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).

Where Has All the White Dog-Shit Gone?

Posted in Life with tags on April 3, 2010 by richardblandford

You may have heard this question asked before. For some reason, the white dog-shit of our youth has disappeared. Experts say that it is due to things such as less calcium in dog food and the like, but the truth is something a bit stranger. The truth is…

Well, you might have seen him, the man, if you’ve ever had reason to stroll down a residential street in the early hours of the morning. There he’ll be, at the end of the road, bent over, picking something off the pavement, it seems, and putting it in his sack.

He won’t let you get too close, though. Move in his direction, and he’ll disappear into the night, as if hidden pathways open up just for him between the hedges and the garden walls.

Except… once someone did get close, by accident. It was broad daylight, and they saw him walking along the street and, as he spotted his treasure on the ground, it was almost as if he could not help himself from bending down and scooping it up for his sack. Then, looking from side to side like a surprised animal and seeing he had been observed, he scampered down the street.

The person who saw him do this said, some years later, whatever you do, don’t follow him. Don’t follow him to the house. And whatever you do, don’t walk up the uneven path to the door, and do not ring the doorbell.

And if you were to do any of these things, absolutely don’t wait for him to answer, and listen to him speak in a little voice through the crack of the door, inviting you in for tea, and biscuits.

If you should find yourself in his living room, then, amongst the furniture that looks a bit too puffy, the carpet that is strangely crunchy under your feet, and the bookcases stuffed with books that feel as if they’re ready to fly through the air at any moment, if you should find yourself there… whatever you do, whatever you do, don’t breathe in through your nose.

And when he comes in from the kitchen shakily holding a tray with a teapot, two cups on saucers, a milk jug and a biscuit tin on it, as you see that the walls themselves are lumpy, and from every direction there comes a buzzing, a buzzing as if something is trapped and is desperate to get out, whatever you do… whatever you do…

But there’s nothing you can do, now, except run.  He pours the tea, and adds the milk and he says in his squeak of a voice, ‘would you like a biscuit?’, and his little hand reaches for the tin. It buzzes too, and before you can say no, his bony fingers slip away the lid…

Money

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

A number of years ago, Martin Amis had some dental work done.  For reasons I’ve never got my head around, this seemed to turn a sizable chunk of the literary establishment against him.  Consequently, being a man incapable of independent thought, I have followed this party line faithfully and never read any of his books, instead walking straight past them in the library, murmuring, ‘fucking straight-toother’ under my breath as I went.

All that changed this month, when I decided to experiment with free will for the first time in my life, and read something by him.  Naturally, I let others choose which one I read, and a straw poll revealed Money, his novel from 1984 to be the firm favourite.

Upon finishing it, I am convinced of three things:

1) Kirk Douglas demanded that Martin Amis write a  scene for him in which he could display his genitals in Saturn 3, a film for which Amis wrote the (rubbish) screenplay.

2) Turgid U2 stadium anthem ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ is inspired by a line from this book (At one point, the protagonist John Self heads for a part of New York ‘where the streets have names’).  All the dates fit.  If it’s a coincidence, I’ll eat my licorice hat.

3) Grossly unfair though it undoubtedly is, it’s virtually impossible to discuss Amis jr. at this stage of his career without mentioning his father, Kingsley (unless you haven’t read any of his father’s books, in which case it’s very easy).

The reason for this is that, at least at first, Money reads like a pumped-up hyper version of precisely the sort of book his father (and J.P. Donleavey, and the young Iris Murdoch) used to write in the 50s.  It’s essentially picaresque, with the overweight and over-sexed John Self meandering his way around a very loose plot as he tries to get a Hollywood film made, all the while experiencing and observing the seemingly magical properties of money.

As the book goes on, however, it reveals itself to be a rather different beast, with ‘Martin Amis’ turning up as a character, and takes a distinctly Post-Modern turn which at first feels like a distraction, but by the end is probably the most interesting thing about it.

Did I like it?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  I wasn’t particularly taken with the narrative style, which blends the colloquial English that a real life John Self would use with a bloated vocabulary that he most certainly would not. Also, for quite long periods the book and its main character seemed to be trapped in a cycle of narrative tics (have unlikely sex, observe effect of money, make fun of Hollywood types, have unlikely sex again) that really wore me down, but every so often it would spark into life with some astute observations and the odd good joke.

The problem, I think, is that unlike his father, Amis isn’t a natural wit, or at least doesn’t allow himself to be on paper that often.  Unfortunately, to pull off a meandering picaresque story, you’ve got to charm the reader in order for them to follow your deviations.  But maybe it’s just me, although, well, obviously not just me. In the aftermath of Anna Ford’s slightly weird recent public attack on Amis, in which she accused him of using Christopher Hitchen’s head as a bong in front of her goddaughter or something, it was startling just how many people used it as an opportunity to state they found his work unreadable. Some people such as John Niven here, however, are very much charmed by Amis jr’s style in this book.  But then, different people are charmed by different things.  This is why the world isn’t one great big wife-swapping party.

Also, I found the ease with which Self obtains sex, despite his limitations in the various fields through which men generally manage to obtain it, a stretch of credulity too far.  Although I usually tend to give this sort of novel the benefit of the doubt, and believe that it depicts a sexist world rather than being sexist in and of itself, when you have to revise your understanding of everything you know about the opposite sex in order to accommodate the internal workings of the story, alarm bells tend to ring.  As a very similar argument could perhaps be made of my own novel Hound Dog, however, I shall conveniently stop pursuing this point any further.

In fact, I found that there were numerous similarities to my novel Hound Dog, both in terms of the main character and certain avenues that the plot goes down, which I will not reveal here in case I simultaneously ruin both novels for people who haven’t read them (though really, what are you doing, not having read Hound Dog?  Go and read it this instant!).  Amis and myself must have tapped into the same mythical archetype, although I can’t find any mention of the ‘fat, wanking hero figure’ in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  Perhaps he’s the thousandth and first face.

Anyway, Money wasn’t really my kind of book, probably because I’ve already written one a bit like it, but I sort of got something out of it, I guess. Probably. Anyway, there’s a version on telly soon so I’ll watch that I reckon.