Thursday 21 December 2023

My Team / Your Team

I've got a Substack now.

I wrote about my enduring, lifelong Manchester City FC fandom, and our current owners’ wealth and investment vis-á-vis my left-wing politics. Includes a trenchant critique of the Irish soccer commentariat. Ideal after-Christmas dinner reading, if you ask me. 

This one’s for free. I'm ‘growing an audience’, apparently. Feel free to subscribe.

Sunday 26 November 2023

Films about Warhol’s milieu

Finally, my Film Ireland reviews of a couple of films about Warhol’s milieu.

I Shot Andy Warhol Directed by Mary Harron

Nico Icon Directed by Susanne Ofteringer

New York in the mid to late sixties, and more particularly Andy Warhol’s Factory studio, was the centre of the universe, if that constantly transmigrating and transmogrifying concept can be said to exist at all, and if the two films under review can be lent credence.  Both present portraits of independently minded, visionary women, who were drawn to that milieu.

Mary Harron’s biopic of Valerie Solanis, the militant lesbian feminist would-be playwright, founder and sole member of SCUM, (Society for Cutting Up Men), and author of the infamous SCUM Manifesto, is the less satisfying offering of the two. This has nothing to do with Harron’s direction, which although her debut, is very assured. It has more to do with the fact that she seeks to give us a balanced picture of an unbalanced individual, and so becomes an apologist for the psychopathology which leads to attempted murder. “I’m not justifying the shooting,” Harron has said in an interview, referring to Solanis’ gunning down of Warhol in his office in June 1968, but then goes on to defend her as a misunderstood, underprivileged woman who was ahead of her time.  “Even as a celebrity assassin she was in the wrong time,” Harron concludes. What next?  The Michael Chapman biopic, entitled I Shot John Lennon, a detailed account of how a deprived childhood and dysfunctional family background led another of life’s losers to take a pot shot at the former Beatle? Society’s to blame, as usual. Spare us.

Perhaps part of the reason for this kid-gloves feel is Harron’s choice of the soft-centred Lili Taylor to play the abrasive Solanis, which certainly isn’t type-casting. “But if you cast someone who was really grating, nobody could watch the movie,” offers Harron, by way of explanation. My point exactly. I rest my case. As it is, we get Solanis running around looking like a slightly more zany version of Janis Ian, a nicely neurotic Jewish girl you could take home to meet Mother, rather than the psychotic gun-toter she became.  Most of the other central performances, most notably Jared Harris as Warhol, but also Lothaire Blutheau as publisher Maurice Girodias and Stephen Dorff as transvestite Candy Darling, are excellent. Harris, in particular, captures perfectly the jittery aloofness of Warhol, while also hinting at the essential benevolence one imagines it masked. John Cale’s score and a marvellous soundtrack contribute to a film well worth seeing for anyone interested in the period, but probably best taken with a pinch of salt.

Susanne Ofteringer’s Nico Icon is a different story, just as its subject was as different from Solanis as could be, and as a documentary composed entirely of interviews and archive footage, doesn’t have the tedious historical accuracy and consequent manipulation of sympathy question marks hanging over it which spoil I Shot Andy Warhol, or at least not to the same extent.

Nico was, as former keyboardist in her band James Young says early in the film, “the Chelsea girl peroxide blonde Marlene Dietrich moon goddess vamp creature who turned into a middle-aged junkie.” At the risk of sounding indulgently romantic, what is interesting about this trajectory is how much of it was volitional, to the extent that the life became part of the art. The daughter of a ‘good German’ killed by the Gestapo, she wanted to be ‘not German’. She became deracinated, and subsequently lived in France, America, Italy, England and Spain. A stunningly beautiful woman who hated being objectified, she gave up modelling to pursue a career as a singer and songwriter. Unlike a Twiggy or a Samantha Fox, she had the voice and the talent to do it. In the process she went from being blonde and wearing white to hennaing her hair and wearing black. Both Young and Paul Morrisey comment on how she started hating her good looks, and became proud of her rotting teeth, her bad skin, her needle tracks. “She was so happy to be called ugly,” says Morrisey. She wanted to be ‘not beautiful’. When asked if she has any regrets, she answers: “No regrets...Only one, that I was born a woman instead of a man.” She wanted to be ‘not woman’. She wanted to be her opposite. In the end, the journey was completed.

