November 6th is the third anniversary of the death of my close friend, Estelle Brisard, at the age of only 33. She and her husband Adrian had put their gorgeous 5 month old daughter Ella to bed, and had dinner with friends and her parents, who were visiting from their home in Normandy. Then, without warning, she collapsed, a victim of Sudden Adult Death Syndrome, a mysterious condition that had already taken a number of her cousins.
I met Estelle through her PhD. work at Stirling University. She went on to become a researcher for Paisley University at the Ayr campus. Because she lived in Liverpool, for a while she shared my flat with me during the working week, and we became the best of pals. She was breathtakingly beautiful, brilliant, funny, warm and compassionate. She treated everyone she met, no matter their status, with unconditional regard. She was also very, very French! She influenced me in so many ways, from the way I think about myself to the wine I drink, from my politics to the music I enjoy.
She was a fantastic academic, insightful, thorough and able to write elegantly in French or English. She also had a fierce work ethic, the light in her room burning into the early hours of the morning to make sure she was well ahead of deadlines and produced nothing but the best. She was undoubtedly heading for great things, certainly a readership sooner rather than later in her career. And yet, she was also just a young woman who loved life and showed it. I remember a trip we took to Ardnamurchan and a walk along the white beach of Sanna Bay. It was a perfect day, bright and hot, and the place was deserted apart from a wee old man with an equally old terrier who meandered about in the distance the way terriers do. As soon as her feet hit the sands, she was off and running, capering about, pirouetting and gambolling like a foal, whooping and singing. In my best West of Scotland Presbyterian tone of voice, I asked her what she was doing: she said the sand made her want to dance.
I talked to her on the phone hours before she died. She was the most content I’d ever heard her, with her home, with the prospect of her new academic post at John Moore’s University and, most of all of course, with Adrian and her baby. And yet, even though her life was so full, I felt strongly that this remarkable girl was going to be a positive influence on me for the rest of my life, and that she would always make time for me, simply because she wouldn’t have it any other way. She was the kind of person who made you feel blessed to know her: for those who loved her, her death was, as her father put it, simply “a disaster”.
Needless to say, I miss her terribly.
Her work in educational research is acknowledged by the Estelle Brisard Memorial Award, offered by the Scottish Educational Research Association (SERA). You can find out more about Sudden Adult Death Syndrome (SADS) at http://www.sadsuk.org/ .
I’m not going to add much to the encyclopaedia’s worth of stuff written about this, surely the greatest Western ever made. The audacity of killing off Woody Strode and Jack Elam in the first scene; those locomotives, screaming and screeching their way through virgin landscape; the casting-against-type of Henry Fonda, Hollywood’s decentest man, as a psychopath; that unforgettable, instantly recognisable Ennio Morricone score; and, most of all, that final, glorious gunfight, Fonda’s eyes flickering momentarily right and left to judge the best angle of the sun to gain an advantage against the stony-faced Charles Bronson.
I first saw this in 1968 in the George cinema in Barrhead. You have no idea what Claudia Cardinale’s mascara and cleavage did for my bedtime fantasies – I must have rescued her from a whole trainload of bad guys, and then didn’t know what to do with her afterwards – or how much the smirking, spitting Fonda frightened the shite out of me. Seeing it again on a big, big screen, beautifully restored, is one of life’s infinite pleasures.
Oh, Henry Fonda! Oh, Charles Bronson! Oh, oh, oh, Claudia Cardinale!
At first, I couldn’t help celebrating the decision of the courts to uphold the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s action against the BNP for discriminating in favour of “indigenous Caucasians” in its membership regulations. I had the image of blacks and socialists and Asians and anti Nazi Leaguers and Muslims joining just for the sheer delight of fucking up the whole stinking party and its raison d’etre.
However, I’ve had second thoughts. If, as seems probable, the thugs rewrite their constitution, it affords them a legitimacy that they can never deserve. It gives validity to those reprehensible views that start with the phrase, “I’m not a racist, but…” – and now they can point to their constitution to prove it. If this happens, the BNP will more and more be accepted as mainstream commentators, and will be offered their place in the mainstream media. It has already started with the Question Time question , and youth members of the BNP being welcomed on Radio One in an almost criminally soft interview. With the patently outrageous membership qualifications removed from the constitution, the BNP looks all the more respectable, even if it still stinks to high heaven.
The best weapon against racists is their own racism itself. It is ridiculous, patently false, based on assumptions that are blind and deaf and, in one sense at least, dumb. The work of Searchlight over the years has been unrivalled in calling out the violence, the hypocrisy and the venality of the right wing in this country and all over the world. It’s philosophy is simple – show everyone what the bastards are really like. It is well worth the subscription.
And just to prove my point, two unbelievable stories from the USA appeared on Huffington Post this week. First, can you believe that, at the start of the 21st century, you’d still have a Justice of the Peace being able to deny a mixed race couple a marriage licence? Going by the name of Keith Bardwell, his words sound like something from the 1960s – which is perhaps where Louisiana still is:
“I’m not a racist. I just don’t believe in mixing the races that way… I have piles and piles of black friends. They come to my home, I marry them, they use my bathroom. I treat them just like everyone else.”
