Malibu Rising is the story of hugely successful singing star, Mick Riva, and the family he abandons. Following the death of their mother, oldest sister, Nina, steps in and looks after her siblings. We follow Riva family history, from 1956 when hopeful singer Mick, meets a pretty girl called June on a Malibu beach, through to a fateful night in 1983 when the now adult Riva siblings throw a chaotic party in Nina’s Malibu house.
Malibu Rising is about family patterns playing out from one generation to another – and efforts, usually self-defeating, that people make to escape those patterns. This theme is handled with some subtlety. There is also reflection on the idea that ambitions aspiring to supposedly perfect lives, often just recreate flashier versions of former, ordinary lives. I enjoyed the descriptions of Malibu in this regard. Malibu has a reputation as a paradise for millionaires. It is actually a place to live like any other, where it pays to have comprehensive home insurance against natural disaster.
More difficult is the way the story is told. There is no central narrator. We see things from multiple points of view. Once the party starts in the book’s second half, virtually everyone coming in the door gets their few paragraphs. This was confusing and made it difficult to stay engaged. Sometimes we also get a strange author voice butting in, saying things like “there were twenty five people in the living room, not that anyone was counting”.
I didn’t know what to make of this. Was the author reflecting on how each individual is an author of their own story, while a bigger, fateful author appears to push the plot in its own direction? Well maybe. I think this book does have literary ambitions, even if it as written as a kind of soap opera. But the point of view thing was still potentially confusing and did not help involvement with the story.
Overall Malibu Rising was an interesting novel thematically, though perhaps not the most engaging read.
I recently watched Alfonso Cuarón’s film Gravity, which tells the story of a couple of astronauts who become trapped in Earth orbit. Space debris destroys their shuttle, along with satellites which allow communication with Earth. Now they have to try and survive. Part of this effort involves continuing to talk to Mission Control in Houston, as though messages are still getting through. The routine is to address each message to ‘Houston in the blind’.
“They can’t hear us,” says inexperienced astronaut Ryan Stone.
“We don’t know that,” replies veteran Matt Kowalski. “That’s why you keep talking. If someone is listening they just might save your life.”
Gravity is an interesting film on many levels, not least in what it has to say to writers. When you are a writer starting out, no one is listening. Maybe no one will ever respond. Somehow you have to keep talking to Houston in the blind as if they are there.
We see the value of this approach during a particularly dire moment later in the film. Kowalski has been lost, and Ryan, after reaching a badly damaged International Space Station, finds herself trapped in an escape capsule with no fuel. At this moment Kowalski seems to return. He opens the capsule door, sits beside Ryan and provides some relaxed encouragement. Kowalski is a hallucination, but by talking to someone who isn’t there, Ryan manages to sort out her thoughts and find a way forward. The mirage of the conversation gives actual help. There are religious parallels. Ryan had considered prayer before Kowalski’s hallucination arrived – and prayer is once again a manner of communication where you are talking to Houston in the blind. That type of message will never be answered, but some people continue to gain actual comfort from the act of assuming their call gets through.
Point of view is also interesting. Sometimes we are in Ryan’s helmet, seeing out of her eyes. Then with a subtle movement we move outside, to view her story as observers. We are both Ryan and her audience, with her when she calls for help, but also in the position of someone receiving that call.
Writers are trying to communicate. Initially they only do this with themselves, using writing as a way to sort out personal thoughts, as Ryan did talking to the hallucination of her fellow astronaut. But even an illusory audience can provide actual help, and might turn into a real audience. If the message keeps going out with enough conviction, then you might find that Houston in the blind is receiving – as Ryan discovers at the end of the film. In a damaged capsule she reaches Earth and hears Houston telling her that they are sending a rescue mission.
So, taking Matt Kowalski’s advice…
“Houston in the blind, this is mission specialist Martin Jones. Permission to share a blog post on the film Gravity, with reference to writing… copy that.”
Ophelia And The Marvellous Boy is a kind of melancholic mashup of Night At The Museum and Hans Christian Anderson’s nineteenth century tale, The Snow Queen. A city museum is about to stage an exhibition of swords, but the museum is actually an alternative reality in disguise, a prison where a Snow Queen of centuries ago has imprisoned a boy who might have the power to end her reign. A curious young girl discovers the boy. She has to find a way to release him and help him in his quest.
I actually came across this book on a list of “STEM” titles, that is books which might help young readers in understanding and appreciating science and technology. If that’s what you’re looking for, then Ophelia And The Marvellous Boy is a conundrum. In many ways, it presents the usual misleading idea that science is all about limited pigeonholing, which prevents an appreciation of a wider, more magical reality. The story is similar to The Snow Queen in that sense. One of the main points Anderson makes is that modern rationality is apparently no match for Christianity.
However, The Snow Queen is a subtle tale, which in its criticism of rationality, also reveals how people can be misled by their imagination. The boy and girl in Anderson’s tale first come across the Snow Queen in a story which they mistakenly believe is real. The Snow Queen is herself a product of of viewing the world in an imaginative rather than rational way.
Ophelia And The Marvellous Boy has this same two-sided quality. Ophelia in her restless wandering around the museum discovers the Marvellous Boy, locked away by the Snow Queen. Ophelia finds him only because she is more curious and willing to look than other people. This is part of her nature as a budding young scientist. Another important aspect of science is the discipline needed to put aside preconceptions and prejudices and see what’s in front of you. Now here’s the tricky thing: Ophelia has to put aside her preconceptions, which in this case requires her to accept that there is a magical world hidden in a museum. To do this she must be a proper scientist, accepting what she sees, even if it doesn’t coincide with what she thinks she should be seeing. When Darwin devised his theory of evolution, the preconceptions of his time demanded that species were fixed and unchanging. Darwin had to accept the evidence of his eyes that species changed all the time. He had to set aside his old conception of reality and accept a new one, crazy as it seemed to be. Ophelia has to do exactly the same thing.
