Friday, December 30, 2011

A Book of Hedgerow Berries

A Book of Hedgerow Berries; Oxford University Press; 1949; Written by Dorothy A Ward; Illustrated by Marjorie Gillies

What a lovely book. There's something quite modest in the way it tells you it's a book, rather than just stating 'Hedgerow Berries'. I love the cover – the design for all the Chameleon Books, I guess (this is number 29). Its size and format are remarkably similar to Ladybird books. The illustrations, which look like watercolour, are excellent.*

The introduction states: 'Our English countryside has the reputation for being one of the most beautiful in the world, and one of its most distinctive features is the hedgerow'. This may well have been true in 1949 (just about), but post-war has seen the amount of hedgerows in England halve.

As the English Hedgerow Trust says: 'Hedgerows are a fundamental part of the heritage of the British countryside, defining the nature of the landscape and providing a major shelter and food source for a huge variety of mammals, birds and insects. Hedgerows are effectively a vibrant ecosystem, a huge nature reserve in our small and (over) intensively farmed country.'

* In fact, my only gripe about the book is, er, it wasn't given to me as a Christmas present, but to a close family member instead.

This is my last post of 2011. Have a Happy New Year and see y'll in 2012, a 2009 disaster movie directed by Roland Emmerich and the end of time according to the Maya calendar. Can't wait.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The seasons of life

The seasons are a well-known metaphor for the four stages of life: birth and childhood being spring, youth and young adulthood summer, autumn is middle age, and winter, old age and death. People seem to want to live in a perpetual spring, with, er, a perpetual spring in their step, youthful-looking hair and skin, good teeth and bones. How boring. Old friends not seen for years think it is the ultimate complement to say, 'You haven't changed a bit!' I, however, think it is the ultimate insult. Life is a journey. I like to see people aged and haggard, weathered and withered, not looking like a goddamn spring chicken all their lives. Grow up and old. Get on with it. I embrace autumn and winter. I've been content in the winter of my discontent for about twenty five years now.
FYI: This is post #500

Monday, December 19, 2011

Lookalikes #17: Timothy Spall and Nicholas Bro

British actor Timothy Spall and Danish actor Nicholas Bro, currently seen as Justice Minister Thomas Buch in the popular TV series The Killing.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Lookalikes #16: Officer Crabtree & Inspector Gustav

God moaning: Officer Crabtree (apparently based on Edward Heath!) from 'Allo 'Allo!, played by Arthur Bostrom, and Inspector Gustav, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, from Martin Scorsese's new 'family film', Hugo, a strong contender for worst film of the year.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Best and worst albums of the year 2011

PJ Harvey Let England Shake
tUnE-yArDs Whokill
Girls Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Paul Simon So Beautiful or So What
Kate Bush 50 Words for Snow
Ry Cooder Pull up Some Dust and Sit Down
Wild Beasts Smother
The Horrors Skying
Real Estate Days
Battles Gloss Drop
Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues
M83 Hurry up, we're Dreaming
St. Vincent Strange Mercy
Gil Scott Heron & Jamie XX We’re New Here
Half Man Half Biscuit 90 Bisodol (Crimond)
Josh T. Pearson Last Of The Country Gentlemen
Bon Iver Bon Iver
Atlas Sound Parallax
Onehtrix Point Never
Lou Reed and Metallica Lulu (If only for the opening lines, 'I would cut my legs and tits off / When I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski / In the dark of the moon'. I quite like the cover too.)


Throbbing Gristle 20 Jazz Funk Greats
A great, if misleading cover: there aren't 20 songs and they're not exactly jazz or funk or greats. The cover photo isn't the idyllic setting it seems either: it's the popular suicide location Beachy Head. Fine reissue with bonus CD of live tracks.

Serge Gainsbourg Historie de Melody Nelson
Worth the price of admission for the cover alone, but luckily this Deluxe Edition comes with the original album plus a CD of outtakes plus a DVD.

The Beach Boys The SMiLE Sessions
Worth the 43 year wait? Almost.

Can Tago Mago
Deluxe 40th anniversary reissue of the landmark Kraturock album with a second disc of live tracks, marred only by including the vastly inferior original British album cover (and, according to some Amazon reviewers, a poor quality live disc).

