless. I laughed and returned to the text with a new clarity and momentum.

Another related quality lay in David’s skills as a close-reader of diverse texts - in particular for me early on, French fiction. Through his articulate attention to the work that language does and the composition of texts (their architectures, weaves, motifs and ‘rhymes’; the implications of their ‘shapes’, etc.), David instilled in his students of French literature a sensitivity to the relations between textual forms and their possible/ multiple significations. As I told David when I last met him in Norfolk a few months ago, it was only much later on that I came to realize that this readerly ‘training’ had been invaluable to me for many years when flipped over into a quite different writerly context: that of collaborating as a dramaturg with theatre and dance practitioners (i.e. devising and dramaturgy as compositional practices of écriture scénique).

I feel immensely privileged to have been able to sustain a dialogue with David since those early years in Canterbury. For he has been an evolving continuity throughout my adult life: as undergraduate tutor, postgraduate supervisor, collaborator, mentor and long-term friend. As the emails to the SCUDD list in the wake of the announcement of David’s death attest, I was just one of many who benefited from David’s support, generosity and wisdom. It’s clear that, in the most open of ways, he was a great enabler and connector, facilitating countless opportunities for people in their professional and personal development. He gave so many of us big breaks in our lives - suggesting possible publication sites, engineering introductions, proposing projects and collaborations, supporting job applications by young scholars early on in their careers, and so on. And in reality there are lots of us who quite simply wouldn’t have been able to do what we’re doing today were it not for David.

In this apparently joyous and wholly a-territorial commitment to helping others - as in the quality of his scholarship, and his valuing of practice as a mode of enquiry – David will remain a model and challenge to us all in the years to come. His unflagging intellectual curiosity and momentum were always informed and contoured by deeply felt values: an unshakeable sense of responsibility to social justice, collegiality and exchange; a profound kindness, courteousness and warm-heartedness; and a sense of the very real pleasures, wonders and sometimes difficulties of living a life in relation to others. Although David is irreplaceable, a great person who will be sorely missed by those who were lucky enough to have known him, perhaps that’s one central component of the legacy he leaves his former students, colleagues and friends. An ongoing and unfinishable invitation to thoughtfulness, kindness, openness, dialogue, at every level …

This text was written at the invitation of Caridad Svich, as part of a forthcoming issue of Contemporary Theatre Review, with tributes to David Bradby by former colleagues and friends including Maria Delgado, Dan Rebellato, Carl Lavery, Alan Read and others. I reproduce it here in the wake of David's funeral, on a freezing Saturday in north Norfolk, for David's family and many friends.

The photograph of David is by Joel Anderson.

For David's obituary in the Times Higher Education Supplement (27 January 2011), see here. For a formal announcement on the Royal Holloway website, see here. For Dan Rebellato's fine CTR text, see here