My initial feeling was that the portrayal of science in Ophelia And The Marvellous Boy was unnecessarily negative. But once I started to think about it, I wasn’t so sure. Why make the little girl into a scientist if you were just going to portray science in a negative light? In the end I came to the conclusion that author Karen Foxlee explores the contradictions of The Snow Queen in a modern setting. She has written a clever book which seems to be critical of modern science while also celebrating it. By a roundabout route, the nostalgic resurrection of a fairy story becomes a demonstration of that admirable discipline needed by brave scientists, who put aside what they are supposed to see, and see what is actually there.
The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty published in 2018.
This middle grade novel is about Lucy, a 12 year old girl who, when struck by lightning, develops an incredible ability in mathematics. After a period of home schooling, her grandmother/guardian decides that attending a regular school will help Lucy develop social skills.
I don’t think The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl is a good middle grade novel, I think it’s a good novel, which just happens to have children as its characters. The categorisation of novel by age group started developing in earnest in the 1960s, so that today there’s a feeling that people have to read novels featuring characters who are like themselves. That’s alright, except for the fact that novels are also useful in finding out about people who are not like ourselves. I am not a 12 year old girl with social anxiety and incredible abilities in maths. I am a man in his fifties who has never felt much of an affinity with maths – but that doesn’t mean I can’t find The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl interesting.
One of the things that Lucy learns during her time at school is that although she might feel like the only freak in the world, other people have their own concerns and are not really taking much notice of you. That’s what books can provide – an insight into things other than us.
So maths – I have enough ability to muddle along, but have never been something very comfortable with it. The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl was an education for me, a window into the world of maths. I was good at English at school, a subject which I believed was an altogether vaguer affair. But what did I know. Lucy loves the constant known as pi – a number which you get in dividing a circle’s circumference by its diameter. This simple calculation comes out as a number that goes on forever, beginning 3.14159…. with as many numbers after that as you want. Pi is constant, applying to any circle of any size. But you can never say precisely what pi is, because you can never get to the end of it. There is something fundamentally dependable about Lucy’s favourite bit of maths, something that always remains the same. But there is also an unknowable quality about it. I imagined there was a big difference between the precise world of maths and the uncertainties of life which people write about in stories. That, however is not really true. Maths and more artistic pursuits are not so far apart after all.
The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl is a good novel for school children. It will teach them about maths and show how it can be used to solve real world problems that might mean something to them – like boosting the chances of adoption of dogs at a dog shelter. There are also a few lessons about dealing with difficult social situations. Beyond that, The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl is, as I say, a good novel. It says something about life that is relevant generally.
Point Counter Point is Aldous Huxley’s 1928 novel about a group of writers, artists, heiresses, politicians and scientists, going to parties, having affairs, setting up fascist organisations, all while having long conversations about the nature of art, science, God and humanity.
The prose style ignores all the guidance given to beginner writers. There is a lot of telling rather than showing, point of view flits all over the place and adverbs are everywhere. Taking the adverb situation as an example, judge for yourself with the following sentence:
They looked at him calmly, coldly, as though they had seen everything before and were not much interested – only faintly amused, very faintly and coolly amused.
Calmly, coldly, faintly (x2), coolly.
Huxley also loves the word rather used as a qualifier. Things are rather this and rather that. There are five uses of rather in the first chapter alone, and 225 in the whole book – that’s between seven and eight per chapter.
The writing is stuffed with redundant words. I came to this book fresh from reading Hemingway. There I was, all rugged, tanned and lean from my time in the great Spanish outdoors, suddenly confined to an over-furnished drawing room, eating too many rich pastries and wishing someone would open a window.
That all said, I did keep reading – for over a month – even with my daughter giving regular and sensible advice to “DNF”.
I kept reading because through the thicket of words I saw a book that was oddly relevant to contemporary concerns. Through those long, intellectual discussions about science and art, Huxley portrays science as something that is not human, since a scientist has to put all their human foibles aside, their assumptions and prejudices, in an attempt to see what’s in front of them.
What the scientists are trying to get at is non-human truth. Not that they can ever completely succeed; for not even a scientist can completely cease to be human.
For Huxley, people don’t live in the world of science. They live in a world of opinions, which they raise to the level of fact – where one person’s facts can be as good as another. For example, some people love certain types of music and others don’t. Some people admire Point Counter Point, and others don’t. Who is to say who is right or wrong? A novel can be good or bad depending on who you talk to. This is fair enough, until Huxley seems to raise all these opinions to a kind of folk wisdom, where experts and non-experts have the same claim on authority about anything:
The course of every intellectual, if he pursues his journey long and unflinchingly enough, ends in the obvious, from which the non-intellectuals have never stirred.
I don’t think that is true. People used to think that the sun went round the Earth, which was the obvious view. Science showed the not so obvious reality that the Earth went round the sun.
In recent times, we have seen the downside of assuming that everyone’s opinion has the status of truth. Political views, alternative facts, apparently rigged elections, pandemics which some people want to deny are even happening – people express their opinions on all of these things, as though they are experts. I do wonder whether the idea of science crushing our humanity is increasingly old-hat. We live in a time which has provided a graphic demonstration of the downside of people’s crazy desire to see the universe revolving around them – to see truth in whatever supports their narrow interests and world view. There is no reason to believe science is somehow anti-human, when in the end, science can save people from themselves.
So, in my subjective opinion, Point Counter Point has some interesting moments and ideas, but suffers from flabby writing and a cynicism about science, which is unwarranted.
