Sunday, October 1, 2017

It’s the little lad of four, sitting on a sofa trying to eat a fried egg with a knife and fork while a dog stood just feet away pissing which did my head in. Kidnapping was the best thing to do

I don’t know why this occurred to me an hour or so ago while I was leaving work and heading for here, La Pappardella in Earls Court, where I am settling in to a half-bottle of so-so to not very good house red wine, a cigar and, later perhaps, a meal, but it did. And it has nothing to do with anything which happened today, this week, this month, this year or – well, nothing to do with anything I can think of. It simply came back to me. NB This entry was actually written with the immediate bit below last, but I’ve realised that I took an age getting to it, so I have brought it to the top.

. . .

Only two stories found me while I was working as a district reporter in North Gwent, in South Wales, which were worth anything, and even one could perhaps be bullshit. But the second wasn’t.

The office phone rang, and I answered it.

‘Is this Patrick Powell?’ a low, very low and rather mysterious voice asked, one I could hardly even make out.

‘Yes, it is,’ I said, ‘why?’

Then he announced: ‘Social services have kidnapped my daughter.’

You get accustomed to nutters even when you are working for a very low-level, not very successful evening paper in the back of beyond in the South Wales valleys, but unless they are dangerous or, at worst, drunk, they help to pass the time. Oh, really I asked, give me more details. But the guy wouldn’t give any. Instead he asked me to meet him.

I went to the address he gave me. It was one of several very substantial houses in a very substantial avenue in Tredegar which had not only seen far, far better days, but which could not even remember them. There was a lot of empty housing in North Gwent and the terrace house could be snapped up for a song, but as no one had the dosh to buy the bigger ones, such as this, they were bought up by the local council and used to house those council tenants who had caused trouble everywhere else they lived.

These people were the utterly forgotten people, people who no one knew what to do with and about whom they cared even less. They existed on miserly benefits – not at all large even in 1977 – and everyone could pretend they were being taken care of. They had reached the end, an end you and I will, God willing, never meet. The house, like all the others in the row was wasted, falling down, a wreck, however grand it might once have been, almost an ex-house.

The guy who answered the door took me into his very large sitting room, and I mean the room was large. But there was nothing in it but a table and three chairs and a broken-down sofa on which sat a young child of about four. And the sight broke my heart. The child wearing very little was sitting on the sofa with a plate balanced on its knees trying, with a knife and fork, to eat a fried egg. I sat down in a chair to listen to the man’s story. But as I did so, something even more distressing occurred. A large Alsatian dog, a male, matted and ragged beyond belief, walked in, stopped, then without even cocking its leg as male dogs do, pissed, right there, not feet from the child. And then it walked on, leaving the puddle of piss behind it.

The man told me his story. It seemed that not a year or two ago, his wife had fallen pregnant and was taken to hospital to give birth. Then, once the child was born, it was whisked away by the nursing staff, never to be seen by the mother of father again.

I was astonished.

‘Are you sure?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ he told me. And he gave me the family doctor’s name, the doctor he claimed was responsible for it all.

I jotted down various details, then took off back to Ebbw Vale. I rang the doctor and explained what I had been told.

‘It’s true,’ he said. He was very matter-of-fact, as doctors who do not aim for a celebrity career on TV usually are.

‘What, you took the child away?’

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘But why?’ I asked.

‘Well, you’ve met the father, haven’t you.’ That, he felt was explanation enough. He then told me the child had been immediately given up for adoption.

I kind of understood. And I never got in touch with the father again. Did I do the right thing by doing nothing? I really don’t know, but I’m certain that child had a slightly better life than he or she might otherwise have had.

. . .

Now the bit which initially came first: A few years ago, I decided to read some Somerset Maugham short stories, and then read the very good biography of the man by Selina Hastings (which I have written about before here). But this has little if anything to do with Maugham. I simply mention him because many of his stories, in fact a great deal of them, were based on incidents that occurred, anecdotes he heard or, very often, anecdotes his companions and partners, Gerald Haxton and later Alan Searle, heard and would relate back to him. In fact, Maugham is said to have relied on both heavily for ‘material’. Incidentally, both were very important to him, though Maugham described Haxton as ‘vintage’ but Searle as ‘vin ordinaire’.