Introduced to Warhol by Bob Dylan, having already recorded a solo single, ‘I’m Not Sayin’’, she sang on the first Velvet Underground album, (because, according to Morrisey, Lou Reed was considered “too seedy, not a good singer, not a good personality.”) She went on to make a string of solo albums, of which Chelsea Girls is perhaps the best known. John Cale says that of all the work that came out of the Velvets, what he did with Nico is what he is most proud of, and calls The Marble Index, which he produced, “a contribution to European classical music.” The ever highly articulate and intelligent Cale sums up the Nico odyssey best: “It was a solitary dream where occasional friendships were struck and abandoned, and was so highly personal that it was very painful.”

The film is very well edited and cut, with much use of split screens, and even seems to go in for a bit of imitative form, as the straight linear interviews of the early part give way to more fragmented excerpts as the madness kicks in. One tiny criticism is that the whole would have been enhanced by contributions from both Nico’s mother and Lou Reed, but presumably they refused to give their consent.

It remains to tackle the question of Warhol’s culpability in the decline and demise of these two very different women, both of whom died in 1988, Solanis of pneumonia and emphysema in a welfare hotel in San Francisco, Nico of a brain haemorrhage in Ibiza.  Sure, the casualty rate at The Factory was rather high, but as Billy Name says in Ofteringer’s film, “Anyone who had skills or talent was accepted”. Warhol wasn’t an exploiter, in that he made no money out of the projects other than his own work, but rather a facilitator who gave people the opportunity to do their own work. A line from ‘It Wasn’t Me’, a song from John Cale and Lou Reed’s tribute album to Warhol, Songs For Drella, where Reed sings as Andy, could be applied to Solanis: ‘It wasn’t me who hurt you, I showed you possibilities/The problems you had were there before you met me.’  Another line from the same song has equal force in the case of Nico: ‘I never said stick a needle in your arm and die.’ Of course Warhol was no moral philosopher, but he was a  highly influential artist and patron. Without him it is unlikely that the greatest band in the history of rock music would have existed, or at least become so influential themselves.  (“They didn’t have a lot of fans, but every one of them went out and formed his own band.” Brain Eno.) And far from being im- or a-moral, The Factory had the loose but highly evolved ethical system of a subculture. Warhol’s Catholic childhood always poked through. (Reed to Warhol: “That guy’s an ignorant fool.” Warhol: “Hey, what if he thinks that about you?”) He may have lived among messy people, but he wasn’t messy himself.  Warhol was right: Solanis should have got a job. He even gave her one, acting in one of his films, ironically, I, A Man. It was her own increasingly erratic and alienating behaviour which led to her excommunication from Warhol’s circle. And if she was so independent and sure of her beliefs, why was she relying solely on Warhol and Girodias to produce her play and publish her Manifesto, and then turning against them? Nico had talent, and partially fulfilled her potential. Solanis, despite what Harron would have us believe, was an idiotic ideologue who hung around The Factory, the kind of talentless psychopath who hovers on the fringes of the avant-garde, and of whom one must beware if, like Warhol, one chooses to work there. 

First published in Film Ireland

Andy Warhol's Films

What was then the IFC (Irish Film Centre), now the IFI, had a season of Warhol’s films to coincide with the IMMA retrospective. I wrote about them too.

Taking Time, or Wasting It?

“I like boring things. When you just sit and look out of a window, that’s enjoyable. It takes up time. Yeah. Really, you see people looking out of their windows all the time.  I do. If you’re not looking out of a window, you’re sitting in a shop looking at the street. My films are just a way of taking up time.” So said Andy Warhol of his approach to film-making. And, of course, the time would have passed anyway, as Beckett remarked with reference to his many anti-heroes, whose major preoccupation is the filling in of passing time (which is the major preoccupation of all of us, it seems to me).

