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Friday, 18 January 2013

Snow

In an effort to be more topical, I thought that I would record my thoughts on what seems to be the most pressing issue in Britain this week, the arrival of snow.....

There have been predictable remarks in the media, and among folk generally, about how Britain supposedly grinds to a halt when faced with even the mildest snowfall. Unfavourable comparisons are made with how other nations apparently deal with such occurrences.  Is there something enshrined in law which requires the media, and the wider citizenry, to trot out the same tired cliches on these occasions?

Of course, talking about the weather is Britain's most popular and time-honoured pastime. Even allowing for this, it never ceases to amaze, and amuse, me that people are surprised that we, a land mass in Northern Europe, should be visited by the odd scattering of snow and ice during the winter months.

Another ritual at times such as this is for the older generation to "reminisce" about their snow-related experiences of times past. I remember older relatives regaling me with tales of how "it once snowed in April", and I myself have been guilty of telling the "youth of today" how they didn't know they were born, as I detailed the knee-deep snowdrifts of my childhood.

The knee-deep snowdrifts of my youth may just be fond and nostalgic imaginings, so don't expect any moralizing about climate change or global warming....

The most heart-warming sight which I have witnessed during this week's snow was that of a couple of children from my neighbourhood enthusiastically and adroitly constructing a snowman. I had long since resigned myself to the notion that this was an extinct art-form, having fallen victim to modern preoccupations. The level of craftsmanship, and attention to detail, was impressive, extending even to the application of a carrot for the snowman's nose.  As I observed the scene, I reflected that maybe there is hope yet for mankind....

Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Journey To The East - Hermann Hesse

In somewhat distilled form, The Journey To The East encapsulates many of the ideas and themes which characterize the work of Hermann Hesse, albeit with some interesting differences, and in much more enigmatic and "unorthodox" form than is generally the case with his novels.



The Journey To The East follows the attempts by the narrator "H H" to chronicle his involvement with a spiritual sect known as The League, and the "pilgrimage" referred to in the title.

The "journey" is not a trek across a geographical region or area as much as a voyage of self-discovery and enlightenment. As with many Hesse novels the precise location seems almost immaterial or academic, and secondary in importance to matters of a spiritual and cerebral nature. Indeed, members of The League have the facility to cross the boundaries of time and space, fact and fiction.

Like some of Hesse's most affecting and profound work, The Journey To The East is very brief and concise, with an economical style. Hesse seems capable of cramming more symbolism and meaning into ninety-odd pages than other authors can manage in a lifetime.  The vagaries of the plot mean that some readers may find this one a little more difficult to digest and grasp than Hesse's other stories, and it therefore demands greater concentration and analytical awareness - or at least it did for me!

As is usually the case with Hesse, the pages are a sensory feast.  One is compelled to absorb and assimilate the sights, sounds and aromas which are described in the text.  Also, Hesse's ability to make scholarship, study and erudition seem so invigorating and inviting is very much in evidence.

So what themes and topics are prominent in this novel?. Consciousnesss, human imagination, the collective versus the individual, faith and belief all feature.  The Eastern concepts of "one-ness" and "naturalness" also receive an airing.

Much of the novel centres on the disillusionment which "H H" and others begin to feel towards the League at a certain stage of the journey, his struggle to commit this to paper, and the narrator's return to the League to face judgement for his conduct and approach during the time of distress and doubt. Needless to say, there are some surprises in store...

I have to admit that The Journey To The East did not draw me in and inspire me to the same degree as the other Hesse novels which I have encountered, but nevertheless it is intriguing and thought-provoking.





Monday, 14 January 2013

The Reginald Perrin Omnibus

One of the more curious and interesting phenomena in popular culture in the 1970s was that of Reginald Perrin.  My interest in the character having recently been re-ignited, I made a point of searching out The Reginald Perrin Omnibus, a collection of the David Nobbs-penned books on which the later television sitcom (starring Leonard Rossiter in the title role) was based.

For the avoidance of confusion, it should be emphasised that although the TV sitcom was entitled The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, it  actually covers the same events and timespan as the three novels which make up the omnibus, the first of which is itself also called "The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin", the other two being called "The Return of Reginald Perrin" and "The Better World of Reginald Perrin".

