…chat show last week, Lily Allen told a story so hauntingly repellent that I feel compelled to share it. At a fashion show with a friend, she remarked on the pervasive and unpleasant smell around the catwalk. “Oh, that,” said her friend, who was clearly more used to it. “It’s the sick on the models’ breath.” The women’s magazine that came free with my Sunday newspaper a couple of weeks ago promised on its cover to reveal “The fifty questions you should be asking yourself about fashion right now.” Fifty! I’d say that if you ask yourself more than three questions about fashion in an entire lifetime then you’re an idiot, but maybe this should be one of them: “Why does this horrible industry destroy the bodies of so many beautiful young women?”
Archive for February, 2008
‘An Education’, the script I have been working on for a while now, adapted from Lynn Barber’s autobiographical essay, is finally set to become an actual film. We are fully funded, and shooting starts in a couple of weeks, with Lone Scherfig directing. And we have a really amazing cast: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Olivia Williams, Rosamund Pike, Orlando Bloom, Emma Thompson…This, I think, is as good as it could possibly be, and gives the film an excellent shot at being something that people might want to see. And after all the frustrations of the last year or so, the apparently never-ending work on the script feels worthwhile.
…Martin Kettle’s impassioned article in the Guardian almost persuaded me to listen to a Beethoven piano sonata….until he began with the bullying, as cultural absolutists are wont to do. He tells us that some opinions are “wrong”, that “some things are just better than others, full stop”, that the best music is capable of “ennobling” us, and that “musical taste and public values need improving”. (I’m not sure how public values got slipped in there. Nor am I sure what they are, or why on earth he would think that those of us who don’t listen to Beethoven wish to see them remain at their current level. For the record: I’m all for improving anything. Why not?) At one point, he even seems to be arguing that Beethoven himself is an elite: “It’s not the audience that is an elite for liking the music. It is Beethoven for writing it in the first place.” What is interesting in these sorts of diatribes is that frequently the language used to express them breaks down altogether. How can one man be an elite? How can an opinion be wrong? And if “some things are just better than others, full stop”, then surely all cultural criticism is redundant? Just give us the league tables – the facts, as Mr Gradgrind would say – and be done with it. Whatever else Beethoven is good for, he doesn’t seem to do much for cogency.
I am prepared to accept that Martin Kettle is a nobler person than me – it wouldn’t be hard. But if Beethoven is capable of ennobling us, then it stands to reason that the noblest people in the world must be classical critics and classical musicians, given that they are exposed to his music more than any of us. We are therefore long overdue an official scientific study comparing the nobility of Beethoven aficionados with that of people who only listen to, say, African music. And how much nobility do they need, these people? After twenty years or so, shouldn’t they be taken out of the Royal Festival Hall and put to the public good? They’re wasted where they are. Anyone that noble should be running a public service, maybe even the UN.
It’s always the Nazis who put the mockers on this sort of stuff; Goebbels and Hitler loved Beethoven, and it seems uncontroversial to claim that whatever power Beethoven’s music has to improve us as human beings somehow didn’t work on them. I would like to propose a counter argument: that nobody who owns a bootleg copy of Bruce Springsteen’s show at the Main Point, Bryn Mawr in 1975 has ever ordered the bombing of a country. If this turns out to be true, then I have more evidence for the ameliorating effects of early live Springsteen on the soul than Martin Kettle can ever muster on Beethoven’s behalf.
“Public values” would be improved, apparently, if “the BBC was willing to put classical music or theatre” – it apparently doesn’t matter which, so this clearly isn’t just about Beethoven - “on its main channels. …But those days are gone, sadly.” One thing I never understand: why do self-confessed elitists like Kettle want everyone to join their elite? Because then it wouldn’t be an elite any more, and they’d have to find something else.
…advice you will ever read about writing is to be found in Graham McCann’s terrific book ‘Spike And Co’, about the brilliant British comedy writers of the ’50s and ’60s – Johnny Speight, Galton and Simpson, Spike Milligan et al. Milligan’s working method, according to McCann, was as follows: “Once he had started work on a script he disliked ever having to stop; he wrote as he thought, and if he came to a place where the right line failed to emerge, he would just jab a finger at one of the keys, type ‘FUCK IT’ or ‘BOLLOCKS’, and then carry on regardless. The first draft would feature plenty of such expletives, but then, with each successive version, the expletives grew fewer and fewer, until by about the tenth draft, he had a complete, expletive-free script…”
This probably won’t work for everyone – Sister Wendy Beckett, for example, might want to try a different trick. But one of the things that frequently trips me up during the working day is the absence of one line, sometimes even a simple way of conjoining two scenes or ideas; the subsequent interruption of the flow (in my case, a thin trickle at the best of times) is when I check emails, or the BBC news, or go for a swim or a spot of book-browsing, or take a month off. Much better, then, to type an obscenity and carry on. Spike Milligan has just, you know, doubled my… BOLLOCKS.
