Archive for April, 2010

I Got the Asperger’s

Posted in Life with tags , on April 19, 2010 by richardblandford

Richard Blandford

We are as gods. Bow down and worship us, puny humans.

Recently I got official confirmation of something that I’ve pretty much known for quite a long time.  That is, I have the Autistic Spectrum Condition called Asperger’s Syndrome.

I’m not particularly big on posting personal details on the internet, as you can attract all sorts of idiots that way (I, for instance, have never publicly revealed the existence of my miniature Schnauzer, Poppy, and don’t intend to) but feel like making a little statement about this for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, I think it’s a relevant context for understanding my writing, both published and yet-to-be-published, and if I waited for everyone to figure it out for themselves it would take bloody forever (although someone’s already cracked the code).

Secondly, it seems to me that the more that’s found out about Asperger’s, the clearer it is that the ways in which it can manifest itself can be quite subtle (although the effect it has on someone’s life, positive or negative, is rarely if ever negligible).  The internet is rife with rumours that public figures like Woody Allen, Al Gore, Steven Spielberg and Prince have Asperger’s or a related condition, but if any ever get a diagnosis, they choose not to reveal it (give or take a Ladyhawke or two).

So I suppose the point I’m making is that the reality of Asperger’s goes beyond the current basic public understanding of it.  Many of us aren’t maths geniuses, and we’re not necessarily being socially inappropriate on public transport (although I reserve the right to do so at any time).  Asperger’s logic can be an integral part of creative thought and artistic expression.  You can also be a good friend, partner, parent, family member.  It’s a difference that contains within it many variations.

Now some of the more mean-spirited out there might look up from their Daily Mail and say, ‘Oh, everybody’s got Asperger’s these days.  You’re just trying to be fashionable and get away with stuff, like that hacker bloke.’

My response to this would be, firstly, ‘fuck off’.

My second response would be that Asperger’s Syndrome has only been available as an official diagnosis in the UK for less than 20 years, and has only entered the public consciousness relatively recently.  Consequently, there are many thousands of people out there of all ages who have gone through their entire lives knowing something’s not quite ‘right’ but are only now stumbling upon a framework for understanding themselves that makes sense.  That’s why it seems that ‘everybody’s got it’ at the moment.

Anyway, there’s a few more things I have to say about the matter, but I shall save them for another time.  Until then, I shall be doing really complicated sums in my head whilst behaving inappropriately on public transport.


The Island

Posted in Books with tags , , on April 14, 2010 by richardblandford

It was a Christmas present.

Despite being an absolutely enormous hit, there’s something about Victoria Hislop’s The Island that no one seems to have noticed. This being, that it’s completely barking bad. This perhaps shouldn’t come as much as a shock, winner as it was by the Richard and Judy Summer Read Competition. After all, their viewers have yet to notice that Richard Madeley is also completely barking mad.

It’s a Frankenstein’s Monster of a book, with the history of the Spinalonga leper colony off of Crete in the middle years of the last century brutally welded on to a family melodrama beach-read involving sibling rivalry, adultery and, oh yes, leprosy. Also thrown into the mix is a bit of World War II and a truly ludicrous framing device in which a twenty-something woman seeks to resolve her romantic dilemma by seeking inspiration through the uncovering of her family’s secret leper past.

There’s a lot wrong with The Island. The plot, which is just about visible if you stand at a distance, often builds to anti-climaxes, such as a rampaging mob who plan to attack the leper colony, only to be talked out of it. They threaten to come back, but don’t. So that’s all right then.

Hislop, meanwhile, has a tin ear for a beautiful phrase, so we’re confronted with sentences like this (and on page one too), ‘How different that would make it from the ancient palaces and sites she had spent the past few weeks, months – even years – visiting.’ She’s been visiting the sites for years. That’s the information that needs to be conveyed, so why bring weeks and months into it? Oh dear.

The characters are flat, good or bad simply because they are, and what motivations they have are laid out for the reader the moment that they become a factor in the story. I don’t think there’s a single thing inferred, or left open to interpretation in the entire book. If I didn’t know better, I’d assume that Hislop thinks her readers might be a bit thick.

