To thine own self be true

Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

A man I never knew

Posted by Polonius on 5 January, 2008

I’ve spent some time drafting some text for this post, but I think I’ll just state the facts. My attention was drawn by a post at Cosmic Variance to a posthumous post by an Andy Olmsted at Obsidian Wings. I’ve subsequently seen other links to it. It’s a touching piece. I’d also recommend his last post to his own blog, and especially the comments.


Posted in Musings, News | Leave a Comment »

Remaking the classics

Posted by Polonius on 8 April, 2007

I was reading Christy Moore’s comments on Fairytale of New York:

The most written about song in my repertoire,Shane and Jem Finer fairly nailed it with this classic.Why cover it at all the pricks often ask.It is a wonderful song to sing,magical to dream through,faces from my past inhabit the characters of the story.Some fail to understand that we sing songs, primarily, for personal reasons, not to do a “better” version or gain fortune and acclaim.The definitive version is Shane and Kirsty and The Pogues.How many songs have had films made about them? Then there is the ” The Haggart” version

Of course he has a valid point. Music, especially folk music, is a tradition of performance, rather than of writing or recording. Every rendition of a song is different, and transient. In this respect, music is like theatre. Where would theatre be if actors took the view that Richard Burbage‘s Hamlet or Lear was definitive, and therefore nobody else should attempt the role?

Film, on the other hand, is not theatre. The finest performances ever given are preserved for eternity. Of course there are great scripts, including Shakespeare’s, and the fact that Olivier has given a noted Hamlet shouldn’t preclude Branagh from having a go, though he should expect comparisons to be made. There are also films on the same theme but with different scripts. If Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando wanted to do Mutiny on the Bounty, they should still expect to be compared with Laughton and Gable. Trivia question: what 1978 movie saw Howard and Brando together again?

Some films should not be remade. Casablanca is the obvious example. With the best will in the world, The Italian Job was not Troy Kennedy Martin’s finest hour, and the success of the original was down to some quirky incidental music and some bizarre casting (Noël Coward? Benny Hill?) . I have no intention of watching a remake. And the Coen brothers should have had more sense than to take on The Ladykillers.

Where a film has a weak script, and is made memorable by the direction and performances, it takes a brave, perhaps arrogant, director or actor to attempt a remake. Witness for the Prosecution perhaps deserves special mention here. There was an earlier TV version, but the definitive version is Billy Wilder’s 1957 version. Much as I respect Billy Wilder, he didn’t have a great deal to go on with this story. To his credit, by clever direction, and a superb performance (No plot spoilers here!), he makes the most of the twist in the tail. Nevertheless, for most of this film, it is carried by Charles Laughton. A remake, even for TV, is pointless.

If theatre, unlike film, is a tradition of ephemeral performances, folk music is much more so, in that the “script” is traditionally not written down, but is passed on by ear. Performers collect songs, adapt them to suit themselves, add new verses, mix’n’match words and music, and the songs evolve.

I accept that Christy Moore sings songs for personal reasons. but he should accept that the paying audience have a right to prefer some performances over others. I wouldn’t say that he shouldn’t sing particular songs, but I do believe, for example, that any man will have trouble singing The Blacksmith as convincingly as a woman, and Fairytale of New York is best performed as a duet.

And what the Hell is “The Haggart” version?

Posted in Film, Music, Musings | 6 Comments »

Desert island musings

Posted by Polonius on 18 February, 2007

I’ve occasionally thought of putting together my own Desert Island Disks compilation, but never really got past the first four or so songs. Now that Edward the Bonobo has done his, I thought I’d have a go. This post started off life as a comment on his blog, but I can’t seem to get Blogger’s “preview” facility working atm, perhaps tomorrow?

Anyway, here’s my selection. In the spirit of the original radio programme, I thought I’d explain some of the reasoning behind some of the choices.