The Raincoats Odyshape
This one's been hard to get hold of for a while so good to have it back. Robert Wyatt guests.

Miles Davis Live in Europe 1967
Twenty years after his death, a new Miles Davis album still seems to get released on a monthly basis (not that I'm complaining). Now we have the Bootleg Series Volume 1, consisting of three CDs and a DVD, with the Miles Davis Quintet. Great stuff. Just two years later Miles would be producing a very different kind of music with a completely different band. Also worth a listen, Bitches Brew Live from 1969, came out this year too. (Neither are a reissue -- nor are the SMiLE Sessions technically -- but you know what I mean...)

Adele 21
James Blake James Blake
WU LYF Go Tell Fire to the Mountain
Jay-Z & Kanye West Watch the Throne
Radiohead The King of Limbs
Florence and the Machine Ceremonials
The Weeknd House of Balloons
Lady Gaga Born this Way
DJ Shadow The Less you Know, the Better
Drake Take Care

Previously on Barnflakes:
Top 30 albums of 2010

Friday, December 16, 2011

Books of the Year 2011

Following Art Garfunkel's (once again) lead of listing every book he's read, here's the books I've read this year, so not necessarily books released this year. In fact, I don't think any were released this year* (if you're looking for such a list, let me direct you to the Guardian).
The Innocence of Father Brown GK Chesterton
Dirty Havana Trilogy Pedro Juan Gutierrez
Just my Type Simon Garfield
The Mouse and his Child Russell Hoban**
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet David Mitchell
Life Keith Richards
Psychogeography Merlin Coverley
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson
Books vs Cigarettes George Orwell
Bound for Glory Woody Guthrie
Seasons of the Heart Alan Spence
But Beautiful Geoff Dyer
Bicycle Diaries David Byrne
The World's Wife Carol Ann Duffy
One Day David Nicholls
On Chesil Beach Ian McEwan
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams
The Rings of Saturn WG Sebald
Night Train Martin Amis
Rolling Thunder Logbook Sam Shepherd
Moonfleet J Meade Falkner
Rip it up and Start Again Simon Reynolds
Trouble with Lichen John Wyndham
24 Party People Tony Wilson
Catching the Big Fish David Lynch
Big Baby Charles Burns
Put the Book Back on the Shelf: A Belle & Sebastian Anthology Various
Complete Persepolis Marjane Satrapi
Perverted by Language Various
Black Hole Charles Burns
Four Tales James Hogg
Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk Through Portland, Oregon Chuck Palahniuk
A Time of Gifts Patrick Leigh Fermor
Collected Stories Tennessee Williams [currently reading]

Keen-eyed/well-read readers may spot a few graphic novels and books of poems, which may have taken just an hour or two to read. It's true. But this is more than balanced by The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and A Time of Gifts, both of which took me months to get through.

*Unless I'm allowed to include the recently published Saul Bass book which I'm slowly getting through. It's massive! And amazing.

**RIP Russell Hoban, who died a few days ago, aged 86. His Riddley Walker is one of the most amazing books ever written.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lookalikes #15: Azari & III and VU's Squeeze

Azari & III's fine self-titled album, released earlier this year, is a dance record with lashings of soul, electronica and house; and the Velvet Underground's last LP, Squeeze (1973), not really a VU record at all, seeing as Doug Yule was the only original member of the band playing on it. It's pretty bad but quite rare.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Space Invaders Crossword Puzzle #3

3. Rays of light (5)
7. Round and round (7)

1. To -- or not to -- (2)
2. Exist (2)
4. Part of circumference of circle (3)
5. Make believe (3)
6. Question (3)
8. Sun God (2)
9. Musical note (2)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Richard Branson in Vague

I don't throw bombs, I watch films
– Tom Vague

Sir Richard Branson on the cover of Vague No. 21 (1989) wearing a balaclava (is he a rapist or a robber? I guess the metaphor is the same either way). The cover was designed by Sex Pistols-designer and Branson-hater Jamie Reid, still an anarchist after all these years: as well as protesting against the Criminal Justice Bill and the Poll Tax, more recently he was seen at the St Paul's Occupy.

