Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll BBC 2 (watch on IPlayer)

sex and drugs and rock and roll.

Sex – yes, I’ve tried it, but the latest research finds our parents did it more and enjoyed it more. Don’t you find that hard to take? Drugs- not really. Rock & Roll – not my cup of tea.

I guess I’m not fitted for this biop of singer Ian Dury played by Andy Serkis. Well, let us pop to near the end. Mr Dury returned to talk to the other spazzies (his world and his word, not mine) in the institution he attended as a boy after contracting polio whilst swimming, he described himself more as an entertainer rather than a singer. Yeh, I’ll go with that. His songs were shite, but in the language of rhyming couplets, the kid was alright.

Serkis doesn’t try and mime Ian Dury he tries to possess him and he succeeds. He’s a loveable cunt, who likes -and you guessed it – sex and drugs and rock and roll, but not necessarily in that order. Time is mucked about, sliced and diced. In the opening scene he’s onstage with his younger self in one of those iron lungs, a boy with his head sticking out, not looking for pity, or love, just to be normal like everybody else. Then it cuts to Ian Dury’s front room. He sacks the drummer – Ian likes to play drums himself and nobody ever matches the standards he sets himself. Into this broth of noise and fury cuts Olivia Williams, who plays his wife. She’s just given birth to his son, popped him out like an overgrown melon and Mrs Dury hands the boy to Mr Dury. ‘Look what you’ve done now – you cunt’ is his response, holding the baby up like a weapon to the sacked drummer. Soon he’s cooing over the baby. Serkis treats life a hurdles he needs to jump over to grasp success. He’s more antagonistic than protagonist.

Ian charms Denisse Rouette (Naomie Harris) this way. They meet in a grotty bar. He’s all angles and chat, the lead singer of a band that could start a fight in an empty toilet and she’s young and very beautiful with an Afro hairstyle that could fill a room.

Ian leaves his wife and moves in with Denisse. They do the sex bit. The drugs bit and the rock and roll bit come later. Their fun is spoiled, temporarily, when Mrs Dury wife sends their son Baxter (Bill Milner) to live with Mr Dury. But the boy fits in by becoming a little Ian, a little arsehole. When I should have been concentrating on the music and the dramatic moves I couldn’t help thinking how much noise Ian Dury would have made in the block of flats they stayed in. If he’d have stayed anywhere near me I’d have wanted to toss him off the top floor.

The final act plays out Ian’s success. Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick and Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. Ian and the other Blockheads found it difficult to concentrate on music, which, as a neutral rock and roller, perhaps saved us from other such hits and a compilation album. Entertaining enough — if you like that kind of thing.


Marvellous BBC 2, 9pm.

Marvellous BBC 2, 9pm.


Marvellous really was marvellous. Writer Peter Bowker mines magic and Toby Jones performance playing Neil Baldwin was not outdone by the appearance of the real-life, but older, Neil Baldwin. If you’ve not seen it, give yourself a treat and watch – and listen.

There’s some natty hymns. Neil’s mum was a committed Christian. It gave her life meaning. Her son Neil took it a stage further. Ask and you’ll be given was a mantra he lived by. He wanted to be a clown and join the circus. So he did. He wanted to go to University. So he did. He wanted to meet Tony Benn and sit with the judges at the Oxford and Cambridge boat race. He wanted to start his own football team and play for the club he loved, Stoke City.  He did. He did. He did. One thing he didn’t believe in was getting down-hearted.

There’s a cameo from Lou Macari, meeting the actor that plays Lou Macari, the Stoke manager that took Neil on as Stoke City kit man. When Macari left Stoke (to manage Celtic) Neil gets to play in a testimonial match and scores a wonderful headed goal. ‘That’s how it happened?’ the actor who played Neil asks the -real- Neil and a ‘No’ is the answer.

‘I’m doing well am’t I?’ is the only time Neil wobbles, after his mum dies.  Neil isn’t doing well. His life has been ended. But he picks himself up again and again. With the help of Gary Lineker he starts a football team. Neil models himself on Cloughie, firm but fair. He’s the manager, but also the central midfielder. Any penalties, Neil takes them. Neil reminded me – reminds me – of Clarence from A Wonderful Life. Yes. a wonderful life

Derren Brown: Infamous. Channel 4.