His trump card – he’s worried about what the children will suffer. No doubt from fuckers like him.
And to show that right wingers are equal-opportunity bigots, the second story concerns Ceara Sturgis, a 17-year old lesbian who has been told by her High School Principal that she can’t dress in a tuxedo for her yearbook photograph. So often, right wing nutjobs complain about our world having gone “PC mad”, forgetting that their own brand of ideology has always been and always will be absolutely barking mad in the ways it hurts people, from the worst atrocities of genocide to the pettiest of petty restrictions placed on human beings simply to destroy their self-worth.
So, I say let them keep their racist intentions intact and visible, so that we might continue to shout them down, beat them back and marginalise them from civilised society.
At first glance, Nerina Pallot appears like any other popette doing the rounds at the moment. She’s beautiful – very – and kooky and MOR friendly. She’s perfect for Radio 2 listeners on the drive to work each morning (her new single, “Real Late Starter”, was the station’s record of the week recently), and she appears to embody a sweet, girl-next-door image. In other words, okay, but not exactly a musical genius.
There’s a lot more to her than that, though. First of all, she’s quite a bit older than the current crop of girly singers – she’s in her mid thirties, not her early twenties – and has therefore been around the block a bit, which is no bad thing for a songwriter’s credibility. Secondly, she has a fierce independent streak, not of the faux ladette type so common now (so common now) but a real, feisty commitment to doing things her way, and damn the consequences. Her new album, “The Graduate” is the second she’s produced on her own Idaho label, after all sorts of nonsense that saw her first album pulled for her refusal to accept Polydor’s heavy handed influence in her sound: indeed, the new single is clearly a statement of free will ( “I’m the Queen Refusenik / if I was somebody you’d be kissing my ass right now…” ), and similar feistiness is apparent in several tracks, such as “When did I Become Such a Bitch”.
The new album is perhaps a bit of a slow burner: there’s nothing as immediately arresting as “Idaho” or “Sophia” from her second album, “Fires”, though “It Was Me” is a smashing crooner’s number (I’d love to hear Sinatra do it, but that’s never going to happen now), and “It Starts” is a gorgeous torch song. However, it bears repeated plays quite happily, with excellent production, catchy riffs and hummable tunes. If possible, get the special double edition, with a second disc of acoustic versions of some of the tracks; stripped down, many of them work even better. It’s also a good idea to have a look at her video diary at http://www.nerinapallot.com/ , which has some terrific alternative versions of the album’s new songs.
Live, she’s charming, of course, with a nice line in self-deprecation and personal revelation: she delights the audience when talking about her low boredom threshold, suddenly remembering her husband, who she married within weeks of their first date. “He doesn’t need to worry,” she says, with a mixture of wistfulness and lust. She also freely admits to “cutting down on the sauce”, recounting her first King Tut’s gig when, plastered on a half bottle of Scotch, she wondered for a second if that was what it felt like to be John Martyn.
It’s a great wee show. The audience demographic – everything from adolescent girls to hairy blokes even older than me – speaks of a wide appeal to real fans. Pallot’s voice is sweet, sure, but it has real virtuosity, particularly in the upper registers, and is so far removed from the likes of the paper thin Mockney warblings of Lily Allen. She’s also a fine musician, especially on keyboards: she’s more than up to the barnstorming, piano-driven Elton John medley with which she finishes the main set (inspired, she claims, by her failure to perpetuate the rumour that she is the secret love child of Elton and Kiki Dee through her Wikipedia page). There are a couple of dips – “Everybody’s Going to War” could perhaps do with the oomph another guitar would give it – but all in all, everyone has a fantastic time. In the encore, she finishes with “Sophia”, which has become a bit of an anthem for her fans, with all the positive and negative implications that has: if it wasn’t for the smoking ban, you just know every cigarette lighter in the place would be waved unironically at the stage. But the reception it receives is tumultuous, indicating a real affection for Pallot, who responds by bursting into tears.
A lovely girl, and a class act.
This has been a bit of a bumper year for science fiction movies, with the noisy nonsense of the Terminator reboot and a whole new Federation timeline for the Star Trek franchise to exploit. My own favourite was the much more downbeat “Moon”. Now, out together, are two other pretty good offerings in the genre.
“District 9” has been lauded for its dirty realism, and it certainly does that. While most science fiction concentrates on the developed world and the shiny futures of the Western privileged (“AI”, “I, Robot”, “Minority Report”), little attention is paid to what might be going on in the rest of the world. Africa, you know, will be just as impoverished, exploited, violent and starving, no matter how far in the future you care to look, and it will therefore be just as unworthy a subject of Hollywood blockbusters as it is now. “District 9” pays Africa the respect it deserves by redressing that balance. And yes, the townships, the shacks, the black marketeering, the grind for survival will all still be there – only now, a race of earth-marooned aliens will share that misery.