…to work in London’s horrible January half-light and found myself with a strong desire to be sitting on the balcony at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, drinking coffee and looking down on the beautiful, sunny square at the centre of the town. I have only done this once before in my life, so I can’t really claim that this is what I usually do when things get miserable here, but when I did it, I loved it, and even while I was sitting there I was aware that the moment was always going to represent something or another.
It was part of an action-packed weekend. It began on a Saturday morning in Memphis, where I went with my friends Marah, the rock band I occasionally perform with (they play, I read, although I’m thinking of suggesting that we switch that around) and we visited the Sun studios. We drove from Memphis to Oxford – from Tennessee to Mississippi! – in the afternoon, hung out at the bookstore, did our show in a bar that night. The show didn’t go as well as it can do. There was a loud, large party of frat-boy drunks who inexplicably didn’t want to be listening to my carefully-wrought essays in a Mississippi bar on a Saturday night, and when Dave Bielanko, the band’s fearless singer and guitarist, leapt off the stage to remonstrate with them, they remonstrated right back, and he retreated rapidly.
But afterwards we went to a house party nearby, and the next morning, Dave’s brother Serge and I walked down the Sunday-morning sleepy, tree-lined road to visit Faulkner’s house, which, though usually closed on Sundays, was opened in honour of our visit. Faulkner’s house is incredible: it’s been preserved exactly as it was on the day he died. The plot of one of his novels is scribbled on a wall in pencil, there’s a can of 1950s dog repellent by the typewriter, and the bookcases are full of the Alastair MacLean novels he probably blagged from his publisher. And on the way back to the hotel, an apparently endless stream of local writers poured out of their houses to say hello, and to give me copies of their novels and collections of poetry, the novelist Tom Franklin and his wife, the poet Beth Ann Fennelly, prominent among them. It seemed to me as though everyone there lived some kind of charmed life.
A few weeks ago, I received a terrific book through the post entitled “Mixing New Orleans”, about Southern cocktails and New Orleans bars, sent to me by its author, Jennifer Adams. “You probably won’t remember,” Jennifer said in the accompanying letter, “But a year or two ago, you came to a party at the house where I was living in Oxford, Mississippi….” Oh, maybe I remember, and maybe I don’t, Jennifer. I have weekends like that all the time.
The Believer, the magazine kind enough to run my ‘Stuff I’ve Been Reading’
columns (some of which were collected as ‘The Complete Polysyllabic Spree’in the UK) is fifty issues old. If you’ve never seen it, you should subscribe – it’s beautiful, and smart, and there’s nothing else like it.
…been asked by a Swiss PR firm to contribute to a book that will “shake the watchmaking industry”. Reluctantly, I have had to turn them down. I’m too old, I fear. Ten years ago, I would have shaken the watchmaking industry until it begged for mercy, but those days are gone now.
…article in the Guardian about how movies depicting pregnancy are somehow anti-abortion: after ‘Knocked Up’, it’s the new (and very charming) ‘Juno’ that is in trouble (see below for the link). “Hollywood heroines who don’t consider abortion are of a generation taking its rights for granted,” is the misleading subtitle of Hadley Freeman’s piece. Actually, sixteen-year-old Juno does consider abortion. She goes to an abortion clinic and then changes her mind. I suspect that considering abortion isn’t enough, though – Juno needs to go through with an abortion, if she’s going to keep columnists off her case.
My book ‘Slam’, which is about a sixteen-year-old father, also got attacked on these grounds in at least one American review, so I have a special interest in this debate. Alicia, the boy’s ex-girlfriend, is determined not to have an abortion because she read pro-life propaganda on the internet, and can’t be persuaded to rethink her decision. I would like Hadley Freeman, my critic and all the others to explain, patiently and carefully, to Judd Apatow (the writer of ‘Knocked Up’, Diablo Cody (‘Juno’) and myself how we can write about pregnancy and unplanned parenthood without causing offence.
There are two problems with Freeman’s argument. The first is tonal: Freeman contrasts ‘Juno’ and ‘Knocked Up’ (funny films) with the “harrowing” ‘Vera Drake’ and the “horrors” of the Romanian film ‘Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days’ (as indicated, not funny films), and her choice of h-words might go some way towards explaining the difficulties the makers of the funny films might find themselves in, were they to take the path Freeman is mapping out for them.
The other, more fundamental problem is narrative. Should ‘Slam’, ‘Knocked Up’ and ‘Juno’ all end a third of the way through, with a visit to a clinic? Are these people really saying that you mustn’t write about pregnancy because you’re somehow letting the side down? And it’s not as if Apatow, Cody and I are living in some kind of cute fictional fantasy world: young people do have babies they hadn’t bargained for, all the time. Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe, and young parenthood seemed to me a subject worth addressing. (The truth is that I did struggle to understand why Alicia wouldn’t want an abortion. But clearly, teenage mothers in the UK are not having abortions, despite the comparative availability, and I struggle to understand Alicia’s real-life counterparts, too.) Abortion and pregnancy are opposites: you really can’t have it both ways. If you’re writing about one, then it’s tricky to write about the other. For the record, I’m very much pro-choice. I’m pro-choice for women, and I’m pro-choice for writers, too.