This is a fanciful trip to the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper concert, exploring details in both lyrics and music which give a kind of reality to an imaginary event. I wrote the original piece over thirty years ago in my early twenties, during an isolated period in my life after university. The album provided solace, an experience which has remained with me ever afterward. Just lately, I’ve felt compelled to go back to those Sergeant Pepper notes written as a young man, and have my older self pull them together into something that might be coherent. Maybe a period when live music is largely inaccessible, would be a good time to revisit history’s greatest virtual concert.
In the original version there was no messing about. I just launched right in with Sergeant Pepper’s first song. Now, I think it would be more satisfying to imagine a short build up. After all, a real concert involves anticipation, selecting an outfit, planning how to get to the venue and travelling there. So in that spirit, I’ll imagine a period of impatient expectation, followed by the donning of colourful clothes and a journey to the gig. As my mode of transport, I select the Yellow Submarine, which appeared on the Revolver album in 1966, a year before Sergeant Pepper. The interesting thing about the Yellow Submarine is the way a cramped, enclosed space apparently has enough room for everyone: “We all live in a…” The submarine could do multiple picks ups, and never turn anyone away, no matter how many people wanted to climb aboard. This is an unlikely scenario, until you consider the way colours work in this deceptively simple song. The submarine is yellow, the sky is blue, the submarine sails through a sea of green. Yellow and blue in combination make green. So individual colours of the song are part of each other, like pigments running together in a water colour painting. This colour combination suggests that the Yellow Submarine is actually part of those vistas of sea and sky it sails through, which of course really do provide enough space for any number of passengers. And this idea of small, lonely, individual things, somehow existing as part of a bigger picture, would be the inspiration for that imaginary concert that the Beatles devised on their Sergeant Pepper album.
Things seem to have started nicely. We have arrived by Yellow Submarine, and stand in a queue outside the concert hall. But remember, there will always be someone at the door, who wants to check tickets and bags. In my imagination, the door of the Pepper concert hall is guarded by The Walrus. This is a character John Lennon wrote about in his song I Am The Walrus, recorded only a few months after Sergeant Pepper’s release. John described writing I Am The Walrus as an attempt to thwart academically inclined fans who indulged themselves in scholarly interpretations of his songs. Any lengthy consideration of Beatles songs has to get by The Walrus, who is an undeniably intimidating presence.
“Tickets please. No photography, no literary or musicological analysis. Thank you.”
Alright, let me handle this.
We already know from our submarine voyage that Beatles songs had begun to involve themselves in the idea of specifics and generalities – small submarines and big skies – coming together. Similarly, in talking to The Walrus, we find ourselves facing a very specific individual, whose identity bamboozles us precisely because of the dramatic way The Walrus announces that identity. That word the is the thing. After all, if someone said “I am a walrus”, it would be clear we were talking to a large sea mammal who swims in the sea, eats fish and enjoys sunbathing on rocky shorelines. But The Walrus is something else. Is this an honorary title, referring to a monarch of walruses? Is it something else entirely? We don’t know. The Walrus, apparently big and intimidating is somehow indefinable. So, with a bit of positive thinking, and maybe even some of the analytical skullduggery, which John Lennon was so suspicious about, The Walrus steps aside, leaving the way clear for us to enter the hall. John liked a joke, and putting thoughtful subtext into his song designed to defeat earnest fans would be just like him. Even though I’m sure our enigmatic door attendant must still be around somewhere, he has allowed us through.
Now for some practicalities. We must check we are here at the right venue on the right day.
“It was twenty years ago today.”
These opening words tells us that the concert takes place on a very definite date. However, I have listened to the Sergeant Pepper album on countless occasions, over decades. In my twenties, I went through a period of listening to the album almost daily for months. As the years went by, I continued to listen, though at longer intervals, the album reserved for particularly needful moments. On each occasion, without exception, it has been twenty years ago today. And any time I might listen in the future, it will still be twenty years ago today. So the date for our concert is not so definite after all. In fact, any day can be the special anniversary day when the Pepper concert takes place.
We have worked out that we are here at the right time, which conveniently can be any time. How about the venue? Are we in the right place?
“It’s wonderful to be here.”
“Here” has been many places for me, the concert having followed my travels from home to university, into adult life, in places where I’ve lived, worked or visited, and on train journeys between. Everywhere I’ve played the album has been “here”. So it seems the specific venue can be here, there and everywhere. The Walrus wasn’t so intimidating after all. No lonely heart is excluded. Welcome.
We are in the right place at the right time. So who is this band we have come so far to listen to? And will they play the oldies or try something different? Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band appear to be a very familiar outfit, having been around for twenty years, going in and out of style – almost in the easy-listening category. They could turn out for any birthday or wedding. On the other hand, as recognisable as the band might be, they remain unknowable enough to promise something new. After all, are you familiar with the band’s lead singer, the one and only Billy Shears? Are you thinking, Billy who? He is presented as a very definite, special individual; yet no one has ever heard of him. After this single mention, he will never appear again. This is the person who will lead the band, someone unknown in their fame. He’s a bit like Sergeant Pepper in that respect – who we never even meet at all.
With equivocal introductions made, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the show. Fittingly for us lonely hearts, the first song is about trying to find love.
With a Little Help From My Friends is a song about someone looking for love, when a flighty nature makes it difficult for them to settle on any one person. Could it be somebody? Could it be anybody? Might they find love at first sight, or will their search continue forever? The feeling of longing is so expansive that in some ways it seems incompatible with an individual person. And yet, if you never settle on an individual and keep searching without end, then you never will find love. To find love, it would be best to just relax and accept friendship. But that leaves you just “getting by” with only a little help – which of course leaves you yearning for love… And so our romantic circles around from one special person to many friends and back again; just like The Walrus circles around between dramatic individuality and someone we can’t define.
