Monday, 23 May 2011

Adventures in insurance: the Lloyd’s Year, 1990-1991. Part one (of five): the nice bit.

I promised in my last posting that I’d refrain from quoting my Diary and were you to see me right now you’ll notice, on my left, the wretched article open on page one again. I hold true to my word. It’s just there to jog my memory, and illuminate the twelve months, from summer 1990 to summer 1991, that proved to comprise one of the darkest times of my life. Before you get too intrigued, let me say up front that no one dies. I promise you darkness and I’m going to give you a teenager who hates his job. Bear with me and I’ll try not to make reading this too much of a swizz.

I had only just scraped into Sixth Form: with only three GCSE grades of C or above, I was not ostensibly qualified to continue my studies. At this point, my memory fails me entirely. How had I managed to stay on? I’d love someone to explain that one. I had pledged to take a fourth GCSE — in Art — concurrently with my chosen A Levels, in a condensed one-year course. I suspect that gave me some leverage, but when I consider that I was taking the A Level in Art itself at the same time, someone must have made a leap of faith on my account. I really am fuzzy on this most crucial of details: my life would have turned out very differently — and I’ll wager much less fun — had I been turfed out of school at 16. As it was, I remained in the familiar, protective bosom of Secondary Education for another two years. I also took English and Economics — the latter one chosen because it required no previous qualification to take. All-in-all some Machiavellian manoeuvering had taken place to secure me and I really don’t know who to thank for it. Certainly not me.

I spent the two years of Sixth Form drinking coffee and illicit nips of red wine, making smartarse quips during Economics classes until kicked out and always — always — listening to Steve Hillage, Syd Barrett, Genesis, The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and Jethro Tull. Heady, pungent stuff for a teenager! I owned a chunky, white plastic knock-off Walkman with a mains lead, which I used to draw off the school’s electricity supply with an indignant lack of shame. My wonderful friends at the time had commandeered the Head of Music’s office — he was a laid-back, progressive sort of gent to condone this sort of genial malarkey — and we made this our base of operations. Great days. I’ll tell you all about it some other time.

Anyway, the unfortunate result of all this rousing carousing was that I left school without a single decent qualification to my name. I failed all my A Levels. It was almost immediately apparent that I find myself a job.

I was 18 years old in the summer of 1990. I eventually went to University in 1992, but I can assure you with considerable understatement that I held no such ambition a mere two years earlier. My diary entries on the matter of A Level exams reveal an odd blend of cocksure fatalism. I messed it up, just as I knew I would, but who cares? sums up the sentiment of most entries and evidently I had decided the way forward was to jump onto the money-go-round as soon as possible. At this point, usefully enough, the Diary provides what I presume is a faithful list of all the jobs to which I applied over the summer. Reading it back, I find the successive details of failed interviews, rejection letters — and particularly my reactions to the companies that never even replied (“Bastards!” for the most part) — oddly comforting. At least I showed some motivation, even if the jobs applied for were a desperately dull, ordinary and unambitious bunch: sales clerk for a plumbing business (£6-7k a year), numerous banks, insurance brokers, clerical work, a TV hire company…and so on. Within all this tiresome necessity, there was also the small matter of seeing David Bowie live at Milton Keynes bowl on the 5th August, the setlist of which was outlined precisely in the Diary thanks to some fervent scribbling down of each number during the show. How delightfully anal. Clearly I had no idea how to enjoy a gig even then! I’ll say no more on Bowie for now, except that he was brilliant that day.

The other live rock’n’roll event of summer 1990 was my band Grimwade’s Syndrome performing live for the first and last time to an audience of three and possibly a cat. Full details can be found here.

I really can’t imagine wanting the kind of work that I sought, much less how I’d get on in any of them. In this respect, I’ve changed considerably, maintaining a healthy suspicion of avarice for many years now. Oh, the stupidity of cupidity. But I can appreciate that the theory is sound: if you want honest money, in abundance, and badly enough, then all you do is get a job in a bank, insurance or suchlike, keep your head down, work hard, spot opportunities and I believe you’ll ascend the ladder in regular, inevitable order. It’s a long game, for certain, but with the right eye for Pension Plans, TESSAs, ISAs and all the other things that people discussed endlessly in the early Nineties, you’ll soon be sunning yourself once a year in a hot place and deciding another hot place to retire to in your late Fifties. Easy. Now, making it interesting — that’s the part I find hard.

On August 9th 1990, my father decided I’d been too much of a fixture sloping and moping around the house, looking for locally-based jobs and experiencing only the localised pain of rejection. It was time to wheel on the big guns, and make big noise messing with the big boys in the Big Smoke. It doesn’t get much, er, larger, than it does there. So, for one day only, my father pulled out of retirement, pulled on his work suit and had me accompany him on the train up to the Square Mile, the business heart of the City of London. Now this was a world apart from anything I had experienced. Sure, I had been to Lloyd’s of London, where Daddy worked, once or twice as a child but I’d never really perceived how it was my father’s day-to-day reality  away from home. This was proper Grown-Ups’ Territory, comprising of boisterous, bibulous, middle-aged men, heartily slapping each other’s backs in well-kept antique suits smoked with tobacco and marinaded in Scotch whisky, Guinness, or both. I watched with fascination and admiration as my Dad shed years before me and became distinctly rumbustious, gregarious — one of the lads. These were men who really did converse in companionable “ARRRRRGH!!!”s after two pints. The experience of hanging about with these guys was a little overwhelming, akin to visiting Father Christmas in his Grotto as a child: he’s the greatest bloke you want to meet, the leader of the gang — and yet once you’re there, you find all you want to do is cry. At home, Daddy was quietly stern, never happier than watching television or eating a ham and mustard sandwich. Here in EC1, he had fashioned a way to make his work fun and agreeable, and had fallen in with a merry bunch of drinking cronies along the way. No wonder he used to spend as many extra hours there as he did. Only now, approaching 40 myself, do I totally, finally, get it.

