I’d like to be all cool about it, but I’m not. It’s a different sort of feeling to last time, as it’s a completely different sort of book; a little more ‘personal,’ which is a bit odd. So I’m both excited and nervous, which I’m guessing doesn’t make me unique amongst the 50 grillion people who also have books out today.
But it’s already prompted something slightly flabbergasting to happen, which I hope to write about at some point.
If you will indulge me, I’d like to point you towards three people who have been incredibly generous with their good nature and reputation: the trio quoted on the front and back covers. It is impossible to convey the anxiety I felt when I made initial contact with them in a sort of fumbling fan-boy type way. (I know people think that publishing is all corrupt and cynical, but I – perhaps naively – wanted to ask writers who I genuinely admired and whose affirmation would mean something to me personally.) So thanks to, in no particular order:
Saul Wordsworth. Saul had written one of the best bits of outright comic fiction that I’ve read in recent years: Alan Stoob, Nazi Hunter. I truly don’t say that lightly; it was masterful, made all the more so because in different hands it so easily could have been a one-dimensional, one-joke novelty.
Neil Forsyth. Amongst other achievements, creator of Bob Servant: the books, the radio shows and the BBC4 series. I’ve loved Neil’s stuff for years; he gets his characters to inspire such affection amidst the comedy, and seriously knows his way around plotting and dialogue.
Jill Twiss. Very-longer-term readers may recall Jill once writing a couple of little blog pieces on here, to keep things going when I was away on holiday. Now she writes for one of the top TV shows on the bloody planet. To say that I was shy about metaphorically turning up at her apartment after ten years and mumbling ‘mmphjillwouldyoureadthismmph’ is somewhat of an understatement. Thanks to Jill, and to John Oliver’s office for clearing the use of his name.
Apart from: ‘How long did it take you to write it?’ the most common question people ask anybody with a book out is: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’
So here’s where, in a long, long, long piece about a pair of musicians. (It started as the draft of a little talk, but I thought I may as well go the whole hog and make a proper essay out of it.)
Make a list of great love songs and Jake Thackray’s ‘Lah-di-dah’ will be on it. And if not, your list is wrong.
It’s not a showy love; this isn’t a fierce and burning flame that needs to be proclaimed to the world in the highest vocal registers; we are not talking dramatic metaphors, nor the surrender to the power of physical beauty, nor the threat of high tragedy should things not work out. It’s simply a bloke remarking that he’ll put up with anything for the love of the girl he adores.
The track is timeless, notwithstanding the fact that its language – of wartime service records and pale ales – speaks of a different age. Jake Thackray’s work endures just as all great literature, film, music and art endures. Thackray knew that there will always be bores, and witterers, and toe-curling social occasions. And there will always be a bloke who will put up with anything for the love of the girl he adores.
Thackray’s delivery is perfect. To call it ‘droll’ does it no justice; he understands that a line such as ‘I shan’t lay a finger on the crabby old batface’ can only work when delivered with the deadest of pans. It is a comic song, sure, but the comedy is there to serve the whole; it is ‘witty’ in the truest, most intelligent, sense of the word. He is being funny, but he is pouring out his heart. Every word is sincere. This applies across the breadth of his repertoire; even his most jaunty and bawdy works have room to breathe and at Thackray’s most bitter-sweet he can make you cry.
‘Lah-di-dah’ could be found on Jake Thackray’s debut album, a record that EMI had been chewing its paternalistic nails over. For all its synonymy with the birth of swingin’ pop music, this was an organisation whose heart had only ever reluctantly strayed further than the Light Programme. But here was a love song – a medium that they understood. Their orchestral arrangers stayed just the right side of syrup, keeping faith with the melody. Above all, there was none of the ‘Look! Look! Over here! Funny song!’ musical tourettes that they were wont to inflict upon Thackray’s more straightforwardly comic work. The glockenspiel punctuation of the final bar was their single blemish – I guess that they simply could not stop themselves.
(They’d go on to do far worse on some of his other material: for those who know the repertoire, I’d probably point to the clunking ‘ta-daa!’ stab inflicted upon ‘Leopold Alcocks’ as my personal un-favourite. Like a ham-fisted jokester’s self-satisfied use of the exclamation mark, like the worst type of pub bore compelled to add ‘nudge, nudge, you know what I mean!’ as you shuffle in embarrassment and look at your feet. As a writer whose roots are in comedy, this sort of thing hurts.)