Haxton had ‘breeding’, but I put the word in quotation marks because although I admit it does mean something, I dislike much of the snobbery inherent in the word. Maugham and Haxton were together for a very long time, but eventually their relationship disintegrated because of Haxton’s excessive drinking and druggery. He finally died, and although Maugham was inconsolable for a time, he also admits to something akin to relief. Haxton caused him all sorts of trouble. Maugham, a man essentially of the 19th century, was at pains to keep his homosexuality (although he was bisexual and had many female conquests) quiet, whereas Haxton, usually drunk, made no secret at all of his orientation, forever picking up rough trade and getting into all kinds of scraps.

After Haxton’s death, Searle, a working-class lad from Bermondsey, was taken on, ostensibly as his ‘secretary’, and he did, indeed, function more as an employee although he was also, most probably more in the early years, a sexual partner for Maugham. One of many, apparently.

When he was still quite young, Maugham developed a bad stammer, one which caused him quite a bit of social embarrassment, so he was grateful to Haxton who could act in his stead as host and being an ebullient sort take the spotlight off Maugham. Haxton, it is said, had the easy charm of a many to whom many would open up, whereas Maugham could be quite intimidating, although he never meant to be.

My point is that Maugham worked many of the tales Haxton and later Searle brought to him into stories, and the following account, although true, could well serve the same purpose.

. . .

In October 1976, what? 41 years ago? I left the Lincolnshire Chronicle where I had worked for 16 months as a reporter and joined The News, one of two weekly papers circulating in what was then called Gwent, in South Wales, as one of two North Gwent district reporters. As a ‘career move’ moving from one weekly in Lincoln to another in South Wales served no purpose at all, but then I didn’t much have a purpose and was simply driven by a desire to move on. Anywhere, really. It was most certainly not a ‘career move’ and wasn’t intended as one.

Life was simple and easy in North Gwent. Life as a reporter on a weekly is not onerous, not even if you have ambition, and I had none. I fell in with Julie Davis, the other district reporter who had taken a shine to me, and after staying overnight with her on the night of the paper’s Christmas party in her small cottage in Llangattock, just across the River Usk from Crickhowell, within weeks I was staying overnight seven days a week and we were living together. It was not love, but it was easy: a cooked meal every night, telly, then sex. But although I was not ambitious, I was conscious of still wanting to move on, and move on I did, to become on of the local North Gwent district reporters for the local evening paper, the South Wales Argus.

Apart from working for the local evening paper instead of one of the two local weekly papers – the other was the Gwent Gazette – life carried on as it did, except that I was now based in the Argus’s Ebbw Vale office. Stories came from meetings of the local district council, Blaenau Gwent, and the magistrates courts, Ebbw Vales, Tredegar, Abertillery and, until the closed both, Nantyglo and Aberbeeg. The routine was to stay in court or at a council meeting until I had enough ‘stories’ to file, then bugger off back to the office or even home, to write them up and then call it a day.

The job was quite lucrative, too, although indirectly, in a kind of abstract way. A district reporter’s job will not keep him or her in diamonds and pearls, ever, but my weekly wage was supplemented by – at The News’s request – submitting court stories. These were the same as I had phoned over to my paper, except that they were three or four times longer, because I was being paid ‘lineage’ – the longer the story, the more moolah would be added to my wage packet (the South Wales Argus and The News were in the same stable, so the wages office was the same). Then there were ‘expenses’ and Lord was I able to milk the paper.

‘Police calls’ could well be done over the phone, ringing up to get a rundown of local petty crime and road accidents. But for some reason we were ordered to pay each police station a visit in person. My local police stations were in Abertillery, Ebbw Vale, Brynmawr and Tredegar, so that is what I did. To same time, of course, I drove to Brynmawr, about four miles down the road, then on to Abertillery, then back to Ebbw Vale and on to Tredegar, and it was all done and dusted in just over an hour. That was the reality.

For expenses, I claimed mileage from the Ebbw Vale office to Brynmawr and back; then from the Ebbw Vale office to Abertillery and back (and before they were closed to Nantyglo and Aberbeeg and back; and finally from the Ebbw Vale office to Tredegar and back. My actual round trip was about 20 miles. The way I worked it bumped that up to about 50 miles. And this was claimed every day. I really can’t remember what my weekly wage was, but I do know that I was getting as much in lineage and mileage as my weekly wage.

The very, very odd thing was my expenses were never questioned, ever. Ever. Why, I don’t know, but there seemed no reason to find out why. It has long been a principle of mine to do something first and then be told to stop rather to go, cap in hand, to authority to ask whether, you know, is it OK if I do this. To which request the answer can all too often be, no, you can’t. So the moral of the story is: don’t ask in the first place.