Derren Brown burst onto the scene by shooting himself in the head. It’s difficult to top that, but if he told his audience (including me) that birds fly upside down at night, you would have to take him seriously enough to open the curtains and look outside. You wouldn’t see anything, because it was too dark. He would explain that what he was saying wasn’t true, tell you how he did it and then birds would fly upside down. Derren Brown is a god of entertainment.

He personalizes his message, that nothing is as it seems. At one point he segued from David Hume to psychic signals, to a sidebar, whilst the audience was waiting for the outcome of an extraordinary trick. He mimicked a Liverpudlian seer, in a Scouser accent, a bit of humour, but he let that drift. With the greatest economy he returned to that joke, that little aside and pulled like any great scriptwriter a knockout blow at the end of the show.

Derren Brown hypnotises his audience, literally last night he had them dropping off. He brought a young man onto the stage and, in a virtuoso display of showmanship, he had his mother sending him a psychic message – which Derren tells the audience he has no knowledge of and no way of knowing what it is. Yet, somehow, like Columbo wandering over and accidentally -on purpose- fingering  the murder culprit, with his ‘one more thing’ query, Derren gets it right. Derren always gets it right.

The denouement is a bit of an anticlimax. Derren reveals he was called ‘Dickbrain’ at school and a picture of a younger Dickbrain Derren is flashed up behind him for the audience to empathise with. He was called Dickbrain because he was a prodigy, able to remember, with the help of mnemonics a vast amount of information. He was also able to finish two Rubik’s Cubes behind his back. He shows his audience this by working out a random bus route and memorising not just the works of Shakespeare but the placement of every word and comma. An incredible feat, but with Derren the incredible is ordinary. We expect it. He knows that. So he has his little Columbo moment at the end and comes back to the audience with a suitable scripted bang!   If Derren started a religion I’d be a believer. Watch and believe.


You Can’t Take Away a Nation.

You can’t take away how we grow.

But that is how it seems.

What the fuck do you know?

Cameron, Clegg, Miliband, cui bono?

Bollinger babblers and Oxbridge dupes,

Business — mode with the usual crooks.

Plus is a minus of that we know.

Dreamers are not in demand.

What the fuck do you know?

Let our earth grow fallow.

St Andrews Cross in a shared land.

You can’t take away how we grow.

Governing goslings talk Jim Crow,

Liberty, social justice and inequality.

What the fuck do you know?

The devil of mocking laughter.

Mealy old age we watched it go.

You can’t take away how we grow.

What the fuck do you know?

Blogging 101: Dream Reader.

I was out cutting the grass last week. It was warm and I was wearing shorts. I didn’t notice there was a wasp on my leg, until it stung me. There was a wasps’ nest close-by under the stump of a tree. The wasp was just doing what wasps do, protecting its nest. I flicked it away and stood on it and said ‘tell your mates they’ll be gettin’ more of the same. Come ahead if you think you’re big enough’.

I shouldn’t have done that. We all know about the death of bees and how in China they need to coax small boys up trees to pollinate the fruit trees. But I don’t live in China. I live in Scotland and I was just doing what I do.

Blogging is what I do when I’ve got something to say and no one else to hear it. Writing is a circuit from Reader to Writer.The circuit is not complete until someone, somewhere, reads your work.

My ideal reader would be Jesus, because he wrote a good book, a bestseller and God knows I’m word blind and  he knows the kind of mistakes I’m going to run into before I make them.

Next to God I’d probably put Alice Munro. She’s a Canadian Confucius, a master of the epigram of making something short, but long and outside the boundary to time, but not Jim, as we know it. In other words I don’t know what I’m talking about. That often helps when writing, because writing is a conflation of doing and thinking, but only if you do it right with a bold wrongness.

I must admit that me and Alice go back a long way. She ‘favourited’ me once. I wasn’t really sure it was her. Nobel Prize winners and deities don’t usually tweet and I imagined some bot was used to to harvest all mentions of her and reward her followers with the gold stars we used to get at Primary school to show how special we were. I was delighted, of course. A Spanish-Canadian robotic Munro cleaning up the mess of my writing and putting the world to rights.

