Archive for November, 2008

Colonel Blimp and the ‘good German’

30 November 2008

I watched again Powell and Pressburger’s classic wartime film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp a couple of weeks ago, and it sent me back to A F Kennedy’s BFI monograph about the film.Blimp was released in 1943, in the teeth of opposition from Churchill, who had not seen it but had had reports from his staff. Although Powell and Pressburger made a number of war films, I think of Blimp as part of a trilogy which connects 49th Parallel to A Matter of Life and Death. The question that links all three is a simple one: ‘why do we fight?’. In Blimp, the role of the German officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff, played by Anton Walbrook, is to show British audiences the values that matter, that are worth fighting for.

Walbrook is a ‘good German’ – initially thrown unwittingly into the duel with Clive Candy as a young man, later an anti-Nazi whose children have joined the Party, who ends up in Britain as an ‘enemy alien’ just before the second world war. And without delving too deep into screenwriting theory, he is also the “centre of good”, a term developed by the screenwriter and teacher Robert McKee to describe the character (there’s almost always one) who carries the values of the film which as the audience we’re invited to empathise with. One of the benefits of this is that he has all the best speeches. His hymn to England, in the Alien Registration Office, in which he evokes the country through the memory of his dead English wife, is currently on YouTube. (There’s also a screenplay online).

It’s impossible to watch the film without feeling the autobiographical resonances. Pressburger was a Hungarian Jew who had learned German long before he spoke English, had attended a German speaking university, and had worked for the Ufa studios in Berlin before fleeing the country in 1933, during the first great purge of Jews, after a tip-off from a Nazi colleague. Walbrook, born Adolf Wohlbrück, was a half-Jewish Austrian, and also gay, who had left Germany in 1936. Both were classified as “enemy aliens” when the film was made.

According to Kennedy’s essay, Walbrook was confronted by Churchill about Blimp during the interval of a play in the West End in which Walbrook was performing. Churchill wanted to know whether Walbrook thought the film good propaganda. Walbrook’s reply?

“No people in the world other than the English would have had the courage, in the midst of war, to tell the people such unvarnished truth”.


Tom Paine on freedom

27 November 2008


I found this quote from Tom Paine while visiting the Taking Liberties exhibition in London last weekend, from the days when people understood that freedom needed to be fought for:

Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must … undergo the fatigue of supporting it.

The curators had edited out the phrase ‘like men’ which was in the middle where the ellipses are, perhaps because it was easier than having a discussion about gender and historical language.

The original is from a series of articles written by Paine, a prolific pamphleteer, in the months and years following the American declaration of independence, and are an interesting reminder of how fragile the fledgling American state was. This one is from September 1777.

The exhibition, which is free, runs until 1st March next year. It’s especially good on the ferment of the English Revolution in the mid-17th century, which led to the execution of Charles I and the creation of the Commonwealth. The Leveller movement produced The Agreement of the People and the Putney Debates,  radical beacons which were far ahead of their time, and are still astonishing to read now.

There’s also an interactive application, for those who’re unable to get there in person.  It’s worth visiting – as is the curator’s blog.

[Update 24.01.09: A good post at Our Kingdom on Obama’s use of Paine’s writing in his speeches – including the inauguration speech.]

The picture at the top of the post is from Peter Golden’s “Random Jottings” site, interesting thoughts on (mostly American) politics. “Three weeks ago, at our meeting, a board member asked: “What does leafleting have to do with democracy?”What indeed?

What writers are good at

23 November 2008


Mark Lawson had an interesting insight about writers and their strengths while writing about Michael Crichton after his recent death. He suggested that writers could make a living if they were good at one of three things: narrative, ideas, or prose.

Novelists can still flourish within different markets if their essential talent is storytelling (Jeffrey Archer), thinking (John Berger) or crafting sentences (John Updike), but it is exceptionally rare for an author to have the gift of all three.

Crichton, he reckoned, managed two of the three – narrative and ideas. Those who can do all three are rare – Lawson suggests that John le Carre is the best example.

The illustration is from

Herbie on Miles

21 November 2008


In a review of the wildly overpriced (and largely unnecessary) “50th anniversary edition” of Kind of Blue, there’s a fabulous quote by Herbie Hancock about Miles Davis:

“When you’re touched by Miles Davis you’re changed for ever. But what you change to, is more of who you really are.”

Picture is from Bebop: The Essentials which has a few (too few) great short profiles of some of the musicians who made the bebop sound.

Watching Leonard Cohen

16 November 2008

There were several surprises in watching Leonard Cohen at the O2 this week. The first was the humour – apparently well-scripted, according to one reviewer, but nonetheless funny for that. The second was the band – nine-strong – which brought the songs richly to life. And the third was his voice, which seems to be better at 73 than it was when he was younger.

I’ve never been a huge Cohen fan; I wasn’t quite depressed enough as an adolescent, and the last record I sat down and listened to all the way through was probably Death of A Ladies Man. For a while I liked his novels more than his music (and thought, against the grain of general opinion, The Favourite Game better than Beautiful Losers). But the songs creep in whether you’re listening or not – whether it’s Hallelujah (covered by Jeff Buckley and quite a few others), or I’m Your Man, or First I’ll Take Manhattan. Hearing him play for most of three hours you realise what a great back catalogue he has, and (unlike, say, the Rolling Stones) how he’s kept adding fine songs to it down the years. Which is just as well, since his current tour, after a long gap, was planned after he was defrauded by his manager.

