Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Between the covers

For a recent birthday party I thought about making a playlist featuring one song for each year of my life but that clearly involves way too much effort, and disproportionately represents songs that may not be very good or don't mean a lot personally while excluding favourites that happened to come out at the same time. Instead, I decided to put together a load of cover versions of songs I like by bands I like.

The virtues of a good cover version are well rehearsed: it should bring the song up to date, add something new to the mix, and spark interest in both in cover artist and originator. I was pleased to have a few Abba songs (by Blancmange, Erasure and Ash - all excellent), plenty of Pet Shop Boys (doing Village People and U2, of course, and done by the redoubtable West End Girls), as well as some other cover merchants (Laibach, Nouvelle Vague, Señor Coconut), though I kept these to a minimum (sorry Mark Ronson).

Some of the oddities included Yann Tiersen and Neil Hannon (of the Divine Comedy) together for David Bowie's wondrous Life on Mars?, the Divine Comedy playing Michael Nyman's Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds (from Peter Greenaway film The Draughtsman's Contract), St Etienne's version of I'm Too Sexy (from the Fred EP) and Dave Stewart and Terry Hall's high-energy take on Charles Aznavour's She, as Vegas. It does mean rap and hip hop is ignored - Tricky's version of Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos by Public Enemy notwithstanding - unless you count PM Dawn's Set Adrift on Memory Bliss as a cover of Spandau Ballet, which I didn't.

I'm thinking of making a second mix of those tunes I had to leave out as they were too weird and didn't work: St Etienne's Stormtrooper in Drag (it's difficult to find good covers of Gary Numan), Fortran 5's bonkers Bike, featuring a cut-up Sid James (though I did have their cover of Layla with Derek Nimmo), Pet Shop Boys and Sam Taylor Wood for Je t'aime… moi non plus and Laibach's The Final Countdown; those that were too, erm, camp or melodramatic, like Cheb Mami's Non, rien de rien and Nina Simone singing Ne me quitte pas (though I did have Gipsy Kings' version of My Way, ha!); a bit shit (Robbie Williams' Antmusic); or plain scary: Laibach, again, plastering their Wagnerian shtick all over Get Back (which would have been the only Beatles).

I would have loved to have had some more French stuff, notably Etienne Daho and Jacques Dutronc singing Tous les goûts sont dans ma nature, or Vincent Delerm and Neil Hannon (again) singing Favourite Song. The high point, still, I'm afraid to say, must be Gary Glitter performing Suspicious Minds (from the British Electric Foundation's Music of Quality and Distinction Vol 1). What was anyone thinking?

Monday, 20 September 2010

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Divided memories

I haven't read Rupert Thomson's This Party's Got to Stop yet. Though it mainly seems to deal with the author's relationship with his brothers, the book's roots lie in the deaths of the siblings' parents. The early death of his mother is something he worked through in part in novel Divided Kingdom, which tackled major state-of-the-nation themes with a drastic reordering of the country.

Citizens are moved into different quarters of Britain according to personality type (sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic, the four ancient humours). What proved so powerful to me was the description of young central character Thomas Parry's relocation from his family; it reminded me of my own removal to boarding school when my father suddenly died and must have been based on Thomson's own experiences following his mother's death.

I mentioned this similarity to him, and how evocative I'd found the description of Parry's life and emotions at this point, and Thomson generously said the book could almost have been written for me. He also recommended I read William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow, which deals with the effect of a parent's death on a boy of a similar age.

Maxwell couches his tale in a form closer to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood - historical reconstruction almost. An extremely short book, it drips in concentrated memory and can only be experienced in bursts. I'm having a similar experience at the moment with Tinkers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novella by Paul Harding about a father and son's histories that is incredibly dense.

Thomas Parry, when he grows up, has a chance to revisit the past in Divided Kingdom, and the memories that were lost by wrenching him from the heart of his family. Would you take such an opportunity? Thomson asked me. He knew the answer, but you'll always wonder how things were.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

September weekends in London

It may feel as if autumn is at the door, but September holds plenty of great outdoor events in the capital. The Thames Festival is just past, but free film screenings start at the Scoop from tomorrow until 1 October, this weekend is Open House and then, on 25 September, is the Great River Race. The atmosphere around midday in Ham (nearest tube: Richmond, then wander along the river) is always fun while, thanks to the staggered start, the finish presents a particularly dramatic sight in Docklands.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Maigret's Paris: a walk

Georges Simenon's books, as I've noted before, are so thick with atmosphere they almost serve in their own right as guides to the cities in which they're set. He's best on Paris, most notably in the novels dedicated to Chief Inspector Maigret. It would be the work of a lifetime to plot the locations from his books - and many are long gone, of course - but a few obvious sites stand out.

Start at 36 Quai des Orfèvres, the headquarters of the Police Judiciare and Maigret's base, on the Île de la Cité. (This wonderful Life article includes a photo of Simenon climbing the stairs there, in the mould of his hero - and what great ads.) Behind it, on the Place Dauphine, is the setting for the fictional Chez Paul, the bar to which Maigret used to send for beers and sandwiches in the midst of one of his night-long interrogations.

Heading north-east is the Place des Vosges, where both Simenon (from 1924, with wife Tigy) and Maigret lived for a time, and then there's 132 Boulevard Richard Lenoir, as iconic to fans of the French detective as London's 221b Baker Street to admirers of Sherlock Holmes. A market on Thursday and Sunday mornings makes for a characteristic diversion but film-lovers may be tempted to travel a bit further, up to the Canal St Martin, setting for a scene in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's whimsical Amelie (2001), and home to Hôtel du Nord, immortalised by Marcel Carné in 1938. You'll need lunch by now, and one of the many lovely cafés round here should serve just fine.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Austerlitz and the power of memory

When I was studying in Liège, southern Belgium, for a year, my younger sister came to visit and a friend suggested we drive up to Maastricht, Holland, for the day. What I didn't realise was that he intended to stop at the site of a former concentration camp on the way. I'm not sure if my sister has ever forgiven me, she probably still has nightmares about the trip.

WG Sebald's remarkable Austerlitz, which was published in 2001, begins with the German emigré to East Anglia adrift in Belgium. I've written before about English-language writers' view of the Low Country but Austerlitz features many landmarks that locals and visitors will recognise: Antwerp's magnificent Centraal Station, from which Sebald draws a compelling line to Belgium's dark colonial past, and the hideous, massive block that is the Palais de Justice overlooking Brussels, 'the largest accumulation of stone blocks anywhere in Europe'.

The opening narrative includes a visit to Fort Breendonk, a Nazi penal camp that has been preserved as a memorial. It is near where my grandfather lives. 'The passenger train I boarded… took a good half-hour to travel the short distance to Mechelen, where a bus runs from the station to the small town of Willebroek.' I've taken this same bus, but never to Fort Breendonk as I have little wish to repeat the experience of that afternoon in Holland.

The fort's shape and the formation of battlements is a theme of Austerlitz; as the narrator descends further, a darkness spreads over him: 'When I look back at the crab-like plan of Breendonk… the darkness does not lift but becomes yet heavier as I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed.' It is for this reason we preserve, and visit, these places: when imagination fails us.