At first sight it may seem that drawing any parallel between Beckett and Warhol is the ultimate in the yoking together by violence of heterogeneous ideas, as Samuel Johnson declared was the modus operandi of metaphysical poets, but they are similar enough in their exploration of extreme areas of consciousness, in their paring back to its essentials and refinement of a given style while simultaneously testing the boundaries of that style just as they strip it back, and in their obsessively monocular focus, through an aesthetic methodology of replication or repetition, on an idea or image.

This article was commissioned to coincide with the ‘Andy Warhol’s Cinema’ season currently running at the Irish Film Centre, with the goading challenge of being written from the perspective of, ‘Why should anyone bother going? It’s as interesting as watching paint dry’, thus inviting me to cast myself yet again in the role of apologist for Warhol. So what follows will necessarily consist of a few observations and pointers about the films, rather than being an in-depth discussion of any of them, partly because I haven’t seen them all, and partly because, to quote Warhol himself from the last interview of his life in 1987, “They’re better talked about than seen.”

It is vaguely unsettling to think that Warhol lost faith in his films as films, that he was unaware that, as Amy Taubin wrote in her 1994 Sight and Sound article entitled ‘My Time Is Not Your Time’: ‘The intervention he had made in the society of the spectacle was as profound as what Godard had done in roughly the same extended 60’s moment. But if Godard framed his psychosexual obsessions within a political analysis of global economic power, Warhol, the American anti-intellectual, transformed his psychosexual identity into a world view.’

There is undoubtedly a link between the eerie visual effect of Warhol’s 16mm films (achieved by their being shot at 24 fps but projected at 16 fps) and the hyper-reality of his paintings and silk-screen prints. As Dennis J Cipnic noted in his essay ‘Andy Warhol: Iconographer’:

                   Warhol casts to character and lets his performers make up their

                   own lines to fit basic story requirements.  But it is his aim to

                   avoid wholly persons, and I think this has to do with his life-long

                   insistence on confronting reality. Just as he might have painted

                   fictitiously labelled cans, or anonymous bottles instead of Coke

                   bottles, Warhol could have used ordinary actors and given them

                   scripted dialogue. However, if his painted objects had been

                   entirely fictitious, they could not have been icons, and I believe

                   exactly the same principle applies to his films.

Warhol’s cinema is a response to the Hollywood films he grew up with, films that were available to every American, just like Campbell’s Soup and Coca Cola. Lou Reed and John Cale enlarge on Cipnic’s point in ‘Starlight’, a song from their 1990 Warhol tribute album, Songs for Drella: ‘You know that shooting up’s for real/That person who’s screaming, that’s the way he really feels/We’re all improvising, five movies in a week/If Hollywood doesn’t call us – we’ll be sick’. This verse neatly brings together the iconic quality mentioned above, and the fact that Warhol’s films were both a furious parody of Hollywood’s norms, and an attempt to seek its approval because, even though he criticised it, he also admired it. “I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They’re beautiful. Everybody’s plastic.” But Warhol’s remit was larger still. He saw the beauty in the everyday, and in the ugly.

He was an autodidact with a motion picture camera, and obviously regarded the camera exactly as he did the tools of a painter, as a mechanical means to an end, with certain contingent characteristics of its own, of which he could make use. He saw that with newsreels and documentaries, where the cameraman is concerned almost exclusively with content, these characteristics become very apparent: lenses go in and out of focus; exposure is not always precisely correct; framing wanders; shots may be held for too long or not long enough. Warhol and his assistant Paul Morrissey both felt that to retain this quality of technical improvisation greatly added to a film’s verisimilitude and believability. The more attention is drawn to the means of production, that we are made aware that it is not a transparent medium through which we view a given reality, paradoxically the more real what we view seems, while the supposedly transparent processes Hollywood uses in the service of realism actually give us pure fantasy.

As for the subject matter, the ‘content’, the amount of space allotted here forbids lengthy consideration, but is worth quoting from Thomas Crow’s essay, ‘Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol’: 

                   Yet the quality of “dead-pan” is significantly different from the

                   passivity that Swenson (an interviewer) expected Warhol to endorse.

                   It is a consciously maintained absence of expression intended to

                   disguise interest and engagement.