To summarise for the uninitiated, Reginald Perrin is a middle-aged executive with Sunshine Desserts, and as the story begins, he is being confronted with an incipient breakdown of sorts, seemingly precipitated by the drudgery of his job and his daily routine, and a nagging feeling that "there must be more to life than this". The three novels which constitute the "omnibus", and the aforementioned sitcom, follow Reggie through his various life-changes, projects and adventures in the ensuing few years.

One of the first things which I noticed when reading The Reginald Perrin Omnibus was how much the books had been compressed when adapted for television.  The novels have a more sinuous and less streamlined quality about them, with the more risque aspects and sub-plots left in. The additional exposition which this all permits, and the more expansive prose, make these written stories an even more surreal and comic experience - more of a black comedy when in print form, I would say.There is much light-hearted and satirical musing on 1970s Britain, with more context and perspective than could be realistically expected in a condensed small-screen version.



The novels allow more extensive concentration on the niceties and absurdities of English middle-class suburban and rural life. The quirks and eccentricities are woven into the plot in wonderfully deadpan and undemonstrative style, and this forms a sizeable part of the appeal.This is the kind of book which one can breeze through almost effortlessly.  I was past page 500 almost before I realized it!

Another thing which occurred to me when working my way through the pages was perhaps what the author was aiming at, namely a more rounded and all-encompassing look at "modern life", from a 1970s viewpoint. Yes, fun is poked at consumerism and careerism, but equally there is much gentle but pointed teasing at the expense of the "trendy" and "progressive" ideas, attitudes and practices which were in vogue at the time. One senses that Reginald Perrin was striving to rise above it ALL, maybe sensing that even "alternative" things very soon assume a form of normality and routine.  These nuances did not come out as strongly in the TV show, I feel.

Bearing in mind that this was written during the 1970s, some references contained within it might not meet with the wholehearted approval of the 21st century palate, although it is arguably reflective of the social and cultural climate of those days.

Despite reinventing himself a couple of times, Reggie ended up coming full circle in a professional and lifestyle  sense, although the conclusion of our story is left open-ended as, confronted with a sense of deja vu at Amalgamated Aerosols, he initiates plans to return to the Dorset coast, scene of his two previous metamorphoses.

Although the ultimate outcome is not made clear, one can speculate what the inference was. This left me with a slightly deflated feeling.  Even when we take it upon ourselves to "change", life is still a cycle, or a series of cycles.

Did Reginald Perrin eventually see only one mode of escape from the cycle of cycles?  Or did he re-emerge again, to reboard the treadmill, in the hope that he would find something which even he had difficulty conceptualizing?  It is significant that each time he "disappeared", it did not take long for him to revert to being Reggie again. A recognition that we can never really escape or shed our "self"?

It is tempting to see the Reginald Perrin saga as an ultimately sobering and discouraging parable of modern man.  However, not only is it an enjoyable and stimulating read, but it can also be construed as inspirational, by affirming that things do not necessarily have to be "this way".  It conceivably also lends weight to the notion that "it's better to travel hopefully than to arrive".  Does the "arriving" ever really happen for most of us? The grass is not always greener on the other side, but the chasing, hoping and striving is what makes things worthwhile. Is this exhilaration the substitute for real contentment?  Do we have to learn to accept and value this as our lot in life?

Returning to the book, it would be fair to say that those whose perceptions of Reginald Perrin have been conditioned and shaped by the TV series may take a little while to adapt to the denser storyline, and some of its deviations. Equally, there is much more extensive and thorough development of, and insight into, the various characters and their foibles and idiosyncrasies.

Read and enjoy....



Friday, 11 January 2013

It's Only Rock N Roll - The Rolling Stones

Following on from my blog post regarding the Rolling Stones' 1973 album Goats Head Soup, it seemed logical to then take a look at the record which followed immediately afterwards, namely 1974's It's Only Rock 'n' Roll. 

Some of the elements merely hinted at on Goats Head Soup are developed, projected and exploited further.This record feels a touch more ebullient and gaudy than its predecessor, and less nebulous and reflective. The production is not as murky and hesitant.

The opening track, "If You Can't Rock Me", sets the tone, with its purposefulness and intensity, and the overall freshness which it exudes. It also sounds curiously "modern", as if it had been recorded in an ensuing decade, whilst still exhibiting that certain 1970s flavour and vibe.

