Posts from 23rd September 2004

Sep 04

if attali cd hear us now

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if attali cd hear us now

a street-by-street guide to london noise (via the everlovely map room)

Not the FT Top 100 Films*

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Not the FT Top 100 Films*
It’s surely not absurd to say that all of us who love film have one special movie from childhood, capable of cutting through the life-hardened exoskeleton of a jaded adult to release the untainted, raw emotion of the four-year-old.

Mary Poppins is such a film.

In the tale of the Banks family, 17 Cherry Tree Square, and their short time in the care of Mary Poppins are combined all the elements required to make a piece of Disney magic.

A flawless cast. Captivating performances across the board from Jane, Michael, George and Winifred, their servants, neighbours and people met along the way.

Such adventure. Tea parties on the ceiling, jumping through pictures to win the Grand National, creating an unprecedented run on the bank (all for tuppence), and up on the rooftops ‘tween pavement and stars.

Then the songs. Melodies that bond themselves with the soul. Lyrics that tattoo themselves into the psyche. Jolly Holiday, Spoonful of Sugar and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious may not offer any great insight into man’s condition, but they burst with joy at their own simple existence.

Little matter that it all takes place in one of the most poorly disguised sound stages in Hollywood’s history.

And at the film’s centre, Mary Poppins herself, with Julie Andrews the very embodiment of the perfect nanny. Enough of a carefree spirit to allow Jane and Michael all the excitement they need, equally ready with suitable discipline when they stray too far across her well-worn line, but not too stern to fail to realise when a soft word will achieve ten times the hard one.

It’s an outstanding performance from Andrews. Maria may have defined her career, but it’s Mary that gave the future dame her first real taste of fame.

In their 25 Most Magical Movie Moments published last year, Empire nominated ‘Feed the Birds’ as the one which best represented Mary Poppins. All well and good if this alien moment of saccharine in an otherwise streetwise movie is to your taste.

But for real fans of the film, surely there can be no moment more beautiful than ‘Stay Awake’ as MP sings her stubborn charges to sleep. Andrews’ enchanting voice casts her in the role of siren as she lures her victims onto the down-stuffed rocks to meet their slumbery fate. There are few things more likely to drive me to tears.

But what would Mary Poppins be without her Bert?

Dick van Dyke’s turn is beyond fault. His much-criticised cockney accent may grate on some, but in the words of Mr Banks, kindly do not attempt to cloud the issue with facts. His charm, his charisma, his stonethecrowswithapplesandpearsguvnor mugging just serve to make the tale all the more intoxicating.

For while Mary and George Banks may lay down the law, Bert is the true moral compass of the film, and the one with whom the viewer can most easily identify: an object of affection and source of constant attention for Mary Poppins, a comforting shoulder for Jane and Michael following their scares in the back streets of the City, some well-judged advice on parenting for the unreconstructed Victorian Dad Mr Banks.

Bert is our mouthpiece, our guide, our friend.

But of course, this film is about the lady. And what a lady.

Yes, there is something sensual, even sexual, about Mary Poppins. Maybe it’s the attraction of a supremely self-confident yet tender woman, but long before the Swedish au pair got her hands on the husbands of Britain, which man could honestly resist the charms of the English nanny with a twinkle in her eye?

Mary Poppins, practically perfectly in every way.

*How could it have been missed?

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

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Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

I read The Scar first (and reviewed it here, in April I think), but this was his first novel set in the extraordinary SF/fantasy world he has created. It’s not on as grand a scale, not as spectacular in many ways, and maybe not as confident in some literary senses – things like theme and motif – but it has some strengths to make up for those things. The main one is the city, New Crobuzon: I’ve rarely read a novel where the city feels so much like a character, a key participant in the story, not a mere canvas. I think it’s the greatest city creation in the SF or fantasy genre, a place full of wonders and dirt, nonhuman creatures and robots alongside thieves and dissidents, political repression and secrets and magicians and monsters.