The fate of the dreamer looking for a special individual is explored in the next song, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. This is a tale set in a dream world, where anything seems possible. A traveller sets out on a river voyage, which meanders past tangerine trees, towering cellophane flowers, and girls with kaleidoscope eyes. But even on a river like this there remains something that cannot be reached. The “girl with the sun in her eyes” remains elusive.
One journey leads to another, the river voyage followed by a trip in a newspaper taxi, which takes the traveller to a station where they board a train. Even after such a voyage, the traveller still find himself waiting for a journey to start. And then, would you believe it, the girl with the sun in her eyes turns up at the turnstile of the station, which our seeker is just about to leave. In searching for the sunny-eyed girl, he should never have got on this train. His search would have been more successful if he had not gone anywhere. The traveller passed rocking horse people on his travels, and maybe it would have been best to join them, rocking back and forth but never really moving on. Or it might have been advisable to take a lesson from the plasticine porters at the station, who are able to stretch themselves in different directions. These stretchy porters wear looking glass ties, in which their world appears reversed, once again presenting an image that goes in two different directions.
Following on from the strange fate of the Lucy traveller, in the next song, Getting Better, two people have got together. Things have improved in that sense, but the search is not over. Has the idea of things getting better itself become an oppression? The singer repeatedly uses a stoic British phrase, “I can’t complain”. Unable to complain, he is constrained by an idea that changes in his life have to be about a journey towards a better place. Thinking of the Beatles themselves, fame and fortune, seen from outside, appeared to improve their lives immensely. That, of course, was an illusion. For someone at the centre of such a storm, aspects of the Beatles experience must have been a nightmare.
The second part of Getting Better sees a change of perspective. Until now, past efforts have all been directed to breaking rules down. The singer hated school rules and vowed to escape them. Everything is reversed with a new resolution to bring discipline to his sometimes violent and cruel behaviour. The prize is impossible to define, the journey towards it having no end, even reversing back the way it has come. A harsh metallic beat appears at intervals through GettingBetter, and continues on at its end. This beat seems to suggest that things remain monotonously the same despite all the other ups and downs of the rest of the music. But at least there’s a playful skip to break up the beat as it plays out.
Off we skip then to the next song, Fixing A Hole, where we again meet someone who is trying to make an ambivalent escape. Fixing a hole where the rain gets in, he is trying to repair a wall between himself and the distractions of the outside world. It seems strange to be trying to find freedom by repairing a wall that shuts out the world. And then there is that odd word fixing. There is enough ambivalence about the word to suggest he might actually be making a hole in the first place. Fixing a drink means making a drink.
Contradictory DIY then extends to the door. There are some cracks, which need filling. Wandering free usually means leaving through a door, not strengthening the door that locks us in.
For the sake of argument, let’s say efforts to fill holes and repair cracked doors are successful. This leaves the room sealed up, as a world of its own. In such a place an individual can do whatever they like, judge right and wrong on the basis of personal whim. There is nothing getting in from outside to challenge, or offer comparisons. The room’s smug denizen describes people outside as arguing and never winning. Despite this bravado, you have to wonder if the situation of those arguing people is really worse than that of our hermetically-sealed room dweller who can win because that’s just a personal decision.
The song ends as it began, with another attempt to fix a hole where the rain gets in. And of course the suggestion continues that this room is not as isolated as it seems. A fixed hole is both repaired and created. This room is not so much a stuffy, ivory tower study, more an enigmatic Yellow Submarine interior.
We have considered words so far, but Fixing A Hole is a good place to start thinking more about the music we are listening to. The thing is, as far as the music is concerned, Fixing A Hole alternates whole tones and semitones. Now, I know that any talk of something like semitones will have The Walrus reappearing, striding down the aisle, grabbing me by the lapels of my rainbow jacket and threatening to throw me out. There is nothing so unmusical as analysing music. This is almost as bad as trying to take photos of the show. But please, Walrus, bear with me just for a moment and you’ll see what I mean. You see, the thing about semitones is that they are notes with smaller gaps between them. The anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss (the Walrus grip tightens on my jacket) once wrote that semitone intervals – half notes – sound so sad because they represent unbroken continuity. People are always seeking completeness, when attempts to secure that goal end up creating as many problems as they solve. The sad, moaning semitone is the sound of this frustration. In contrast, open, whole tones give a happy and hopeful feel. The emotional effect of Fixing A Hole’s music relies on both of these sounds working together. You see, Walrus, I am just trying to engage with the song, not push it away with over-thinking. I am not trying to be a clever musicologist, but to share my feelings about something I love. Quite frankly, Walrus, you ought to be pleased that someone is taking an interest.
That told him… or her…. or whatever The Walrus is.
Looking sheepish in a walrusy kind of way, The Walrus lets go of me and waddles off.
Since we are not trapped in a locked room, or thrown out of the concert hall, we are free to move on to the next song. She’s Leaving Home is about a young girl who has decided to leave her comfortable home and doting parents, to run off with a man from the motor trade.
Until this point, Sergeant Pepper’s songs have generally been about trying to get home, to find love, to feel complete and secure. But in She’s Leaving Home, home is quite clearly a place from which to escape. A young girl wants to find excitement in the outside world. There is much uncertainty in her plans. Will this man from the motor trade show up for the appointment they made? Recalling the contradictions of “twenty years ago today”, the girl chooses Wednesday morning at five o’clock to make her bid for freedom. The events of She’s Leaving Home are not happening on any particularly significant day. It is simply a day halfway between the freedom of a weekend which has gone and one that’s to come. The girl may think this Wednesday is a special day of liberation, but in reality there are endless Wednesdays to come after this one. The girl leaves a note for her parents. Her mother reads this brief and unsatisfactory explanation standing at the top of the stairs, which she has been climbing all these years in her hopes for her daughter. While the girl follows her dream, her mother’s hopes end on the landing.