Whether being comic or serious, Thackray’s work needed no such crappy adornment. He’d prove this on ‘Jake’s Progress’, the masterpiece recorded with a laid-back jazz trio. And, perhaps above all, the live performances captured on the ‘Jake Thackray and Songs’ DVD where, in the main, he was supported only by the double bass of Alan Williams, a player who was utterly aware of his role.
So that’s Jake Thackray, and ‘Lah-di-dah,’ a song that I first heard as a child, by an artist who truly should be thought of as one of the best that Britain has ever produced. Then, much later in life, I found that Thackray had recorded a version in French: ‘Tra la la’.
There was something about it. Foreign language versions of British pop songs were, and are, nothing new of course; the Beatles had done it, as had many artists of the 1960’s. As somebody who arrived too late for that decade, my first introductions to the concept were most likely Blondie and Abba. Presumably there was a commercial motive for ‘Tra la la,’ but there was a clear foundation of solid love underpinning it as well. Thackray had spent some time working in France, and – as all reasonable people would – had fallen under the spell of Georges Brassens, a musician whom the Englishman would go on to cite, champion and cover.
Brassens is another figure whose work resonates around my own childhood. I was fascinated by the physical appearance of his records, with their inescapably foreign covers and the paragraphs of peculiarly alien words on the back. Our family knew nobody remotely French (‘continental’ would have been the term used in my house) and the question of going abroad for our summer holiday simply never arose.
I was puzzled as to why my mother and father would listen to such music, even as I was drawn in myself. Brassens sang in that unmistakeable Thackray-like baritone; I had no clue what he was singing about, but I knew that I loved the ambience of it; the melodies; the conspiratorial warmth of his voice, like that of a favourite uncle placing his arm around my young shoulders and explaining to me secrets about the world of which my parents might disapprove.
I accordingly learnt my first French words: ‘Le Gorille,’ which means ‘The Gorilla.’ This has been of little practical use to me.
My knowledge of Brassens is sketchier than of Jake Thackray and my appreciation of his art, whilst very genuine, remains rather superficial. I simply enjoy the sound that it makes. As I recall, a recent BBC4 documentary about French chanson saw an expert pondering that lyrics and message are considered to be more important to the form than playing and melody. If my recollection is true then Brassens must surely be an exception; my French remains rudimentary but I will listen to Brassens until the cows come home. Lord knows what I might feel about him were I properly bilingual.
Back again to ‘Tra la la’. As I said, something struck me as profoundly authentic about Thackray’s performance. After all, this Yorkshireman was essentially an English exponent of the chanson; for all his meticulous skill with the English language and his addressing of topics that were as British as British could be, ‘the continent’ was the basis of his art. ‘Tra la la’ is not merely a British song re-recorded with French words. To my ears, ‘Tra la la’ sounds – simply – French.
I can’t remember when I first had the thought: ‘what if people had been fooled…?’ But this is where Frédéric Debreu enters the picture.
An early plan was to write a book about an English fan of Brassens: an uber-enthusiast, just as Jake Thackray had been. A working class bloke from the North of England, who enjoyed a pint; a man full of humanity; a performer with complicated feelings about performing. This character would perform the great man’s work with accomplishment, and to general approval across France; somehow his music would spread internationally and achieve unexpected commercial success; the world would suddenly be turned on to the music of this monumental French artist. At the time, I’d been asked for ideas for a screenplay, and I had produced a very bad first draft. It did not work at all. As a writer, my fascination is people, yet this was essentially a cartoon; it was too ‘big’; the plot only narrowly fell short of Brassens’ music ending global famine and stopping all wars. (Although I’m sure that, given a chance, it could.) Quite rightly, nothing happened with the screenplay and it sat in a file. Until I twigged.
Brassens… Thackray… writing about real people is tricky. Aside from the research required to portray them with the respect that they deserve, who was I to put words in their mouths, to highlight their flaws or to ascribe them motives? I would wish Brassens and Thackray to remain heroes on the page, which would make them one-dimensional. And nobody would respect a brace of one-dimensional figures, least of all, I suspect, the ghosts of Brassens and Thackray, who would regard their sloppy canonisation with an eye-rolling contempt. Beware of the bull, etc.
But Frédéric Debreu! He came to me out of the blue. To create my own legendary figure and then – oh golly – I could even write his songs for him! He would be worshipped by his fans, just as Brassens and Thackray are, but for some reason his reputation would have failed to have spread outside his region. So I would have carte blanche to set to work on a once great artist, now neglected and ripe for resurrection.