High hopes and great expectations were placed upon my young shoulders, regarding insurance. My eldest brother had done very well for himself by following the old footsteps and my father himself was discussed by his friends and colleagues with hushed, reverent tones — a legend in the world of underwriting in the City, particularly in the Fifties and Sixties, so I was told. I sometimes wonder how well-off he would have become had he been a single man. As it was, he put me and six other children through school and beyond and we hadn’t, as the expression goes, wanted for anything. Everywhere my father took me that day in London I met gents who regarded me with what I can only describe as avuncular awe; I was pure, promising potential. I was a scion of raw underwiting talent. I was the Anakin Skywalker of Insurance.

I am pleased to say that I walked away that day having secured a job. Lest a charge of nepotism be levelled, and forgivably so, may I add that it was not directly on account of any of my father’s friends, or the old man himself. No, as I walked down Lloyd’s Avenue off Fenchurch Street, in search of an address given to me by one of my brother’s associates, I stumbled on an agency as I checked off the names on the doors of each impressively appointed building: Insurance Personnel Selection (IPS). I’d become familiar with job agencies in Sidcup and Bromley, with their little white cards in the windows promising the aforementioned sales clerk vacancies for small-time local businesses. Surely an outfit like this one, I reasoned, in the heart of a major capital’s financial sector, would come up with some seriously lucrative goods. So I ascended the steps and enquired at the upstairs reception. I was seen straight away, put on the books for any potential insurance work — and then, best of all asked: would I like to work right here in the meantime? £125 a week, plus I’d get first refusal on any job vacancies the agency would find that suited me. That’ll do very nicely, thank you.

It mattered not to me that I worked one day to pay the taxman, only taking home £100 per week — this was still serious cash to me. I can’t pretend it was loads of money in those days — it was entirely typical of a first-time employee’s wages in London, but it was enough for me to pay my mum some living expenses and still have enough to go out of a weekend. I hadn’t started my parallel career as a serial drinker quite yet, nor a girlfriend to lavish my attention upon, so I had little to spend it all on except CDs. My music collection expanded virally from this point on. It’s worth mentioning some of the treasures I acquired in the space of a few weeks around this time:

Revolver — The Beatles
Abbey Road — The Beatles
Quark, Strangeness And Charm — Hawkwind
Minstrel In The Gallery — Jethro Tull
The Best Of The Doors
Two by David Bowie: The Man Who Sold The World and The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
Framed — The Sensational Alex Harvey Band
Led Zeppelin’s fourth album 
Two from Syd Barrett: The Madcap Laughs and Barrett
Piper At The Gates Of Dawn — Syd's Pink Floyd

Brilliant purchases, every one.

I loved working at IPS. I sat on the end of a long table and did all the usual office junior tasks: filing applications and cuttings from various City free magazines that mentioned my company in them, photocopying, occasional tea making — but the best part was the extensive amount of foot courier work. If the numerous bundles of correspondence on my desk came within the boundaries of the Square Mile, it was obviously cheaper, more expedient and reliable to have someone deliver it by hand instead of by post. Consequently, I got to know the rats’ maze of streets and snickleways that crosshatch the EC area extremely well. I prided myself on being able to plan the most efficient route simply by looking at the postcodes and my colleagues would be pleased and impressed by the speed at which I returned. The soles of my feet became entirely blistered, but I daresay I’ve never been healthier in over 20 years of full-time employment. Just being in the City was exciting. I was offered several interviews that took me to all sorts of super-executive places and the rejections were tempered by knowing my IPS colleagues would find me another vacancy. Even nipping out at lunchtime to buy a sarny from one of the many delis starting to spring up in the area felt like you were happening and dynamic. One time I saw a chap ride a Penny Farthing down Fenchurch Street in full business suit, cool as a pinstripe cucumber. I never tired of giving directions to tourists and I loved varying my walk to and from the office just to venture down an ancient alleyway I had newly spotted.

My colleagues in the office seemed impossibly self-possessed, classy and glamorous to me. I can name them all with pride — and hope that in the unlikely event that they’re reading this they take no offence if I do. I remember being shocked that my colleague Paul, sitting to my left with his braces, blue shirts, Yuppie gelled-hair and smooth features was old and unlikely enough to have attended an X-Ray Spex concert in the late Seventies. There was Hugh, in his fifties at a guess, and the poshest man I had met up till then, with a calm, patient, effortless manner and resonant voice that hinted at some military background. Buffy, sat further down on my left, the most elegant woman I had ever seen — such a kindly manner and so far out of my league; quite rightly too. The two Eds, one dry and cynical, the other puppyish and nervily sweet. Nicola, head-girlish and gently mocking of masculine Friday night frailty. Andrew, uproariously funny, a quality drinker and a brilliant foil for his deskmate, the tall, bullish figure to my immediate right: Antony, exacting, often grumpy but always onside, reasonable and indulgent of my eccentricities. I’m not sure if they all got on with each other, but they certainly all got on with me. Well, thank you, every one. What a thoroughly big-hearted, witty and lively bunch you were to make an 18-year old squit feel so welcome in his first ever full-time job. I never felt like a junior in my entire time there. I’ve rarely had cause to enjoy work elsewhere quite as much as I did for the few weeks I spent at IPS. It remains in many respects one of the best jobs I have had and I salute them. Just typing this twenty-one years hence has warmed me with the memory.

