Monday, March 14, 2016

Stutterer review

Director: Benjamin Cleary
Starring: Matthew Needham, Chloe Pirrie
Run-time: 12 min
Genre: Drama

In the pre-Internet age dating was so much easier; you simply approached your target, stated your intentions, and awaited your fate. That initial interaction was the ultimate test of your nerve. But you endured it, you put yourself out there, because you knew that the reward far outweighed the risk. Eventually, whether by luck or dogged perseverance, you found a match and thus entered into what you hoped would be a long and loving relationship.

Today we do things in reverse. We develop relationships, form bonds and share information without ever having laid eyes upon the object of our desire. And then, when we can put it off no longer, we agree to meet the other person, in person. Stutterer is not the first piece of fiction to tap into this modern-day phenomenon, but, unlike its predecessors, it does so without resorting to well-worn tropes or toe-curling schmaltz.

Its protagonist, Greenwood, is a shy, retiring twenty-something, a typographer who works alone and lives with his dad. The one ray of light in an otherwise dreary existence is Ellie, his girlfriend, whom he’s never met. They have been dating for six months and things have been going well, so well that Ellie suggests they meet up and take things to the next level. A daunting prospect under any circumstances. But when you’ve got a crippling speech impediment, a stutter so incapacitating that unravelling the most simple of sentences is an onerous task, it becomes all the more daunting.

Greenwood’s first instinct is to hide, to run away from the issue in the hope that it will just disappear. He liked things just the way they were; him on one side, Ellie on the other. It was safe, he could be who he wanted to be. The online Greenwood was smooth, he was charming, witty and intelligent; all the things the real-life one wasn’t. But now his safety blanket has been removed, he has been exposed for what he truly is, or at least what he believes himself to be: a spluttering idiot.

What Stutterer does so well, right up until its final, life-affirming act, is to remind us that no matter how concerned we are about our own appearance, our own foibles, our own downright stupidity, someone else will always feel the same. It skilfully distracts us from the bigger picture, asks that we wallow with Greenwood, before scolding us for being so foolish, so utterly maudlin. In that sense it is timeless; it deals with feelings and emotions that have been felt by courting couples since the beginning of time.

But perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay it is that, in spite of its short run-time (twelve minutes), it does more to promote online dating than any number of expensive, convoluted advertisements ever could. It offers hope where there seems to be none and salvation for those who need it most. And it reminds us that no matter who you are, or what you’re going through, there is always someone out there for you, always. I expect Tinder to bid for the rights any day now. 

Stutterer can be watched for free via the RTE player:

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Sometimes they're under the bed, sometimes they're in the wardrobe

I gazed at the wardrobe through the darkness. A monster? In there? It hardly seemed likely. But that’s what she said. “If you don’t go to sleep the monster in the wardrobe will come and get you.” Those were her exact words. There’d been no mention of this monster before, no indication that my room, full of my toys and my stuff, had a monster in it. But Mammy never lied. If she said there was a monster in there, then by God that’s what was in there.

What kind of a monster was it though? And how long had it been in there? I’d been making an awful racket tonight, a real ruckus, so why hadn’t it “got me” already? It’d started with a few songs, stuff I’d learned at playschool, cheerful little numbers that made me think of Mrs O’Brien, my teacher. But then, bored, I’d taken things to the next level. Shouting. I liked shouting, and that’s what I’d been doing, at the top of my lungs, for no apparent reason.

When I heard Mammy coming I hid beneath the blankets and pretended it wasn’t me. She seemed to fall for it; she could be an awful fool at times. Coast clear I took to jumping on the bed, my absolute favourite game. This was what led to the monster revelation, delivered with some swear words as she slammed the door in anger. A monster. In the wardrobe. I decided I’d deal with this situation in the morning. If the monster was awake then the last thing it would want was me poking around, disturbing it and being a general nuisance.

I turned away from the wardrobe and squeezed my eyes shut as tight as they would go. But it was no use. All I could think of was the monster. I imagined it creeping up behind me, all teeth and slobber, its stomach growling at the sight of a plump four-year old boy. Its big hairy hand reaching out for my neck, pulling me towards it. And me not even resisting, knowing it was pointless, that I could never beat a monster. Just lying there, whimpering softly, as it opened its mouth - one of its five mouths, the biggest one – and nibbled at my ears with its rotting teeth.