Early in our relationship, SWMBO and I had a couple of minor bonding through adversity incidents: burst pipes, that sort of thing, usually at “four in the morning, the end of December”, so we had to adopt as “our song”:

Famous Blue Raincoat – Leonard Cohen

For a while, I had to live in England. As the time came to return home, I often listened to:

Caledonia – Dougie Maclean

(Arguably Frankie Miller did it better, but his version always reminds me of cold piss!)

There’s some doubt over the events that led up to the surrender in St. Valery on 12th June 1940: was it a cynical ploy on the part of Churchill to keep the French in the war, was it incompetence on the part of de Gaulle, or was it simply the effective application of the new tactics of blitzkrieg? Whatever the cause, there’s no doubt that the troops who surrendered there bought enough time to allow the effective evacuation at Dunkerque, without which the British Army would have been destroyed, and a Nazi invasion of Britain would have been a very real possibility. Yet they were forgotten – No stories, no statues for those that were killed, no honours for those that were caught/ Just a deep sense of shame as though we were to blame, though I knew in my heart we were not. So wrote the late great Davy Steele:

The Beaches of St. Valery – Battlefield Band

Three legends for the price of one: the subject, writer and singer of:

Tribute to Woody – Christy Moore

This next one wasn’t the first single I ever bought (that would be Blockbuster by Sweet), but it was the reason behind the first album I bought. I think it’s stood the test of time rather well, and the tinkly piano bits are probably the best thing Rick Wakeman’s ever done:

Life on Mars – David Bowie

Next is a tribute to friendship. It’s a corny idea, but I’m a sentimental git. There’s a couple of Simon and Garfunkel classics that could fill that role, but Carole King just doesn’t get the recognition she deserves:

You’ve Got a Friend – James Taylor

Somehow I managed to get through most of my life without ever being aware of Nick Drake. When I first heard him, I was reminded of John Martyn, so it came as no surprise when I learnt that this was dedicated as a tribute to Nick Drake:

Solid Air – John Martyn

For that token classical piece, I’d like some gentle piano music. A Chopin prelude, perhaps? No, how about this (which I can just about squeeze out of an alto sax):

Gymnopedie No.1 – Erik Satie

Book: Something with “The Complete” in the title. There isn’t enough reading in “The Complete Far Side”, and I couldn’t choose between “The Complete Yes, Minister” and “The Complete Yes, Prime Minister”, so it’ll have to be The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes.
Luxury: My 20″ Pashley muni – I will learn to ride it one day!

Posted in Music, Musings | 4 Comments »

Evolution – an analogy

Posted by Polonius on 1 January, 2007

I’ve been reading ScienceBlogs lately, and I continue to be struck by the differences in culture between the US and Britain. Here in Britain religion, particularly Christianity, is deeply entrenched in schools and the system of government, yet the creationist fringe is almost unheard of. Creationism puts the Alpha and Omega in cretinism.

Thinking about creationism, I was struck by the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle. In the fossil record, we have found a few pieces of the puzzle, and even fewer of them actually fit together, but they are all clearly pieces of the same puzzle. Creationists would have us believe that each piece was painted as an isolated work of art, that the pieces appear to be part of the same scene because a perverse creator wanted to taunt us with the idea that they might fit together, that they are oddly shaped for the same reason, and that some of them actually do fit together purely by coincidence. Why do they have such a low opinion of the creator?

Posted in Musings, Religion | 2 Comments »

The limited capacity of a human’s knowledge

Posted by Polonius on 31 December, 2006

Sherlock Holmes once made this observation, which has a ring of truth to it:

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.A Study in Scarlet

It’s a bit wordy, but later wordsmiths have expressed the same sentiments in pithier terms:

Mr. Osborne, may I be excused? My brain is full.Gary Larson, 1986


D’oh! I didn’t need that new fact! Now I forgot who won Bud Bowl VIII!Homer Simpson, The Father, The Son, and the Holy Guest Star

Posted in Musings | 2 Comments »