Or do they? After all, the girl does not meet her man from the motor trade. She is waiting for him. Who knows if he will ever turn up? The girl could be back home by the following week and this whole sorry affair might have blown over. The girl’s dreams could be shattered, her mother’s dreams could be saved and it’s still only Wednesday.
Anyhow, the weekend soon comes, and with it the circus show of Mr Kite, as described in Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite.
Mr Kite is a great showman, flying in the air, leaping through fire. His name suggests both a desire to soar free and tethered restriction. Mr Kite’s incredible feats are always attached by a string to ordinariness. To jump in the air, Mr Kite needs a trampoline. Mr Henderson, his partner, performs summersets on solid ground. Henry the Horse dances the waltz, his performance now so familiar that we are told that “of course” Henry dances the waltz. Henry could fly to the moon, but after a while, once this routine of equine space travel had settled down, the circus master would be introducing Henry’s moon-shot act with the words “of course Henry the Horse flies to the moon”.
Mr Kite’s ambitions are also restricted by a sense of specific time and place. The show takes place on Saturday at Bishopsgate; visitors are told not to be late; the band begins to play at “ten to six”, times becoming ever more specific.
Then, unexpectedly, in the final lines, the idea of time opens up. The show has been “some days” in preparation, a “splendid time” is guaranteed for all, and it’s “tonight” that Mr Kite is topping the bill. All of these times are non-specific. “Tonight” can be any night that the album is played. Now the Saturday of the show is more like the Wednesday in She’s Leaving Home. Mr Kite’s Saturday is one in a never ending, indeterminate sequence, becoming more like the vague “splendid time” which Mr Kite guarantees for all his guests.
And that brings us to the album’s halfway point, the Wednesday morning of Sergeant Pepper. It’s time for an interval. There was a natural pause with the original LP format, since I had to rouse myself from wherever I was – which was often lying on the floor between the speakers with my eyes closed – to go to the record player and turn the record over. An interval is an opportunity for getting some food or drink. Psychologically it also offers an opportunity to pause the suspension of disbelief, return to reality for a time and recover our critical faculties. “What did you think of that?” would be a typical question you ask of the person sitting next to you as the lights come up. An interval is a way to engage with the show in a new way, as something to think about rather than simply experience. I’ll explain that to The Walrus, who I imagine doubling up on his security duties, selling interval ice cream.
There’s the call for the second half. We must get back to our seats.
After the garish amusements of Mr Kite’s circus, the second half opens with George Harrison providing Indian inspired spiritual and philosophical advice with his song Within You And Without You. Will India offer something different to Bishopsgate, I wonder?
Within You And Without You is a philosophical song about the relationship between an individual person and the generality of things. The song consists of contradictory guidance. On the one hand, we are urged to look beyond ourselves to find happiness, to break down isolating walls of illusion and reach out to others. Only when we’ve seen beyond ourselves is it possible to find peace of mind. But much advice goes in the opposite direction, urging a listener to look inwards, to see all you search for lying within. Overall, Within You And Without You is telling me to look inside myself at the same time as looking outside myself.
This is confusing. Disorientation is also the theme of lines about looking for love. If we find love, the only way to hold onto it is with “our love”. There is a feeling of circularity. We look for love outside ourselves, but we can only hold onto love using the love within us, which we are looking for outside us. There’s a similar feeling in lines which talk about people who gain the world and lose their soul. “Are you one of them?” asks George in his role as bewildering guru. People who gain the world and lose their soul also lose their power of perception. They “can’t see”. This suggests that if think you are not “one of them” then you probably are, as your conclusion based on an unfortunate lack of awareness. Then there’s a further suggestion that if you think you might be one of them, then that shows a measure of insight which suggests you’re not one of them after all! I know that’s confusing, The Walrus is giving me the evil eye. All I can say is that pondering on these lines for a while, any easy idea of them and us, kind of dissolves.
And now going back to that question about whether India offers something different to Bishopsgate, well the answer is yes and no. We see the same relationship between specifics and generalities in Within You And Without You that we saw in Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite. But there is one big difference which India offers; that difference lies in the music. Recalling the semitones I talked about with Fixing A Hole, traditional Indian music is different to Western music in the way it makes much greater use of what are called microtonal intervals, that is, tiny gaps between different pitches, smaller than those between semitones, which are the smallest gaps Western music generally allows. Within You And Without You slides between its various pitches in a long, sweeping moment. To me, it has all the contradictions of semitones seen in Fixing A Hole, but more so.
Within You And Without You is Sergeant Pepper’s most obviously philosophical song, exploring in a very explicit way the characteristic Pepper relationship between an individual and the wider world. It’s a song that does take itself rather seriously. Fittingly, at the end of a self-important song, there are a few seconds of derisive laughter, importance and frivolousness moving within and without each other.
In the next song, When I’m Sixty Four, we have apparently left philosophy behind and are back in everyday life. A young man is writing to his girlfriend, asking if she will still love him when he is sixty four. He describes what they might be doing at that age – mowing the lawn, going for a drive on Sunday. He could mend a fuse, she could knit sweaters. And every summer they could take a holiday on the Isle of Wight, as long as it doesn’t cost too much money. It seems a mundane end to all the hopes towards which they “scrimp and save”. There is a lot of ironic sadness when the young man says “who could ask for more?”
