Sunday 10 May 2020

Bono at 60

Much ado about Bono’s 60th birthday in the papers this weekend. Interesting piece from Fintan O’Toole in The Irish Times. Oddly, it does leave out the proverbial elephant in the room (especially strange given Mr. O’Toole’s left-wing sympathies) which is that (as most thoroughly documented in Harry Browne’s The Front Man) perhaps all of Bono’s do-gooding actually makes things worse rather than better, or better only in the short term, because it perpetuates the present system. Sure, Billy Bragg doesn’t have anything like Bono’s influence, but wouldn’t it be nice if Bono came out once and for all and said what he actually believes in, other than a vague ‘don’t hurt people, help them’ Christian humanism? Of course he won’t, because he wouldn’t consider himself to be daft enough to be a Marxist, or even a socialist. But the fuzzy do-gooding equally shouldn’t hide the fact that he is, in fact, an arch capitalist. It’s all about trickle down with Bono.

Fintan is right about how with Bono, ‘Whatever part of the brain makes us cringe at ourselves is missing’, as evidenced by when Hot Press sent him to interview Bob Dylan (Slane, 1984), and it became obvious that he knew fuck all about Dylan or his music. He certainly doesn’t lack brass neck, and is good at spoofing – in contrast to more reflective and reticent people, who like to do their research and know what they’re talking about before they open their mouths (which, in Bono’s case, is usually to change feet). And yet, as anyone who has met him will tell you, his charm is lethal. He is, though you’d be loath to admit it, a nice guy. Maybe a bit loud, but not obnoxiously so. And he does have a great talent, maybe not so much as a musician, but as a performer. I’ve seen him make a football stadium in Modena, Italy, seem as intimate as a small theatre, on the 1987 Joshua Tree tour (and I was standing a lot further back by then than I had been in The Dandelion Market or McGonagle’s or The Baggot Inn). However, I disagree with Fintan is equating the preposterousness of Bono with that of the front person of any other hugely successful stadium rock act, e.g. Mick Jagger. Jagger is not as preposterous as Bono, nor is Lady Gaga, because they are not as hypocritical. 

It seems so strange to me now, and I’m not trying to humblebrag in mentioning it, but I knew him and The Edge reasonably well in their early days around Dublin, even before Boy came out. I went out with Edge's sister Gill, briefly. Bono came to hear my band rehearse once. He was always enthusiastic and interested in people and stuff they were doing, with no apparent motive of self-interest, other than being friendly. I even stayed in their rooms in their hotels in Amsterdam and Leiden, when they were touring October. Of course, I haven't seen or spoken to them in years. It's funny how much I dislike him and even the group now, and this despite some of the undeniably decent records they’ve made, simply because of his political posturing and tax avoidance. As regards the music, it's difficult to imagine now, but there was a time when they were contemporaries of Echo & The Bunnymen and Joy Division, and were 'just another' interesting indie band on the up. A time when it seemed not fanciful that Edge would be the next Tom Verlaine, and they'd make slightly off-kilter, left-of-centre music. All that changed, of course, with The Joshua Tree and the pretending to be cowboys phase and pandering to the U.S. market. 

I've no idea what would happen if I met Bono now. But, much like what Elvis Costello said about Paul McCartney in my previous post, it must be really odd being Bono. Considering how Mega U2 have been, it's surprising he's even halfway normal. Although there was always something a bit abnormal about him, even in the early days. It's like that thing people used to say about Bill Clinton, how when he walks into a room he's instantly the centre of attention (even before he was famous) because he glows, with a particular kind of energy. I guess it's called charisma. But that must be difficult being around all the time too.

I mean, when does Bono go home? And what’s he like there? Is he Bono all the time? I hope not, because that would be truly scary. Unfortunately, it may well be the case.

Happy Birthday.

The Normal People Phenomenon (Part 2 - The TV Series)

So, diligent as ever, your humble correspondent is happy to report that he has now worked through the 12 half-hour episodes of the TV version of Normal People, and here is my informed report. 

Gasp! I think it is about ten times better than the novel on which it is based. Why? Mostly because ALL the characters are fuller and more rounded, and there was at least marginally more motivation for their behaviour. The biggest case in point being Denise, Marianne’s mother, who, while still far from being a rounded out character, as least expresses some sense of frustration with the problems of her situation. On the other hand, imagine having a mother like Connell’s Mum, Lorraine: wouldn’t that be nice? 

The whole piece is characterised by the nervousness, tension and self-consciousness of the two leads, which spreads to almost everyone else. For some reason, this works better on screen with actors doing the emoting, rather than in the frequently (and perhaps deliberately) stilted prose of the novel. Largely eschewing description as Rooney does (except for making cups of coffee), places too are more THERE on screen than in the novel. I visualised Marianne’s Dublin apartment as a one bed thrown up during the Celtic Tiger rampage. Strange to see it recast as a well-appointed and ample residence on Wellington Road.  

