Book: A Light that Never Goes Out

From Coronation Street to court cases, Tony Fletcher’s biography is full of fantastic facts and incendiary quotes, but somehow lacks sparkle 

-Kathryn Bromwich

a light that never goes out

Remember when Morrissey was known for his ground-breaking music and lyrics, and not for being a massive racist cock? Firstly, I should admit that the Smiths are one of the few bands whose entire discography I could sing along to word-for-word. Deep down, I still believe that anyone who doesn’t feel this way must have skipped the Sulky Teenager phase altogether, which, surely, makes them incomplete human beings.

Yet, what with This Charming Man being played to death in every ‘indie room’ throughout university and Morrissey’s increasingly unpalatable views, it is easy to forget just how exhilarating a band they were. Throw your mind back to your teenage years, when the Smiths were the only ones who really understood your literary aspirations, staunch liberalism, loneliness, existential gloom, vegetarian leanings and pathetic love life. And then start reading this book.

Incredibly, this is their first comprehensive biography since Johnny Rogan’s Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance in 1992. And as such it is certainly thorough: music journalist and former Keith Moon and REM biographer Tony Fletcher has been meticulous in his research, procuring exclusive facts through interviews with all the key players (excluding Mike Joyce and, naturally, Morrissey). At 700 pages and over a kilo, even the most obsessive Smiths fan – vegan, brooding, and with a life-size cardboard cutout of a naked Morrissey in their bedroom – will be satisfied.

Early on, Fletcher promises not to focus unduly on Morrissey, but acknowledges that a Smiths biography centred mainly on Johnny Marr would miss out on much of the brio and flourish that made the Smiths what they were. The book makes a good job of covering both of them in detail, while not forgetting bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, giving ample space to the unfair royalties rates and subsequent court case.

Starting with a fawning intro and an unnecessary reference to 500 Days of Summer, the book finds its stride when it describes, in remarkable detail, the first meeting of Johnny Marr and Morrissey. The two bequiffed young Mancunians, with their shared Irish stock and working class credentials, bonded over their love of Sandie Shaw, songwriting duo Leiber and Stoller, and Patti Smith.

Read the rest of this entry »


‘Thought-tormented Music': David Bowie’s Low and T.S. Eliot

Fragmented language, Nietzschean elitism, and disillusionment with art: could Bowie’s Thin White Duke era have been inspired by The Waste Land?

-Kathryn Bromwich

comparison2

Submitted for MA in English: Issues in Modern Culture, University College London, 2009. 

Shorter, snappier version here.

T.S. Eliot’s early work, particularly The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917) and The Waste Land (1922), and David Bowie’s Low (1977), are considered to be ground-breaking in their respective genres of poetry and music. Both antagonise the reader or listener with fragmented language and obscure references, and are united by a similarity in tone: disillusionment with art and distrust of language. Through a discussion of the influence of Eliot on Bowie, this essay will examine the motivation behind the aesthetic choices in both artists, and the ways in which they strive to bring about ‘newness’. The trend in 1970’s rock towards experimentation and intellectualism is well exemplified by Bowie’s interest in literature in 1977; the link between him and Eliot appears to be considerable, and can be seen as a symptomatic example for a wider movement of innovation in music. The focus will be on Low, in relation to Eliot’s early poetry and the critical writings of Eliot and Ezra Pound, in order to illustrate the ways in which Modernist ideas, themselves incorporating musical aspects, function when applied to the field of music.

The disciples of Eliot are numerous, but one who is not often discussed is David Bowie. Passing through William Burroughs, it is possible to establish an indirect influence of Eliot on Bowie. Hugo Wilcken, in his extended analysis of Low, states that Bowie’s lyrics were often composed in a ‘cut-up writing style, derived from William S. Burroughs,’[1] who in turn referred to The Waste Land as ‘the first great cut-up collage’[2] and ‘terrifically important [...] I often find myself sort of quoting it or using it in my work in one way or other.’[3] However, there is also a more concrete link to Eliot. Three years before Low was released, Burroughs interviewed Bowie and remarked:

Burroughs: I read this ‘Eight Line Poem’ of yours and it is very reminiscent of T.S. Eliot.

Bowie: Never read him.

Burroughs: (Laughs) It is very reminiscent of ‘The Waste Land.’[4]

Given that Bowie considered Burroughs to be ‘the John the Baptist of postmodernism,’[5] it appears likely that this encounter would have encouraged Bowie to read Eliot.

Read the rest of this entry »


Film: Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)

‘Epic’ does not even begin to describe this masterpiece of blood, sand, and messianic delusions, majestically restored for its 50th anniversary

-Kathryn Bromwich

lawrence-of-arabia2

With the hair and ego of Bowie in the late ’70s and the fashion sense of an exotic prince, T.E. Lawrence is one of the few individuals in history worthy of a film as glorious as this. Re-released after a 4K digital restoration, the 7-Oscar winning Lawrence of Arabia on a big screen is a breath-taking experience.