Even though the young man understands what’s in store, this does not diminish the ardour of his love for his girl, or his desire that she stay with him until he is sixty four. The young man begs for a reply to his advances, and hopes they will “fill in a form”, which in a gawky way, suggests the practicalities of marriage. Desperation causes the young man to sign his letter: “yours sincerely, wasting away”. It’s as though old age exists in youth, the strength of youthful ardour causing debilitating listlessness, when someone in their calmer, later years is more able to relax and avoid such stress. When I’m Sixty Four, suggests that youth and old age, energy and lethargy, are different sides of each other. The song comes over not as energetic, or lethargic, but as mischievous, a feeling which lies somewhere in between. And that includes the music as well as the lyrics.
What exactly is it that makes the music of When I’m Sixty Four sound mischievous? I’m not sure whether the desire to know comes from the old age or the youth in me. Analysing mischief might be the sign of a boring old boomer; or it might demonstrate the curiosity of a vibrant young fellow. As I started writing about Sergeant Pepper in my twenties, and continue now in my fifties – maybe it’s both.
We’re going back to the semitone. Writing about Fixing A Hole, I said that the sadness of semitone intervals was the sound of completeness, which does not bring the happiness it promised. But this really refers to downwardly moving semitones. When the chromatic scale slides upwards, the effect is humorous, mischievous, and in a quirky sort of way, happy. So, two different feelings can be expressed by a chromatic scale, the sadness of completeness desired and denied; and the cunning fun of trying to creep up on that ever-slippery completeness. The play between these two feelings gives the music of When I’m Sixty Four its expressive quality. Look at the line “will you still be sending me a Valentine”. The words “will you still be sending me a…” move up in two groups of semitone intervals, B, C, C♯, G. Then the three syllables of “valentine” fall in a sad semitone decline over A, A♭, G. There’s exactly the same effect with the phrase “yours sincerely wasting away”. The words “yours sincerely” slide upwards, with “wasting away” slithering downwards. And just to add texture to this whole effect, the initial rising phrases use rhythm to break up the semitone completeness, either with a dotted quaver, semi quaver rhythm – dum de dum de dum – or with clear crochet beats – dum dum dum dum. Then in the falling phrases, on “valentine” and “wasting away” the rhythm slips off the beat, dodging away from the metronome as all good mischief should.
The sweetness of this music does not have the meditative quality of Within You And Without You, where someone accepts life for what it is. This is more the sound of a cheeky game, darting around between frustration and hope offered by the prospect of completeness in terms of Western life, earning money, saving it, and retiring happy.
In the song that follows on, Lovely Rita, old age seems a distant prospect, as we are back with a young man trying to win his girl. With the confidence of youth, the lad is sure that “nothing can come between us”. But as the song goes on, it seems that everything comes between them; and it’s not even major or dramatic barriers that keep them apart, but life’s ordinary constraints, which somehow become overwhelming.
Rita is a meter maid, an enforcer of mundane, small scale restriction. In her uniform Rita looks “a little like a military man”, a representative of watered-down martial discipline. Even when Rita is out of uniform, a sense of ordinary but insurmountable restriction continues to follow her. The young man takes Rita to a restaurant where they have to face the petty embarrassments of social etiquette, having an awkward discussion, it seems, about who pays the bill. Then when the couple go home, nothing more sensational than a “sister or two” sitting on the sofa, thwart any attempt at seduction.
It seems that the young man is unable to move, hemmed in by unremarkable, insurmountable barriers. But as I thought about this, I remembered that meter maids punish people who have stayed in one place for too long. Rita is filling in a ticket in her little white book, because someone has outstayed their time at the side of the road. There is inertia in this story, along with a force that drives people onwards, even when they would rather stay where they are. The young man is caught between two traps – he can’t get anywhere, and is always forced to move. Perhaps he faces the worst of all worlds. Or maybe like Mr Kite, he strains against a tether, which helps keep him aloft. A lost kite flapping about in the air is never a pretty sight, and does not stay airborne for long before snagging in a tree. The music of Lovely Rita comes down on the happy side of things, with a lively beat and intervals which are generally open and hopeful.
We are coming now towards the end of the show. Given Sergeant Pepper’s ambivalent sense of time, it is fitting that the next song is called Good Morning Good Morning.
Good morning is a phrase we use so regularly that it has become meaningless, more a reflex than an act of communication. The singer says he has “nothing to say,” a sad statement which he always follows with an enthusiastic, “good morning, good morning.”
After saying his good morning, the singer goes on to describe a mundane daily round, where people have “nothing to do”. He has to go to a job which he hates. He travels home again through a ruinous wasteland of a town, where everything is closed and people are half asleep.
Then, the singer’s spirits lift. It is difficult to determine any precise reason why. It’s not as if anything has changed about the town. In fact, a walk by the old school confirms that everything is just the same. Nevertheless, a once sad man is now feeling cool, flirting with the girls and enjoying a general sense of vibrancy. Even little things are pleasurable, like meeting the wife for tea, or having someone asking the time and showing gratitude for a little help. The singer continues to declare he has nothing to say. In fact he ends the song with this, before greeting us with a final good morning. But having nothing to say is alright. It leaves the freedom of a new day where everything remains to be said. “Good morning” says something and nothing, expressing something positive about all those options left open for the day to come.
Good Morning Good Morning ends with the sound of a noisy, lively, even frightening awakening. Dogs bark, lions roar, horses gallop, a cock crows. The final cock crow is picked up by the guitar note leading into a reprise of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the song bidding us goodbye as the show comes to an end.
As with most endings there is much sadness. The line “Sergeant Pepper’s lonely…” is repeated six times in this short song. It might even seem that the band, and their cheering audience are even more lonely now than they were at the beginning of the show. The band sing that they are the “one and only”. We all want to be the one and only, believing that some quality of distinction will make us more deserving of love. And yet all the work that goes into making us the one and only, in the end leaves us alone – because if you are the one and only, there is by definition only one of you.