"Ain't Too Proud To Beg" strikes me as a rather pointless and incongruous cover version, even if it is an affectionate nod to Motown etc. Those with uncharitable inclinations may insinuate that its presence on this LP is indicative of a general dearth of quality original tunes. Despite these reservations, this rendition does have some conviction about it, and the Stones always sound reasonably comfortable when performing songs in this genre.





The title track, to some observers inextricably linked with its accompanying promotional video, is playful, frivolous even, but hugely infectious. Again, it displays a bite and vitality and lacks the aimlessness of some of the Stones' "rockers" of this particular vintage.

I suppose that "Till The Next Goodbye" qualifies as a "ballad", of the type which the band appeared capable of churning out almost at will. A middling melody is flattered or redeemed by acoustic guitars, harmonies and some above-average lyrics. The song gains in power and effect as it progresses.

The next number, "Time Waits For No One" carries distinctly Seventies traits, with its guitar treatments and flourishes, and a mildly unsettling eeriness. This track lingers a little too long, and becomes almost wearisome.   Musically it strongly reminds me of Stephen Stills' Manassas.

"Luxury" lends further weight to suspicions that the weaker songs were concentrated in the middle of the running order, although in mitigation it does contain glimpses of Mick Taylor's prowess and finesse, and some pleasing vocal harmonies.

"Dance Little Sister" is another prosaic if meaty rocker, largely devoid of inspiration.  The words formulaic and pedestrian also come to mind!

The quality begins to climb again when we reach "If You Really Want to Be My Friend".  An appealing and deceptively rich melody is augmented by some deft instrumental touches.  This one holds the attention well, and Mick Jagger's vocal is delivered with some pugnacity and intent.

The penultimate item, "Short and Curlies", betrays shades of Exile on Main Street, with Jagger and Keith Richards doing their joint vocal thing to considerable effect, and some diverting chord changes. Impossible to dislike....

Matters are concluded with "Fingerprint File", which is very much a rhythmic "feel" track, shining a torch on some of the excursions to be pursued by the Stones later on.  A bit of improvisation here too. The tune is just about substantial and coherent enough to prevent this descending into a meandering jam.

On reflection, it is fair to say that It's Only Rock 'n' Roll contains as much, if not more filler, than Goats Head Soup, but the better material carries genuine enthusiasm, spirit and drive, which lift it.  Even if it is artistically patchy and uneven, it is more "in your face", and feels like an "event", primarily because of the decadent sheen of the Stones circa 1973/74.  A fascinating and intriguing document and souvenir of an era....

Monday, 7 January 2013

Goats Head Soup - The Rolling Stones

A little while ago I wrote an article about what, by common consent, was the most fruitful and inventive period in the illustrious career of The Rolling Stones, namely 1968 to 1972:-

The Rolling Stones 1968-1972


The first thing to acknowledge is that the Stones faced a quandary in the aftermath of Exile On Main Street.   Should they try to match or emulate their magnum opus, consciously move in a different direction, or just see where things naturally took them?  On balance, they appear to have followed the latter option, perhaps sensing that the first would invite disaster, and that the second would impose a straitjacket.

The first album which the band released after "Exile" was Goats Head Soup, which unsurprisingly betrays most signs of the comedown from the fertile and productive days of 68-72.  Just as it is often proclaimed that the classic 1972 double album is largely a "Keith album", then at first glance its follow-up shows up more of Mick Jagger's fingerprints, stylistically as well as lyrically.



A certain "fog" and pall hangs over this record, symptomatic of fatigue and jadedness, the effect being similar to a hangover  (which, in career terms, this album essentially was).  The emphasis of the lyrics has changed from the vibrant mixture of "Exile" to an overall, almost sinister, gloominess. The tone is set with the opening number, "Dancing With Mr D".  Electric piano and wah-wah guitar abound, making this LP distinctly "of its time", an accusation that can not be as easily levelled at "Exile".

It has often been asserted that Exile On Main Street represented the culmination of everything which the Stones had been striving towards for the previous decade. After scaling the metaphorical peak, the 1973 follow-up sees them wearily, if happily, descending, seemingly not taking too much trouble over the precise route down, or the style in which it was accomplished.

After the menace of the aforementioned "Dancing with Mr D", we move on to the languid "100 Years Ago". It is driven by electric piano, and contains just a trace of the magic of earlier albums, possessing a melodic shape and sense of purpose, but at the same time, it is also very typical of what was to characterise the mid-70s output.  In these respects it feels like a hinge between eras.  Similar sentiments could be applied to the song which follows, "Coming Down Again".

"Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)" is possibly the strongest and most memorable track on the album, having genuine drive and abundant drama. The lyrics complement the music, and greatly contribute to the overall effect.  This is one of the songs on Goats Head Soup on which the band sounds truly interested, focused and motivated.  It has also proved very effective in the concert environment.

I imagine that "Angie" has the knack of dividing opinion among Stones fans, but looking at things objectively it is a fine and strong pop/rock composition, featuring a confident and authoritative Jagger vocal.  The song also serves to anchor an album which can feel rather lacking in direction and purpose.

"Silver Train" borders on "Stones by numbers", and is the rootiest number on the record, largely by dint of the slide guitar flourishes. Although a touch bland, and "meat and potatoes", it does inject some welcome relief in the context of what surrounds it. The next item, "Hide Your Love", is another track which although in itself unremarkable, does hark back vaguely to the glories of 1968-72.

Another ballad-like track follows in the shape of "Winter".  Largely unexceptional, it seeks to project itself as an epic, but ends up doing very little and going almost nowhere.  The run of superior mediocrity continues with "Can You Hear The Music" which, although equipped with a reasonably promising melodic base, is let down by a failure to accentuate and exploit its strengths.  A missed opportunity, methinks....

When people refer to the Stones descending into self-parody, "Star Star" could be presented as Exhibit A. It is difficult to ascertain what is and what is not intentionally tongue-in-cheek, and this song comes dangerously close to being the fly in the ointment. In a strange way, it is an apt way to close this album and presage the Stones' future career.

Having gone through Goats Head Soup track by track,  my conclusion is that it contains some decent songs, and flashes of excellent musicianship, but the overall effect is diminished by the sense of inertia, and a shortage of energy and inspiration. It is by no means a bad album, and it has a kind of semi-kitsch period charm of its own, exemplifying the sluggish hedonism which coloured much of the Stones' work for some time afterwards.








Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Rosshalde - Hermann Hesse

After a break of a few months, I recently felt the urge to read another of Hermann Hesse's novels, and Rosshalde seemed to fit the bill.

The first thing to say is that Rosshalde explores many of the themes which are characteristic of Hesse's work. Also, the novel is set in the type of environs and atmosphere which, for reasons which are difficult to articulate, make his books so captivating, engaging and compulsive reading.  As ever, though, it is the subtle differences and tangents which enrich and augment the experience for the reader.

It would seem that this particular book is at least partly autobiographical.  It tells the story of an artist, Johann Veraguth, and his complex relations with his estranged wife and his two sons.  The title of the work refers to the country estate where the four people live.



Rosshalde looks at the dilemmas endured by Veraguth as he wrestles with his family obligations, and his devotion to his youngest son Pierre, as well as the opportunity to embark on a voyage of self-discovery and enlightenment, this being provided by his friend Otto Burkhardt.

In keeping with many of Hesse's novels, the writing is wonderfully rich and evocative, and it feels like every word is meant to count, there being minimal superfluous "padding".  The imagery formed by the words, and combinations of words, forms into one organic whole and seeps into the mind of the reader. This is particularly true of the passages describing the surroundings at Rosshalde, which consequently assumed for me the trappings of a state of mind as much as a geographical location. The author's humanity and zest for life and living ooze from every page, and he has the capacity to endow the mundane and workaday with a magic and impact.

The familiar Hesse themes of rebirth, self-realisation and consciousness are featured heavily, although they are perhaps pushed less overtly here than in some of his other works.

I discerned (rightly or wrongly) a few underlying messages and themes.  The state of living through somebody else (in this case the young Pierre), rather than for our own sake, and how this can cause us to settle for an existence which is delusive, and the course of which is precarious, tenuous and largely beyond our control. The difficulty of "letting go" in such circumstances, and the need for the intervention of an extraneous catalyst, deus ex machina, or unexpected event to break the cycle and liberate us. The tendency for people to feel comfortable, but numb, and not fulfilling ourselves, taking risks or making sacrifices.

Although the death of young Pierre makes this on the surface a less uplifting read than some of Hesse's other works, like those other novels it draws the reader in, exercising the mind, and evoking a sense of time and place.