Based on a true story, the film follows eccentric British officer Lawrence in his quest to single-handedly conduct the Arab Revolt of 1916-8 against the Ottoman Turk invasion and to create a unified Arab state. Starting with Lawrence’s death in 1935 in a motorcycle accident and then retracing his career, we follow him in his unlikely rise among military ranks.

Lawrence’s aristocratic origins come through in his calm confidence and classical accomplishments: he is educated in literature, languages and the arts, and is coolly self-composed at all times. However, he is unpunctual, insouciant (‘I may look as if I am being disrespectful, but it is just my face, I can assure you’) and generally a bit of a maverick. Yet, he is a frighteningly clever war strategist: he congregates an army out of nowhere and leads them to an unthought-of victory at Aqaba. His officials, though wary of his unconventional methods, recognise his achievements and grudgingly promote him to Major and then to Colonel.

Lawrence is fascinated by Arabic culture, winning over the admiration of the locals with his ability to ride camels through deserts with hardly any water, willingness to try local foods and customs, and the fetching way he wears his exotic robes. ‘Where are you from?,’ he is asked. ‘Oxfordshire. It is a place of fat people.’ ‘You are not fat?’ ‘No,’ he replies, ‘I am different.’

Read the rest of this entry »


Film: L’eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962)

Antonioni’s film about stockbrokers and urban alienation is like its protagonists: baffling, beautiful, and strangely clinical

-Kathryn Bromwich

l'eclisse

Apart for the admittedly problematic blackface scene, Antonioni’s L’eclisse has largely withstood the test of time. The BFI recently revisited some of the Italian director’s other films, including L’avventura (1960) and Red Desert (1964), yet L’eclisse would appear to be a more timely choice. This exploration of the stock market, juxtaposed with the characters’ ennui and solipsism, strikes a chord with the disillusionment rife in a post-Lehman Brothers economic climate.

Antonioni’s muse Monica Vitti stars as literary translator Vittoria, who at the start of the film breaks off a relationship with her academic, socialist boyfriend. Vittoria is like a modern-day Madame Bovary: well educated, elegant, and hopelessly bored. She is certainly enigmatic. Her thoughts and motivations are never fully explained, but we are left to understand that she is full of restlessness and joie de vivre (she is flown about in a small private plane, recklessly demanding to be flown into a cloud), and that she is unhappy in a middle-class sort of way (she is fascinated by Africa, where she assumes life must be simple and easy).

Just before the film disappears into an insufferable cloud of narcissistic first-world problems, Vittoria makes an unexpected encounter. The film follows her as she visits her mother at the Rome Stock Exchange, effectively gambling away her money after the death of her husband. There, she meets an uncannily young-looking Alain Delon, playing the fast-living, no-nonsense City boy Piero.

Everything about him should make us, and Vittoria, recoil in horror. Piero is loud and rude, and shrugs off clients who have lost millions because of him with a breezy “the stocks go up, and they go down, what can I do about it?” He can’t sit still for a second, is an amateur philanderer, and has a penchant for blondes. The stock market is presented as being like a boxing ring, with the investors shouting, squabbling and cheating their way to affluence. Like gambling, it attracts lonely and vulnerable people, not least of which is Vittoria’s mother.

Read the rest of this entry »


Theatre: All that Fall, Arts Theatre

Dung and child murder are the key ingredients of this bawdy and rivetingly funny radio play by Samuel Beckett, performed on the stage here for the first time 

-Kathryn Bromwich

Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins in Samuel Beckett's All That FallWho would have thought that old age and child murder could be so amusing? In recent times, Beckett seems to have garnered a reputation for po-faced highbrow literature, yet the play’s sharp comedic wit and raunchy double entendres should come as no surprise (’Stiff! Well I like that! And me heaving all over back and front’). An optimist he is not, but Beckett is a master of both gallows humour and poo jokes. Here, the humour is amped up with cartoon-style sound effects and fast, sharp delivery worthy of a screwball comedy.

On the other hand, Beckett is not usually one to employ tropes as bourgeois as plot, character or setting. The Unnamable is more typical: 200 pages of unpunctuated ramblings from a limbless, perhaps bodiless entity in the middle of a darkened space, talking about the nature of language and existentialism. Or How It Is, a prose piece about two figures walking through mud, which rhythmically repeats a handful of key phrases with the occasional slight variation.