Also it has potent horror elements that The Scar didn’t, including some genuinely original and scary central monsters, and the city’s last resort in combatting them – their preferred approach was asking Hell for help, offering pretty much anything to Hell to save them, but Hell was too scared to try, so there was only one option left. That’s setting the bar insanely high, but he pulls it off: you believe that Hell was scared of these creatures, and why that was a much better option than what they have to try instead.

Then there are many things as good in both books: he writes the best prose in the genre since M. John Harrison (that’s not small praise: I regard Harrison as the best English prose writer since Wodehouse), and the characters are complex and weighty. He’s not a pandering writer, and he is a brave one: there is genuine and shocking, painful tragedy here, and unresolvable moral quandaries. Best of all, it’s a really thrilling novel, full of excitement and a powerful plot driving it all. There are at least half a dozen threads and characters here that could make more great novels in this world. I will read every book this man writes, and I hope there are a lot of them. It seems like decades since any other writer so thoroughly enjoyable on every level came along.


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#132, 13th January 1962

It wouldn’t have been such a bad record if the arrangers had just let Hank Marvin and the band handle it. The bittersweet descent of Marvin’s intro captures the record’s point – and the listener’s spirit – far more surely than the words can. But as soon as Cliff appears, Marvin finds himself fighting a crude orchestral arrangement designed I assume to make the record sound ‘bigger’. The two styles simply don’t fit, with the bridge a particular shambles as Hank’s cool picking is overwhelmed by ridiculous waves of arpeggio. The song is doomed, not that it was really worth saving in the first place. Generally in 60s pop, lines like “why wait till tomorrow?” translate as “If you really love me you’d…”, but it’s not just Cliff’s latter-day image that makes “The Young Ones” sound chaste. This is hardly the hungry Apollonian youth-on-the-rise that later re-dreamings of the 60s would evoke – Cliff’s youth is circumspect and fleeting, his “young dreams” end naturally in domestic contentment.

Likoma Island, Malawi

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Likoma Island, Malawi

“Hey Mazungu!” a voice called, “I am Gift, and this is my brother, Advice.” I glanced at the younger boy who smiled shyly. Mazungu is a Swahili word meaning white man, although its literal translation is man without smell. Gift offered to help me find accommodation and be my guide. I asked the younger brother what pearls of wisdom he could impart. He pointed to the lake and said, “crocodiles.”

Over the next week, I spent a lot of time with the brothers. Gift introduced me to his friends and took me to a witch doctors ceremony. I knew our relationship wasn’t a true one but the pretence was fun. The night before I moved on, we went home to his village. I met his mother and countless relatives. Overlooking the lake, we drank thin tea from tiny china cups. The sunset put on a postcard worthy performance and I felt happy and self-important at the same time.

One of the villagers walked down to the lake to wash. Wrapped to her back a baby squealed. They walked into the water. I watched the scene with detachment, chatting to family, framing it as background. But then the woman screamed and ducked beneath the water. She re-emerged in a whirlpool of blood amid the thrashing tail of a crocodile. The villagers ran to help. She was only six feet from the shore in waist deep water. A couple of the men waded in, but mother and baby were gone. The confusion and wailing were indescribable. The woman was Gift’s cousin. I drank my tea, said a million sorrys and slipped away. I was invisible anyway.

I saw the brothers the following morning and gave Gift some money. I hugged them both and smiled weakly. Gift said, “it happens, it happens” but it doesn’t happen where I’m from and I didn’t know what to say. I subsequently told the story many times. It was always well received, but as time went on it made me uneasy and I regretted turning it into an anecdote. I’ve never experienced anything like it.

FT !P!O!P!sclusive!

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FT !P!O!P!sclusive!

Last night, your NYLPM correspondent was happily drinking cocktails in a bar in London’s trendy London when who should walk in but BLUR. And when I say BLUR I mean real actual classic BLUR, with reformed COXON! All four original members were laughing and joking and drinking in a way that can only be adequately described as reminiscent of the last ten minutes of Spinal Tap, when Nigel Tuffnell returns to the fold. For a 90s indie-boy such as myself, it was a heart-warming sight I can tell you…