This is the saddest song in the show, but its unhappiness is combined with joyful music, full of open tones. We might seem alone, but something in that state makes us all the one and only, the star of the show who the audience adore. We’ve all been stars together.
And then, just after the band’s last exuberant whoops, while the audience is still clapping and cheering, we hear the opening chords of A Day In The Life. With this final song, it’s now as if we have gone beyond the end.
A Day In The Life begins with someone reading about the death of a man who seems to have been vaguely famous. He may have been in the House of Lords, but nobody is really sure. Already his achievements, whatever they were, are fading away. He was a “lucky man who made the grade”, though whether he made the grade through his own achievements or luck, doesn’t really matter now. “He blew his mind out in a car, he didn’t notice that the lights had changed.” Maybe his death was the result of a car accident, a momentary lapse of concentration at traffic lights, maybe while under the influence of something you are not supposed to take while driving. Alternatively there might be a suggestion of suicide. The phrase “blew his mind out” is more suggestive of a gun to the head than a car crash. Alongside the literal idea of unnoticed traffic lights changing to red, there is a suggestion of something like that abrupt change of mood in Good Morning, Good Morning, where a bleak situation suddenly turns around. The driver might have carried on if only he had noticed that the lights had changed to green, allowing him to proceed.
Our singer narrator, turns his attention away from the newspaper report to watch a film, where the English army have just won the war. The fictional achievements of the English army count for nothing in the end, as demonstrated by the audience, who turn away.
The first section of A Day In The Life ends with “I’d love to turn you on”, followed by a long, discordant, suggestively sexual orchestral build-up, which culminates in an alarm bell ringing to wake someone. The life of the man who might have been a peer had built to nothing, while the orchestral build up leads to a new morning. By now we know about the ambivalence of mornings. There is much going up and down stairs in the detail of the singer’s morning routine. The man who crashed his car, the English army in the film both aspire to an achievement which is about as significant as climbing the stairs.
The singer returns to his newspaper for one last time, reading about four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire. It seems necessary to count the holes and work out how many it would take to fill the Albert Hall. The thing about holes is that we know what they are, we can identify them, point to them, report them after they damage our cars; but given all this, they still don’t really exist. A hole is an absence defined only by what lies around it. Holes cannot fill the Albert Hall because holes cannot fill anything. A hole exists only in terms of what it is not – a final confirmation that individual things are part of everything around them.
So we come to the last line, “I’d love to turn you on”, followed by another orchestral build up to a final chord that gradually fades into nothing. But at the last we know that nothing can still be something. A hole is nothing, but a hole can definitely exist. There is a final snatch of music mimicking a stuck record going round and round. This nothing could very easily be a new morning. The sun keeps coming up again.
Now it only remains to say goodbye to The Walrus, who after all that initial huffing and puffing, seems sad to see us go. Tired and happy we board the Yellow Submarine and head home. And if you ever want to go back to the concert and enjoy it all over again, then rest assured, it will always be twenty years ago today. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.
Ted Lasso is an Apple TV comedy drama about an American sports coach, who without any prior football experience, comes to London to take over struggling premier league club, AFC Richmond. We then follow Ted on a heart-warming journey, as he dedicates himself to helping his team become the best people they can be, both on and off the pitch. This is more important to Richmond’s new coach than simply winning games.
Ted is a kind of sporting pastor, and his football journey actually made me think of religion. This might not be such an outlandish comparison. Did your know that early football clubs often had close links with churches? In the 1880s, according to football historian David Goldblatt, a quarter of all football clubs in Birmingham had their roots in the Church. In 1887 a group of Catholic churchmen founded Celtic as a way of keeping Catholic football players within a Catholic institution. There were similar links in rugby. The sports historian Gareth Williams says that every church in Leeds in the late nineteenth century had its own rugby club.
Sport grew up around churches because it tended to reproduce the feelings that people once looked for in religion. There’s the sense of being part of something bigger than yourself – seen in huge chanting crowds, or Mexican waves flowing around stadiums, or mottos like “you’ll never walk alone”. Ted goes out of his way to foster this kind of togetherness, both among his team, and in the wider community.
Sport is also reminiscent of religion in the way it serves as the outlet for heightened emotion – useful when opportunities for public displays of passion have declined in modern society. The fluctuating fortunes of AC Richmond generate extremes of fervour, amongst players, coaches and fans alike.
Then there’s the way sport provides a sense of continuity and tradition, which is particularly welcome in a technological world that is rapidly changing. When Ted arrives at Richmond, the first thing he learns about is the club’s history, which extends back to the First World War, when the stadium was used as a hospital.
And finally there’s that feeling of aspiring to something more. This mysterious quality of something more is tricky to define. It could be the prospect of a great victory and transporting emotion; or the chance to make fabulous amounts of money; or it could be something that goes beyond money and winning – enjoyment, for example, or fellowship and belonging, which both tend to foster honourable behaviour, where individuals put others before themselves. Ted Lasso personifies these latter qualities. The show is a passionate, sensitive and entertaining journey into the modern religion of sport. It’s just for fun, but like sport itself, it also concerns itself with matters of vital importance.
The first part of Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This reveals a rather highly-strung woman who writes for, and immerses herself in, the internet and social media. The writing takes the form of a series of surreal tweets.
The writing is poetic in tone, and makes some interesting points about the nature of the internet – the way it loves to judge, simplify, divide, mislead. I liked the line about a woman joining social media to see pictures of her grandson, and ending up believing in a flat Earth. The book is good at sketching in the grey that actually exists beyond all the social media black and white.