Though Vague magazine includes staples of 1970s DIY punk (or post punk) fanzines, by the 1980s it was a glossy-looking counter culture publication, and the first fanzine to be perfect bound. And it didn't just feature music, going off as it often did into other tangents, including cyber-punk, politics, situationism and psychogeography.

Its creator, Tom Vague, originally a Wiltshire man, (born in Mere, I think, and went to art college in Salisbury. Vague describing a 'punk rock scene' in Salisbury is quite hard to believe… though it was the 1970s), is nowadays a prominent chronicler of Notting Hill (though rich and dull now, it's worth remembering this was the scene of the race riots in 1958 and, up until the 1980s, had a significant alternative and counter culture scene) and has been writing for over thirty years, producing fanzines, pamphlets and CDs.

The inside front cover of the magazine reproduces a leaflet handed out in a new Virgin Megastore in Glasgow (remember this was 1989):

'Hi, mugs!
Put all your money in a pokey bag and give it to me at the NEW
Virgin Hip Super Market

Hello suckers! Us wonderful people at Virgin have arrived in Glasgow! We call ourselves Virgin because we like to attract customers that are young and gullible (if they had any fucking sense they'd rip us off!). Who was it sang 'Do you think it's funny, turning rebellion into money?' Funny? We're laughing all the way to the bank!! And don't forget our new Virgin credit scheme… Be hip and impress your friends in easy monthly repayments!! Bring your giros, small change, your granny's pension book… We'll take it all!! Bring your rebellion and we'll sell it back to you!! ... Must go now… the Russians have got some kind of rebellion in Poland, and they want me to come over and package it and make it harmless…
See ya
Richard Branson'

Vague magazine was usually for sale at Virgin Megastores, yet issue twenty one mysteriously went missing.

In more recent newsRichard Branson has bought Northern Rock for a bargain price, half, in fact, of what British taxpayers have paid out for the ailing bank since 2007. Richard Branson has announced he'll be opening a new luxury game reserve in Kenya. Richard Branson has invited Kate Winslett over for Christmas at his Necker Island, to thank her for saving his 90-year-old mother from a terrifying inferno when the guesthouse caught fire after lightning struck.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Alien Underwear

There are those who think this scene from Alien is the most erotic in cinema history. I'm not going to entirely disagree. I came across this film still from Alien, had a bizarre yet erotic dream involving Sigourney Weaver, then bought the 9-disc Alien Quadrilogy DVD box set the following day. Go figure.

Previously on Barnflakes:
I'm in Love

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Wiltshire loves and hates

Salisbury is sumptuous
And Devizes, divine
Bradford (on Avon), beautiful
Avebury is ace
Lacock, like a peacock
Shrewton, shrewd
Malmesbury has a malthouse
Pewsey is pleasant
Tisbury 'tis interesting
Mere, sincere
Alton Barnes, beguiling
And Honey Street, real sweet.

But Bishopstrow is boring
And Warminster worse
Trowbridge is terrible
Westbury, a curse
I hate Heytesbury
Stonehenge is stern
Codford is fishy
Chitterne: a shit urn
Chippenham's crap
Swindon, a slum
Marlborough, mundane
And Wilton... waning.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Space Invaders Crossword Puzzle #2

This one has a film-related theme (mostly). With thanks to Jude.

1. Old film classification: aged five and over (1)
2. Old film classification: over 18 (1)
5. Out of fashion (5)
9. Show (7)

3. Thank you (2)
4. You and me (2)
6. Slide over snow (3)
7. Thin film director (4)
8. Director of Anatomy of a murder (4)
10. Good movie (3)
11. Small part (3)

Friday, December 09, 2011

Ode to a night

The cheerless baron harks his way across the turmoil moors.
He says she is a witch but we don’t agree.
The bitter figure inherits his own will:
It records the lies he tells it.
The prayer about the angels is a sad indictment of the storm that forever bleeds.
They’re German; they say “bye guys” or is that her name, I don’t know.
Everything sits on the table or moves about.
Tomatoes in the bag, oil on the side.
It feels hard but where’s the (sharp) point?
The emptiness inside is also outside.
If that’s a sin then I don’t know what.
(He believes it was the leaves that made him sneeze).