. . .

But to get to the nitty-gritty. I did, once in a while, come up with a non-court and non-council story, but with one exception they all seemed to fine me rather than as a result of any diligent sleuthing on my part. (The one good story I came up with was so neutered – probably for legal reasons – as not to be much of a scoop when it finally appeared in print. At one court hearing, a man was fined for importing TV sets from the Channel Islands to North Gwent without paying customs duty. He was fined.

Then, about four or five months later, I was – unusually I have to say – looking through a report of one of the many ‘land regeneration schemes’ launched, paid for by Welsh Office funds, to try to do something about the economic blight destroying North Gwent, but also, and more purposefully, to show ‘the public’ that the Welsh Office was tirelessly beavering away on its behalf. As they say, perception is nine-tenths of the game.

Looking through a report on the latest, a one-million pound scheme to do something or other (and this was in 1977/8, so your £1 million pounds would now, 40 years on, be worth about £5.7 million according to the Bank of England I came across a name which struck me as familiar. What I did next I don’t recall, except that it was to establish that the gent behind the scheme was the very same guy done in the courts a few months earlier for not paying import duty on TV sets from the Channel Islands. What, I asked myself, is going one? How come a two-bit petty crook was being paid a find sum by the Welsh Office.

I did everything by phone, ringing up the Welsh Office, ringing up the company involved and all the rest. It’s not at all difficult, and just needs a little common sense. And the great thing is that people more often than not tell you more than they want to, especially as they don’t yet know that you know what you already know. I wont’ – and can’t – go into details except for one: I spoke to the guy involved and he denied he had anything or anything to do with the company concerned. I then spoked to several other people in the company who all gave me a slightly different story. And when I told one that the man he referred to as ‘his boss’ denied outright being ‘his boss’, he came out with the following great quote: ‘If my boss says he isn’t my boss, then he isn’t my boss.’

Given that there was some kind of scam going on, but given that those involved were low-level knuckleheads (and Lord knows what was going on at the Welsh Office), that about summed it up. I was very proud of my story and wrote it up. The subs then neutered it, and nothing, but nothing at all came of it.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Killing time with a gratuitous kick at vino-loving francophiles

Bordeaux airport, Merignac

More time to kill, so as I am increasingly doing and lacking anyone to talk at, I have decided to post yet another blog entry, which would be my third in just a week. There’s not a great deal to write about, but as my prime intention is to pass the time, that might worry you rather more than it would worry me. Traffic on the motorway and Bordeaux ring road (rocade, my French is coming along nicely, and it isn’t an encouragement to play music as loud as possible) was average, so there’s nothing to report there, and I shan’t do so.

There was the usual rigmarole here at the airport in security checks, but I seem to be getting more used to it. Maybe it’s the wisdom of age. Maybe it’s just that I can no longer even be arsed getting uptight about something I can do nothing about. I should have discovered that years ago.

On the last two full days staying with my aunt I have taken off in the household car (and managing to scrape the left wind on the garage wall parking it last night). I set off on Tuesday to see a photographic exhibition in Langon, but contrary to promises that it was open from every day until the end of September, it wasn’t. It was shut. So I took off into town after I spotted a poster for another exhibition – water and places/towns in South Bordeaux – and eventually found it. It was as exciting as its title promised, i.e. not much, and furthermore everything was in French.

Now just as waiting for a bus or a train not due for another 30 minutes you are apt to read pretty much any and every poster available, from admonishments to keep the platform clean to suggestions about what to do if you ever find yourself at a loose end in Paignton or Blackpool or Chester or pretty much anywhere, I set about trying to decipher the exhibition. I can follow some written French to a certain extent, but after about ten minutes ‘reading’ the first exhibit, I gave up. Had I carried on in that manner throughout the whole exhibition, I would still be there next Tuesday (and on a practical note, would have missed my flight).

Earls Court, later

Back in Old Blighty after a relatively painless journey from Bordeaux airport (I started this entry in the Billi terminal café). There was something akin to controlled chaose at the airport, when for whatever reason, and with three flights setting off at the same time, passengers for all three flights were channelled into the same two passport control booths.

At 12.40 and with just ten minutes to go before our scheduled departure, there was a crowd of at least 250 people queuing up to show their passports and I did wonder whether the flight would leave without us. As it was it left just under 20 minutes late, which is pretty much par for the course for any short haul flight leaving later than 10am from pretty much anywhere. As it was we flew out to Bordeaux from Gatwick about 20 minutes late and boarding had seemed to go completely smoothly. Ah, the tribulations we jet-setters have to put up with.