On my last day there, only five weeks later in mid-September and days shy of my 19th birthday, I was given a leaving card signed by everyone. Nicola told me that office juniors normally never got cards on leaving, given their turnover. I had made an impression. My new job was in a Lloyd’s Brokerage near London Bridge. It was, my IPS colleagues assured me, a brilliant first step in a promising career. I was about to enter the world of insurance. All I had to do was keep my head down, work at it and I’d advance up the ladder to hard-earned wealth and the firmly forged respect of my new colleagues.

Naturally, this plan went awry within two days. That’s a whole other story.


Currently listening to:
pH7 (Peter Hammill, 1979)
A Black Box (Peter Hammill, 1980)
Untitled album by me, reviewing my recent recordings, to post online. (Paul Murphy & The Bishops, 2011 and counting)

Currently watching:
Ever Decreasing Circles (BBC 1984-1989) 

Monday, 16 May 2011

An unfavourable blognosis: keeping a diary.

Again, too much booze. I’ve spent far too many evenings out in a fierce round of intense socialising and carousing, with little respite. Please believe me when I say I’m not trying to show off here. Oh, all right, maybe just a little, but as always with these things there’s a price to pay and this week’s blog entry had your humble scribe spending the early hours of Saturday morning in a fragile state of cumulative hangover. I find this sensation much like I find the word ‘hangover’ itself — the more I concentrate on it, the less it seems to make sense. A weird word, is ‘hangover.’ ‘Hungover’ also doesn’t work for me, but making it into two words doesn’t read right to me either. Hang over. Nah. Hangoverish. Hangoverian. Hangoverness. Hang on, that one’s even worse — my eye is drawn to the word ‘governess’ not-so-hidden within for some reason. I am hanging over. Overhanging? Dammit, I’m hungover. Still doesn’t look right tho’. Never mind — I’m losing you, I can sense it. Let’s press on. Oh, and apologies for use of the phrase ‘your humble scribe’ earlier. Dreadful. Won’t happen again.

When I was at college I made friends with a chap called Ben. He was a tall, dark, good-looking and quietly well-spoken chap with brooding, saturnine features and an old-fashioned haircut. He had aspirations to write poetry and novels. He was sensitive and mannered. Oh, the chicks dug him and no mistake. It was a measure of his amiability that your short, chubby, hirsute correspondent here got on with this sallow Adonis as well as we did. I was a good listener in those days and I believe I was some assistance to him on a number of occasions where objective advice was needed on matters I imagine are of supreme irrelevance now — such were the concerns of students in their early twenties. That said, I never got to really know him that well and like so many fast friendships at University, we drifted apart. He was a thoroughly decent bloke and wherever you are, dear boy, I wish you all the best.

That said, though, his writing was bloody atrocious. Absolutely diabolical. I believe he felt a genuine, sincere desire to follow in some angsty, tortured tradition of Byronic proportions and heaven knows he was certainly a thoughtful and intense kind of guy. Unfortunately his work was — and I must stress I mean this in the nicest possible way — the soppiest crap I had read up to that moment by someone I knew personally in my short life, and may still hold some kind of record if ever I were to devise a precise system of measurement that quantifies supreme wankiness in prose. When a page of fervent scribbling opens with —

“Trembling, I write.”

— you know you’re in for a rarefied, unintended comic treat in the coming minutes. I remember essaying wan words of vague encouragement while experiencing an inner discomfiture reminiscent of how one feels when accepting rubbish Christmas presents off well-meaning, but unimaginative relatives. Not to mention damning with faint praise, as the saying goes.

I’m being more than a little mean, I know, and naturally you may level accusations of jealousy. Furthermore, you my want me to turn my critical eye and gob in on myself, justify my own poncily prolix paragraphic peregrinations. Precisely. Well, don’t worry, I’ve been building up to this moment — and here it comes. I had the bittersweet joy a few days ago while tidying up around my flat of coming hangdog face to dog-eared face with my Diary — and I’m going to share a little of it with you right now.

But first, a drink.

Still here? Thank you. OK, I started the first — one can hardly call it — ‘volume’ of my Diary in 1990 when I was eighteen. A word or two on the physical artefact before I get to the good stuff. Kenneth Williams, as is now well known, kept his legendary diary largely in A4-sized hardback journals, filling no more than the space allocated for each day’s entry with customary pith and waspish insight, all filed year-on-year in serried order. Sounds like the way it should be done to me. Oh dear: mine was, in every conceivable way, nothing like this in the slightest. What we have here is 50-odd pages of an A5 blank jotter with the hard cover removed and the remains bound together with Sellotape. The cover is thickened with additional tape and beneath its now dry, curling, golden-brown patina can be read the following information, listed self-importantly, in my spidery scrawl: my full name, a cartoon caricature of how I looked at the time, commencement date, birth date, precise age (18 years, 262 days), address and phone number — and then most bizarrely, my National Insurance number and an entry field, as it’d be called now, for my blood group — although I have left it blank. I remain ignorant to this day on this medical detail. But it begs the question: whom did I expect to read this, exactly? Or did I think these were the kind of stats people filled out in proper diaries? I confess I have no idea.