– 1991

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Tagalog for Tea

When I came back to London from the Philippines, I got a job in the account’s department of an Estate Agent’s in Chelsea. Every morning at 9:30am the maid would come and serve us tea. Dressed in a traditional black and white maid’s uniform, she was a chirpy, chubby middle-aged Filipino woman who looked like she hated us all except once when I tried to thank her in Tagalog, then she burst out laughing and I went bright red. I think my accent was bad. You can tell a lot about people by how they take their tea. Workmen, labourers, plumbers, all manual workers, take two. Media people, contrary to popular belief, take none at all.
– 1999

Previously on Barnflakes:
Not for all the tea in China

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Space Invaders Crossword Puzzle #1

Have you been eating your Barnflakes every morning? Here's a Space Invaders crossword puzzle to test your knowledge of the past year's posts. Send your completed crosswords to me. First person with the correctly completed puzzle will win a copy of Pulp Poetry.

1. Fifteenth letter of the alphabet (1)
2. Letter which best expresses sleep (1)
5. The country Bobby Fischer died in (7)
8. The opposite of them (2)
9. Brimless hat worn by men in the near east (3)
10. The dark, inaccessible part of our personality (2)
12. Bruce, American singer (11)
14. Writer of beat novel On the Road (7)
15. Printer's measurement (2)
16. Egyptian spiritual self (2)

3. The Hammer couldn't be without it (2)
4. Indefinite article (2)
6. From the Danish, meaning 'play well' (4)
7. Effect which occurs in the respiration of barley (5)
8. A 2009 Disney/Pixar animated film (2)
11. Village in Mali (2)
12. Offensive, pejorative word for someone (3)
13. Meaning 'born as' (3)
14. Out for the count (2)

Please note: not all clues are referring to previous posts. Though some are. Also: not all intersecting words strictly make sense. Most do though.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Album cover: Tortoise's TNT

Yesterday's post, Robert Frank's French first edition of The Americans, reminded me of the cover for Tortoise's 1998 album, TNT. In a similar vein to Saul Steinberg's sketch, the cover of TNT is a doodle made by one of the band members on the cover of a blank CD-R. Genius. Good album too.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Book Cover: Robert Frank's Les Americains

Of all the different covers for Robert Frank's The Americans, this French first edition, published in 1958 when no American publisher would touch it with a barge pole, is by far my favourite. It's ironic or even perverse, perhaps, that a now-iconic book of photographs should have what looks like a sketch on graph paper for its front cover. But I love it. With the graph paper lines resembling a skyscraper and the people milling below like ants, it sums up the alienation which informs many of the photos within the book. The drawing was by cartoonist Saul Steinberg, most famous for his illustrations for the New Yorker magazine. Funnily enough, just a few years before, Henri Cartier-Bresson's almost-equally influential photobook, The Decisive Moment, was published in France as Images à la Sauvette (in 1952)… with a cover illustration by Henri Matisse.

As Martin Parr stresses in The Photobook: A History (Volume 1), the French edition of The Americans was a different book altogether to the American version produced in the States the following year. The French version was full of texts about America written by the likes of Steinbeck, Whitman, Miller, Faulkner and Simone de Beauvoir (making it almost look as if Frank's photos were simply illustrating the text) with a decidedly anti-American slant. The American version removed all the French text and put in Jack Kerouac's famous introduction. Nevertheless, Americans didn't get it, both the subject matter ('a degradation of a nation!') and technique ('meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness'). Since then its reputation has soared, with The Americans now considered a masterpiece, and the most influential photobook ever.

According to AbeBooks, the French first edition is the most collectible photography book of all time. I now own two different versions, unfortunately not the first edition, which would cost in excess of £2000.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Robert Frank's Ridiculous Ratios
Random Film Review: Cocksucker Blues

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Top 10 Travel Books

1. The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin
2. A Dragon Apparent by Norman Lewis
3. The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
4. The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron
5. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
6. A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
7. Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger
8. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
9. Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca
10. Among the Russians by Colin Thubron

Also recommended: Their Heads are Green and Their Hands are Blue (or anything, really) by Paul Bowles; Voices of Marrakesh by Elias Canetti; Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie; On the Road by Jack Kerouac; As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee; The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson; Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West; The Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald; Bitter Lemons of Cyprus by Lawrence Durrell; Venice by Jan Morris; An Area of Darkness by VS Naipaul; A Year in Marrakesh by Peter Mayne and Yoga for People who can't be Bothered to do it by Geoff Dyer.