. . .

Over the past 52 years I reckon I have visited about 20/25, perhaps a few times more, but can honestly say I don’t know the country at all well. My father was stationed in Paris for five years from 1968 on, but in those five years I probably only went home about eight times, every Christmas and then once or twice at Easter. My parents marriage was disintegrating (and my father had a mistress on the side back in London whom he married when my mother died suddenly at 60 after suffering a huge heart attack) and the atmosphere wasn’t very nice.

After that it was once or twice on holiday in the early 1980s (quite recent for me, the distant past for anyone under 30 (I often remind myself that 1986 to me, the year I joined the South Wales Echo, would have been 1959 to my father, the year he and his family went to live in Berlin, but anyone of my age and a little younger will know exactly what I am talking about). Ironically, with one exception when by brother and I spent two weeks in an out-of-season sky chalet apartment near Morzine in the Haut-Something or other Alps, every other visit, including to with my then girlfriend, Sian, was to the same area, Gironde. And to be frank the countryside there is nothing special.

So I know very little of France and unlike my brother and sister, who both attended a French school for five years while my father was working there, don’t speak any French. I mention the countryside because a little later today I shall be leaving La Pappardella here in Earls Court, where I am enjoying a class of wine, I shall be jumping into my car and schlepping all the way home for the next four and a half hours. And in doing so I shall be passing through some very lovely countryside. I know parts of Germany and I know a small part of France, yet – and I don’t think I am at all biased – English countryside, Wiltshire, Somerset, Devon and then Cornwall – knocks it into a cocked hat.

It’s not just all the bloody rain we get here, but there seems more variation. I really no claiming that France, Germany and the rest don’t also have nice countryside, just that vast swathes of those two countries – Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) in Germany, for example – are awfully flat and dull.

. . .

Many Brits have a peculiar dog-in-the-manger attitude to France. I am not talking of all Brits, but those, for example, who might refer to wine as vino and sniff the cork when opening a bottle. Question their patriotism and they might be apt to reply that they ‘love the Queen’ and would certainly ‘die for their country’, but in many ways they seem to regard France as simply a better place, a leader in so many areas where, in their view, Britain lags well behind. ‘The French,’ they will announce, ‘know how to live,’ to which you would be quite entitled to respond ‘what the hell are you talking about?’ But your response will be met by an air of queit disdain that you don’t know what you are talking about.

The French ‘know wine’, ‘eat well’, are ‘superbly chic’ they will tell you, and although such men - it is always men - would be the first, if the occasion arose, to resort to that hoary old cliche that ‘to be born English is to win the first prize in the lottery of life’ (with Scots and Welsh men substituting ‘British’ for English), their gushing over France and all things French would make it seem they actually believe otherwise.

I, who likes food a great deal, am the first to admit that I prefer the French attitude to food and drink and would disagree fundamentally with such self-decribed francophiles. A visit to any supermarket or a stroll in any city, town
and village in France will inform you that your average Frenchman and woman know as little about fashion and chic as our average Brit. As for the conviction of the French that they are ‘a nation of thinkers’, I also beg to differ. Certainly, they seem to argue a lot more with each other and certainly they will discuss pretty much anything at length and then some, but that falls well short of somehow being intellectually in the avant garde.

As for food and drink, the French do seem to value quality more than the Brits, but I as someone who likes cooking, know that it is the attitude to food which differs, not the food itself. (I wish to God many of the items available in French supermarkets were available to us here in Britain. That they are not merely means that there is no call for it. If the Brits wanted it, you can bet your bottom dollar Asda, Morrison, Tesco, and Sainsbury would supply a far wider selection of cheeses and pate far, far better than the slush they offer at the moment. But, as I say, the Brits just aren’t interested.)

A meal is not something to be wolfed down in three or four minutes, but something to be enjoyed. Any meal eaten on any day in France is essentially as simple as one eaten in Britain. It is most certainly not all haut cuisine, but it is also most certainly not the unhealthy stodge that passes for food in Britain.

