Monthly Archives: October 2014

Time, music, place: Broken Bells, LA

Broken Bells at The Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles, October 2014. Pic: Cormac Looney

Broken Bells at The Orpheum Theatre, Los Angeles, October 2014.
Pic: Cormac Looney

A piece of music can be an instant ticket to a place or a time.

As I get older this phenomenon – notes firing down neural pathways, the intersection of time and music and place – preoccupies me more and more.

I’ve written about it here previously and an event last week brought to mind again. We visited with family and friends in Los Angeles, a busy trip involving catch-ups, food and drink, 30c days and one or two late nights.

This charming man - with James Mercer at The Orpheum Theatre. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

This charming man – with James Mercer at The Orpheum Theatre.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

One of those was spent at The Orpheum Theatre, where we caught a show by Broken Bells, the band fronted by Brian Burton and The Shins‘ James Mercer (the latter of whom I’d the pleasure of meeting afterwards).

And one of their encores on the night was Citizen, a song I’d heard umpteen times since picking up the band’s 2010 debut album.

Unlike the recording, heard live the song became an elegiac showcase for Mercer’s voice and his cry of ‘what’s it all about anyway?’, backlit with Jacob Escobedo‘s beautiful visuals.

The performance led to the rebirth of the song in my head. So much so that in the week since the show, which also saw my return home, the track has soundtracked my memory of the trip.

Listening to its chorus now, as I type this, puts me directly back in the LA light, jet lagged but energised, my memories a mix of freeways, glasses, huge amber skies, food and conversation.

I probably won’t listen to Citizen again for another six months. When I do – as with another song in another California at another time – it will bring me back, quicker and truer than photos or conversation, to LA in a few days in the late October of 2014.


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Seventy hours

Thompson Street, NYC, October 2014.

Thompson Street, NYC, October 2014.

Rain, humid, on West 4th Street,
Before house wine at The White Horse.
‘This restaurant has lost something’.
Second winds, third coffees
And yes sir, that’s my Babbo;
Sunlight on the reservoir
Then bagels in a cafe on the Lower East Side (‘the secret’s in the water’).
Hailing taxis, unsuccessful, on street corners.
Crosswalks, car horns, subway screeching.  Always more coffee.
And ‘if you can make it here’…

Under all the low engine hum of the city, driving forward, on.

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‘Burned by my vision of a world that shone’

Brittany Maynard

Brittany Maynard

Some time on November 1 a 29-year-old woman in Oregon will take medication to end her life.

Brittany Maynard’s decision went global over the past couple of weeks. She has an untreatable brain tumour and faces a certain and debilitating death.

Faced with this Maynard decided that “death with dignity was the best option”. She intends to end her life, with legal medical assistance, later this month, shortly after her husband’s birthday.

Now an advocate for America’s leading end-of-life choice organisation the coverage of Maynard’s story has, understandably, precipitated a debate on assisted dying/suicide (take your pick), medical ethics, and the existence and role of a God.

At times the commentary, again understandably, has overshadowed the tragedy of Maynard’s diagnosis, the fact of a life unlived, plans unfulfilled, the cruel cost of mortality.

Reading her story I tried to focus on that, rather than the mechanics of her death.
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Two days after I first encountered Brittany Maynard’s case I was sitting in work when, on a radio in the background, I heard the familiar, now fainter, voice of the writer and critic Clive James.

James has, like Maynard, an aggressive cancer which he acknowledges will soon claim his life.

Clive James. Pic: RubyGoes

Clive James.
Pic: RubyGoes

Interviewed two days after his 75th birthday he spoke of his surprise at still being around. “I do have a brand of leukaemia that will come back and get me, but nobody knows when,” he stated.

While Maynard has faced her illness by becoming a public activist James, a long-time public figure in Britain, has turned inwards, writing poems that address his mortality and assess his life.

“I had a new subject, death itself…It’s all very interesting. It’s adventure. And writers are usually a bit short of adventure,” he explained.
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Maynard will die with the help of medication, James will not.

When I foresee their passing it’s not the pain or distress, the ethics or the tablets, that come to mind.

Instead it’s the last stanza of one of James’ final poems, Japanese Maple, in which he foresees his death, lying in his room and looking upon his garden, his “slow fading out” complete.

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colors will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

Japanese maple, Musée Albert-Kahn, Paris. Pic: Line1

Japanese maple, Musée Albert-Kahn, Paris.
Pic: Line1

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Revise, revise…and then revise

Hemingway's first-page draft for A Farewell to Arms. Pic: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Hemingway’s first-page draft for A Farewell to Arms.
Pic: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Ernest Hemingway’s war novel A Farewell To Arms could have ended any one of 39 ways.