Apologies: Bill Bryson fans. I'm not.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Top 5 Great Gay Travel Writers

Saturday, December 03, 2011


Extracts from another (see here and here) abandoned 'novel', circa. 1994.

re-frac-to-ry adj

1 : resisting control or authority
2 a : resistant to treatment or cure
b : unresponsive to stimulus
3 : difficult to fuse, corrode, or draw out

He told me he remembers swimming in a flooded gold mine in Borneo during World War II. It still sounds like the most exciting thing I've ever heard.

Empty, sordid discussions in template, tepid surroundings. Used crates of Coca-Cola litter the huge warehouse. Pigeon shit and pigeons. A lot of dark wetness. A purpose-burst water pipe. A couple of torches, a couple of people. No batteries. Disused but used. Manuscripts for post-modern poets. Statues with sliced-off faces (then painted over). Two hermits not kermits. Concise, compressed people. Unable, though, to perform the tasks society asks them to. So they occasionally play blackjack but both pretend every card is a blackjack and can get away with it, as it’s so dark. They lie, though two out of fifty-two cards will indeed be blackjacks. In these instances they are not lying. They lie about twos, aces and others and the probability of lies is less still. These games are pointless or seem pointless. Hey, they pass the time. What they look like no one knows (no one knows about them). Not because of the darkness but who cares at all? They’re kept sane and the same. They get hot then cold then hot then cold just like everybody else. No teeth, though, too much Coke. OTT. Over dose. And it rots the lining of your stomach. Coca-Cola. Oh dear. No Coke left either, though they wouldn’t know that.

These lads haven’t been inside all their lives, of course. No, they did it by choice. And even if they have got into a slight rut at the moment, they’re still happy, but a different, hopeless, depressing kind of happiness. Hey, for all we know they want to do fuck all just so their lives will go slower, seem longer. They don’t have much conception or use for time which is kinda man-made. Then again so are playing cards. Time passes nicely.

There’s a constant supply of poisoned water trickling out from the burst water pipe. A step up from Coca-Cola anyway. They mostly eat raw pigeons and pigeon shit. Rats with wings. The pigeons get in, and if they’re lucky, out, through a small black hole at the top of the building in one of the corners. Their wings echo in the silence. They kill them by throwing up empty cans of Coke. Torn open so as to be sharp and dangerous. Yes, it’s a fairly unhealthy way of life. They smoke cigarettes too. Well, they can’t light them cos they have no light so it can’t be too unhealthy. They’ve had the same pack of ten Marlboros for two years. There’s still ten there. The filters are a touch soggy now, that’s all.

I love therefore I hate... The dark rain caresses, almost masturbates, the almost mutilated (in mind already), (the) thin, long, dead male body in the road or is it more natural in the countryside?

The cold abstract beauty of Le Samourai: 'I like it when you come round because you need me.' It was on TV at the time. Ha. 'I’ve never worn a moustache.' Precise and cold. Clinical. It’s how life is at the moment.

"What do you think about, Costello?"
"I never think." (Le Samourai, Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 1967)

Before, years before, Max and Ralph go back to Ralph’s house, after some magic mushrooms. Things different, off license a space station, floor moving, teenage girls are aliens, can’t walk properly, laughing like a hyena. This is just after he’s recycled all his magazines and his past, a quite scary and good feeling, feeling freer, naked, after he’s talked to her for over an hour on the phone. Shit, he wishes he knew where he is what he wants what he wants to do, to say. After an embarrassing party full of horrible embarrassing Australians – Trish the Dish being the centre piece. Max feels awkward, doesn’t know what to do, for the first time in a long time. After this, they’re home. They go into the living room where Ralph’s dad, David, has a woman on him, laughing, her hair and face in his lap, she tosses her head back as they come in (she’s quite oldish, orange long straight hair, but could well be Judy Davis from Naked Lunch). David, sitting there, watching TV, cat beside him, cup of tea, relaxed, chatting to Ralph and Max as if there was not a woman perched on his lap. Then, when Max leaves, lots and lots of insects on the outside walls of the house (it’s an alleyway) – two narrow white tall walls now with lights, a little passageway leading to main street. Gets home and doesn’t know who he is. He’s an alien. He watches TV. Ha.