Warhol meant it, maaan. Personal statements can be made through the fissures inevitable in B-movie production, since they have low budgets and are largely free of high-level interference. If you had to reduce Warhol’s cinema to one theme, say what his films are about in one sentence, it would be that they are a camp send-up and full-frontal attack on the Hollywood myth of sexual normality. Sexual identity is problematised, constructed as a masquerade which is an imperfect shield for a terrible anxiety about sexual difference. So now you know.

  Of course, it is the absence of traditional narrative thrust that is so off-putting to an audience conditioned by Hollywood, and wherein lies a lot of the satiric comment which makes him the anti-Hollywood director par excellence, the prince in exile. The number of walkouts at the first evening of films in the IFC, Kiss, Haircut and Blow Job was gratifying, especially because the people who left were not leaving in chagrin due to being shocked, but because they were bored to death. But boredom is perhaps the most constant feature of life, and it is a wonder it faired so badly in the novels which are filed in the canon as nineteenth century realist fiction. Boredom, for Warhol, is both not boring at all, and more boring than you ever imagined.Watching paint dry? That’s what artists do all the time.

First published in Film Ireland magazine

Andy Warhol - After The Party: Works 1956-1986 - IMMA 1997-1998

Apropos our visit to the 'Three Times Out' Andy Warhol exhibition at the Hugh Lane Gallery during the week, here's a review I remember writing of IMMA's 'After The Party' Warhol exhibition, which ran from 21 Nov 1997 to 22 Mar 1998. How Time doth fly.

After The Party

Andy Warhol Works 1956 - 1986

Irish Museum of Modern Art

What can be added, in a short review of a retrospective exhibition dedicated to the work of one of the world’s most famous artists - one of whose overriding concerns was the nature of fame - to the unwieldy body of discourse and uneven attempts at exegesis that already exist and are growing exponentially, about that artist’s life and work? Space, in the form of column inches, may be filled, but does anything new or worthwhile get said? Maybe the reiteration of that hoary old maxim to the affect that ‘There is nothing new under the sun’, that can be detected in and surmised from most of the criticism that is being written about this oeuvre is merely an eloquent testimony, intentionally or unintentionally on the part of its writers, to the force and potency, the truth and beauty, of the work it is written about. The ubiquity of the commodity that is Warhol’s work in our everyday lives is the fitting denouement to the critique of the ubiquity of commodities that takes place in that work, through seemingly effortless and endless repetition. So perhaps the greatest compliment anyone, including a critic, could pay the master of the deadpan is to engage in a species of ‘Blind and Dumb Criticism’, as Barthes called it in an essay in Mythologies, and simply say nothing, or nothing new, or as little that is new as it is polite and politic to do, and merely trot out what has been said before.

Barthes characterises ‘Blind and Dumb Criticism’ thus:

'Critics (of books or drama) often use two rather singular arguments. The first consists in suddenly deciding that the true subject of criticism is ineffable, and criticism, as a consequence, unnecessary. The other, which also reappears periodically, consists in confessing that one is too stupid, too unenlightened to understand a book reputedly philosophical'.

But however justifiable some of the accusations of the ‘King’s New Clothes’ may be when levelled at the effusive excesses or wilful obscurantism of much Warhol criticism, and criticism of modern art in general, taking fogeyish refuge in either of the fraudulent approaches against which Barthes directed his strictures will not suffice when dealing with what is on display here. For, if one is acknowledging an inability to understand merely to call into question the good faith of the artist and not one’s own, then one has no business being a critic. And Warhol’s art is neither so ineffable nor so philosophical as to preclude understanding (if only because no art is). Nor so disposable, inconsequential, stupid, trivial, and all the other meaningless, in this context, adjectives one constantly hears bandied about and around in relation to it.

Two quotes from Thomas Crow’s essay, ‘Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol’, reproduced in the excellent IMMA exhibition catalogue, are apposite. Firstly: ‘What has also gone unobserved is the contradiction at the core of the usual interpretation of Warhol’s work: that the authority for the supposed effacement of the author’s voice in Warhol’s pictures is none other than the author’s voice itself.’; and, secondly: ‘Yet the quality of “dead-pan” is significantly different from the passivity that Swenson (an interviewer) expected Warhol to endorse. It is a consciously maintained absence of expression intended to disguise interest and engagement.’