In All that Fall, conversely, you get all of these devices. The play is said to be Beckett’s most Irish and strongly autobiographical: the setting is the Irish town of Boghill, based on Beckett’s native Foxrock, near Dublin. The action is structured into three distinct sections: the trip towards the train station, the station itself, and the walk back home. The characters are fully fledged, with names and back stories rooted in real settings. There is foreshadowing, suspense, and finally a big reveal. Yet, one would be pushed to call the play ‘conventional’.

The story follows septuagenarian Maddy Rooney as she tries to get to the train station in time to meet her blind husband Dan after a Saturday morning’s work. As she walks there, she encounters a succession of male friends who offer her a lift in increasingly modern forms of transport, but her journey is beset by obstacles. When she finally arrives at the station, late, she finds that the train is delayed by a huge quarter of an hour, the reasons for which we find out later.

Read the rest of this entry »


Film: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2

This momentarily-entertaining piece of fluff will leave you feeling dirty and ashamed. But then again, most fun things do…

-Kathryn Bromwich

If the Twilight saga were a pizza, it would be a Domino’s. Not any particular flavour: whether it is Pepperoni Passion, Mighty Meat or Vegetarian Supreme, it all tastes exactly the same. The Twilight films, similarly, display vestiges of an unnecessarily complicated plot, but true fans know what really matters.

And that is Edward Cullen. Dreamy, brooding Edward Cullen, who listens to Debussy and who the other girls at school find ‘totally gorgeous, obviously’. He is also really wealthy. Oh, and since girls like diamonds, his skin sparkles in the sunlight. Or, depending on your taste, what really matters is buff Jacob, whose aversion to wearing a shirt is matched only by his total lack of a personality.

The first film lured in the legions of fans, with its relatable high school plot about sulky teenagers seduced by dangerous men: it was stupid as hell, but hilariously so (Edward: “And so, the lion fell in love with the lamb”, Bella: “What a stupid lamb”, Edward: “What a sick, masochistic lion”). Director Catherine Hardwicke managed to give it some Thirteen-style gravitas, and it was even, incredibly, critically lauded by the Guardian.

And then the plot went totally bonkers. Highlights included a shot of Bella sulking in a chair for a full year following an apparent break-up with Edward; a tense scene in a tent in which the ‘plot’ demands that hot-blooded Jacob spoon Bella in front of her boyfriend; werewolves talking to each other in weird Batman voices; blood milkshakes; and the most disturbing Caesarean section ever to appear in a 12A.

The strangest thing is the weird insistence on marriage, babies, and opposition to non-marital sex. Nothing in the first film implies that jaded teenager Bella will turn into a married über-mum cooing at her baby within less than a year. A lot has been written about whether Bella is a good feminist role model or not, which perhaps imbues the saga with a significance it should not have. Yes, it is a film where the protagonist is a girl, but it is blatantly just a rather odd sexual fantasy of Stephenie Meyer’s, and as such should not be over-analysed. It also spectacularly fails the Bechdel Test.

Read the rest of this entry »


Events: Science versus philosophy

Spanning neuroscience, free will and ethics, Julian Baggini and Clio Bellenis explore the role of philosophy today — yet only one of them comes out of it with panache

-Kathryn Bromwich

It has been an ongoing battle since 1959, when C. P. Snow gave a lecture on The Two Cultures. He posited that the intellectual life of western society was split into two: the sciences and the humanities. This talk continues to be relevant today. While science is rightly perceived as one of the most valuable ways we have of obtaining information about the world around us, the humanities are, worryingly, often dismissed as a superseded luxury that deserves no further discussion, and certainly no funding from the taxpayer. Among the humanities, philosophy is often singled out with cries of irrelevance, conjuring up images of mildewed Oxbridge dons dusting off their tweeds.

In two separate East London talks, public intellectual Julian Baggini and child adolescent psychiatrist Clio Bellenis attempt to redress the relevance of philosophy in today’s world, with particular regard to the discipline’s relation to science. Both speakers tackle similar topics: truth, knowledge, neuroscience, the limitations of science when it comes to ethics, and philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett. However, while both speakers cover an impressively wide range of topics, only one of them comes out of it well.

Julian Baggini, Why Philosophy Matters, 20 September 2012, Bishopsgate Institute

Having written eruditely about the thorny issue of Philosophy v science: which can answer the big questions of life?, Baggini is well placed to defend philosophy against ever-increasing accusations of obsolescence. Rosy-cheeked, charming and eloquent, he remains objective, open-minded and interesting throughout his talk; challenging yet clear. He talks about many of the issues covered in his latest book, Philosophy: All that Matters. This spans a range of essential philosophical topics such as narrative, identity, animal minds and atheism, and eventually he even has a convincing go at defining the meaning of life.

Read the rest of this entry »


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 66 other followers