Brassens… Thackray… Debreu – should they be thought of in the same breath? Debreu’s fans and the folk from his region think so. But then of course you can’t always trust fans and you certainly can’t always trust people who seek a champion for their cause. Critical appraisal goes out of the window as soon as there is an element of ‘one of us’ – that’s why nationalistic music etc. is generally so ghastly. It’s possible that Thackray himself has some dullard fans who worship him purely because he’s from Yorkshire; that Brassens has professional-Frenchman type adherents with little understanding of his music.
For all that everybody says about him in the book, it’s possible, therefore, that Debreu has remained obscure because he is second-rate. Not ‘bad’ but simply not the scandalously overlooked one-of-a-kind genius that his admirers would have us believe. This would give me an excellent get-out, for my lyrics could never aspire to approach Thackray’s; it is a rare luxury for a writer to be able to knowingly leave in a weak phrase with a casual ‘sod it – that’ll do’. But of course the fault for this could be in the English ‘translation’ – perhaps his words were sublime in the ‘original French’. Who knows? I’m not even sure that I do myself, but it has been fun wondering.
So that was the genesis of Frédéric Debreu. He emerged obliquely from one of the great love songs.
Debreu’s recorded output is, of course, unavailable at present. But I urge you towards Brassens and Thackray. You’ll find a wealth of compilations of the former available; personally I’d seek out anything containing the track ‘La Mauvaise Réputation’ (which was the working title for the book) as a good starting point; the live recording of ‘Putain de Toi’ from ‘Georges Brassens #3’ is exactly how I envisaged Debreu’s riotous shows. David Yendley’s blog/website http://brassenswithenglish.blogspot.co.uk/ is a truly excellent place to spend an afternoon.
Of Jake, there is a fan website at www.jakethackray.com. EMI’s ‘Jake in the Box’ 4-CD compilation features pretty well the sum total of Thackray’s studio output; the DVD ‘Jake Thackray and Songs’ brings together performances from his BBC shows and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
And, of course, you can discover Frédéric Debreu via my book, and make your own mind up. But, in the meantime, here’s ‘Lah di Dah…’
As I write this, it looks as if BHS is done for. They’re talking about 11,000 jobs – which is not quite the whole picture, as obviously BHS being shit has allowed other retailers to employ many more people over the years. But 11,000 is a lot, and it’s no joke to the individuals concerned.
One of the terrible things is that nobody in the world at all saw this coming. Clearly, if it had obviously been going to happen, there would be big contingency plans already put in place by the government; ones that would be a step up from ‘the unemployment office,’ and that recognised the fact that this isn’t just some tiny local employer going under. But, as I said, nobody at all saw it… oh.
There are a couple of schools of thought in situations like this. One is that if companies are failing then they must be allowed to fail. I understand the theory of this, although, as far as I can work out, it’s most rigorously adhered to by those who would then go on to begrudge giving the failees any welfare benefits, as they hadn’t worked hard enough or something like that.
The second is that the taxpayer should do something to support big sectors of the economy when they get into trouble. The good news for BHS is that we do this on an alternate basis, and as it went ‘banks – yes’, ‘steel – no’ then it is BHS’s turn.
My alternative proposal – a ‘third way’ if you like – is here in the headline. BHS is probably doomed. It is a non-viable business, whose single dynamic idea ever was the ultra-creative rebrand to ‘BHS’ from ‘British Home Stores’ and back again, and whose storefronts people only ever went near so that they could see exactly what Britain’s High Streets were like in the time of ‘The Sweeney’. I can’t really see a way back.
However, there must be millions upon millions of pounds of unsold stock in these stores. This is good, practical clothing, and it would be a shame for it to go to waste. I suggest that bankers be made to purchase and wear it.
It is an ideal solution. The receipts will not save the chain, but they will go a long way to help the staff as they try to find new jobs. Bankers will be happy to pay off the debt that some in society feel they owe – even if they do need some legal encouragement to do so – and they will be the envy of their friends in the tax havens as they turn up in their non-iron slacks and printed t-shirts that are my dad’s idea of edgy.
There are those who will say that compelling a section of the community to forfeit their money and to don frumpy clothing whenever they step outside their own detached homes in the South East of England on threat of imprisonment would be the action of a despotic society. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and once the bankers got used to the idea I’m sure they would be glad to play their part.
It’s probably not the sort of response they were expecting when the school gave my son a commemorative coin to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday.