Despite all this, however, the sheer ridiculousness of the exercise means that The Island isn’t an unlikable book. It’s not really a story about characters so much as one about a community, although I’m not sure that it knows this. In a way, it reminded me of John Cowper Powys’s Weymouth Sands, an even stranger book written by a very strange man.

Indeed, I can’t help wishing that rather than being the work of a travel journalist wife of a well-connected media type, The Island was written by a dotty lady resident of a bed and breakfast on Eastbourne seafront. It isn’t, but one can dream.

Help Me With My Evil Plan

Posted in Books, Fiction with tags , , on April 9, 2010 by richardblandford

The other week, presumably in an effort to clear the floor dedicated to housing unsold copies of my books at their Pimlico headquarters, Random House sent me yet another box of the trade paperback edition of my first novel, Hound Dog.

I’m not sure what to do with them. I’ve already got one box in the cellar, and there are only so many copies I can try to force through hamster-resembling Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather’s window. I’m beginning to think she’s not interested. Even though I thoughtfully inscribe each one ‘We Shood B 2Getha’ in my own blood. I mean, what’s a guy got to do these days??!!

Anyway, what I’m going to do with the books (Sarah Teather issue is unresolved) is this. If you email me your address, I will send you a SIGNED copy. If you have not read it already, you have my permission to do so. Then, however, you must redistribute in an interesting manner. But here’s the thing. I want photographic evidence of its re-homing, which I can post here on the blog.

For instance, if you were to give it to The Really Wild Show’s Terry Nutkins, it’s not enough to say, ‘Oh, I gave it to Terry Nutkins’. You have to send a photograph of the book being placed in Terry Nutkins’s hand. Whether or not Terry Nutkins is chained up naked in your spare room when this occurs is entirely up to you.

So, just to reiterate: Step 1. Email me. Step 2. Receive book. Step 3. Read book (optional). Step 4. Re-home book AND photographically document this happening. Step 5. Email me photograph, in full knowledge that I’ll piss all over your copyright and reproduce it here.

Well, what are you waiting for? Hop to it, before they send me another box!

Alex Chilton

Posted in music with tags , , on April 6, 2010 by richardblandford

Alex Chilton died. He was in a band called Big Star, who were around in the early 70s but didn’t sell many records, and were probably my favourite band when I was seventeen.

I was having trouble negotiating everyday teenage life with an undiagnosed autistic spectrum condition, and their music, listened to on second or third generation tape copies, made perfect sense to me. Their three albums, which would be classified as power-pop, although they transcend any easy definition, seemed to form a perfect trilogy. The first, #1 Record, is optimistic and sunny. It represented for me the life I hoped to attain, but curiously couldn’t get to, due to some mysterious blocks in my head. The second, Radio City, is rawer and more ragged, with Chilton’s co-leader, Chris Bell having departed. Although it still had joyous moments, such as their iconic song September Gurls, a darkness had sunken in. It was as if a realisation that life was harsher and more cruel than they’d previously imagined had now taken hold.

The third album, known as Sister Lovers, or simply Third, and nearly a Chilton solo album in all but name, took this to an extreme. The songs had become strange, and sounded on the verge of falling apart, with gaps in the arrangements that produced a chilling effect. Nevertheless, there was never a descent into nihilism which, in 1993, was what I felt I was being offered by the grunge records someone of my generation was ‘meant’ to buy. Instead I clung to the cautious advice that Chilton offered: ‘Take care not to hurt yourself/Beware of the need for help/You might need too much/And people are such…’

On a wave of interest sparked by Teenage Fanclub and others claiming them as an influence, Chilton fronted a new version of Big Star that year. I saw them live, performing to an adoring audience.

I saw them perform again a couple of years ago, to a roomful of uninterested chattering London hipsters (who I hope are fucking pleased with themselves now), struggling with a bad mix. Now there’ll never be another chance.