Warhol was both a greater tragedian and a greater comedian than any of his contemporaries. Nominally a pop artist, he was by times and by turns, an expressionist, a minimalist and a conceptualist, but both much more serious and much more fun than any practitioners in these obviously reductive and ultimately arbitrary categories. Those broad brush strokes and bright colours are fairly expressionistic, but in a more channelled framework; those ‘Silver Clouds’ helium balloons share the preoccupations of minimalist sculptors, in drawing the viewer’s attention to the artificial nature of the gallery space, and the space occupied by the artwork itself; that ‘Last Supper’ reproduction, doubled as it is, asks just as many questions as the conceptualists about representation, and about the fate of what we have been taught to think of as the greatest historical works of art, if their ability to retain their uniqueness or mystique cannot stand up to mass production.

The IMMA exhibition is representative rather than inclusive, but most of the usual suspects are on show. The space is used exceptionally well, and the groupings of works in the many small, well-lit rooms is thoughtful and sensitive. I found especially moving and revealing the drawings done by the artist’s mother, Julia Warhola. If I had to select a favourite series, it would be ‘Myths’, because, well, I’m interested in myths. The ‘Disaster’ and ‘Gun’ series, and the ‘Chairman Mao’ portrait and ‘Hammer and Sickle’ still life, show that as a good American citizen Warhol was exercised by threats to the American way of life, both from the inside and the outside. They also exemplify his darker, more sombre and serious mode. The ‘Dollar Signs’ sketches refer to the idea of the artwork representing money above all else, both to producer and consumer, and link art directly to its monetary value. They also show his funnier, more frivolous and frolicsome side. Of course, like everything else in Warhol, these handy but crude divisions begin to blur and break down. If you can make what could be thought of as a joke out of something that could be thought of as serious, and make what could be thought of as a serious point through something that could be thought of as a joke, you’ve really got something. Nevertheless, the synthetic polymer paint and silk-screen on canvas works ‘Skull’, ‘Cross’ and ‘Self-Portrait’, are affecting intimations of mortality, inviting one to meditate, like Samuel Johnson did in his great poem, on the vanity of human wishes, when all is over, after the party.

Warhol’s interest in contemporary culture extended beyond the limits of conventional fine art to film making, record cover design and production, and the set design and promotion of multimedia events called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, featuring performances by The Velvet Underground and Nico. Indeed, it is via the latter activity that I was first introduced to his work. His art rejected distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, between fine art and commercial art, at a time when it was neither popular nor profitable to do so. It may now reek of post-modern irony, perhaps chiefly because that is the lens through which it is presently viewed, but it was made long before such a way of seeing had become the dominant sensibility, the main means of apprehending and appreciating works of art. Antecedents of it can be found in the work of Oscar Wilde, of Ronald Firbank, of Cole Porter, and it was thoroughly delineated in Susan Sontag’s essay ‘Notes on Camp’, but it had always been generally distrusted because of a supposed lack of deep feeling on the part of the artist, which resulted in a paucity of genuine profundity in the art. Insofar as this anti-romantic method has now gained such huge currency, Warhol could be said to have ironically followed the Wordsworthian dictum of creating the taste by which he is understood. There he is, a closet romantic all the time. Nor is it fair to saddle him with responsibility for the thousand and one pale imitators who have sprung up in his wake. Blaming Andy Warhol for Jeff Koons is like holding The Sex Pistols responsible for every third rate punk band you’ve ever heard.

If you’re looking for social comment, reflected here through individual portraiture, consider J. G. Ballard’s remarks in the annotated version of The Atrocity Exhibition:

'A kind of banalisation of celebrity has occurred: we are now offered an instant, ready-to-mix fame as nutritious as packet soup. Warhol’s screen-prints show the process at work. His portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy drain the tragedy from the lives of the these desperate women, while his day-glow palette returns them to the innocent world of the child’s colouring book.’