We know this because Hemingway told us so but also because, two years ago, an edition of the book was published containing each of those endings, and a further eight more to boot.

Some are more optimistic than the final, fatal closing paragraphs, some are minor variations, some entirely different to what was published.

But, as far as the writer was concerned, it took 39 attempts to nail it, “39 times before I was satisfied”.

Three decades later, asked what had made the task so difficult, Hemingway answered, simply: “Getting the words right.”

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A 2012 news story on the new edition of the novel was shared with me this week by M, a fellow soldier in the journalistic trenches.

It sparked my interest. My daily workload involves revision, three or four times for every article edited, reading closely for facts and legal. This blog likewise.

But I doubt I’ve subjected any piece of writing to more than a dozen revisions, let alone three dozen, before filing it away.

The Beatles, 1964

The Beatles, 1964

Hemingway’s dogged rewriting of his novel’s closing paragraphs put me in mind of Malcolm Gladwell’s observation on the success of The Beatles.

He estimated that the group performed 1,200 live shows in the four years before they broke through to stardom, in 1964.

Reading Hemingway, or large parts of his work at least, or listening to The Beatles, it’s easy to presume that finely tuned words or close-to-perfect melodies occur, when they do, more or less naturally.

Such artists laboured on their art, of course, but their inspiration surely ran far beyond Edison’s fabled one per cent?

However, the older I get the clearer the importance of revisiting, remaking and repeating, becomes.

To the extent that the secret of producing the best creative work can be reduced, for me, to a simple practice.

To improve it, revise it; when you can’t revise it any more, you can’t improve it.

Ernest Hemingway in London at Dorchester Hotel 1944. Pic: NARA

Ernest Hemingway at Dorchester Hotel, London, 1944.
Pic: NARA

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Note: I like the idea of ‘life hacks’ – pieces of advice, knowledge, insight, admonitions; discrete mind shots that improve life and produce an awareness of living.
The Lifehacks section of the blog is where I’m collecting and collating them.

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Here Is New York – in five fragments

Central Park, October 2010. Pic: Cormac Looney

Central Park, October 2010.
Pic: Cormac Looney

It’s long been a habit of mine to read my way to a destination before I actually travel there.

Not using guide books, but novels or poems. And so, over the years I’ve come to associate certain places, cities in particular, with certain writings.

When I think of London it’s the city of Great Expectations, and Pip’s coming of age in the streets and rooms of Newgate, or the eerie East End gothic of Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor.

Likewise Haruki Murakami, whose The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle took me to a surreal, paranoid version of Tokyo in fiction, accompanied me on a visit to Japan earlier this year.

On occasion I haven’t, nor am I every likely to, be in the place I’m reading about. While I’ve visited and revisited the remote Gilf Kebir plateau in the Libyan desert, where Michael Ondaatje set part of The English Patient, I doubt I’ll ever see it in person.

But the literary place that’s mapped clearest in my mind is one I have visited – the city of New York.

Hence my interest the recent Reading American Cities series on the Guardian’s Books blog, specifically the entry on Manhattan.

I agreed with one of the titles recommended as a “literary companion” to the city – The Great Gatsby. But the others, DeLillo’s Underworld and Auster’s The New York Trilogy, while certainly books of the city, weren’t books of my New York.

And so I chose my own – here’s New York in five fragments, from five works.


410uN4RypVLCrossing Brooklyn Ferry, Walt Whitman (1855)

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

 

Gatsby_1925_jacketThe Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.

 


a4afce26-ab10-42c8-9180-0a268a4b78f5-280x420Catcher In The Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951)

I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go? I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.

 


2f656cc7-40b4-4e5a-8917-d2ecdf6e9a01-273x420Netherland, Joseph O’Neill (2008)

 We were sailing on the Staten Island Ferry on a September day’s end…Everybody looked at the Statue of Liberty and at Ellis Island and at the Brooklyn Bridge, but finally, inevitably, everybody looked to Manhattan. The structures clustered at its tip made a warm, familiar crowd, and as their surfaces brightened ever more fiercely with sunlight it was possible to imagine that vertical accumulations of humanity were gathering to greet our arrival.

 

Finally, and despite my misgivings above about guide books, it’s impossible to avoid E.B. White’s classic love letter to his home city.

hereisnewyorkHere Is New York, E.B. White (1949)

The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.
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