You don’t usually lay a trap for God, but science demands it and calls it the experimental condition. I baited a trap for Alice Munro, pollinated it and left it lying on Twitter. She ‘favourited’ it again. Alice Munro does exist.

Tomorrow I will not be the same person as today. I will be living in harmony with the birds and bees in an independent Scotland. You are welcome to visit.

Alice Munro (2006) Runaway.

I read the introduction by Jonathan Franzen. I can’t remember much of what he said. I’d guess that he talked about the way she makes a long story a short story. I’d guess that he talked about the way characters come to life on the page and just when you figure you’ve got a fix on them they do something that throws you, a poetic volte, and the story switches direction, goes on a different track that lets the reader see the characters—their motivations—more clearly. I’d guess you’d be asking why Alice Munro needs any introduction.

In the first story in the collection, ‘Runaway’, ‘Carla heard the car coming’. She lives in a caravan with Clark and the incessant rain is smothering them and their business of tending horses. Everything in their life is shit, including their relationship and Carla doesn’t know how to fix it. Clark thinks blackmailing the woman in the car, Mrs. Jamieson—Sylvia to her friends—would tide them over. But Sylvia has an eye for Carla and helps her run away. So far so soap-opera, but Carla on the bus leaving Clark is half-cocked, unsure. The denouement shows a breath-taking understanding of human nature and how we fence ourselves in.

The second story in the collection ‘Chance’ gives the reader time and place. ‘Halfway through June in 1965, the term at Torrance House is over. Juliet has not been offered a permanent job — the teacher she has replaced has recovered…’ Juliet teaches the Classics, dead languages, which is quirky and acceptable for a male teacher, but in Vancouver makes her decidedly odd. Juliet receives a letter from a man she met on a train. It’s addressed to ‘Juliet (teacher)’ the man doesn’t know her second name. Somehow it reaches her. On a whim she decides to visit him. There was something between them on that train journey, an incipient romance, and even though her potential paramour is married with a sick wife, Juliet is determines to go and see him in Horseshoe Bay.

‘Soon’ and ‘Silence’ has Juliet leaving Horseshoe Bay. Her husband has died and she is going to visit a friend – and then on to visit her daughter. Juliet’s Classic’s education has, in a curve ball, worked for her and got her a decent job as television interviewer on a local station. Her daughter is taking time out in that well-trodden path ‘to find herself’. Juliet looks forward to seeing her. They’ve always been so close. Here is where Munro stretches time, so by the end of ‘Silence’, Juliet is an old woman looking back on life and the choices she made and asking ‘what if?’

‘Passion’ is in some way my favourite. We are back on Horseshoe Bay territory. Grace is visiting the Traverses’ summer house among the ‘stupid lakes’. She had been engaged to one of the Traverses’ sons, but she wasn’t sure if she loved him. She wanted to be sure, but he seemed so right. Munro picks this love apart and weaves a different spell. Genius.


Daphne du Maurier (2005 [1951]) My Cousin Rachel.

Rebecca sits at number eight on fiction classics at Sainsbury books (The Great Gatsby in number one). My Cousin Rachel is a more mature work with echoes of Manderlay. Du Maurier loved her English home so much that even her two daughters took second place to the house and gardens. When du Maurier locked herself in her study to write – they no longer existed. It’s all here, the English upper class that run the world. Ambrose Ashley is a benevolent god and master. His tenants and servants love him and his nephew Philip, whom he treats as a son and heir, as a confirmed bachelor, is beguiled by him. Philip looks and behaves like Ambrose and wants to be like him – when he grows up.

The book begins—and ends—at Four Turnings, where ‘they used to hang men’ at the crossroads. Something is amiss in this English haven of common decency, misogyny and xenophobia.

‘I had no sense of foreboding, when we sat talking together that last evening, before Ambrose set out on his final journey’.