Of course, I didn’t really know Alex Chilton, and from the trail of bad feeling he left behind him, I suspect we wouldn’t have got on at all. But when he died, it finally hit me just how important he was to me. I’d forgotten just how much of myself was embedded there, in old copied tapes from 1993.

Big Star on Spotify
#1 Record
Radio City
There are various different orders for the track-listing of Third/Sister Lovers, as the album was never officially sequenced. This is my own personal order that I find produces the most satisfying listen.

Northern Lights

Posted in Books with tags , , , on April 5, 2010 by richardblandford

Bag o’shite.

As research for something I’m working on that may rear its head relatively soon, or at some far point in the future, or perhaps never at all, I read the first volume in Philip Pullman’s His (‘n’ Hers) Dark Materials trilogy, Northern Lights.

Because so many people of genuine intelligence rate his work I was presuming that it would turn out to be rather good, and far superior to the clumsy stylings of J.K. Rowling (the latest in a longish line of children’s authors with barely passable literary skills that the general public nevertheless hold dear to their hearts. See also, J.R.R. Tolkien). Upon reading it, however, I found that I did not like it. No, I did not like it one bit.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Pullman is a great ideas man. I won’t go into what it’s all about because you probably know, and if you don’t there are people out there who can tell you with a great deal more enthusiasm than I can, but the parallel universe he creates is full of neat imaginative twists, with the familiar made to feel strange, and vice versa. The problem is that it’s dead on the page. Why?

Because he can’t write characters to save his life. He really doesn’t seem to have any real understanding of how human beings work. And without characters, you don’t have anything that can be accurately described as a novel (unless you’re Olaf Stapledon, who was a genius, which Pullman isn’t).

Take the protagonist, Lyra. Presumably, we’re meant to fall in love with this little girl. Only problem is, her main characteristic is that she lies a bit. That’s not enough to drag me through the novel, at least not without me kicking and screaming.

Often, Lyra simply forgets to react to things. Major changes of fortune, grand revelations, even deaths, are met with an eerie silence from Lyra. Occasionally she’s eventually provided with an oddly delayed reaction, but many times not.

Along the way, Lyra encounters various helpers who she becomes deeply attached to. They also become deeply attached to her. Presumably the reader is meant to get deeply attached to all of them. This is hard, as none of the good guys possess any quality, such as wit, charm or even mysteriousness that you can really hook your affections or at the very least, attention on to. Then, once a friend has been made, Lyra will invariably be separated from them and hardly think of them again until the plot demands it, which renders the alleged earlier affection somewhat suspect.

On a technical level, Pullman’s writing itself ensures that a deep identification with any character is impossible. We drift in and out of Lyra’s perspective and fleetingly into those of other characters. A lot of the time, we’re just hovering uncertainly outside the action, like a shy person at a party. Sometimes, we discover things as Lyra does and have access to her thoughts, but then it’ll turn out that Lyra’s been learning to master the use of a magical compass or something behind our backs, and suddenly knows more about what’s going on than we do. She then has to have a convenient explanatory conversation with someone before we can catch up. These are basic writing errors, and ones that Pullman’s nemesis from beyond the grave, C.S. Lewis, knew not to make (I think. I haven’t read him since I was eleven. I’d check, but it’s a bank holiday and the library’s closed. Maybe he did make them. I’m having a crisis of faith. Like Susan with her makeup in The Last Battle).

Ultimately, I couldn’t care less about any of it. It felt like the literary equivalent of The Phantom Menace, the first part of a saga that stretches out before you like a particularly unwelcome train journey involving multiple changes, because its first few chapters guarantee that at no point will the human element come into play. In fact, I preferred The Phantom Menace, because that, at least, had a Holby City cast member wearing a humorous uniform.

You heard me. I preferred The Phantom Menace. I do not say those words lightly.

He’s Faceman! He’s Columbo! He’s Facemambo!

