Monthly Archives: December 2011

Why do we still laugh or cry when we know the ending?

It may be that one of the hallmarks of a great work of art (or at least literature/theatre/music) is its ability to constantly move, surprise and entertain us even when, after our first experience, we know exactly what will happen and how it will end?

I thought of this today after having seen a tremendous performance of La Traviata at Covent Garden this weekend.As ever, grown men – including this one –  cried! Yet having either read the programme and/or seen it before, we all knew Violetta would die and that on the way to her death she (or rather Verdi) would move us, tug every one of our heartstrings and make us want to believe that her final reconciliation with Alfredo would give her the strength to carry on.

So it is with Woodward and Bernstein in All the Presidents Men- a film that most of us will watch armed the ‘facts’ of the history and know that Tricky Dickie gets his just deserts.And we all know by now that Cary Grant  will see off Martin Landau on the face of Mount Rushmore   and get to travel in the sleeping car with Eva Marie Saint in North by North West, but still we experience the tension of that moment.

And as tis the season of goodwill, what of Scrooge? Only a very young child can possibly be ignorant of the fact of his repentance and the redemption that Dickens grants him.Yet with what is essentially the major truth of the story known to all, the drama retains its ability to grip us and somehow make us believe the outcome is in doubt.Similarly with Pip and the true identity of Magwitch in Great Expectations.

And of course Shakespeare loses little of his power through the universal use of  ‘spoilers’ in any review of a new production of one of his plays!

What is it that the artists is able to do and what is it that we collude in that allows us this ‘groundhog day’ like approach to the emotions that lie at the heart of our major works of art?

It has to be said that we know it to be a skill since there are notable instances of this effect not being made to work.  Returning to opera, I am less moved say by La Boheme because the plight of Mimi looks to be too predictable  and never in sufficient doubt   to move the listener after the first performance.In films, the otherwise enjoyable Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid of Redford and Newman never has the impact of its first viewing because the shock of the ending can never be forgotten or replayed. By way of contrast, many of us watch The Great Escape again and again when we know there there will be no ‘great’ escape! In literature,I personally have found it hard to read the works of Hardy more than once because the fate of the central character is usually sealed with such finality after having been foretold with such dramatic power.Yet books I have read often – the Great Gatsby, the key works of Greene for example – are no less final in their judgement.

The quality of the performance, the music or the writing clearly makes a difference, but are there any essential ground rules?

In the end, it may come down to our own relationship to the theme, our experience of the music or writing, yet I tend to think that there is more involved.

I’ll give it some thought as I watch Singing in the Rain for the umpteenth time , listen as I do every year to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, play Born to Run and Hejira once again and pick up a well thumbed and much loved novel to read!

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By the time I get to Phoenix

Galveston, Alberquerque, Amarillo……. the sublime Wichita Lineman

What is it with place names in American music?

This is a question that has been exercising my mind for a long time. Whatever music you like, it cannot be denied that place performs a function in American music that is not replicated on these shores:.

We could visit five places in New England and take in the  Appalachian Spring

Meet  in  St Louis or dance the Harlem shuffle

And there are entire songs that revolve around place and street names – from  the appalling ‘What did Delaware?’  , to New York New York, Manhattan( arguably the greatest of all place name dropping songs) , Chicago, Route 66…..

Songs that let us know of exotic never to be visited places like Tacoma, Winnemucca, Lake Charles, Mendocino

And did you ever go to San Francisco ? Or back to Massachusetts? Crossed the Wainsborough County line on the way to Darlington County?.

Been frozen out on 10th avenue or danced on 42nd street?

There have been songs that are simply tributes to whole states: California girls, sweet home Alabama, that’s the way the girls are from Texas, oh Atlanta, carry me Ohio, Michigan, Colorado.

I could go on and on …Ill leave you to guess the songs. Feel free to suggest more but believe me – the list is very very long!

I’ve thought long and hard about our paltry contribution to this phenomenon. Too often trite, with misplaced humour – think of Winchester Cathedral or Billericay Dickie.

Sure we’ve had the Streets of London, left old Durham Town and caught the ferry cross the Mersey. Squeeze took us Up the Junction and we heard tell of the Hersham boys (with their rolled up corduroys!).

The evergreen and dependable Richard Thompson has made an effort to ground his songs in place – think of the Cooksfeery Queen, the free and fey heroine of the sublime Beeswing picking fruit in Kent or living on the Gower and that unforgettable Lightening Black Vincent 1952 taking Box Hill in its stride!

Manchester bands Doves have given us the M62 and Shadows of Salford, while Villiers Terrace was immortalised by Echo and the Bunnymen.

There is of course a distinct English/British folk and pastoralist tradition that has its root in places and villages, but so often the places depicted do not in themselves add colour or suggest a mood to the listener in the way of the American tradition. Rather the place simply acts as a label.

Of course I don’t want to over egg the pudding .There have been some real gems such as Waterloo sunset, Penny Lane and Guns of Brixton where the character of the place evoked by the song is central to its theme. And of course the heartfelt poetry of Housman set to music by Butterworth and Vaughan Williams, but it could be argued that’s cheating as the lyrics come from a literary and not a musical tradition.

I don’t want to suggest we Brits are not aware of place. But feel I am on strong ground in proposing that for our American cousins it’s a whole different ball game!

Why should this be the case?