What a pity Warhol isn’t around to do Diana, since he would undoubtedly provide a simultaneously more affectionate and more visceral memorial than a rehashed ballad which actually started life as a song about Marilyn Monroe. (Could one of his assistants or disciples give us one instead? After all, it is a commonplace among Warhol’s detractors that his helpers did most of the physical work involved in producing the art. As if Renaissance masters didn’t do the same thing, presiding over workshops akin to The Factory. Is a style more personal than a process, when it is inextricably bound up with that process?) Untempered, gushing praise may be just as reprehensible a critical strategy as the blind and dumb varieties, but when we recognise the range and depth of Warhol’s interests and his achievements, his ‘persona that has sanctioned a wide range of experiments in non-elite culture far beyond the world of art’ as Crow has it, we begin to realise what a true original Warhol really was, and remains, if the use of the word ‘original’ is not too much of an insult to his memory, his celebrity, his legacy.

Commissioned for Circa Magazine


Friday 27 October 2023

John Murry /Whelan's - July 19th, 2023

Desmond Traynor                                     John Murry / Whelan’s, July 16th, 2023

It’s a decade since the release of John Murry’s breakthrough album, The Graceless Age, and the 10th anniversary is being celebrated with three band dates in Ireland – Galway, Limerick, and now Dublin (with a solo stop-off in Galway again, for the Film Fleadh – where Sarah Share’s film The Ballad of John Murry has just bagged the Best Documentary Award).

    With backing from three young, crack musicians, unsurprisingly the set features every song from that classic album, although not in the original running order. Murry can be an intimidating stage presence, and his between song patter isn’t always coherent, but he achieves many moments of intensity over the course of the evening. Not least among them is the record’s 10-minute+ centrepiece, ‘Little Coloured Balloons’. Like any artist required to play the same song every night, especially one as harrowingly autobiographical as this, Murry is not unaware of the freak show element of a piece in which he opens up and bleeds. Rather, he is conscious of the multiple ironies involved in re-enacting his own near-death experience – due to a drug overdose – and resuscitation, giving a performative display of his own internalised trauma time after time. Also, he has to keep it interesting for himself.  To this end, he fairly deconstructs the song with an ongoing commentary while singing it (at one point he throws in a reference to its ‘emotional pornography’), without diminishing any of its inherent weight. Indeed, he brings it home with all its requisite heartrending power intact. There is even an improvisatory lyric change from ‘I took an ambulance ride/They said I nearly died’ to ‘I wish I’d died.’

    The encore sees an airing of ‘I Refuse To Believe You Could Love Me’, from most recent album The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes, plus a raucous rendition of Hank Williams’ ‘I Saw The Light’.

    As The Life Partner remarked to me afterwards, it’s like watching a beautiful car crash. Playing to an audience of devotees in Whelan’s on a Sunday night, it is interesting to speculate how many are there for the beauty, and how many for the car crash. But that is a risk any edgily spontaneous performer always takes. Besides, maybe the car crash is part of the beauty. Anyway you look at it, what a show – with entertaining support from Longford-based band Cronin.

Steve Earle / Vicar Street

Desmond Traynor                                        Steve Earle / Vicar Street, June 29th, 2023

After an engaging supporting set from Edinburgh’s Roseanne Reid, the Hardcore Troubadour strolls out on to the Vicar Street stage for the concluding show of the European leg of his Alone Again Tour, kicking things off with a cover of The Pogues’ ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’, because ‘Shane McGowan is one of the best songwriters around.’ From then on it’s mostly a judicious selection of crowd favourites from his back catalogue, such as ‘The Devil’s Right Hand’, 

‘My Old Friend The Blues’, ‘Guitar Town’ and ‘I Ain’t Ever Satisfied.’ The evening reaches an emotional crescendo with covers of Jerry Jeff Walker’s ‘Mr. Bojangles’, and his own deceased son Justin’s ‘Harlem River Blues’. Big hitters ‘Galway Girl’ and ‘Copperhead Road’ are saved until the end. It is hard to do the solo acoustic thing, and what you realise watch Earle is that you are in the hands of a master, who can read the room.

    The otherwise excellent set concludes on a somewhat jarring note, as during the encore Earle takes a rather gratuitous pop at Roger Waters for his promotion of the BDS campaign against apartheid Israel, while introducing his own plea for peace in the region, 2003’s ‘Jerusalem’. Earle visited Israel in 2013 to take part in David Broza’s ‘East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem’ bridge-building project. While one should respect the fact that Earle was acting in good faith, it is not unreasonable to ask, ‘Would you have played Sun City in apartheid South Africa, Steve, because you ‘don’t believe in hopeless cases or lost causes’?’ If not, why go against the wishes of the majority of the Palestinian people now? 