But what does it mean when the TV adaptation of a novel is ten times better than the novel itself? There are more writers (Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe mostly, I believe, with Rooney helping out here and there). It’s like they managed to join all the dots that Rooney couldn’t in her book, which was really just a blueprint, or first draft. Looking back at what I wrote about the novel in Part 1, it’s odd that a responsible editor (or the editor responsible) didn’t take Rooney aside in the first place and highlight some of the problems I highlighted and make some of the suggestions that I made. It could have been so much better.

As for the sex, and the furore created by Liveline’s faithful audience (aka, the clodhopping, retarded, braindead rednecks of Middle Ireland), and their “It’s like something you’d see in a porno.” Well, take my word for it, it isn’t. It’s delicate, nuanced, and entirely in keeping with the characters’ emotional state at the time. I can only conclude that complainants are the kind of people who think that sex is just dirty anyway (unless it is being done by married couples for the purposes of procreation). It’s kind of sad that they still exist.

A few more stray observations: 

·      I still think the plot pivot about him being too embarrassed to ask her if he could stay in her flat for the summer because he’s lost his job – just so that they can break up – is really, really, really weak. I mean, they’re fucking like bunny rabbits and they’re passing up an idyll like that? All just so the narrative can separate them again? I’m not having it.

·      Ditto Marianne coming back from Sweden for Rob’s funeral, although – as stated above – like everyone else, Rob is a little more fleshed out here. Also, her coming back is less integral to the plot, as Marianne and Connell are seen to be in regular cyber communication afterwards anyway. 

·      Just how wealthy is Marianne’s family? A huge house on a few acres in Sligo. A spacious apartment in a house on Wellington Road in Dublin. An enormous villa with a swimming pool in northern Italy. How much does a country solicitor earn? They’d need to be plutocrats to be able to maintain all that, let alone afford it in the first place. Or is it all inherited? 

·      The TV version wisely lays aside all that sociological fallout from Marianne and Jamie’s break up – all his girly posh friends siding with him – as it just didn’t ring true.

·      In the TV series Connell is a GAA head, whereas in the novel he plays and follows soccer, as I understood it. This is seen in an early episode where he scores a goal for the school GAA team, and in the penultimate episode, in Connell’s Sligo bedroom, where the couple are watching a GAA match, while in the book it’s a soccer World Cup quarter final. In the book, he’s a Liverpool fan (which, incidentally, doesn’t say much for him). I suspect this change has been made to make Ireland appear more exotic for the British/Worldwide market. A fair trade-off, Sally? Also, that brings up the question, to which I’d love an answer: whatever about Trinity having a soccer team, does it have a Gaelic team?

·      I still think it was kind of arbitrary that she didn’t go to New York with him.

There are rumours that Normal People – Season 2 might be entering production. Would that be based on an as yet to be published sequel? Or would it be a stand alone TV project. While it would make commercial sense, it would more than likely be an artistic failure. Far too many TV series outstay their welcomes. It’d be a real shame if we arrived at Normal People – Season 7, and it suffered from all the slapdashness that tarnished the seventh and final season of Game of Thrones.


Wednesday 6 May 2020

The Wars of the Heirs of the Earth

I predict that by mid to late summer the whole world will have divided itself into two opposing factions, the Slapheads and the Longhairs. There will a smaller, breakaway splinter group from the latter, the Bad Haircuts (who espouse a DIY, back-to-nature, everything Homemade philosophy). These two main forces will fight for territory in their given locales, in all parts of the earth, with the third grouping caught in the crossfire, when they are not hiding out. Predictions as to where either party will be more successful remain uncertain, but large movements of population are expected, as people strive to share common living space with those of other nationalities, but the same persuasion. Defections will be easier, for reasons that should be obvious, from Longhairs to Slapheads, perhaps leading to an eventual overall victory for the Baldy-Ones (as they are likely to become known). 

So, Ireland: smooth or hairy? That is the question for the future.

Monday 4 May 2020

The Normal People Phenomenon (Part 1?)

So, I’ve just read Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, in about three sittings, so as not to be talking out of my arse when discussing it. I hope an old white male is permitted to have an opinion on the work of a young white female. It wasn’t top of the To Read pile, because I’d previously read her debut Conversations With Friends when it came out, and really didn’t like it at all, and so didn’t want more of the same. (Why didn’t I like it? In short: a traditional social-realist novel, full of characters I didn’t care about (especially the middle-aged couple) dealing with problems that aren’t really problems, in dull if efficient prose with no bright lights in the use of language – in short, as the title implies, like one of those godawful, talky Hampstead novels, full of middle class wankers who would be greatly improved by being pummelled around the head, face and neck with a wet fish. ‘Maeve Binchy for millennials’, as I described it at the time. Not my tazza di tè.) I’m happy to report that I think Normal Peopleis better, although I still wouldn’t go a bundle on it. As this is not a standard book review (of which I have written more than a few), I’ll be keeping this reaction piece to snappy, somewhat scattergun points. 

I should have said that I think the last third of NP is better than CWF. For the most part, however, I thought NP suffered from many of the same faults as CWF. I found the dialogue stilted and the characters’ behaviour affectless, and there wasn’t much going on with the prose style. Connell’s inarticulacy (that always reliable badge of – mostly male – authenticity) irritated me. I mean, he’s a scholarship winning English Literature student, for Christsakes, who mostly communicates – when he does communicate – in terse, clipped sentences. Okay, so writers don’t necessarily have to be great talkers, and I get that most of this reserve might be attributable to his anxiety, but still. I guess the whole paradox of the novel is the miscommunication between two intelligent people who love each other, but boy does it take its time spinning it out.