Then in the second part of the book, due to draconian Ohio abortion laws, the narrator is forced to give birth to a cruelly disabled child. The Ohio governor and his supporters are enthusiastic about the sanctity of human life. When it comes to giving support to said sanctified life after it’s born, then Ohio governor and friends are not nearly so interested. Yet the new mother does love the baby, despite the suffering of the child and of those who care for it. So more grey areas, all still presented in tweet form.
The two halves of the story seem to come together in the baby’s situation, which involves a condition where the brain cannot make connections. The suggestion seems to be, in the end, that people are happiest when they make connections. The internet, for all its faults, for all the divisions it can open up, is primarily an evolution of the human need to connect.
I don’t know if I enjoyed this book. The second half is harsh and upsetting, so much so that I could barely continue reading. It would also take someone more internet-savvy than me to get all the references and in-jokes. Even so I found No One Is Talking About This interesting and timely, making me feel that sharing a review on the internet about it was a worthwhile undertaking.
The Sun Also Rises is Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, published in 1926, describing the European meanderings of a group of British and American expatriates in the aftermath of World War One. Jake Barnes, an American journalist; Robert Cohn, a Jewish writer; Mike Campbell, a Scottish bankrupt; Bill Gorton, a hard drinking American with no discernible job; and Brett Anderson, a beautiful English socialite, hang around in Paris. Their somewhat pleasant, rather aimless Parisian existence is then interrupted by a visit to the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona. During the festival, enflamed by a hectic atmosphere of drink, dance, packed crowds, running bulls and bull fights, rivalry among some of the men for the affections of beautiful but flighty Brett, boils over into physical violence.
All of this action, or inaction, whether it’s wandering around Paris cafes, or having fist fights in Pamplona, is described in the same low-key tone by Jake, the American journalist. Jake’s detached point of view is partly a product of war injuries, which have left him unable to have a physical relationship with a woman. His situation seems to lift him out of the usual hurly burly of life – the standard course of courtship, marriage, children and so on. Jake is a disinterested Catholic, but despite his imperfections, his laziness, superficiality and casual episodes of meanness, he reminds me of a monk living in his own kind of monastery. Forced into a vow of celibacy Jake cannot have the relationship that Brett wants with him. Nevertheless, she keeps coming back, mainly because he can just be a good friend. Jake is not particularly wise or virtuous, but he is a steady centre, somewhat set above the bitter competition of normal men.
Churches, cathedrals and monasteries are mentioned frequently in The Sun Also Rises. They are passed during journeys, or become the subject of desultory tourist visits. Bayonne Cathedral is described as “nice and dim”. Roncesvalles Monastery, grudgingly accepted as impressive, is not as interesting as fishing, or a nearby pub. Jake notices village churches with signs asking people not to play ball games up against their walls. These buildings might presume importance for themselves, but there is nothing other-worldly about any of them. Like Jake, they are very much part of everyday life.
Thinking about it, maybe all the main characters, flawed as they are, qualify in their own way as unexpected members of monastic orders. They are separate from society. Nearly all of them are war veterans, even Brett who was a military nurse. The experience of war seems to have left them unable to settle back into ordinary life. Robert Cohn, the Jewish writer, is the only non-veteran, which only serves to separate him off in a different way. Lacking the bond felt by the others, he is singled out with cruel, anti Semitic remarks. The same deceptive monastic separateness also defines secondary characters – the prostitute Georgette who accompanies Jake to a few Paris cafes; Brett’s friend Count Mippipopolous, veteran of seven wars, who sits in the splendid isolation of his war experience and social position; or old bull fighter Belmonte who coming back from retirement, can never live up to the legend of his former career.
The whole book, in its characters, plot and ascetic, spare, yet shaped writing style, is a huge, dim, monastic interior, fashioned out of material, which – remembering those signs about ball games – is equally suitable when building cathedrals or squash courts. It suggests both the hidden depths of everyday experience, without shutting a sense of importance away in an inaccessible place. The Sun Also Rises deserves its classic status
White Teeth by Zadie Smith is a generational story centred on the lives of two men, one British, one Bangladeshi. They fought together in World War Two in a Spike Milligan Hitler, My Part In His Downfall kind of way. We then flit about through subsequent decades, exploring their lives, those of their wives and children, and the multi-cultural British society in which they all live.
There is a lot of interesting material on the complexities of identity. For example, a music teacher tries to persuade her school orchestra to play Indian music. When this idea is not greeted with enthusiasm, the teacher asks a Queen fan what he would think if this lack of respect were directed at Queen – ironically not acknowledging the Parsi-Indian background of Freddie Mercury himself. This is a typical observation. It can all get a bit bewildering when genetics come into it – but basically the book celebrates variety and complexity rather than straight lines in life.
The book is interesting in its themes and ideas, but I did find it hard to read. I was not convinced by efforts to reflect a messy social situation in the writing style. Frequently the book would break grammatical “rules” in an attempt to give further perspective on the collision of communal rules and mores described in the story. There is of course nothing wrong with this idea. Ernest Hemingway does something similar in A Farewell To Arms, when American solider, Frederick Henry, breaks the most serious of regulations in deserting from the army. Henry’s non-literary voice describing his ordeal, serves as a further layer in a classic study of society’s expectations. However, for me, things don’t work quite as well in White Teeth, where the style does not reflect a particular narrator. Instead, White Teeth has a disembodied narrative voice, which periodically pops up and self-consciously bends literary rules, uses brackets in weird ways, or gives us two pages with no full stops. It comes over as a literary exercise, which is not the feeling you get with Hemingway, where the style is part of a character.
So, I found White Teeth interesting for its ideas, less so for its writing style.