As for wine, well, there is plenty of the cheap rotgut stuff available in France and there are plenty of takers for it. If you like wine, and I do, you can get perfectly good wine in any supermarket in Britain, just don’t go for the very cheap stuff, bearing in mind that with with the production costs and tax imposed on it, it will be very cheap stuff indeed. Still, if you are one of those ‘j’aime le vin’ Brits who beetles off to France every year to enjoy life as the French do, you’ll still be thinking I haven’t a bloody clue what I am talking about.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

An afternoon in Langon drinking pastis, smoking a cigar and chasing down a viable wifi connection (as you do)

I am sitting outside a café in Place J. David (and I have no idea who he is was) in a town called Langon in the Gironde, South-West Frace, doing what we all seem to do in such a situation, apart from refreshing ourselves and possibly lighting up. I’m looking for wifi. Why, of course, I don’t know and, more to the point, well, why? Theoretically, my 3G connection should be enough (I am on my iPad), but of course Sod’s Law is kicking in and it isn’t. But why should I need or even want wifi.

Well, of course, I don’t, but that is obviously beside the point. I could try to justify it, but I shan’t. I shall simply offer an explanation. I have just taken a picture, then cropped it, then tinkered with it, and it seems to me a reasonably good picture typical of provincial France at pretty much any time. I wanted to post it on Facebook (look me up if you want, Patrick Powell, one of several Patrick Powells, but I’m sure you will sooner or later be able to choose the right one) but I can’t because the … scrub all that, solved it.

I’ve got to say that for one reason or another I prefer to be completely alone on holiday. It’s not that I don’t like staying with people (Marianne), but that when I go on holiday, I feel completely free. There’s no supper to get back to, no timetable of any kind. I can just suit myself. There are, of course, slight drawbacks if, like me, you are the sociable sort and, for example, enjoy eating a good meal or visiting a good concert or exhibition in company, so as to compare notes.

Well, despite that drawback, I just love having no deadline whatsoever. None. And I love, just love mooching about aimlessly, going where my nose takes me. And in company that usually doesn’t work if, for example, your companion doesn’t like mooching about aimlessly and there’s the sense in the back of your head that you don’t want to be boring. And one thing I like doing is finding a pleasant outdoor café like this one and just sitting (or, as is the case here, blogging.

About 30 minutes ago I took a picture, this picture, where the guy was what I was taking the picture of. But because I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable, I made out that I was simply taking a picture of the street and he happened to be in it. Then I cropped it to what you can see here. Deadline, a deadline, looms. Langon is about a

30-minute drive from where I am staying and I am taking my aunt out to supper tonight. And I have to shave and get changed, so it is off with me quite soon. Damn.

So, a short blog entry for a change. More’s the pity because I do so like rambling on about absolutely nothing. Trump is now threatening to destroy North Korea, but I have no time to pontificate on that (and Lord could I pontificate!), so au revoir ici (j’espere). Hope that is right and not bloody awful French.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

And an entry pretty much in keeping with the title of this blog, in which I fly in a plane, wonder what planet Jean Claude Juncker is on as yet again he bangs on about ‘ever closer political union in the EU’, remember once more why it’s lethal for me to drink at lunchtimes and – well, nothing more really – BUT DON’T GIVE UP

Illats, France.

This is a late addition to this blog entry, but I am putting it here upfront, because the rest of this entry is so stupendously dull that I doubt anyone would carry on reading and get to it. Earlier on today, my aunt (see below) announced that Francis Coppola’s (or to give him his full name Francis Ford Coppola, though I really can’t see what the ‘Ford’ is necessary, I mean it’s not as though his last name is a boring old Smith or even Powell) recut version of his classic Apocalypse Now, usefully re-titled Apocalypse Now Redux (which makes it sound related to an anti-vomiting medication) would be showing on French/German channel ARTE. The reason she told me was that it was a ‘VO’ screening, original version.

Well, we all sat down at 8.5pm (20.55 for fucking Eurohphiles) and the film started. In bloody French. My aunt (see below) expressed her disappointment, and I thought ‘sod, it, I was looking forward to this’. Finally, after about 45 minutes of French dialogue – er, I don’t speak French – I gave up and announced I was going to bed.

But I knew that a few months ago I had downloaded the film – in English – and promised myself that when I got back to Old Blighty, I would scour my 17 laptops looking for which one it had been downloaded to. But, dear friends, there is a god: it was downloaded to this one, the trusty small, 11in Lenovo x121e I take on my travels. So guess what I am going to do once I have added this to my blog entry? Watch the film? Well, why not?

This blog entry was started several thousands of fee up in the air, for no very good reason than that I have never done that before. In fact, I can see a series coming on, a series of blogs written in unusual places or circumstances: a blog written (obviously at some considerable risk) in Russian president Vladimir Putin’s private lavatory, one written while simultaneously trying to break the record for eating the most doughnuts (US ‘donuts’) in an hour while typing with one hand.