Is it maybe because the States is such a vast continent compared to this little island of the North West coast of Europe and this allows the distinctiveness of each place to stand for something? Does place do for American music what class or accent does for ours?

I have no firm conclusions to offer just yet.

But one day I am going to compile a definitive list of all the places name checked  in American music and wager that  I can find a song for every state and major city and a fair few towns along the way. And that’s before I get to streets and avenues. Just going back over the Springsteen and Dylan catalogue will take some time!

Then I’m going to cross the pond, rent a Winnebago (or maybe a Cadillac) and visit some of them. If can persuade my old friend Richard (a great photographer and a music aficionado) to come with me even better. And I’ll get to the bottom of this phenomenon. And while we’re waking up to a Chelsea morning, catching the A train to Coney and eating Baloney,  or figuring out what they do on State Street that they don’t do on Broadway, we’ll also think about why Hull, Birmingham, Bristol and Leeds don’t have a firm place in the language of song in England.

By the way, if there are any publishers out there that maybe want to advance me a few bucks to get the project underway (we can leave the TV rights to later), do give drop me a line!.

Lets move to…Bedford Falls

This piece appeared in the RSA online journal December 5th 2011  http://comment.rsablogs.org.uk/2011/12/05/lets-move-tobedford-falls/

 

As he anticipates the traditional seasonal rerun of Frank Capra’s classic, “It’s A Wonderful Life”, Michael Reardon FRSA wonders whether the story of George Bailey can inspire a model of ethical banking for our troubled times

One of the things I look forward to most at this time of the year is the opportunity to get reacquainted with the folks of Bedford Falls. George Baily and his brother Frank, old man Potter and the not so heavenly angel Clarence.

Perhaps Jimmy Stewart’s finest moment aside from “Harvey”, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, was not a hit when it was originally realized; post-war audiences preferred grittier fare. It has since become a fixture in the Christmas TV schedules. An indication of how deeply buried it is on the public psyche, was the fact that the ground-breaking early ‘90s series ‘Thirtysomething’ was made by the Bedford Falls production company and each episode played out with the last few bars of the song ‘Buffalo Girls’; a motif that runs through the film.

It has traditionally been thought of as a movie that shows the contribution that each of us has to make in our lifetime. Its life affirming character derives from the fact that the angel Clarence shows our hero, George Bailey, when he is at his lowest ebb, just how much poorer the lives of his family and neighbours would have been if he had not been lived. This bleaker, parallel life that George is shown is most poignantly summed up by the death of his brother Frank in an accident because George is not there to save him.

But there is another theme running through the film that provides something of a parable for these difficult times. Because in the end, George Baily represents the triumph of ‘good capitalism’ over the ‘predatory’ capitalism of old man Potter.

Bailey Savings and Loan – which of course does exactly what it says on the tin and no more – is being forced into bankruptcy by the asset striping, land grabbing exploits of the unscrupulous Potter who espouses the philosophy of the rampant free market at its most unattractive. He actively seeks to destroy the somewhat hokey small town capitalism represented by Bailey. Its unquestioned commitment to the town of Bedford Falls, old fashioned working practices and ‘squeezed middle’ customers that aren’t going to suddenly transform the bank into a global player.

And Potter almost succeeds. There is a disastrous run on the bank as Bailey’s customers are tempted to take their money elsewhere. George sees no future for himself or the bank. And his despair takes him to that encounter with Clarence on the bridge in the midst of a ferocious snowstorm.

But in the end George wins out. His customers recognise that his loyalty to them and their families and the community of Bedford Falls means more than the ‘get rich quick at any cost’ philosophy of Potter. In the most memorable closing scenes they flock back to the bank with their deposits, Frank returns the decorated war hero, the Christmas tree bell tinkles and we know that Clarence has his wings.

So here’s my proposition to Nick Clegg. If you want your party to become more like Oxfam, I suggest you initiate the ‘George Bailey’ awards for responsible business. Think of it as Fairtrade for Britain. Customers would then know which companies were prepared to subscribe to the ethical behaviour that we want and need if we are to move beyond the exhausted neo-liberal economics of the past. Make it easier for us to know who is prepared to work in and for the community, forsaking the Potter-like fast buck for a strong, long-term stake in the life of the nation.

Banks would need to work hard for recognition. The criteria would have to include employment practices, trading policies, sustainable sourcing, transparency with regard to pay and rewards and the ratio of pay between top and bottom. They might be extended to consider lending policies to small firms and start-ups, especially local businesses. Meeting these criteria might even mean firms turning down opportunities to maximise the profits that could be made from less ethical behaviour.

For customers – you and me – there is a challenge. Quite simply we have to behave like the residents of Bedford Falls who put their faith and therefore their money in Baily Savings and Loan. We have to actively seek out and support the businesses that receive the award .If necessary, and where we can, we will have to pay the price for keeping them in business. They may be online, they may be foreign owned or they may be a small start up. But if we give them our hard earned cash, rather than the get rich quick old man Potters of this world, then we will in a small way begin to use our spending power to take back control of the way in which our society goes about its business.

Unlike George Bailey, we live in the real world. Whatever our beliefs, we know that Clarence is not coming down to save us. But many of us stand poised on that bridge wondering what lies ahead for our troubled world, blinded as we are by the economic blizzard that surrounds us. Fairtrade has shown what can be at an international level. So who wants to join me in designing the George Bailey award? Working title of course!