How does he do anything? I wondered to myself. What happens when he’s dressing, goes to the lavatory, has a bath? I followed his wife into the kitchen and asked her how, for instance, he managed to dress himself.  “It’s just like the eating,” she explained. “I put his usual clothes out in all the usual places, and he dresses without difficulty, singing to himself. He does everything singing to himself. But if he is interrupted and loses his thread, he comes to a complete stop, doesn’t know his clothes — or his own body. He sings all the time — eating songs, dressing songs, bathing songs, everything. He can’t do anything unless he makes it a song.”

While we were talking my attention was caught by the pictures on the walls.

“Yes,” Mrs P. Said, “he was a gifted painter as well as a singer. The School exhibited his pictures every year.”

I strolled past them curiously – they were in chronological order. All his earlier work was naturalistic and realistic, with vivid mood and atmosphere, but finely detailed and concrete. Then, years later, they became less vivid, less concrete, less realistic and naturalistic; but far more abstract, even geometrical and cubist. Finally, in the last paintings, the canvas became nonsense, or nonsense to me — mere chaotic lines and blotches of paint. I commented on this to Mrs P.

“Ach, you doctors, you’re such philistines!” She exclaimed. “Can you not see artistic development – how he renounced the realism of his earlier years, and advanced into abstract, non-representational art?”

Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.


Posted in Notebook

Marlow Bridge

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Long player

He resembles an explorer returning from a lost world. My review of David Hepworth’s hugely enjoyable history of the pop LP.

When reviewers say a book feels twice as long as it actually is, they are not usually being complimentary. In the case of David Hepworth’s paean to the age of vinyl, A Fabulous Creation, I really have come to praise him. It’s years since I came across a chronicle of the pop life containing so many arresting anecdotes that I found myself going back over pages to savour every line, every insight.

If you have read Hepworth’s earlier books, including 1971: Never a Dull Moment, his journey though the year he regards as rock’s annus mirabilis, you will know how entertaining a companion he can be. He is at our side again as he traces the evolution of the LP from Sgt Pepper in 1967 to the advent of the compact disc and MTV in the 1980s.

Hepworth came of age in this era, and so we keep catching glimpses of his younger selves, riffling through the vinyl racks at his favourite shops or watching his friends carrying out that most solemn of ritual: carefully lowering a stylus on to the grooves and waiting for the sounds to emerge from the hi-fi.

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Rush hour, Thames

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Playing games

My radio review in The Times… Football chat from Lineker and Baker, parenting debates on the World Service and a look at how boys are faring in the age of #MeToo:

Too many games, too much hype. Has anyone else fallen out of love with football since the World Cup? I usually start paying full attention to the Premier League around November. I always need a proper break now that one season seems to merge into the next. Yet I haven’t been able to get my appetite back. I still play five-a-side — our team often has a combined age of nearly 300 — yet I’ve barely watched 20 minutes of Match of the Day since August, and even the 606 phone-in on BBC Radio 5 Live has lost its allure.

Maybe Gary Lineker and Danny Baker can get my mojo going. Their podcast, freewheeling and irreverent, taps into the same audience carved out by Peter Crouch’s insider confessions. There isn’t quite so much laddish giggling, but you can be sure that Baker — a Millwall diehard and the best presenter that 606 has had — will always come up with his share of eccentric trivia. Did you know, for instance, that the logo for Chupa Chups, the favourite sweet of a Liverpool star of yesteryear, was designed by Salvador Dalí? Continue reading

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St Paul’s

Posted in London, Photography | Tagged

A Brexit bad night out

I wish I could say that Nitin Sawhney’s Brexit anthem broke new ground. Definitely not a vintage night at the Barbican.

Now let’s see, what rhymes with “hope and glory”? You can imagine Nitin Sawhney as he typed out his state-of-the-nation opus. Ah, yes, “hopeful Tories”. That will do. And there can be something about “anti-migrant stories”, can’t there? What about the final line though? We need something crushing. Ah yes, “Farage and Nadine Dorries”. Job done.

It’s to the credit of London Contemporary Voices, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and their conductor Jonathon Heyward that they gave the text — optimistically subtitled A Rational Anthem For a National Tantrum — a veneer of dignity that it really didn’t deserve. Summoning up the ghosts of Byrd and Tallis, the hymn-like setting evoked a country adrift in its quest for an idyllic past. The orchestra, pushed into the background by the composer-keyboard player’s band, added discreet colour. I wish we could have heard more of it.

The performance was part of the Sky Arts Art 50 festival devoted to examining our national identity. What a shame Sawhney could offer only the dullest of clichés. All the unenlightening vox pop interviews crudely inserted into the middle of the piece came from Remainers, and the evening took an even more tub-thumping turn in a bonus item at the end of the concert, when the actor and director Andy Serkis sashayed on to the stage, dressed as Theresa May. Smirking and gurning, he delivered Brexonian Tragedy, Sawhney’s rewrite of Bohemian Rhapsody. The PM is fair game, of course, but Serkis couldn’t manage much beyond a half-suppressed Nazi salute at the mention of immigration. So much for rationality.

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Almost spring

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The American people have done so much for me, have restored so fully my self-confidence, that I am constantly twisting and turning in an effort to live up to their expectations of me. Ingrid Bergman said, “You must go on the stage knowing they want you to succeed.” She meant American audiences. In England the people in the stalls sit back in their chairs with folded arms, saying in their stony hearts. “We’ve paid a hell of a lot for these seats. We hope you’re going to DO something.” In Manhattan, the audience is leaning forward eagerly, crying, “Tell us!” You can tell them anything – how to be beautiful, how to be successful, how to be thin, how to be saved. They will listen intently.

Quentin Crisp, “Resident Alien: The New York Diaries”.


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The other side of David Attenborough

david attenborough

From my Times interview with a broadcasting legend.  Among other things, we talked about his early years at the BBC, his passion for the piano and his unlikely role as a pioneer of world music:

There is a strange whistling in the air in the sleek, modernist library in David Attenborough’s  home in southwest London. Could it be some exotic bird that he has brought back from a trip to the rainforest? No, nothing as exciting as that. It is simply his hearing aid malfunctioning. He chuckles and gives it a quick tweak. Apart from his slightly stooped posture the hearing aid is the only clue that Britain’s most beloved naturalist celebrated his 92nd birthday this year.

Otherwise he seems as brisk and alert as ever, answering questions with grace and humility, even when the conversation turns to the recent attack on his work by the radical environmentalist George Monbiot (more of that later). Attenborough’s daughter, Susan, a retired primary school head teacher who keeps him company, supplies us with unusually spicy ginger biscuits. Some interviewers have found him to be distant and evasive. Today he is genial, avuncular and thoroughly engaging.

He is, understandably, slightly more cautious when I ring him a few days later to ask him a follow-up question: what makes him cry? It is a day or two after the broadcast of the latest episode of his BBC One series Dynasties and half of the country — or so Twitter would lead you to believe — have been sobbing over the scenes of baby penguins facing an icy death in the Antarctic. I immediately sense that he would prefer not to go down this particular path, but he answers anyway. “I’ve never cried while filming, but I suppose I cry more easily nowadays.” He pauses and corrects himself. “Well, tears don’t pour down my cheeks, but I blinked hard on November 11.”

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