All lit up

Out of step in the Virginia boondocks, a Christmas lights snob learns how to enjoy being gaudy:

After the first Christmas, when I didn’t put up any decorations outside our house, the lady next door—a sweet, Christian Secret Service agent—presented me with a shiny, four-foot-tall aluminum Snoopy, ringed by blinking lights. I tried to demur, but she insisted not only on giving it to me but helping me set it up, too. I was both touched and horrified. When she moved away, blinking Snoopy went up into the attic, and we went back to having no Christmas decorations. I thought this was perfectly normal. My neighbours did not.

Rich asked me about it a couple years ago. “Is there something wrong?” he asked—in a sympathetic, not sarcastic—tone. “Do you just not like Christmas?” Rich lives in the pipe-stem next to us and is such an enthusiastic Christmas decorator that he spends the weekend before Thanksgiving every year crawling around the roof of his house to trim the entire structure in dangling icicle lights.But that’s just the start. As I write this, I’m gazing out at Rich’s front lawn. There are 10 reindeer, 5 snowmen, 3 peacocks, an Eiffel Tower, and much, much more. Rich’s lawn menagerie has grown over the years so that it eventually spilled over into his next-door neighbor Michelle’s property. This year, he outgrew her yard, too. Over the summer, a nice Muslim family from Afghanistan moved into the house on the other side of Michelle. Their front yard is now home to the overflow of Rich’s overflow decorations.

And so, shamed by Rich’s example and my Muslim neighbors’ good cheer and forbearance, this year I bought a Christmas decoration for the outside of the house… It’s tacky. It’s terrible. And I loved it so much that five minutes after setting it up, I ordered a second one.

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They take their Nativity play very seriously

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There was one day, unforgettable, when I did go back to Hoxton… I was thirteen or fourteen and had been at Christ’s Hospital for two or three years. Suddenly, after the years of Hoxton’s emptiness, I once more had a lot of former schoolmates who were living there. One Saturday in the West End I bumped into one of them, and we arranged that I should come to Hoxton the following Saturday afternoon, when most of them did not have to work, and meet some of the others. He would fix it up, he said. I arrived at the meeting place full of excitement, and there they were, a wonderful collection of the old faces. We all started talking at once. As I was greeting them, there were new ones still arriving behind me, chattering as they came in, so I was conscious of people and voices behind me as well as in front. So when those in front burst into a laughing, jovial chorus of “Blimey, ‘ark at ‘im!” and “Don’ ‘e talk posh!” and “Cor, listen to ‘im, talkin’ all lad-di-da!” I looked round to see who the new arrival was they they were greeting with this friendly derision, my ears pricking up for the voice they were describing. There was nobody there, the new arrivals having melted in. I turned back and saw that they were laughing at me… The chorus went on, and people were nudging one another, winking, laughing incredulously as if they could scarcely believe their ears. Then one of them said: “It’s no good you talking like that to us, you know. We know where you come from.”

Bryan Magee, “Growing Up In a War”.

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Homeless, Oxford 

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The man, not the legend

Another biography of Elvis Presley, another opportunity to wonder what went wrong. And to imagine what might have happened if The King had said yes to La Streisand. From my review in The Times:

Two years before his death, when he creatively is in the doldrums, Barbra Streisand arrives in his Vegas dressing room and offers him the joint lead in her remake of A Star Is Born. Who knows what effect that sort of challenge could have had on his failing career? Sadly, a combination of a lack of self-confidence and the avaricious contractual demands of his infamous, all-controlling manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, put an end to that deal.

It is part of Presley’s tragedy that, although he adored the movies, it was Hollywood that did so much to undermine his talent. Parker, always eager to chase an easy payout, took the earliest opportunity to harness his client to a treadmill of inferior film roles that became Presley’s principal conduit to his audience during what should have been his peak years…Desperate for ready cash to sustain his lavish spending — he gave cars to hangers-on in the same way that mere mortals hand out sweets — Presley locked himself in to a process that made him a laughing stock among a new generation raised on the Beatles. It was small comfort that the Fab Four were his fans too, and made a point of making a pilgrimage to see him at Graceland.

After Presley’s death, as Connolly points out, the films faded from the public consciousness. The music was once again the centre of attention, and pop critics who once poured scorn on the man in the gaudy, rhinestone-encrusted jumpsuit began to reassess his legacy. Strip away the kitsch trappings, forget Paradise, Hawaiian Style and other cinematic duds, and you rediscover the voice and charisma of an unworldly performer who had the rare ability to synthesise blues, gospel and country music. It was a mysterious, instinctive talent, and one that seemed unfathomable even to the man who possessed it.

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A singer in search of the right song


If only she’d sung “Vámonos”, I told my companion after another frustrating show by Concha Buika. I fell in love with her voice the first time I heard her in a showcase in Lisbon a decade ago. She was one of Mariza’s guests that night, and promptly upstaged her. Since then, though, it’s been an erratic journey:

You go along to her concerts with your fingers crossed, hoping that the singer you see on stage will be the same enchantress that you know from the albums. Not for the first time, Concha Buika decided not to play along. There was certainly energy a-plenty in a set that lasted almost two hours, but much of it was frittered away in histrionics. While some of the Afro-Spanish star’s fans gave her a standing ovation, neutrals were left grasping at fragments. There isn’t a voice quite like hers, wild, impassioned and as idiosyncratic as Nina Simone’s. And like the American diva, Buika sometimes seems to exist on another plane. While that beautiful gap-toothed smile seldom left her face all evening, her longest speech to the audience was a rant about air hostesses who have been making her life difficult because she does not fit the business class stereotype.

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Hats & Gunners


Arsenal fans at Highbury, 1933. (Via @TerraceImages)

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Before 1933, football had been dominated by the workers’ sports clubs, which counted 700,000 members, and by the 240,000-strong Catholic clubs. Although the German Labour Front rapidly absorbed them and the Nazis reorganized the whole structure of the football leagues, making them far more competitive and exciting, they could not really control the fans. In November 1940, a friendly match in Vienna ended in a full-scale riot, with local fans storming the pitch after the final whistle and throwing stones at the visiting players before they could get away. The windows of their bus were smashed, and even the car belonging to the Gauleiter of Vienna was wrecked. Although the Security Police saw this as primarily a political demonstration, they were almost certainly mistaken. In fact both clubs had a traditional, fiercely loyal and formerly “Red”, working-class fan base; and the match itself, billed as a friendly, was seen by all the supporters of Vienna’s local clubs as an opportunity to take revenge for Admira’s humiliating 9-0 loss to Schalke in the 1939 German cup final – a loss which fans inevitably credited not to the Ruhr team’s incredible string of successes but to biased refereeing in Berlin.

Nicholas Stargardt, “The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-45”.

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Book title of the year?

A memento of my trip to Réunion. More Anglo-Saxon than Gallic.


There was also this slightly depressing news.


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Her funny Valentine

This classical diva has a sense of swing. My review of Renée Fleming at the Wigmore Hall:

So, can she really sing jazz? I wasn’t entirely convinced beforehand, but long before the recital ended Renée Fleming had banished any doubts. While the Wigmore Hall was never going to be the ideal venue for music as intimate as this, her relaxed, conversational approach delivered anything but the usual crossover. A true jazz lover, she genuinely understands the vocabulary.

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