So, to inside: just under two years’ worth of post-adolescent piffle covered in 50 pages, scratched out with scant regard for basic journalistic practices such as keeping the lines horizontal. Maddeningly, I fail to use the same pen on each page, sometimes even changing ink in the same day’s entry if a codicil has been added. I’m sure you’ll agree that having a specific pen for the task would surely be the first order of the day were I to keep a diary now. Additionally, almost every entry is divided from the next by a hastily scribbled, diminishing curlicue, no doubt cribbed from observing the kind of flourishes Elizabeth I used on legal documents. Right. It fails to have the same sense of gravitas, event and effect when it’s drafted in a dishearteningly inconsistent series of inks and pens from one entry to the next, including, often — hilariously — felt tip. Oh, this is a classy, elegant tome, no doubts there.

Let’s get straight in. Nurse — the scalpel, please:

12th June 1990

Let me tell you about this book. It used to belong to X (name withheld) but I wash my hands of him. He is lazy, timewasting, tergiversatory, rude and common. Y (name withheld) & I ripped this book, which was his GCSE Art Diary, apart and Y gave me the blank pages. I have decided to follow June’s example & write a Diary. At the time I write this I write for myself, although as you can see I’m not being too introverted & personal. This is because I feel that in the future, maybe some 20 years time, I will let someone else read this. Until then it is PRIVATE! However, no code words, no obscurities, only a modicum of in-jokes — my awful handwriting is my only cypher! Also to preserve any racyness [sic] my life may or may not have [sic], I will only write that which is interesting or important.

Today I handed in my Art ‘A’-level paper. My artistic career is over.

11.50pm. Not quite over. Mother tells me she has news about another Art College specialising in something new — I’m not too pleased. I’m sure they’re going to piss me about again — telling me things I already know & other things I don’t need to know. It also buggers up my plans somewhat — if I can’t get into Art College I will work in a bank! Yes it is social suicide, but I have no morality that way. Career-wise, I’m purely motivated by money — in an inversely proportional effort required/salary ratio.

I know I won’t get in — I know what they’ll say. It’ll only put my future money-acquiring plans back by “X”-months. What a waste of time! Still, I’ll try it. I too may be a tergiversator, but at least I’m not a wanker.

Instant, unintended chuckles, I think you’ll agree. A big, fat dash of Olympian snobbery — some things never change. Good use of ‘tergiversatory,’ young man. Such refreshingly venal cynicism from one so young and otherwise uncorrupted too. Can’t imagine why this chap didn’t have a girlfriend.

So — what can we salvage from this moody, contradictory, insufferably arrogant and unpleasantly precocious boy? Very little, I fear, on the strength of one entry and as diaristic gambits go, it’s frankly despicable. However, I will admit that I experienced secondary reactions as I read it all back — sadness, upset, regret…the red-raw stuff of nostalgia. So much thwarted ambition, recrimination and far too many terse lines outlining romantic disappointment across these pages. It’s not all bad, though: despite my hideous teenage personality, and an endless string of failed interviews and A Levels, life does occasionally come across as a giddy social whirl — as it really should be for any 18/19-year-old, lurching from one party to another, along with rather sweet and civilised nights out with ex-school colleagues. In personal defence, there are frequent flashes of optimism, immense enthusiasm, unsinkable self-belief and an enviable ability to shrug away adversity with an insouciance I simply don’t recognise in myself 21 years later. In some ways, though, they’re the parts that make it all the sadder.

Why did I stop, you may ask? I stated why in my final entry, written a month after my 21st birthday:

28th October 1992 — 4.16pm

I have decided to end this Diary here. Murph, you know exactly what’s gone on in the meantime. If you wish it to be read, as I think you did, finish it off as memoirs — it’s kinder in the long run. Cheers.

One thing that had a positively seismic effect on my life only days before this final entry was the start of the relationship with my first girlfriend. Well, thank God for that. It was time to stop writing about life and start living it, without placing the whole in inverted commas, as it were. Besides, I realised that I was failing to keep the damn thing in a way with which I felt proud to be associated. Mindful of this, I made a slightly more successful attempt as a diarist in 1997, keeping a faithful memoir for about three years — and in proper A5, hardback, Red & Black editions to boot. In the interim I had finally read not only Kenneth Williams’ amazingly, deliciously acerbic diary, but also Joe Orton’s detailed and shockingly candid one. Suitably inspired, I resolved to write ‘proper’ entries; ones with greater awareness of prose style, some forethought, discipline and plotting, rendering them readable and forward-looking. The results are considerably better balanced and engaging — as indeed I hoped I was — and therefore a sympathetic read, but as they hail from more recent times, featuring many people I still know, and render my life then with frank, often illicit, almost pornographic detail, I shall spare the collective blushes and ire. Such a tease.