No. I had to stay positive. This kind of talk was madness. Mammy wouldn’t leave me in here all alone with a hairy-handed, five-mouthed monster; she just wasn’t that kind of Mammy. My monster was probably only a small one, even smaller than me, and not dangerous at all. It probably had lovely brown eyes and made funny little grunting noises whenever you tickled its belly. Maurice the Monster. A nice monster. A friendly monster. I liked him already, couldn’t wait to meet him in the morning.
Then I heard it, a scratching noise coming from inside the wardrobe. I paused, afraid to breathe, afraid to move. Surely not? But there it was again. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. The sound monsters make when they’re coming to get you. This was no small, friendly monster. This wasn’t Maurice. This was the hairy-handed, five-mouthed monster, the hungry one who wanted to eat me. I leapt from the bed, across the room and out the door, continuing straight into my Mammy’s room, diving into her bed and underneath the covers in one motion. The entire journey took less than three seconds.

“What are you doing in here?” she asked groggily.

“The monster came,” I replied.

“Did he now?”

“He did.”

“Well, you better sleep in here, so.”

“Thanks, Mammy,” I said.

Within seconds she was asleep again, the poor woman was beat to the ropes. Safe again, I relaxed. I’d be asleep soon too. But first I wanted to savour the moment. I loved sleeping in my Mammy’s room; with its big double bed, lovely yellow curtains and the full-length mirror where I sometimes practised my karate moves when no-one was around. And the chair in the corner that I sat on every Saturday morning while we discussed our plans for the day, the old clock that went tick-tock-tock-tick-tock; I think it was broken, and the massive wardrobe where she kept all her shoes and coats. Yes, I loved it in here, I always had brilliant sleeps in here. Wait. The wardrobe. I looked at it again. It was massive, big enough for at least nine monsters. Mammy continued to snore, completely oblivious to the threat of monsters. I snuggled in beside her, covering my head with the blankets. There’d be no sleep for me tonight. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Step into my arena

A 'behind-the-scenes' look at last night's leaders' debate

The car was the same as all the others; dark in colour, of German origin; but this one was accompanied by four motorbikes. And - for those who doubted the occupant’s importance - a pair of squad cars bringing up the rear, just in case. It drew to a halt and out he came, emerging from the back-seat to dazzling white light and the sound of camera shutters clicking ten to the dozen. “Over here, over here,” people cried, phones hovering above their heads, determined to capture the moment, to relive it for eternity.

He waved deferentially and made his way to the thronged media. Microphones were shoved in his direction, the lights became more intense. The star attraction was finally here. “Do you not feel the cold?” one reporter asked, in reference to his attire; shirt and tie, suit jacket cast lazily over his shoulder as if out for a stroll on a mid-summer’s eve. “Not at all,” he scoffed, impervious to such trifling things as the weather. And with that he was gone, sauntering inside to greet more fans, to press more flesh, to leave more admirers in awe.

If last night’s leaders’ debate was judged on entrances alone then An Taoiseach would have won at a canter. The man who entered the Concert Hall at the University of Limerick was far removed from the downcast figure we have become accustomed to in recent months. Momentarily imbued with the spirit of Cary Grant, of James Dean, or any matinee idol from Hollywood’s golden age, our leader had suddenly, at this late stage in the game, acquired some sex appeal. I know, crazy isn’t it? But this was a new Enda, an Enda that women wanted to be with and men just wanted to be. A bad boy. The only thing that would have made his arrival badder were if he’d climbed down from one of the motorbikes himself, clad head to toe in leather, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. 

Was this flippant attitude a sign of things to come, a precursor for a night of foul-mouthed missives and lecherous jibes? Well, no, not really. Instead, at least in Enda’s case, we got exactly what we got last Friday night: Tiresome mantras, pomposity and the latest round of bickering with partner-in-crime, Michéal Martin. An Taoiseach ended this chilliest of nights wearing even fewer clothes than he’d arrived in, having proved himself to be all mouth and very little trousers. Thankfully, in case of emergencies, his faithful lapdog, Joan Burton, had arrived resplendent in a long, warm-looking red coat which, one would presume, she would have happily surrendered at the mere hint of a request.