Well, this blog entry is being written, though by necessity will not be posted while flying easyjet EZY8019 from Gatwick to Bordeaux, mainly because I am bored, don’t really want to read the Economist and watching a film on my iPad (on which this entry is being written) is not as easy as it seems because I find the noise of the engine tends to come through and dialogue is surprisingly difficult to understand.

But first things first: I, as everyone else who came to Gatwick to fly off somewhere (as opposed to all the staff in the many shops, bars and cafes selling tat, drinks and grub at hugely inflated prices – I had a Tony Powell moment when I was asked to pay £3.55 for a regular, i.e. ‘small’, cappuccino and made my feelings plain) had more or less to strip naked to pass through security.

Now I obviously fully understand the reasons for the whole rigmarole, but it always puts me in a bad mood and makes travel by plane such a pain. I like the flying, it’s the stripping off and hanging around that pisses me off. Today our flight – and not one towards the end of the day, but the 9.40pm to Bordeaux – didn’t leave until 10.25pm.

It did make, though, make me realise that I would make a rubbish refugee or economic migrant. And for once that isn’t some cheap, silly joke: given that their lot doesn’t involve mere 40-minute delays and that they are treated like shit by pretty much everyone they come across, they have my wholehearted respect. If I were a refugee, there would be not one but a great many Tony Powell moments, until they come to an end when I am shot through the head by some thug who got fed up with all the whinging.

. . .

The big news this week, or rather the 17th biggest news this week given that the wee chappie in North Korea has sent another rocket off across Japan which arguably is rather bigger news, is that one Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European made his ‘state of the union’ address to gathering of the few who can still find it in themselves to be interested and in which he banged on about chasing forward ever faster towards ever greater political union, an EU army, EU-wide this and EU-wide that. ‘Europe, he declared, ‘has the wind in its sails again. Well, perhaps, perhaps not. As usual we would have to wait for at least 50 years and preferably far more to get a balanced, reasonably objective account of how the EU fared once Britain had upped sticks and buggered off in a huff and few if any of us reading this will be around then.

I read the report of his speech in the Guardian, a paper which is not known for its Brexit tendencies, but even it was remarkably sniffy about Juncker and his speech. It pointed out that the contents of the speech were more fantasy than anything else, given that not a small number of EU members who might well be keen on most aspects of the union are – for any number of reasons – not at all hot on ‘ever closer political union’. This is something Juncker is apparently still big on.

As for Brexit and Juncker’s take on it, you pays your money and you makes your choice as to how important the great man thinks it is. The Guardian reported that he spent less than two minutes addressing the issue. You can read more details here.

The Daily Mail on the other hand made a big thing of Juncker’s references to Brexit, which is no great surprise, of course, reporting that the great man insisted Britain would regret leaving the EU.  and a second account here.

There, in a nutshell, is the problem for anyone trying to find out objective accounts of this another matters. The Mail says one thing, the Guardian another. And given the choice of two interpretations most of us accept the one which best reflects our views. But then it was ever thus.

 . .

I have now been here in Illats for a few days, days which are following their usual pattern. My aunt, who is basically Irish but who has lived in France for more than 50 years does things the French way. So lunch is the big meal of the day. It’s not that the French treat themselves to several haut cuisine dishes at every meal, so by ‘big meal’ I mean main meal, even though it does always – in her household and even though it is essentially a simply meal – consist of hors d’oeuvres (pate, cruditie, that kind of thing, then the main course, then cheese, then fruit. And it is not all gulped down in four minutes. I should though point out that my aunt (strictly speaking my stepmother’s sister, but I regard here as an aunt and her two sons as cousins) and her husband are both over 80 and grew up in a different age. Supper is something simpler, often just salad with dressing, bread and a bit of chees. But wine is drunk at both meals, and it is the wine which does for me.

I can’t say I drink a great deal, but even a glass of wine at lunchtime can knock me out for the afternoon, and it is usually two or three glasses rather than just the one. Obviously, I am not being forced to drink, but I do like a leisurely meal and nothing makes a meal more leisurely than a glass or three of wine. I can’t say I know a great deal about wine (at home I stick to one of two brands of Spanish Rioja and although neither is the cheapest in the supermarkets, buing them most certainly doesn’t risk me breaking the bank), but my aunt’s husband – who may no longer drink alcohol for health reasons – does, like many French of his age know a bit and buys in good wines, which are always a pleasure to drink. So after lunch, I retire to my room, try to read, but very soon give in and nap on and off for an hour or two and finally end up feeling like death. Some people are refreshed by an afternoon snooze, some are not. I am not.