So, here we are, just over 20 years hence and it’s in my gift to ‘publish’ my diary, as I promised myself. I never conceived any kind of online format, despite being an avid fan of Douglas Adams and his ‘sub-ethanet’ even back then. How things change. How easy it is to make one’s thoughts public. Well, let me allay your fears instantly and promise you that I will not be posting up any substantial excerpts from my diary in future for the plain reason, painfully self-evident now, that it’s simply awful.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans, as John Lennon beautifully put it. I don’t believe he ever kept a diary. There may be a moral in there.


Currently listening to:
The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other (Van der Graaf Generator, 1970)
Still Life (Van der Graaf Generator, 1975)
Wingful Of Eyes: A Retrospective — ’75-’78 (Gong, a Virgin compilation, 1986)

Currently reading:
A Rural Affair (Catherine Alliott, 2011) Really — chick lit. I’m reading it for a book review. I’m still venal, so it seems.

Currently watching:
Cleopatra (Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1963) The sets, the set pieces and Elizabeth Taylor — all stunningly well built.
The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001) Films I’d sooner see over reading the novel: Exhibit A.

Monday, 9 May 2011

The Man Who Fell To Earth: Performance (slight return), Rip Torn’s winkle.

You may recall my blog entry on Performance detailing my trip with my excellent friend JCC to see it as part of a Nicolas Roeg retrospective at the BFI in London. JCC had also very kindly secured me a ticket to see The Man Who Fell To Earth, so I found myself going to the BFI twice in three days. Last month found me going there still again, for the fourth time over a six-week period, to a screening of Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, this time in the splendid company of Mrs M and my friends M and Cat. Considering I dislike cinema-going, never going to a multiplex more than twice a year, and was a complete BFI virgin before I went to see La Vallée in mid-February, I’m positively rocking out here.

My problem with the average cinemaplex, you ask? Well, I’m glad you asked me that question. I hate the modern ‘movie villages’ with their tasteless popcorn, overpriced hotdogs, supersize tubs of Pepsi Max that might be disgusting if it wasn’t quite so watered down and the annoying, undisciplined people who insist on buying the aforementioned products as if they might starve over the next two hours. Mine is not a phobia, simply an extreme, snobbish distaste. A friend recently reported a rat sighting in her local — and literal — fleapit. Yes, in 2011. Still, don't mind me. You may have read about my affable, selective misanthropy in an earlier blog posting.

I am pleased to report that the BFI does not present too many of these problems. It isn’t a dog ‘n’ popcorn kind of venue, with only civilised sit-down eateries on site, for a start. The majority of people who go there are either members of the BFI itself or are going to see a specific film that they have made a careful, forethought appointment to view, more-or-less ensuring that you will find yourself in an auditorium full of people — whisper it quietly — who have come to sit in silence and watch the film. Best of all, you can bring your drink in with you, so you don’t feel compelled to neck it in the bar beforehand and find yourself ducking out midway through the flick to visit the restroom. Since the only beverages to be bought are the measures from the BFI bar, you will not be laden down with a waxed paper tub of slurried-ice gank the size of your head that you’ll never finish — and the chances of anyone getting seriously plastered on whatever remaining booze they bring in with them is unlikely. Nor is food allowed inside, obviating the spillage of crumbs, popcorn, rats, hotdog sauces and paper packaging waste as to be found at any multiplex theatre. Damn right, too. Seriously, you aren’t going to expire without these tasteless provisions. Show some self-control.

Now, I do recall distinctly that I’d report back about The Man Who Fell To Earth and I am not about to lie to my blog-reading faithful. At least not so you can tell. Like Performance though, I shan’t go into too much detail: unlike Performance, it was a film already known to me, and — spoiler alert! — not the most exciting of movies at that, so the thrill of reporting my findings on The Man Who Fell To Earth is minimal and I cannot find the will to discuss it for any great length. My apologies. How’s that for honesty?

And so on to our main feature. Many of the tricks Nicolas Roeg employed in Performance make a (slight) return in The Man Who Fell To Earth — and seeing the former only 48 hours earlier made setting the one against the other an easy association. The latter film suffers by direct comparison for certain. Starting with the widest of generalities, what we have here are a pair of Roeg movies with a central selling point: a performance by a major rock star not widely associated with the acting profession at that time. Roeg would continue this trend with 1981’s Bad Timing, starring Art Garfunkel, by the way. Add seasoning — in every sense of the word — with a decent, experienced actor in a role of equal screentime: Performance has James Fox, The Man Who Fell To Earth has Rip Torn. Throw in some shady background players of variable acting ability, portraying gangsters (Performance) or lawyers (The Man Who Fell To Earth) and some rather flimsily essayed female sex interest figures and there you have it: one film that’s, er, still not as good as the other. One of the main problems is pacing — it doesn’t half go on so. The other problem is that the script doesn’t convince and there’s a palpable sense that the actors know this. So a certain lack of commitment to the story is in evidence, which does the film and its stars few favours, with everyone showing a slight touch of wood — to say nothing of Rip Torn’s flaccid penis.