Whether jaded by Friday’s night’s exertions or simply jaded, full stop, all four returnees failed to inspire, their stock plumbing new depths with each passing parable. This was in direct contrast to the new kids on the block, all of whom had their moments. The man generally considered to be the winner (in as much as an argument between seven people can have a winner) was Stephen Donnelly, whose crisp and concise offerings were delivered without truculence, without any of the sniping or back-biting which accompanied each and every tussle between the big four. You sensed their fear, their confusion as they watched this man, this exquisitely bald man, deliver line after line of relatable information, even having the gall to back up his policies with, wait for it, facts and figures.

This new form of politics unnerved Burton the most, moving her to brand it “corporate speak”, an accusation deftly batted away by the in-form leader of the Social Democrats. Then there was Billy Bob Thornton, is that his name? That AAA, PVP bloke, you know the one? His entrance was rather less spectacular, appearing to have walked to the arena in the clothes he’d just woke up in. Confused journalists looked at one another, “is he one of them?” a voice asked, “I think he is,” replied another. But once on stage Richard Boyd Barrett showed why he belonged, on stage that is. Like a conductor of a massive orchestra he played the crowd like a harpsichord, or some other unwieldy instrument. His tactic? Simple: Start speaking in a low voice, build it up gradually, and then end your sentence by shouting at the top of your voice. It worked every time.

Lucinda Creighton was there too, I’m certain of it, but in body only. Cast on the outer regions of the half-circle the Renua leader barely featured, leaving viewers with nothing more than a vague memory of an argument with someone and a spirited speech about taxes, or houses, or crime, one of those important things. Better to be forgotten completely than to be Joan Burton though, her insane wibbling is now a real worry. The Labour leader has become the aggressive drunk of these debates, turned away from every bar, forced to confront strangers in the street, she needs someone to bundle her in the back of a taxi, take her home and put her to bed.  

Gerry was Gerry, he pooh-poohed Michéal’s repeated IRA jibes, turned the issue on its head and invented a “three amigos” phrase which he then repeated for the rest of the night like a child learning its first swear word. But the sad fact is that despite this lukewarm performance, and those which preceded it, Enda Kenny will, in all likelihood, remain at the helm of Irish government come the end of the month. The public will have spoken and will have gotten what they wanted. It brings to mind an ordinary looking bloke, with an ordinary job, and an ordinary car who just happens to have an incredibly attractive girlfriend. We see him there, the country’s fate in his hands, and we ask ourselves: “How did he manage that? How did this bland, thoroughly unremarkable man fool a nation not once, but twice?” For those still in search of an answer hang round the entrance at his next public appearance, it’s a sight to behold. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Yours, sincerely

Why the students of UCD shouldn't be prosecuted for the sharing of explicit images

Young Irish men of today are different to their predecessors. Encouraged to talk about their feelings, to break free of gendered stereotypes, they are a new breed; a new and improved breed. Or so we’re told. Because, despite being the most emotionally mature generation of males to walk our fine land, old habits continue to die hard. And one of the oldest habits of all is the need, the all-consuming urge, to tell one another about their sexual conquests.

Before we continue, let’s get one thing clear: The 200 or so UCD students involved in what’s been dubbed a “revenge porn ring” have not broken any laws, at least not any set out in the constitution. Have they acted immorally? Absolutely. Have they behaved in a reprehensible manner? Without question. But lawbreakers? Potential felons? Sorry, I don’t see it. They have merely seized an opportunity - an undoubtedly sleazy, disgusting opportunity - and milked it for all its worth.

But herein lies the problem; once you send someone a picture it is theirs to do with as they wish. You may be in a loving, caring relationship with that person, and trust them implicitly at that time, but, unless you end up marrying them, chances are you will break up. In fact there’s a distinct possibility that you may break up with them before the end of your degree, or the end of the semester, or maybe even the end of the week.

In years gone by this wouldn’t have been a major problem, your heart, although broken, would eventually heal, and the only things you’d leave behind were a handful of CDs and your sexiest underwear. But in this digital age the cessation of any relationship brings it with a myriad of other issues. There’s the tricky question of whether to unfriend them on Facebook, whether to unfriend their friends, and their friends’ friends, or whether to just delete your entire Facebook account entirely.