In the past few years I have been coming to Illats in July to take in several concerts at chateaux in the region, but it wasn’t possible this year, so I am here in September. There are, sadly, no concerts at the moment (in July there is are there different series of them) but last night we did catch a nine-strong group of Georgians singing their lusty hearts out at the Cite du Vin in Bordeaux (a very futuristic-looking building). Apparently, it was all part of a marketing drive to push Georgian winesnd there was any number of brochures about Georgia’s wine industry, one claiming – not doubt truthfully – that the cultivation of grapes and wine-making began in Georgia around 6,000BC.

The singers (who each carried a foot-long dagger) had great voices and they harmonised as I have so far only heard the Welsh do.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Becker dead already? Good Lord, why didn’t anyone tell me? Oh, that Becker, not the Venezuelan basketball player. Really. Well, I suppose it’s got to happen to us all at some point. How old was he?

Here’s a surprise: I and my peers, friends and colleagues are all reaching our four score and ten – or getting damn close - and one by one ‘names’ we grew up with, especially musos, are falling off their respective perches. And the surprise? Well, the surprise is that they are all rather surpised that even though in the past folk have tended to kick the bucket pretty much at any time on from the age of 60, they (and their peers, friends and colleagues) expect somehow to buck the trend, to live on for ever if not longer.

Earlier this year it was Prince, and now Walter Becker has gone to meet his maker. I mention those two because I went a bundle over their music, and then some. In Prince’s case I have to admit that I was surprised by his death in that he was still only 57, but also that his death came as the result of a drug overdose. It was not, however, a ‘drug overdose’ as in ‘injecting too much heroin’ or suffering a heart attack after years of cocaine use and abuse  – Prince was, in fact, rather sniffy about using drugs in that way - but a ‘drug overdose’ in that to cope with pain from a damaged hip and to carry on working for days on end without any sleep, Prince had become addicted to painkillers and had been taking them in ever greater amounts. So it wasn’t actually ‘for the pleasure’ of taking drugs or, to use the ludicrous phrase which is often used by folk to try to demonstrate how broadminded they are, he was not taking the pain killers ‘recreationally’.

Becker, on the other hand, was at one point hooked on heroin, though I don’t know when the habit was formed and he did not die of an overdose. Nor do I – or anyone else apparently judging from the obits – know a great deal about the man. Each obit I have heard recites and recycles the same ‘facts’ as though they are cribbing their copy from each other: of his childhood we are told that he ‘was born in Queens in New York’ and that ‘he had rather a rough time of it’. What his parents were called, whether he had siblings and what became of them, what his ‘rough time during childhood’ consisted of we don’t know. I mention that because such details are known and repeated about his songwriting partner and the guy he formed Steely Dan with, Donald Fagen.

Then we are told that Becker ‘attended Bard College ‘a private liberal arts college in Annandale-on-Hudson, a small hamlet in New York’. Such an education at ‘a private liberal arts college’ does not come cheap, so it might be safe to assume that Becker’s miserable childhood was not due to poverty or race. At Bard he met Fagen and both found they had a lot in common – they liked the same jazz, they were into sci-fi and shared the same sense of humour. They formed a band or two (and, a usual factoid often included, comedian and actor Chevy Chase was once a drummer in one of those bands). And on it goes.

My point is that nothing much new is known about Becker apart from the details always trotted out. So: once he was addicted to heroin, his then girlfriend, a Karen Stanley, died of an overdose in his flat. A few months later, he was hit by a taxi in the street and spent a long time in a wheelchair and was confined to the wheelchair while helping to produce the album Gaucho. Except by then his habit made him inconsistent and unreliable (heroin does that kind of thing) and more often than not Fagen was obliged to do most of the work.

Final facts: both decided to put their partnership on ice and Becker took himself off to Hawaii where he beat the habit, married and became an avocado farmer (and I still can’t decide whether that last ‘fact’ is indeed a ‘fact’ or just another in-joke for the two). Either way it is now appearing in Becker’s bios and his obits.

Yes, there’s a bit more which is trotted out, but not much. You will now see him lauded as ‘a great guitarist and bass player’, but it is legitimate to ask why if he was so great did he and Fagen hire so many other guitarists and bass players? He could certainly play, but, for example, his guitar playing has - had I suppose - that noodling quality which can often give the impression of being great without actually being great.