There were some references to his age. Introducing The Tower of Song, he talked about not having toured for 14 years, when “I was young then and had crazy ideas”. And the first verse of The Tower of Song, of course, is about ageing.

Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day
Oh in the tower of song.

The band was an interesting mix. Drums, bass, guitar and organ (not keyboards). Three women singers, including Cohen’s long-time collaborator Sharon Robinson. And then a wind player, Dino Soldo, moving between sax, clarinet, and harmonica, and a Spanish acoustic guitarist, the phenomenally accomplished Javier Mas. The overall effect was of Dylan’s Street Legal period, with Mas’ guitar producing the lightness and texture provided then by David Mansfield‘s violin and mandolin.

Robinson had a solo song, and revealed herself to have a wonderful rich soul/gospel voice. Cohen’s own voice – which I thought so limited that it was saved only by his lyrics when he was younger – had more range, and far greater timbre. It made me wonder if as well as co-writing a lot of his more recent songs Robinson had given him some voice coaching as well.

I’m not going to labour the humour (you probably had to be there) but there was also some seriousness as well. Many artists would have problems reminding their audiences – sitting in their £60+ seats in the O2 – of how privileged they were, as he did before Anthem (“Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering”). But he got a round of applause for it. And finally, the sequencing of the songs had the sure touch of a DJ, no doubt down to the leader and arranger Roscoe Beck. Cohen skipped off the stage at the end – and a few times before then, ahead of encores and so on. He deserved to – this certainly wasn’t the performance of a man going through the motions for his pension fund.

And one last note – I can’t remember the last time I saw so much headgear (high class, all of it) on one stage at a concert. Cohen set the tone with his fedora, but the others – including the Webb Sisters, on backing vocals – followed with verve.

The photograph is from the website – used with thanks.

If I had a hammer

9 November 2008

I was listening to the Weavers’ original (1949) version of ‘If I had a hammer‘, written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, who were both members of the Weavers. The chorus runs: “I’d hammer out love between all of my brothers, all over this land.”.

The version of the song that we know these days is by Peter, Paul and Mary, who had a top ten hit with it in  1962: “love between, my brothers and my sisters, all over this land.”. (In the clip above Seeger graciously attributes their success with the song to having rewritten the tune for the better).

Notes at Henry’s Songbook credit the change in the lyric to a radical singer in 1952:

It was a young radical activist, Libby Frank, in 1952 who insisted on singing “my brothers and my sisters” instead of “all of my brothers”. Lee resisted the change at first. “It doesn’t ripple off the tongue as well. How about ‘all of my siblings’?”

As protest songs go, it seems mild enough now, popularised during the protests of the 1960s, and not just in the United States. But when it was written, at the height of McCarthyism and the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, it was incendiary:

Counterattack‘ and the FBI succeeded in blacklisting the Weavers [between 1952 and 1955], but If I Had A Hammer was unconquerable. The song had a specific radical message in 1952; when Seeger suggested the Weavers perform it on bookings, one of them answered, “Oh no. We can’t get away with anything like that.”

“Why was it controversial?” Pete reflected. “In 1949 only ‘Commies’ used words like ‘peace’ and ‘freedom’. … The message was that we have got tools and that we are going to succeed. This is what a lot of spirituals say. We will overcome. I have a hammer. […] No one could take these away.”

The story comes from David Dunaway’s biography of Seeger. There’s a good article from the New York Times on Seeger and The Weavers.

Obama and the Liberation Music Orchestra

6 November 2008


One of the best US election night stories I’ve read is about Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, in Salon. The writer is the music journalist Larry Blumenfeld. The Liberation Music Orchestra was founded by Haden as a protest in the depths of the Vietnam War, and recorded their fourth record, Not In Our Name, in 2004 after the invasion of Iraq. (And it’s good for once not to be writing about a musician because they’ve died…). Anyway, here’s the story:

On Tuesday night, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra — the band that bassist Haden first assembled in 1968 and has reconvened during each Republican administration — had just ended Carla Bley’s “Blue Anthem” during a late set at Manhattan’s Blue Note when Allen Broadbent (subbing for Bley) jumped up from the piano bench.

“Obama has won!”

Someone had whispered the news in Broadbent’s ear, along with the Democratic electoral-vote total at 11:20 p.m. (It was 297 and counting.)

“Are you sure?” Haden asked, clutching his bass.

Broadbent nodded.

“Man!” Haden sighed with force. He stood silent a few moments. “I guess it’s time to play ‘Amazing Grace.'”

And they did.

(You can hear music from their 1969 LP online here. Parts of tracks from Not In Our Name, including Amazing Grace, can be heard here).

The power of an idea

5 November 2008


Suppose we think of the power of an idea as a ratio. The amount of an explanation that it explains divided by the amount it needs to assume to do the explaining.

I found this in the Royal Society in a panel in the Royal Society written by Richard Dawkins. (It has been moved there from a National Portrait Gallery exhibition called Heroes and Villains. The theory in question was Darwin’s Theory of Evolution which of course has huge positive score: it explains a huge amount and needs to assume only a little (the principle of random selection).

Neo-classical economics, in contrast, has to assume so much (this is my thought, not Dawkins’) that its ratio disappears towards zero.

The Royal Society was founded in 1660, as a large stained glass window inside the building reminds us: the first corresponding society in the world, and the first virtual community of scholars and academics, now almost 350 years old.

The picture is an 1874 lithograph called The Pedigree of Man, by Ernst Haeckl, from creationwiki’s page on the theory of evolution.