    Otherwise, the veteran sails on, a consummate professional who, at this stage of the game, knows exactly what he’s doing, and how to do it. 

Bad photos:

Monday 22 May 2023

Martin Amis R.I.P.

So, Martin Amis… 

Can’t say he was my favourite of the British batch which came to prominence in the 1980s: I’d rate Rushdie, Barnes, McEwan all higher. He certainly wasn’t in the same league as his avowed heroes and influences, Nabokov and Bellow. That was just trying to establish greatness by association. Literature isn’t just about knowing and deploying dictionary words, although it can help. But it was his snobby public schoolboy attitudes that marred much of his work, and was really off-putting. Working class characters (e.g. Keith Talent) exist only as figures of fun and the butt of jokes. Football fans at a match he attends ‘look like crisps’. Granted, aspirational middle class characters are satirised too – but with them, it’s an inside job, talking across rather than talking down, much less condescending and more 'empathetic' - as they say nowadays. But that’s the English class system for you. Time’s Arrow is the best of his novels of those I’ve read. However, as with many novelists, I much prefer reading his journalism and essays rather than his fiction. It is as a social commentator, and as an explorer of his own consciousness, that I would suggest he will be best remembered. R.I.P.

Sunday 19 March 2023

Pelé, and the World’s Best Dad

On March 5th last, I had a piece on RTE Radio 1's Sunday Miscellany. Here's a slightly fuller version of the text I read then. You can listen to the original broadcast by following the link below. 

Pelé, and the World’s Best Dad By Desmond Traynor 

On February 26th, 1972, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known to the footballing world – and far beyond it – as Pelé, came to Dalymount Park in Phibsboro. He lined out in an exhibition match for his club side Santos against a combined Bohemians-Drumcondra XI Selection. This was quite a media event, as the Brazilian legend was then widely regarded as the greatest footballer the world had ever seen. In many circles in the game, despite tough contemporary competition, he remains so. But what makes this occasion resonant for me is that, aged eleven, I was there, brought by my often unavailable father. 

    My Da worked long, unsociable hours as a bus conductor to keep us in the relatively frugal comforts his efforts had encouraged us – my mother and myself – to feel we were entitled, mainly through copious amounts of overtime. The Ma – often irritated by the last minute phone calls to inform her that he was doing a double day – complained that we never saw him, little realising that in his mind he was just keeping the show on the road. Providing for us was his way of showing his love. As he used to say, “I reared two gentlemen, and a lady” – these being my elder brother, my elder sister, and myself.

    Pelé, from equally humble origins, through three marriages and several affairs, fathered seven children. Santos were a club of modest means and, realising they had a prize asset on their hands, began gruelling tours all over the world, arranging friendlies against any local team that would do a deal with them, in order to milk their cash cow. Santos rejected all transfer offers for their superstar, and the Brazilian government of the time even passed a bill declaring Pelé ‘a national treasure’, effectively blocking him from ever departing The Land of the Holy Cross for a more remunerative top-flight European side. Thus, his appearance with his teammates at Dalymount.

    As an indentured workhorse with an exhausting schedule, Pelé did not have a lot of spare time for family life with his kids. A son by his first marriage, Edinho, was jailed for thirty-three years in 2014 for laundering money from drug trafficking, reduced to twelve years on appeal (although his famous father always maintained that this was a miscarriage of justice). For most of his life, Pelé never acknowledged his eldest daughter, Sandra Machado, even after her death in 2006, nor her two children, Octavio and Gabriel. She was born of an affair the star player had in 1964 with a housemaid, Anizia Machado. However, shortly before he died, he requested to meet his grandsons, and he recognised all seven children in his will. Another of his affairs, from 1981 to 1986, was with Brazilian TV host Xuxa Meneghel, twenty-three years his junior, whom he began dating when he was forty and she was seventeen.