Still. Five year-olds say the funniest things.
Of all the things about being a parent, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that ‘watching your children first discover the rudiments of a sense of humour’ is one of the most rewarding – and fascinating. Some sort of process obviously goes on: here, once he’d surmounted that moment of doubt that I might be laughing at him and not with him, he was delighted with his one-liner. Now, the doubt is mine: has he picked up on the black humour of the inappropriate juxtaposition between the celebratory gift and his stated cynical intents? Or have I simply taught him that saying horrible things about elderly ladies is funny?
If he IS starting to discover his own sense of humour then that would be great, and I can finally lob his ‘Mr. Tumble’s Big Book of Jokes’ in the bin.
There’s a small amount of info about it here; you can pre-order signed copies (including ones that come with a nice little bonus thing) here. Or you could just hop down to your local bookshop, or go to Hive or even Amazon.
Thank you to everybody who helped with it, and that, once more, means all the people who have read this blog over the years: the ones who gave me the confidence to continue writing.
There’s hopefully a little bit of buzz around this particular book, which is nice, and I’ve been floored by the endorsement of a few people who – well, all I can say is that I’m blown away to have their acknowledgement at all. So here’s hoping that it’s a success. I can’t act all cool about this – I’d love it to be.
That’s it for now. It’s – er – possible that I might write a bit more about it over the next few weeks.
I mean, there are other things to do: the amazing countryside, Niagara Falls, head into the city and see the Statue of Liberty blah blah blah, but these people have got original Asteroids machines, and Donkey Kong, and Frogger, and Galaga, and Centipede, and Defender, and Zaxxon, and scores upon scores of others – did I mention Galaga? That one’s the best. And you play them at what are essentially classic era prices. (10p a go).
As you do the pinball machines, which fill a whole separate room.
I visited in a slightly professional capacity, to do with other writing stuff that I do (it was a tough job, but somebody… etc). It’s fair to say that I hadn’t *quite* explained the concept to the rest of the family in a great amount of detail, which led to a certain amount of pursed-lips ‘so, we’re at the Museum of Play for the childrens’ benefit, you say?’ but to be fair they caught on quick and were also very, very happy with the more kids-based exhibits and activities downstairs.
It was good because I could then educate and entertain them with the history of and my opinions of the sociological and technical development of those classic-era arcade machines during the subsequent nine-hour drive to Quebec City. I am the best dad in the world like that, like when I took the family to the Official Dukes of Hazzard Museum, or made a two-day round trip for a romantic meal at the original Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant.
The only slight disappointment was that the collection is missing a Carnival machine (which was my favourite for ages), and their Gunfight/Boot Hill was out of commission somewhere. So if you have either of these historic artefacts in your garage somewhere, I encourage you to donate them to a good home.
The best thing about having a moderately successful blog covering major issues of world-wide concern (keeping chickens, playing bowls etc.) is that it does tend to prompt a trickle of quirky and interesting things to happen. The trickle is a little more trickley than it was during the mad days of ‘OMG! OMG! People having blogs is the next big thing!’ but just when you think life has settled down into some sort of normality, an email pops up from the host of Slovenia TV’s Eurovision Song Contest coverage.
So, my new friend Klemen Slakonja (which is Slovenian for ‘Graham Norton’) thought he’d liven up the Slovenian domestic Eurovision auditions show by using the nation’s entire annual TV production budget to create an all-singing, all-dancing video parody of Vladimir Putin, president of Evil Russia. The fact that this exists means that Slovenia is my new favourite country – for reasons less about Mr Putin himself than a simple what a magnificently bloodymindedly mad thing to decide to do. It has already gone viral (as I understand it) on the YouTube, with all sorts of cheery comments below the line along the lines of ‘I am from Russia and you should be afraid’ and ‘we are so going to nuke your country.’
I would like us to be a country that would undertake this sort of lunacy, during a prime-time light-entertainment broadcast put together to somehow represent the nation. But I can’t really see it happening.
Rather than do the sensible thing, which would be to remove the video, change his name, stock up on anti-polonium cream and go and hide in a cupboard, Klemen is approaching Western powers (like me) to try to get more people to watch it, along with his other stuff, some of which is in English and some of which is in Slovenian. I found the stuff in Slovenian to be doubly enjoyable, as I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but it gave me the impression that somebody was being annoyed, somewhere. I’m currently looking for Slovenian evening classes, but there appears to be a gap in the market here in Norfolk.