And then there’s the other stuff. Some will say these women are foolish for sending saucy pictures to their paramours. Those people have probably never received, nor been asked for, saucy pictures of themselves. It’s part of modern-day romance, a naughty way to titillate your lover during time spent apart. Everyone does it. You don’t consider the consequences; it’s just a bit of fun. No-one’s forcing you to send anything.

But while it’s unlikely that anyone was held at gunpoint, instructed to hit send while pouting for all their worth, there is a certain degree of pressure, of course there is. No-one wants to be thought of as dull, the one who wouldn’t send pics when all the other lads’ girls did. It’s another form of peer pressure, another tricky obstacle to negotiate as you slowly come of age. And ultimately, as with most bad decisions, it helps you to learn some valuable lessons.

The most important lesson for these women, and for any women, is that young men, and maybe all men, are a feckless bunch. Driven by the basest of desires, they act without forethought. It has always been thus. Yes, some generations might have been more mannerly, more gentlemanly than the last, but deep down nothing really changes. Men talk, men boast and men brag. That they can now do so in a public sphere is indeed cause for concern. But cause for police intervention? I’m afraid not. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Film Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

There's nothing I like more than a good list. I'm not bothered about the subject matter - the hundred greatest guitarists, Hollywood's biggest crackheads, the top ten gymnasts of the 21st century – if it's in a carefully ordered, numbered list, I want to know the outcome. I especially enjoy film-related lists; which is just as well given their ubiquity. However I rarely agree with the outcome of these countdowns. Everything is fine until you get to the top twenty and beyond. Yes, the universally acclaimed greats are present and correct - The Godfather, Raging Bull, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest – but alongside them sit esoteric reminders of a bygone era. Films like 1927's Metropolis, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) or Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). Those films don't belong there. They're too old. I've never seen them, and have no intention of ever seeing them.

But where's the cut-off point, at what stage do I bury my pre-conceptions and give these classics a fair go? Well for me it's the 1960s. I figure this to be a reasonable compromise on my part. The sixties were cool; pop music, drugs, the space-age, the Cold War. So that's my start point, everything before that is off-limits. And it's worked out just fine; This Sporting Life, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary's Baby – a great decade for films. Fuck the fifties and the forties, and the nineteen-fucking-twenties, I don't need to see any of that fusty old nonsense. But then, the other day, I found myself embroiled in a conversation with a cinephile, someone who doesn't share my disdain for anything pre-dating Psycho. And before I knew it I was agreeing to watch something from 1951. Something dangerously outside my comfort zone. This is what I get for being such an open-minded sort.

So, with a heavy heart, I logged into my torrent site of choice and searched for the film in question. And there it was: A Streetcar Named Desire - four torrents available. How very reassuring. Torrent downloaded, transferred to USB, and inserted into 39” wide-screen HD-TV, I sat down to watch what would be the oldest piece of cinema I had ever viewed. And guess what? It held up perfectly. Yes it was very much of its time. But it had aged gracefully. It was engaging, involving and, at times, even riveting. In many ways A Streetcar Named Desire is a lesson in film-making, a parable for all wannabee directors. And it's all so simple; acquire an incredible screenplay, a selection of outrageously talented actors, and set up camp in a couple of small, almost claustrophobic, locations. And hey presto, you've got yourself a slice of cinematic history.

The film opens with its central character, Blanche DuBois, arriving in New Orleans to stay with her sister, Stella. At first glance Blanche, played by Vivien Leigh, appears to be your typical 1950s screen-siren, all winsome and whispery, a delicate, fragile little thing. And as she makes her way to Stella's home she looks very much out of her depth, a lady lost on the wrong side of town. When she sees what is to be her home for the next few days; a run-down apartment with only a curtain separating its two main chambers, you can almost feel her heart fluttering in fear. Clearly Blanche is used to a better standard of living, something she is eager to remind her sister of at every available opportunity. However her living arrangements are really the least of her worries, because pretty soon Stella's husband, Stanley, will arrive home, and he is not one to be trifled with.