    My father did not go in for multiple marriages or, to the best of my knowledge, affairs – extramarital or otherwise. His staunch Roman Catholicism – which led to a growing distance between us during my teenage years – would have forbidden him from doing so. However Pelé, too, was a practicing Catholic, albeit evidently of the à la carte variety: he never let his religious beliefs stop him from getting around. He finally left Santos at the age of thirty-four, past his competitive prime, signing for the New York Cosmos, where he played from 1975 to 1977. In New York he enjoyed the high life, becoming a regular at Studio 54, and earning more during his three years with the Cosmos than he had in his entire career at Santos. My Dad, in contrast, didn’t get to kick back until he retired aged sixty-five, claiming the statutory old age pension, and a small annuity from C.I.E.

    The Dalymount match itself was, according to contemporaneous newspaper reports, no great spectacle, with the Sunday Independent headline dubbing the star attraction ‘the Phibsboro flop.’ The lethargic performance was due, no doubt, to Pelé and Co.’s fatigue from constant touring. My eleven-year-old self remembers it rather differently. The fulltime score was 3-2 to Santos, but two incidents stand out in my memory. The first was when a Santos defender, facing his own goal, chose to head the ball against the post, before turning to clear the rebound away. This was true exhibition stuff, worthy of the Harlem Globetrotters. No player would be trying such a move in a match with anything at stake. The other was when a shot wide wound up in our area of the stand behind the goal, and a dozen hands stretched out to touch the ball that Pelé had touched. Mine was one of them.

    My father did bring me other places when I was a child: to Tora, Tora, Tora, an epic war film about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour; and on an annual busmen’s pilgrimage to Knock Shrine which he organised (that fervent Catholic devotion again!), where I was the only boy among a coachful of middle-aged men. My grandfatherly father was forty-six years old when I was born, causing a school friend to remark, “Your old man really is an old man”. However, when I challenged him much later – during my disaffected adolescence – about not seeing enough of him when I was growing up, his immediate response was, “Didn’t I bring you to see Pelé?”

    Perhaps Pelé was and, arguably, remains the best footballer the world has ever seen, even if he was not always the World’s Best Dad. Maybe my father was the World’s Best Dad, despite his enforced absences, and even if there are millions of drinking mugs which proclaim this slogan for countless numbers of men. Like Pelé, my father worked hard and did his best. Within the boundaries of one’s allotted talents and the opportunities that present themselves, isn’t that all anyone can do, for their children?

    Thanks Dad, for everything. Most of all, thanks for bringing me to see Pelé.

Wednesday 1 March 2023

Song of the Faithful Departed

I recorded two versions of 'Song of the Faithful Departed' by Phil Chevron of The Radiators during lockdown, for a podcast Stefan Murphy was doing. The first song which 'got' post-independence in a nutshell, and the best. Slow one: Fast one: Thanks.

Friday 27 January 2023

The Banshees of Inisherin - The Debate Rages

A debate seems to be brewing about the merits of Martin McDonagh's The Banshees of Inisherin. I got into a bit of a spat with someone on old codgers' FaceBook, who is insistent that Banshees is a masterpiece, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is ignorant of film studies. Here's an extract of my opinion, in response to that individual (who, let it be said, I otherwise admire).

'Accolades and nominations mean very little, or mean precisely as much as people are prepared to invest in them. You, more than many people, should know how the PR machine works. I have worked as a film critic - not that I think that's what qualifies me to have an opinion on any film I see. I wrote on this forum at the time I saw Banshees: 'I enjoyed this, for the most part. Sparkling dialogue and great actorly performances. However, I prefer Martin McDonagh's non-Irish set movies - Three Billboards and In Bruges - to his typically 2nd generation London-Irish stage Irishry plays and films. To echo John Coltrane's remark to Miles Davis, I don't think he knew how to end it.' I've never fully bought into McDonagh's Western Gothic (the west of Ireland, that is), which lacks an emotional core. 'Let's laugh at the grotesques and their tragic lives.' Banshees will play well in the U.S. - thus the 'accolades and nominations'. Some Americans probably think that's exactly what Ireland was like. Like lots of films and TV shows I see now, production values and performances are impeccably high. It's the writing that leaves something to be desired.'