The film’s knowing nods and ironic touches are great (wonderfully, the racist epithet “fucking prawns” is delivered in the thickest of Boer accents by the terrific lead, Shalto Copley, as the venal Wikus). As social commentary, it’s spot on. However, the film’s weaknesses lie in its use of sci fi conventions, such as the ridiculous and lazy cliché that an “infection” can change one species into another, making the race-swop satire a bit clunky; or that an hysterical amateur can walk out of a high-tech fortress and then walk back in again with a big alien gun. However, the necessary suspension of disbelief is a small price to pay for a film that’s well worth the entrance fee.
“Surrogates” has one big thing in it’s favour, and it’s getting bigger round the middle every year: Bruce Willis. I’ve always found him watchable and often mesmerising (Walter Hill’s “Last Man Standing” is a particular favourite, and he steals the show for me in “Pulp Fiction”), and underneath the supremely dependable action-hero pyrotechnics, he is capable of delivering real moral engagement, from weariness to ambiguity to outrage. You may debate whether or not he’s a great actor, but there’s no denying he’s a very great movie star.
Unfortunately, “Surrogates” creaks under a plethora of been-there-got-the-t-shirts. Cop with a dead son and a fractured marriage? “Minority Report”. Too-perfect, spiritually empty simulacra? “Stepford Wives”. Iconoclastic robotocists redefining the relationships between humans and machines ? “I, Robot” – hell, it’s even the same scientist, James Cromwell. Or “AI”. Or “Westworld”. Or…
Bolted on to that is a classic cop-confronts-corruption storyline, but once more the clichés scream from the rooftops. The good cop gets suspended because good cops ALWAYS get suspended. The plucky partner pays the ultimate price. The boss is a piece of work.
So the problems with the movie lie in the lack of imagination in the narrative, and as a result, the film is less successful for me than “District 9”. And of course, it falls into the trap mentioned above by assuming the whole world is just like the swanky US 0f A: we are told in the prologue that surrogate technology becomes affordable and 98% of the world’s population plugs in. Somehow, I don’t see your average Ethiopian being able to afford a six foot plastic doll to walk the ten miles for a jug of water from the nearest well.
What is more successful is the portrayal of a society apparently fearful of danger but in fact more afraid of growing old and ugly. Willis’ surrogate, blond mop-topped and wrinkle free, looks creepily ridiculous, while the gobsmackingly beautiful Rosamund Pike and Radha Mitchell lose a hell of a lot of that beauty when airbrushed to perfection. Pike, especially, works well: the heartbreak of her loss is all the more effective when expressed by gorgeous, perfectly bland eyes and expressionless lips.
I’ve never really got Antony and the Johnsons. Hegarty has, to be sure, a rare and beautiful voice, but all that emoting all over the place just leaves me kinda cold; I once tried to count the number of times the word “cry” and variations thereof are used on his latest album, “The Crying Light”, and had to give up. Added to that is the whiff of elitism, of avant garde exclusivity, that permeates some of his work and that of his acolytes, such as the seriously deranged but oddly compelling Coco Rosie, that doesn’t sit easily with a blue-collar-bred West of Scotland boy like me. I expect him to be Anthony, and to front The Johnstones.
One time Johnson Joan Wasser, though, I do get. What appeals to me most is her pop sensibility, heard clearly in the perfect riffs of the sublime “Christobel” – a song that makes your nuts want to dance if ever there was one and if you happen to have them – and “I Defy”, in which she duets with Hegarty. Neither of these songs from her first album, “Real Life”, appear tonight, nor does “Start of My Heart“, doing the rounds on YouTube with it’s gorgeous Sinead O’Connor-like video; but just to establish her pop princess credentials, second up in the set is a cover of Britney Spears’ “Overprotected”, and the opportunities to dance come thick and fast thereafter.
Then there’s that voice. It’s a magnificent and rich instrument of real soul and fuck knows how many octaves. Given full reign in “Fire” or “Save Me”, it’s nakedly sexual, while growling and wailing through Iggy Pop’s “Baby” reveals its malicious possibilities. But it’s probably at its most arresting when it’s used sparingly and with precision: “The Human Condition” and, especially, “Flash” are so restrained and perfect any extraneous noise might shatter them. She is capable of immense delicacy.
She lets nothing stand in the way of the music, either. Just her, Timo Ellis and an hissy 4-track cassette machine that refuses to sanitise the experience (she describes its sound “Like skin” to a delighted audience). This is down and dirty stuff. And all the better for it.
There are a couple of misses amongst the hits, and glitches with the technology that stilt the early numbers. However, as the boorish Oran Mor staff try to rush her off stage and clear the hall for the no doubt equally boorish nightclub to take her place, Wasser finishes with an experience much like being hit in a nice way with a baseball bat. She was Jeff Buckley’s girlfriend at the time of his death in 1997 and joining Antony and the Johnsons in 1999, she says, saved her life. I wouldn’t dare to presume that that backstory informs her performance of “Keeper of the Flame”, but something very, very poignant is going on. Accompanied by her guitar and a stunning baritone ukulele solo by Ellis, it is the most unutterably beautiful vocal performance I have ever heard by anyone, anywhere, anytime. That good.