Ambrose does two things that surprise Philip. First he marries a contessa, a widow, in Florence. Then he dies. But before dying he sends for Philip, claiming, in a letter, he’s being poisoned. Philip arrives too late. Ambrose is already interred in a Protestant cemetery, far from home and the contessa, now Philip’s Cousin Rachel, has fled from Florence with no forwarding address. Philip, with Ambrose’s hat, all that is left of the man, swears revenge. He returns home to his inheritance.

Philip, however, is not yet 24, so the house, land, jewellery and family heirlooms, all that Ambrose owned is still, technically, overseen by Philip’s godfather, Nick Kendall.

When Cousin Rachel alights on an Englishman’s home two forces collide. Hate and Love. Nick Kendall counsels Philip on the eve of his twenty-fifth birthday when he no longer would have the power of veto: ‘There are some women, Philip, good women very possibly, who through no fault of their own impel disaster’.

Cousin Rachel, like Manderlay’s Mrs de Winters, courts disaster by being too perfect, but more than that, by being beautiful. Du Maurier’s villains float like butterflies with sympathy and tact disarming the protagonist with any sense that they can be dangerous. Cousin Rachel brings joy to Philip, by demanding nothing, asking for nothing, he gives her everything, but as Ambrose’s doppelganger the question remains, will Philip follow the path he took?

The arrival of the mysterious Rainaldi, with his hooded eyes, Rachel’s confidante—they converse in Italian, excluding others—whom Ambrose hated and Philip equally hates, is grit in the pearl of narrative.

Philip comes to know Cousin Rachel better than he should and in doing so he knows himself better. Classic.

Nina Stibbe (2014) Love, Nina Dispatches from Family Life.

The first letter dated September 1982 is addressed to Dear Vic (that’s Nina’s sister) and she gives her address as 53 Gloucester Crescent London NW1. If you’ve got an NW1 address the Mosaic algorithm which credit companies favour and sorts postcodes into easy to read bundles, which brackets what kind of person you are, by where you live, and determines how much credit you can be pushed, would use terms for NW1ers as Cultural Leaders (or Global Connectors). N1 postcode suggests affluence.

Nina is from the North. And, aged 20, she’s young. The Mosaic algorithm brackets such people as thickos who they can bung lots of credit cards which they’ll max out on (after all this was 1982). (Em 2014 and the Mosaic algorithm still seems to be doing it! Perhaps us up North are thickos.)

Nina asks in her first pen letter to her sister ‘PS Who’s George Melly? I’m in his room.’

‘Moving, In 1982-84,’ ‘Dear Vic, Being a nanny is great. Not a job really, just like living in someone else’s life. Today before breakfast Sam had to empty the dishwasher and Will had to feed the cat.’

Sam and Will are Mary Kay Wilmers’ sons. Mary Kay is deputy editor of London Review of Books and Gordon Bennett  she knows everybody. AB (Alan Bennett) lives across the road and is forever popping in. Once he came to investigate a possible burglar. There wasn’t one but I’m sure it’ll turn up in a scene somewhere. He also remarked dryly that one of his well known nob pals was shagging the cleaner and had crabs. Nina didn’t know what crabs where.

Nina seems likeable enough, but if there weren’t so many references to ‘cultural leaders’ it’s doubtful this book would have been published. Noseyness only goes so far, page 40, in fact. You might get further with this book.

Val McDermid (2014) Northanger Abbey.


Northanger Abbey isn’t so much a place as a time. In the introduction to Jane Austen’s (2000) Northanger Abbey the reader is informed it was written in 1897-8, but not in publication until 1803. So it’s a relatively old book, written in English, in a style of indirect free discourse (whatever that means) which Austen patented. It is also steeped in the sensibilities and, in particular, the Gothic literature of the time. The reader is addressed directly and enters into a conspiracy with the writer as she maps out, in a knowingly ironic tone, Catherine Morland’s episodic  journey into society; a journey from innocence to experience – or something like that.

Look at the opening of both books and guess the modern reading. ‘No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her to be born a heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition were all equally against her.’

‘It was a source of constant disappointment to Catherine Morland that her life did not resemble her books. Or rather, the books in which she found its likeness were so unexciting. Plenty of novels were set in small country villages and towns like the Dorset hamlet where she lived…Piddle Valley…Cat as she preferred to be known.’