Moving swiftly on, moving schwiftly on, my love for David Bowie’s music is considerable and far-reaching. Let’s just say that he was the first musician whose oeuvre I actively got into, rather than having a mere, passive liking for the odd single or album. Considering this was in the mid-Eighties, when his credibility was treading water in the creative doldrums (forgive me), it’s a testimony to the man that his reputation divided opinion quite forcefully among my fellow 14-year-old schoolchums: he was ‘weird’, possibly a ‘queer’ and best of all, ‘not as weird as he used to be’ — and that’s just from the ones who quite liked him. Fourteen-year-old boys: my mate Sid called that time at school ‘the Heavy Metal Gay Years’, neatly summing up the preoccupations, expectations and fears of a generation. I would so very much like to skew this article into a passionate appraisal of Bowie, his musical career and my affection for the man himself, but that, like so many other things, is a blog entry all its own for another time. I do know how to dangle ‘em before your eyes, though, eh?

In any case, the major sales point of The Man Who Fell To Earth is David Bowie in the titular part of Thomas Jerome Newton — the first lead role in a cinematic career that has always been entertaining, if not for all the right reasons. Newton has crash-landed on Earth from a distant planet where water has become scarce and his family are dying. Through flashbacks we see Newton in true, bald, hairless, lizard-eyed guise, desperately trekking with his nuclear family across deserted wastelands. Once on Earth, and suitably disguised as a human — at least as well as the David Bowie of 1975 could muster — he makes enormous sums of money, through mostly unseen deals, by trading his advanced technological know-how to large businesses. Newton hopes to amass a large enough fortune to finance the repair of his craft, effect a journey home with some of the Earth water his people covet and maybe broker a trading opportunity between the two species.

Bowie has said on several occasions that he barely recalls any of the filming: it’s well documented that he was enduring some paranoid and psychotic episodes due mostly to the vast amounts of cocaine he was on at the time. For a start, he was living in Los Angeles; hardly a spot conducive to cleanliness and sobriety for any young, famous and celebrated chap in the music industry in the mid-Seventies. Alan Yentob’s 1975 Bowie profile, Cracked Actor, documents this period with more detail than Bowie may possibly (want to) recall, but still only scratches the surface of what was going through Bromley Dave’s mind then. I suspect that Bowie’s memory regarding his LA period is neither narcotically suppressed nor press-dodging disingenuousness, but a genuine desire to forget a grim period in his life. By all other accounts, eldritch tales abound of spirits seen in the swimming pool, excrement stored up in containers as part of Magickal rituals safeguarding against demonic possession, scary monsters half-glimpsed in photographs and the all-too-real super creeps — the hangers-on and dealers that inevitably comprise any fragile rock star’s entourage. Add in a suspected heart attack (which later formed the basis of Bowie’s 1977 song ‘Blackout’), Bowie’s inability to provide a coherent soundtrack for The Man Who Fell To Earth (he was found slumped across the studio mixing desk, randomly flicking faders at one point) and the disintegration of his marriage — and the California sunshine never seemed so dark.

Earl Slick, playing guitar on StationToStation, the album Bowie was working on concurrently, remarked, “It occurred to me that I was working with someone, who under any other circumstances, should be under lock and key.” It’s a testimony to Bowie’s songwriting genius, which was paradoxically at its height, that the resulting album is truly magnificent.

Anyway, back to his part as Newton. Bowie, always possessing something of the ‘alien who walks among us’ vibe in his persona as a rule, does well here, being nervy and naturalistic — if that can be said for a portrayal of an extraterrestrial — and trades wisely on his physical characteristics: his spare, lean frame topped off by a double shock of ginger hair and luminescent skin, his softly spoken voice and a curious, childlike, vulnerable air. There’s no question that he’s the reason to watch the film. In this respect, The Man Who Fell To Earth differs from Performance, which holds your attention more than capably long before Jagger sways delicately into frame.

Rip Torn would of course go on to greater prominence working with other aliens as the gruffly avuncular Z in the Men In Black films — and as his rambunctiously boozy behaviour offscreen in recent years has testified, it’s not a million miles away from ‘the method’. Here in 1976 he brings an already weary, disillusioned worldview to the part of Dr Nathan Bryce, college lecturer turned cynical employee who tires of bedding one lissom graduate after another and finds himself employed by Newton to help make his space vehicle viable again. Torn has a good way with a hang-dog manner and the occasional flash of sardonic humour. Sample line: “for a whole year I concentrated equally on two things: fucking and World Enterprises. It was neck and neck.” Sadly, I don’t think old Rip maintains the momentum of his early scenes and the character becomes directionless and unconvincing after a while. I’ll concede in Torn’s defence, as I said earlier, that much of this is down to the script and decelerating pace of the later scenes in the film, and this torpidity affects everyone sooner or later. Poor Rip.

Newton finds even small amounts of alcohol dangerously intoxicating and fittingly, drinks water constantly. He’s also not a brave traveller, whom we learn has a terrible time in vehicles that move too quickly. While on a visit to a hotel, Newton has an ‘episode’ in a fast-moving elevator and has to be carried from it, semi-conscious, by Mary-Lou — a chambermaid played by Candy Clark. After settling him in a room, and clearly finding him fascinating, Mary-Lou begins to visit this edgy, angular stranger over several days and a relationship — of sorts — ensues.