Top and bottom are different, yet the same. The same because they are so different to the mid, the norm, the middle which is where most of us are. So they’re both so far apart from this mid, so unimaginable that they’re both similar in that respect.

You get a telephone call from a girl you like and who likes you. You’re about to go for a bike ride with someone else, you say. (It’s raining and muddy). Can she come over afterwards, she asks. You tell her she can, you’d like to see her. You phone her when you get back. You’re tired, muddy, cold and your legs are killing you, having not cycled for months. You feel refreshed, though. You wake her up, she fell asleep reading Wuthering Heights. She says she’s tired, drowsy, and she does sound like it, she sounds like her mother or a witch. Different, anyway. She needs an hour or so to wake up, she tells you, then she’ll be at your house. An hour or so later she phones you again to say she’s sorry, she’s still feeling tired and drowsy and won’t be coming over. She asks you over, it’s not that far, a short bus ride, but you lie and say you feel the same way (tired). A little while later you both fall asleep. When you wake up you wonder about the point of anything.

On the way home: A couple looking dead blue sitting down together as one, part of the same thing in a car as part of the car (a blue 1970s SAAB V6), in fact, which is also blue in a ghostly way. They were in the blue darkness, lonely and dead. Then: clichéd newspapers blowing in the wind but so dangerously and sharply, wrappingly, kinda like doves or birds in shape somehow. The moth leaves in the black trees. The mad drunk kicking the phone-box that you’re in, scared and silent. Show someone you love them by setting them free / And Molly being nice to me.

Max said something about if you can see someone’s face in your mind then you don't need to see them again because your memory of them is complete, there’s no mystery, no point in seeing them again. If the memory of the face has faded, you need to see them again, there’s a desire to, because something of her is missing from your mind and for a reason.

Life, around this time:
Max: 'What do you expect out of life?'
Ralph: 'Something I'm not expecting.'
He needs to add some life to his spice.

She's reading a book in a library, just casually flicking through the pages. A man's heavy footsteps approach her. She whispers to him: 'Come outside, I'm going to kill myself'. She walks out of the library and into a lift. A man in the lift with her tries to pull down her trousers (she's wearing trousers). She whispers to him: 'Don't do that, I'm too vulnerable'. The man asks: 'Ground?' DING – DOORS OPEN. She runs out of the lift and into a landscape of whistling reeds and rustling leaves. She runs through the leaves and jumps into the bath, splashing around in it.

She stands just outside the house, in the rain. But she has a blue and white polka dot umbrella. Only her eyes are not in shadow. It’s like a film noir. The light in her eyes is from the open door of the house where the man stands. He’s standing on the step and is quite tall, so she looks up at him and asks if he’s sad. He says he’s not, not really, the same as usual. She leaves, looking sad but beautiful with her umbrella. Later, he goes out without an umbrella, hole in one shoe, half to find her, half to find the girl in the phone box. He finds neither, so goes home.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Who to blame

The way this world has panned out is only one possible outcome of billions. There are possibly parallel universes showing alternative versions of this earth. Sometimes I feel as if just one person has designed everything in this world (and his name's not God). Shops? Buildings? Cars? Roads? It often feels and looks so dull. I want to blame this one person, ask them what they were thinking. Why weren't we asked if we wanted things to turn out this way? Barbed wire, guns, estate agents, rat poison, uneven distribution of wealth, McDonald's, cigarettes, capitalism, reality TV. It all seems so unnecessary, so unfair.

But there's no one to blame. Councils, businesses, governments, no one wants to take responsibility. Apparently the onus is all on us, but we feel powerless, dishevelled, worn out. Maybe we're all to blame. Even the locker in my local swimming pool doesn't want to take responsibility for any loss or damages incurred. Everything is 'at your own risk'. Enter, swim, proceed, park at your own risk.