Posted in Life, TV with tags , , on April 5, 2010 by richardblandford

Columbo                                       Faceman

The other day I went to Dirk Benedict play Columbo in Prescription: Murder at the Worthing Connaught Theatre. The play actually predates the series and was used as the basis for the pilot episode in which Peter Falk played the detective for the first time (although confusingly, the play is based on a previous TV one-off drama, in which Columbo was played by yet another actor).

Benedict was convincing in the role, perhaps wisely adding little of his own and essentially conjuring up the spirit of Falk (who, confusingly, isn’t dead, although he has dementia and can no longer remember being Columbo, which is surely the saddest fact in show-business not involving Alex Reid right now).

The production was cheap and cheerful (and nothing wrong with that), although the sets were excellent, convincingly conjuring up 60s Los Angeles with a minimum of elements. Some of the acting from the supporting cast was a bit creaky, with that ‘TALKING REALLY LOUDLY FOR NO REASON’ you used to get in Radio 4 dramas in the 80s, but I don’t know if the play would really have benefited from a more subtle approach.

Benedict smoked a real cigar, which you could smell and everything.

The audience was played by Victoria Wood and Julie Walters (Sample overheard comments following the murder scene: ‘I can see her breathing.’ ‘Well she’s not really dead.’).

Anyway, the show’s touring the country, and I recommend it.

Muscle Beach Party

Posted in Books, Film with tags , , on April 5, 2010 by richardblandford

Muscle Beach Party

Over the past year or so, the theme of what sort of books can be successfully be made into films has been touched on several times in this blog.  This begs the obvious counter-question, what sort of films can be made into books?  In order to answer this, I felt compelled to read the novelisation of the 1964 musical surfing comedy Muscle Beach Party starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, as adapted by Elsie Lee (A snip at 50p, actually worth at least £30).

Now, I don’t mind admitting I went in with low expectations.  A lighthearted romp involving sight-gags, musical numbers and characters painted with strokes so broad they may as well have used a roller do not seem like the ideal ingredients for a satisfying read.

How wrong I was.  As well as a gripping story about how a group of surfers stand up to a body-building club while a rich contessa attempts to make a gigolo out of their leader, this book has everything.

Social comment: ‘Her hand caught warmly in Frankie’s, Dee Dee wandered where he led, across the sands and away from the sounds of civilization, If you can call it that, she thought vaguely’.

The weight of history: ‘”Like maybe brains do count for more than brawn?” Dee Dee suggested.  “Like maybe that’s what our pappies were proving against Mr. Hitler?”‘

Existentialism: ‘”Honey, the beach is free,” he said with soft intensity… ‘the surf keeps rolling, rolling, with a rhythm nothing can match – and your life’s your own as long as you keep looking up and riding the curl… Isn’t that enough?”‘

Indeed, I would say that Muscle Beach Party has so much scope, so much depth of insight, it is a candidate for the elusive Great American Novel, if not the best novel of the 20th Century.

I, of course, don’t mean this.  It’s a load of old shit.  It is, however, cheerful shit that wouldn’t utterly wreck your life if you were to read it.

What’s really interesting is the fact that occasionally, Elsie Lee does a little bit more than meet her brief of turning the script into prose.  There’s some genuine characterisation slipped in here and there, with some imagination employed in working out what lies behind the actions of these cardboard characters.  You get a sense that, at least over the weekend she was working on this thing, she actually cared about them.

And it’s what happens in that space between what she had to do and what she did do that you can see, in its most basic form, art occurring.  It’s the literary equivalent of the pretty pattern on an ancient pot, or the little joke sneaked in to a railway station announcement.  It didn’t really need to be there, it seemed, on a practical level.  But someone felt compelled to put it there anyway.  It’s the same urge that ultimately leads to Les Demoiselles D’Avignon and Ulysses.  It’s the reason why something as apparently defined by it’s function as Clifton Suspension Bridge also possesses it’s own peculiar beauty.  It’s art.  It’s hidden in the cheapest, shittest, most cynical products of humankind.  It’s all around us.

(For more on the ‘Beach Party’ films, of which Muscle Beach Party is the second, see this interesting article).