Candy Clark showed previous promising form as a teen in George Lucas’s American Graffiti, and indeed auditioned later for the part of Princess Leia in Star Wars. Clark plays Mary-Lou as a feckless country hayseed, almost instantly out of her depth with her otherworldly, would-be beau and desperate to be liked by him. Skinny, awkward, but a little toothy-cute in a chambermaid outfit, her earliest scenes with Bowie are possibly her most outstanding, attentive and sweet, as she tentatively questions him and tremulously requests, first-date-style, if she can come and see him another time. Later, her reaction on first seeing Newton sans human disguise is, shall-we-say, one of the better and more authentic responses to this phenomenon seen in modern movies: she pees herself. Unfortunately, Clark, like Rip Torn, also feels the drag of the later scenes, especially when Mary-Lou is seen as a middle-aged woman, and her character loses drive, ultimately possessing neither the sass nor the smarts that would make her truly likeable or sympathetic. Bowie recalled that Clark’s voice had a quality that could strip wallpaper. Given that he’s been quoted having virtually no recall of making the film at all, it’s remarkable he remembers this — slightly unfair — detail. Poor Candy.

As a child, I first saw the film when shown on BBC2 as part of a sci-fi/monster movie season. When set against the likes of King Kong, The Creature From The Black Lagoon and so on, The Man Who Fell To Earth is a markedly different, grittier, unglamorous proposition. It’s certainly not a kid’s film anyway, containing plenty of gratuitous nudity and rather inconsequential, unappealing, sex scenes, which at least gave the film some credibility and cachet among me and my schoolchums at a time when any exposed nipple on TV was worth discussing. I also wonder if Roeg enjoyed the truckload of Beefeater Gin that I’m guessing he received in payment for all the visible placement of this product in several places throughout the film. While containing some incoherent imagery, The Man Who Fell To Earth also has its fair share of striking, expertly surreal, visual moments. The scene where the pocket-sized Candy Clark manhandles Bowie’s inert frame and carries him, step by dragging step, down the hotel corridor while blood flows freely from his nose, is disturbing in itself, but resonates doubly so with anyone knowing Bowie’s propensity for ODing at the time. One of the few moments of bleak humour comes when a pair of bodybuilding characters are killed and while one is seen to be thrown from the heights of a skyscraper, the death of the other is only implied by the marvellously incongruous sight of his barbells drifting serenely through the sky. The scenes set on Newton’s home planet are mostly well-realised, inasmuch as they convey the desolation and the need for water. Bowie and his alien family actors are resplendent in lizard-pupil lenses and still-suits conveying liquid visibly through clear plastic tubes, in a similar fashion to Frank Herbert’s Dune. Their gait and bearing is intriguingly affected and stylised, anticipating the kind of moves Anthony Daniels would use successfully to animate C-3PO in Star Wars a year later. Only an alien land transport — a flimsy, hair-covered monorail car — fails to convince, eliciting an audible snigger from the BFI audience as it trundled forlornly off screen, somewhat derailing the moment as it went.

Fans of Bowie’s albums StationToStation (1976) and Low (1977) will no doubt spot the moments in the film that were adapted and used as the covers for those records: Newton entering the interior of his spacecraft with Dr Bryce in tow graced the former album and the famous ‘Low profile’ shot of Bowie comes from a scene later in the film where Newton, in hoodie, gazes forever across a lake from the seclusion of his Japanese-style hut. There is something deliciously vivid and strange about seeing an iconic image, so long held in single frame on a million record sleeves, shifting inexorably into and then out of position as a moving picture. Bowie evidently liked the way Roeg made him look and the fact that most Bowie publicity and merchandise used stills from The Man Who Fell To Earth extensively for the next two years or so says a lot for the overall visual style of the film, as sure here as it was in Performance.

At the climax of the film — and I assure you, this is no spoiler either — Newton hangs his head towards camera, the brim of his hat eclipsing his features. The credits roll over this woebegone image, pose held with no freeze frame, for over a minute. The wind bothers some plants behind. A table cloth is in danger of blowing away. Louis Armstrong plays lugubriously. It’s a suitably rueful, downbeat ending. Poor Newton. In light of how Bowie failed to deliver music for the film, it’s also a rather sad image to accompany the credits for Stomu Yamashta, John Phillips and many, many others who do comprise the soundtrack, but not David. Poor David.

I don’t urge you to go and see The Man Who Fell To Earth, but if you’ve read this far, you were probably already interested enough. I’m not in any great hurry to see it again, but it was good to see it on the big screen at any rate. Thank goodness Carrie Fisher won the part in Star Wars, though.


Currently listening to:
The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage (Peter Hammill, 1974)
Present (Van der Graaf Generator, 2005)
Trisector (Van der Graaf Generator, 2007)
A Grounding In Numbers (Van der Graaf Generator, 2011)

Currently reading:
Nothing this week.

Currently watching:
Doctor Who: Terror Of The Autons (BBC, 1971)
Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) Mindless fun with Bruce Willis.
Die Hard II: Die Harder (Renny Harlin, 1990) More mindless fun with Bruce Willis. Only not as good.
Die Hard With A Vengeance (John McTiernan, 1995) Yet more mindless fun with Bruce Willis. Better than the previous one.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The perils of deadly boredom

Let me start this week by stating that, yes, I know my blog entries are getting longer. I set out on this blogging enterprise with a resolution to write several hundred words every week or so and in very short order I have exceeded my requirements — and I daresay, yours too — with logorrheic gusto. I’m working on this, I promise. I fully intend to keep things lean and mean from now on. At least it keeps me off the streets.