There was a Jorge Luis Borges character who wanted to create a world. So he made houses, provinces, rivers, valleys, tools, fish, lovers, then at the end of his life realises that this 'patient labyrinth is none other than his own portrait'. (For the life of me I can't find the original Borges' story; the above is a Jean Luc Godard quotation referring to the making of Pierrot Le Fou. Ah, to be a French intellectual, eh?)

Previously on Barnflakes:
Don't Blame us

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Patrick Leigh Fermor, well met by moonlight

Although I had an inkling that the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor had something to do with the film Ill Met by Moonlight, I wasn't sure what, exactly. I assumed he had written it*. So I was somewhat surprised to find on the opening credits (above), Dirk Bogarde actually playing him.

And although there are many films about writers (see my top ten), it's rare to find a film about a writer which has nothing to do with them being a writer. Ill Met by Moonlight is one such film, concerning as it does the audacious yet true plan by two English officers to kidnap a German commander in German-occupied Crete in 1944. The two officers were Major Patrick Leigh Fermor and Captain William Stanley Moss, who wrote about the event in his book Ill Met by Moonlight, published in 1950. Their mission – parachuting into Crete, kidnapping Heinrich Kreipe, Commander of the 22nd Air Landing Infantry Division, taking his car and driving him through 22 manned checkpoints, abandoning the car, being pursued on foot by German soldiers across countryside and mountains, and finally escaping via boat to Egypt – was, amazingly, a success.

The film, adapted from Moss's book, was one of the last films to be made by the director/producer team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Unfortunately it's a rather pedestrian affair, with lots of stiff upper lips, enlivened slightly by some sumptuous outdoor photography (actually of the Alps, not Crete) and rousing music. Powell and Pressburger's extraordinary series of films, including 49th Parallel, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I'm Going!, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman, all made between 1941-1951, would be in decline by the time of Ill Met by Moonlight, 1957. Just around the corner for Michael Powell was Peeping Tom (1960), the film which effectively sealed the end of his film career, certainly in the UK.

With the passing of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, DSO, OBE, in June this year, aged 96, gone is a certain type of English adventurer and gentleman, which stretches back to Lord Byron and includes travel writers such as Wilfred Thesiger and Robert Byron (amazingly, Byron was only ten years older than Fermor, yet seems to belong to another epoch. However, I didn't realise he died so young: he was only 35**). A BBC journalist famously described Leigh Fermor as a 'cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond*** and Graham Greene'.

Though Leigh Fermor's travelling started when he was eighteen, having decided to walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, he wouldn't write about these formative travel years until many years later. A Time of Gifts, first published in 1977, details the first leg of his walk across Europe in 1933, a fascinating time with the continent on the brink of changing forever.

Leigh Fermor's prose is remarkably descriptive and florid, his flights of imagination immense, his references – to architecture, languages, literature, art, customs, geography, culture, history – enlightening and often baffling. It's the sort of book that quotes Latin without any translation. A Time of Gifts is a 284 page book which took me months to finish. I struggled with every single sentence. But it was worth it (I think).

The book is praised by most but has its detractors. Leigh Fermor lost some of his diaries written at the time of the voyage, so critics have pointed out that his remembering the amount of detail in the book over forty years later is extremely improbable. Yet to take the book at face value is perhaps a mistake. As his Telegraph obituary mentions, the book is 'a brilliantly sustained evocation of youthful exhilaration and joy, and perhaps the nearest equivalent in English to Alain-Fournier's masterpiece of nostalgia, Le Grand Meaulnes.'

Leigh Fermor arrived in Istanbul in 1935, then travelled around Greece. He joined the army and fought in Crete and Greece. In Crete he lived for over two years disguised as a shepherd in the mountains, before planning the abduction of General Kreipe. He wrote his first travel book in 1950 and spent much of his life in Greece. He married but had no children.

*He did write one screenplay, based on a novel: The Roots of Heaven (1958), an adventure yarn directed by John Huston and starring Errol Flynn, Trevor Howard and Orson Welles.
**Travel writers seem to die very young… or very old. Bruce Chatwin, who had his ashes scattered near Leigh Fermor's home in Greece, died of AIDS aged 49; whereas Thesiger was 93, Eric Newby was 86 and Rebecca West, 90.
***Leigh Fermor was in fact a close friend of Ian Fleming.