Archive for October, 2008

Quoting Mark Twain

October 31, 2008

Harry Truman used to have a sign on his desk, which I’ve liked since I first heard of it, quoting Mark Twain:

“Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

A while ago (might it have been used by Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth?) I came across another Mark Twain quote (or more exactly, a quote attributed to Mark Twain) which I have been using from time to time in workshops to remind people of the dangers of certainty:

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Tears for Levi Stubbs

October 21, 2008

The Four Tops’ lead singer Levi Stubbs, who has died at the age of 72, always seemed to me to have a sound which was closer to that of deep soul than Motown contemporaries like Smokey Robinson or Marvin Gaye. I don’t know why, since he lived all his life in Detroit, but perhaps his early interest in jazz influenced his timing and phrasing.

For me, his death recalled Billy Bragg’s homage Levi Stubbs’ Tears, which in its most affecting version is intertwined with the Four Tops’ Walk Away Renee. It’s a sad, despairing song which captures the power of popular music to express meaning. The words of the Billy Bragg song are here: or you can watch it below.

Robert Capa’s ‘Falling Soldier’

October 19, 2008

The photograph is one of the classics, and not just of war photography; the apparent death of an unknown and unnamed Republican soldier during the Spanish civil war. Geoff Dyer, probably Britain’s finest cultural essayist, returns to the picture in a longer essay prompted by several simultaneous exhibitions on war photography in London:

Robert Capa’s 1936 photograph The Falling Soldier shows the moment of a republican soldier’s death in the Spanish civil war. Or so it was claimed and widely believed. Then doubts began to circulate. Perhaps the picture was posed, fake. Capa’s biographer, Richard Whelan, has gnawed away at this issue for decades. The explanation put forward by him in the catalogue accompanying an exhibition at the Barbican is that, during an informal truce, a group of soldiers simulated a bit of a battle charge for the benefit of the camera. Fearing a genuine attack was being mounted, enemy troops opened fire. The trigger was pulled, the camera clicked simultaneously – and a man died. Make-believe became tragically real.

Whelan’s explanation is unlikely to be improved on, but it is worth considering something that David Simon, in his book Homicide, learned from ballistics experts: that “no bullet short of an artillery shell is capable of knocking a human being off his feet”. This is not to say that people don’t fall down when shot. They do, but only as “a learned response. People who have been shot believe they are supposed to fall immediately to the ground, so they do.”

This adds an unexpected twist to the moment of simulation, but there is a larger irony too: the more one learns about the circumstances in which Capa made his famous photograph, the less those circumstances matter. Even if it is now established that this is what happened, it is too late. Over the years, the photograph has come adrift from those circumstances, floated clear of what it depicts. One of the standard ideas about photography is that it is strong as evidence, weak in meaning. The Falling Soldier shows this formulation in reverse: it has become more and more questionable as evidence, but its meaning has continued to deepen. Somehow the image is able to accommodate all the different accounts of its making, accounts that have themselves assumed the quality of after-the-fact interpretation. Ultimately, the only proof it offers is of something that has long been accepted – that photographs can be as mysterious as works of art.

[Update: There's a long post at Ethical Martini on the Falling Soldier photograph and its history and controversies.]

Elsewhere Dyer reminds us that the ‘shake’ on Capa’s famous D-Day pictures wasn’t camera shake but a mistake in the lab, but this only enhanced Capa’s reputation. [Update 2: More on this at PICTURAPixel]. But then, Capa said he preferred “a strong image that is technically bad than vice versa”.

The copy of the picture above is taken from the Dasein, Red Elephant blog, which has a post exploring the photo’s provenance.

Christy Moore on advertising Guinness

October 10, 2008
Picture from the Midlands Music Festival

Picture from the Midlands Music Festival

I’m a fan of the Irish singer Christy Moore, not least because of his central role in innovative groups such as Planxty and Moving Hearts, and because of his humane intelligence. My wife found in our local library (we live in an area with quite a lot of Irish people in it) a book – One Voice: My Life In Song – in which Moore talks about many of his songs. It is one of those books you can dip in and out of at will, finding something interesting every time.

His entry for his song “Delerium Tremens”, (“goodbye to the port and brandy, the vodka and the stout”) which is basically a song about drinking so much that you start to imagine that all sorts of fantastickal things have happened, had my wife laughing out loud. There’s a set of lyrics here that give you a flavour, but the song has the same strength as the talking blues, in that you can adapt it for almost any set of circumstances. Some of the original lyrics were very ‘topically Irish’ if broadly understandable, but in the book Moore says he’s modified these endlessly:

I dreamt that Mr. Haughey had recaptured Crossmaglen
Then Garret got re-elected and gave it back again.
Dick Spring and Roger Casement were on board the Marita-Ann
As she sailed into Fenit they were singin’ Banna Strand.
I dreamt Archbishop McNamara was on Spike Island for 3 nights
Havin’ been arrested for supportin’ Traveller’s rights.

One of the lines in the chorus is about an old Guinness ad (“As I sat lookin’ up at the Guinness ad I could never figure out/ How your man stayed up on the surfboard after 14 pints of stout”) and in the piece Moore says that having drunk so much of the black stuff he wrote to Guinness with a suggestion for a (very Irish) advertising tag line: “Guinness turns your shite back”.

He also says that he never got a reply.

My cat made her ‘last hated journey’

October 6, 2008

I wrote earlier this year about my ageing cat. Today she made her last journey to the vet’s. At least she had ‘another living summer’ before she died.

Photo by Peter Curry

Photo by Peter Curry

The list of works which might have been great

October 2, 2008

One of the films which Michael Powell tried to develop, after Peeping Tom made him notorious to the point of being unemployable, was a film that I would have loved to have seen: a version of The Tempest starring James Mason as Prospero and the young Helen Mirren as Miranda (‘such creatures’). Since reading about it, I’ve had half an eye for similar unmade possible masterpieces, but with little success.

On holiday, I stumbled across another one. According to Jenny Uglow’s wonderful biography, the Newcastle wood engraver Thomas Bewick, he of British Birds fame, turned down the chance to cut a set of engravings to Robert Burns’ new poem Tam O’Shanter because he was too busy.

The unmade might-have-been masterpieces in your notebook?

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