They also take themselves awfully seriously, don’t they, for young folks – especially students? Sure, they go to parties, but where are the japes, where is the Trinity Ball, where are the GIGS, godammit? 

I also think a lot of the mechanics and plot devices of both of her novels are quite clunky. One of the grossest omissions in CWF, which pretty much spoilt the whole central relationship for me, was that there was absolutely no reference to or explanation of how Frances and Bobbi, former lovers who are now friends, negotiated their break up. Or are the whys and wherefors and arrangements made just not relevant anymore? In NP: 

·      Connell finds it difficult to meet people in Trinity. Why couldn’t he just join the college soccer team? They do play soccer in Trinners, don’t they? Or is that still too plebeian? If he’s such a shit hot centre forward in Carricklea, why does he just stop playing?

·      It would have been handy if we had had access to both protagonists’ childhood memories, especially Marianne’s. What exactly was her deceased father like? And what exactly did he do to her? Which, in turn, might have thrown some light on why her underwritten mother (and brother) were so, genuinely, weird.  

·      Why was Marianne in the S&M relationship with Lukas in Sweden in the first place? How did it start? And why did she choose that particular day to walk out on it?

·      If her compromising photos were never online in the first place, why was everyone talking about how ‘weird’ she was, or saying they were? Or was all that opprobrium just based on what Jamie was saying about her? And why would everyone (except Joanna) side with Jamie, including the girls, when he’s such an obvious prick? Because of class solidarity rather than gender solidarity? But some people transcend their class origins. It’s all left too vague for me.

·      Why would Marianne come all the way back from Sweden to a place she hates for the funeral of a minor character no one cares about school acquaintance who she really didn’t know or like? Just because the plot mechanics required she should meet up with Connell again? Did she return to Sweden afterwards? And, if you’re going to have a minor character top himself as a major plot device, maybe it might be worth exploring why he took this course of action. 

·      I also thought the ending was weak. Is Marianne cured of her low self-esteem masochism? (‘You can do anything you want with me.’) What’s to stop her going to New York with Connell? We are not told. It’s also worth mentioning that sexual masochism is not always and ever a signifier of self-loathing or lack or self-worth.

So why did I say above that I think the last third of NP is better than the first two-thirds, and better than CWF? Because I think she does depression very well. Connell’s session with the counsellor was, ironically, one of the few times he starts putting a few coherent sentences together. The exploration of his inner thoughts also gives rise to some of Rooney’s most lyrical and insightful writing. There were glimpses of something she could run with there, a bit like the endometriosis episode in CWF. In fact, it’s because she can occasionally be very good in places that the long stretches of ordinariness irritate so.

‘I mean everyone here (Trinity) just goes around comparing how much money their parents make. Like I’m being literal with that, I’ve seen that happen.’ (p. 217). Really? Maybe he should have gone to UCD instead, where there are a lot more First Year English students, so it’s easier to hide, or else just stick with your own crowd and damn the rest of them. I was an undergrad and first-time postgrad in UCD in the ’80s, and rarely if ever came across that level of snobbery. Sure, every so often some coterie decides they are the centre of the universe, and imagine themselves the jeuenese d’or, but everyone else knows they’re not, and ultimately, who cares? I did a year postgrad in Trinity much later as a mature student, and wouldn’t have really come across it either, although admittedly I wasn’t taking that much interest in the social scene then. Everyone was predominantly and terribly middle-class in both places, of course, which can be alienating for someone from a working class background, but my attitude was it’s their problem, not mine. My experience of embarking on PhD later still in UCD was less happy. Partly because I quickly came to realise that The Clinton Institute where I was studying was just there as an excuse to push American soft power abroad, but mostly because I found the younger postgraduate students just so dull and conformist and obviously just patently careerist. Maybe they thought it was weird having this middle-aged guy around the place studying, but they weren’t very friendly, and it was difficult to get any change out of them. But, enough about me.

Still, even if I’ve been through the university system, the ubiquitous campus novel is a subgenre portraying a milieu I have little interest in – unless you’re going to go the full nostalgic hog and do a costume drama Brideshead Revisited. To write one coming-of-age campus novel is perhaps tolerable; to get away with writing two seems to be pushing it. 

I do get the impression that Rooney is a much cleverer person and probably a much better writer than she’s been letting on in either of her novels. In fact, part of my disappointment with Conversations With Friends stemmed from having read pre-publication publicity interviews with her, where she pressed all the right buttons, at least politically, which stirred my interest in reading the book. Despite her critique of how literature is marketed (Normal People, p. 221), I think it’s obvious that these texts have been written with the intention of garnering a large mainstream audience in mind. But for now, for me, condescending as it may sound, my final verdict is still ‘Not bad, for a kid.’

So now to sample the TV series. It’s only six hours long, so should be amenable to binge viewing. But, if I’m not feeling it after a couple of episodes, I’m bailing out.