We’ve all been to the odd party in our lifetime where we don’t know enough people to get comfortable and groovy. Picture the scene: the bright and beautiful mill this way and sashay that, engaged in almost certainly the funniest and most vital, sparkling banter you’ve ever had the misfortune to be excluded from. There’s the predicament: you know almost no-one there. Let’s say your host, who sent you the invitation, is busy circulating and cannot make introductions right now. There is only a finite amount of free booze you can consume alone before you will get noticeably disgraceful — like last time, if you remember. Now, I’ve not read Dale Carnegie’s famous self-help book, How To Win Friends And Influence People — no, please, really, I haven’t; I’m better acquainted with Terrorvision’s album of the same name, frankly — but I’m willing to bet the following is one of the tricks featured in it.

First you target the likeliest-looking trio of witty and glamorous people, hoping to square the circle. They are, naturally, locked in discourse that you suspect to be wondrously frothy and fun, or gripping and gravid. Probably both, looking at ‘em. Perfect. There must be a way of inveigling oneself into this conversational enclave. OK, get yourself a drink from the chap holding the tray of bubbles and let’s get in there. You stand to one side of the group, not so close to violate personal space, but sufficient for your presence and intent to be perceived. You make brief eye contact with one of the gang. First blood! Oh my, she’s attractive. Next, you catch a drift of the conversation. The trick is to pick up on the  thread, make the first thing you say echo it and bingo! — you’re in. So, let’s zero in on what this statuesque redhead is saying to the others. One’s a middle-aged lady with an imperious air and her oppo’s an embarrassingly young balding guy with Heston Blumenthal specs who’s nodding intensely:

“… and of course, Harry’s not been the same since he had his colostomy…”

— “hm, hm, well this is it.”

A mobile trills. Heston’s taking the call. Ooh, he’s stepped aside. Providential! Now’s your chance. Sidle over and make your play:

“So, er, colostomies, eh, huh…?” you offer, affably, with raised eyebrows. The carmine vision looks you once over. It’s instantly clear it’s not working.

— “er, yeah, terrible…” she essays weakly and regards the other lady with a slight turn of the shoulder that is all it requires for you to develop a sudden urge to find any other part of the room to inhabit. So you go and you stand on your own, and you leave on your own and you go home and you cry and you want to die. One could write a song about it. That bloody Dale Carnegie must have been a right Billy-No-Mates.

Since you’re clearly a classy, attractive and discerning individual who’s brilliant and fascinating to know, you’re more likely to have been on the receiving end of someone’s ill-advised attempt to engage. We’ve all had arse-clenching encounters at bus stops with well-meaning but ultimately boring strangers. No, not like that! Here’s one of my favourite examples of a conversational gambit. It’s a tiny detail to have retained itself in my head all these years but there’s something about it I find especially awkward and delightful; I hope you do too.

Many years ago, I used to work in the London insurance market. Never again, I assure you. The ladies and gents in my first ever office were really friendly, sociable and as you may expect, a pretty hard-drinking bunch. As a newcomer to the profession, I hadn’t quite felt ready to join in with the almost-mandatory end-of-week piss-ups. I was a shockingly inadequate and highly inexperienced drinker in those days. Yep, that long ago. In my teens, as a matter of fact. One Monday, my colleague Andrew, gleefully discussing the events I’d missed out on from the previous Friday, told me about an embarrassing moment he endured with my supervisor. It’s highly unlikely that this chap will be reading this, and coupled with the many years passed in the interim, I can call him Ed with the confidence of knowing that that’s his real name. Ed was a pleasantly bland and nervy young man with a little bit of public school bearing. He was considered very boring to know in the office and people dreaded — albeit with no malice intended — getting stuck in a corner with him at any social gathering. Andrew recounted that Ed came over to him in the boozer and opened with the following line in a highly conspiratorial fashion:

“I succumbed last night.”

What a beautifully weighted statement, Andrew thought. That word succumbed is so emotive, so leading. Succumbed to what? Heroin? The will of Satan? The advances of ‘Big’ Sally from Accounts? Alas, nothing so exciting: Ed had had a cigarette after several days without. Crucially, he had never spoken of this with Andrew, so it was actually a precisely balanced tilt at opening discourse. Lacking this background detail, and drawn in by the supreme dangling carrot of succumbed, Andrew simply had to beg Ed the question of what on earth he was on about. Too late — conversation had been enjoined. It’s either genius or studiedly, crashingly dull. I’m gonna try it sometime.

At just over 1,000 words here, I will go right now. Besides, it’s a dangerous thing to discuss boredom, isn’t it? A person who laughs at their own jokes as they are telling them is in danger of derailing the gag by setting up a false expectation in the listener. In drama, an audience will cry for a character who stoically does not, out of sympathy. Worst of all, you can bore your readers if you write about tedium too often. It’s a good pose in the short term to be wracked with weltschmerz or enfeebled by ennui — and how the foreign words glorify it enormously and no mistake — but after a while, someone who goes on about finding everything boring must face the question: what have you got to offer instead?

Until next time!


Currently listening to:
H To He Who Am The Only One (Van der Graaf Generator, 1970)
Pawn Hearts (Van der Graaf Generator, 1971)
The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage (Peter Hammill, 1974)
World Record (Van der Graaf Generator, 1976)
The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome (Van der Graaf, 1977)

Currently reading:
Nothing this week.

Currently watching:
Jurassic Park (Stephen Spielberg, 1993)
Return Of The Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983)