Cat, in Jane Austen’s time, was of course, something you skinned or kicked on the way to the barn. Moore’s law has led to many innovations. I hope that one day we can sic one book, like fighting dogs, against the other and watch them battle it out. My money would be firmly on Jane Austen.

The plot demands that Cat is mistaken for sole heiress to Mr Allen’s fortune. Write what you know is a literary convention. The spa town of Bath were socialites gathered like pigeon shit around an open loft is updated to contemporary Edinburgh with its theatre and book festivals.  General Tilney when he finds this not to be the case flouts social convention and sends Catherine home -ALONE- from Northanger Abbey, unescorted by a gentleman relative or lady friend. Shock, horror, gasp. It doesn’t really translate nowadays. The right of primogeniture is a more nuanced foreign concept to a contemporary audience, but perhaps the rights of a married lady as a chattel to be herded like sheep is more easily understood. Henry Tilney’s impotence can only be understood in reference to the former and Eleanor Tilney’s quite courage in terms of the former.

Similarly, the boorish and ill-bred John Thorpe is a stock character. His ability to see shortcomings in all but himself translates into logorrhea about his two-seater red sports car, how fast it goes, and how much he paid for it – and how he always duped the other fellow – to Austen’s John Thorpe, who purchased a two-seater gig and how his horse is a marvel. Simply a marvel.

But when John Thorpe interrogates Catherine about her relationship to Mr Allen and he tries to wheedle from her how much her benefactor is worth he refers to him as an ‘old Jew’. This is a term McDermid’s Thorpe also uses. The structure in the book is broadly identical, but the meaning is lost in translation. McDermid, as an ex-reporter, adopts punchy sentences and a Bridget Jones- type approach which lacks the subtlety and melodic variation of Austen’s prose. There’s no sin in that.

I’d sic, Grace, a character from Alice Munro’s story, ‘Passion’, on both of them: ‘she hated spoiled rich girls of whom nothing was ever asked but they wheedle and demand’.

Curtis Sittenfeld (2009) American Wife.

The New York Times Bestseller runs to 637 pages, begins with melodrama, and ends with the tragedy that is George W Bush and the war in Iraq. Only, of course, this isn’t President Bush. This is fiction. President Blackwell is in the White House. It’s June 2007. His wife Alice Blackwell nee Lindgren narrates how he got there, traveling back through time and place to four different addresses — 1272 Amity Lane, 3859 Sproule Street, 402 Maronee Drive and finally, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Alice Blackwell Lindgren tells the reader ‘I didn’t vote for Charlie for president. I did vote for him both times for governor.’ Alice is not a Yes man. In fact she’s a very attractive woman. The paperback cover shows her sitting on an old-fashioned  bicycle, dressed modestly in a dark skirt and blouse, but with a bit of leg showing on the up step of the pedal, with what looks like a farmhouse in the background and acres of sky. I was thinking of Jackie Kennedy (although she did look like a fish) – and certainly the Blackwell’s families antics when they met up each year had me thinking of the Kennedy rather than the Bush clan, but I can’t claim to know much about either. Certainly as the book progresses it becomes obvious it’s George.

Alice loves her husband, but she doesn’t believe he can quit drinking. His family and friends think Charlie is a bit of a joke. And Dr Wycomb, Gladys Wycombe, Alice’s grannies secret love, who was in her mind ‘less a person than a destination, far away, yet not entirely familiar,’ tells her ‘those elections were fixed…and you’re a puppet’.

What makes the book shine is the author’s love of books. The fictional Alice is a school librarian.   She was not born to be a First Lady. ‘In 1954,’ Alice the narrator tells the reader, ‘the summer before I entered third grade, my grandmother mistook Andrew Imhof for a girl.’ Alice loves Andrew and Andrew loves Alice. Knowing the nature of the book the reader is lulled into thinking this is a poor man works his way up to greatness and gains the most powerful position in the world, but Sittenfeld knows how stories work and not an image or word is wasted.

I vote for Sittenfeld for President. She’s a great man and a fantastic writer.