. . .

The friend mentioned in the following (below) informed me a few hours ago that an incident at a Steely Dan concert he and I attended in London was referred to in the comments from readers which are appended to the obit which was published in The Guardian. Here it is. I took a look but couldn’t find it the reference to the incident. So I then googled ‘hotel california “steely dan” “wembley arena” to see if I could track it down. I couldn’t but reached the following, rather breathless, piece about Steely Dan. And here is the comment I left there. I have simply copied it and reproduced it here quite simply because it makes points I would go on to make here and – call me lazy if you like – it saves time.

I avoided listening to Steely Dan during the Seventies because it was trendy to do so. Then one day, in 1977/8 in a god-forsaken down-at-heel steel town in South Wales called Ebbw Vale where I was working as a reporter, I was going through the bargain bin in a newsagent’s chain — of all places, not even a record shop — and came across Aja. It was on sale for 50p (half of £1, about £2.71 in 2015), and at that price I bought it. Even if it was complete shite, at least it was cheap. [But] I loved it immediately and over the next few months I bought all the other albums, which I also loved. Then Gaucho came out, and I bought that and loved that, too.

I still like the music, though I only play intermittent tracks, and went on to buy Fagen’s first solo album — great — then his second, not at all so great, Becker’s first — great and even his weedy voice somehow works, and then SD’s comeback albums, in turn. I like those tunes, too, but something had gone missing.

I think it was their age and possibly because by then they were pretty much at the centre of New York’s art establishment, which whenever I’ve come across it, almost always on TV — I have no personal experience of it one little bit — strikes me as far to self-regarding for comfort, as in ‘Christ, aren’t we cool.’ A good example is David Byrne and his band who are fine as popsters but who seemed to think they and their acolytes are somehow ‘art’. No, you’re not kids, you were just another generation of popsters.

Becker and Fagen strike me as the same: pop/rock dies when some pretentious fuckwit wants to promote it to the status of art and all that ‘art’ brings with it: significance, importance, morality and loads of other crap. And Becker and Fagen seem to have bought into the whole pop as art notion completely.

In the early 1980s I heard an interview with them on Radio 1. I had tuned in eagerly, but was left distinctly disappointed: my then heroes came over as such self-conscious clever dicks that I wanted to puke.

More recently I and a friend went to see them play the Wembley Arena. It was (I’ve just looked it up) in 1996. And once again my one-time heroes showed themselves to have feet of clay: Becker, to his eternal shame, supposedly cool as shit Becker began with that corny old standby ‘hello, London, we love your fish and chips’ and received, as I suppose he expected and wanted, whoops and cheers from the faithful. I felt ill.

A little later — we were in about row three right at the front of the stage — I mischievously shouted to Fagen ‘why don’t you play Hotel California’, and boy did he hate it. This was right just as another song was going to start and it must have preyed on his mind throughout cos when it finished he — rather lamely, I thought — came out with ‘bad things happen to people who say that’.

But oh well, there’s still the music, especially the early music, and nothing can detract from that: music is music is music. But as for ‘the Dan’ and ‘cool’ and arty Becker and Fagen, er, I’ll happily leave the adulation to someone else.

. . .

Don’t get me wrong: I still love Steely Dan’s songs and music, Fagen’s voice and their individual solo albums (though Fagen’s Kamakiriad is, in my view, a little weak). It’s just (and I think I’ve said this before) the usual adulation makes me feel a little queasy. And when someone dies, it becomes intensified. My comment in the Guardian appended with the rest to the obit it was carrying of Becker and where everyone and his dogs was recording just what a sheer genius he was, that we would never see his like again (cont p94) consisted of asking whether ‘Anyone been down to Kensington Palace yet to dump flowers at the gate? It's got to happen, to honour ‘the People's Guitarist’.’ It was not a popular comment. The responses were:

It seems you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

It’s just that I really, really don’t go a bundle on all the canonisation and beatification, and boy does it go on. I’m praying that a certain Bob Dylan is in great health and will wait until I have popped my clogs before he, too, goes. I really don’t think I could survive the hoopla about him.

. . .

PS I was chasing around the ‘information superhighway’ – sorry, the web – looking a picture of Walt and found myself deciding whether to use one of him young or old, until I decided not to use one at all, when I came across this: a woman who claims she was married to Becker, but has been written out of all the bios. Well, you decide. . .