That is essentially the film's premise, an altogether ordinary tale, a mundane one almost. But the very best stories manage to make the ordinary seem extraordinary and that is what Tennessee Williams does here. There are only four speaking roles in the film – save for a couple of bit-part characters – but so focused are you on their words, and their interactions, that it matters little. Much of this is down to the quite staggering performances of the two leads. I will dissect Vivien Leigh's work in due course, but it would be remiss of me to go any further without discussing Marlon Brando and his monumental achievements herein.

In keeping with my philistinian ways I had only ever seen Brando perform in four films prior to watching Streetcar. They were: The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Superman and The Score. I knew all about his reputation as one of the greatest actors of all time but only had those four pared-down roles as proof of his talents. So when I sat down to watch Streetcar I was entirely unprepared for what I was about to witness. From the moment he first appears on screen I was left agog, “what is this creature?” “Is it human?” “A Greek God sent from the ages to mesmerise all who cross his path?” “Or, simply God himself, checking in on his disciples before returning to his heavenly palace?” I couldn't take my eyes off him. One can only imagine how the women of that time felt when confronted by this brooding presence at their local cineplexes.

And then he starts to act, or rather, he doesn't. Marlon Brando may be listed as Stanley Kowalski in the film's credits, and he may have been nominated for a Best Actor award at that year's Oscars, but he's not acting here. If he is it's not like any other acting I've seen. It as if the screen is his natural habitat, and a film just happens to be taking place around him. Everything he does is so effortless, so natural, that I refuse to believe it was scripted, that the words he spoke were created by somebody else and then handed to him to repeat. And anyway he doesn't really even need words. They are merely just a means to an end. He performs with his entire body. And that is a term I would have deemed ludicrous just a few short days ago.

As if all this wasn't enough Brando has been blessed with something not quite approaching a voice, I would describe it more as a muscle, an instrument of great power. He grunts and mumbles his way through some scenes, his dialect so garbled as to be indecipherable, before exploding to life in others, then simmering just long enough for the audience to catch its breath before repeating the entire process over again. His wife, and the victim of most of his outbursts, is encouraged to leave him and never return. But how could she possibly leave him? How could anyone? It's only been a couple of hours since I watched the film and already I miss him. And while Stanley's relationship with his wife is at once fractious, passionate and vexing, it is his discomforting association with Blanche which propels the film forward.

He is at once wholly unimpressed with his sister-in-law. Not only that, he is suspicious of her also, suspicious of her reasons for being there, and suspicious of her past. For her part she seems to have only one weapon in her armoury with which to defend herself; her womanly charms. And they are on the wane. What is a woman to do in such circumstances? In Blanche's case it's transform into a worrisome maiden in one instance, and a deluded, delirious fantasiser in others. For at least the first third of the film Leigh's character is nothing more than an annoyance. She appears a querulous presence designed to highlight just how brutish Stanley really is. And then we see her anew, we see her as a predator, a young boy her prey. All at once she is a different entity, and our suspicions are aroused now too. Just who is this woman, and where did she come from?

Rumours about Blanche's past abound, with everything from her virtue to her sanity questioned. Is it the presence of those rumours which force us to look at her in a different light? Or does Leigh's gentle prodding of the character change our outlook? Perhaps it's a combination of both. But what can't be argued is the extremes in which Leigh goes to portray this horrendously conflicted woman. Blanche's aversion to daylight and indeed, any forms of light, is attributed to her vanity, but in many ways she is Bram Stoker's Dracula's; a demonic entity masquerading as a charming, flatterer of the opposite sex. In this instance she attempts to ensnare Mitch, an ally of Stanley's played by the latterly famous Karl Malden. Their trysts are as torrid and as tense as anything Stella and Stanley can conjure up, but in an entirely different way. What we have is an earnest, honest man looking for someone with whom to make a home. But deep down he, just like us, knows that Blanche isn't that woman.

Ultimately this is a film about morality, about maintaining your integrity under the greatest of duress. None of the protagonists come off well in that regard, their prejudices toward one another almost as pronounced as their cowardice and selfishness. On a personal level it has certainly opened my eyes. It's by no means a beloved film of mine; I enjoyed it mainly for the acting performances, the artistry of the script, and the story-telling. But is has showed me that films from this particular aeon are far more accessible than I had once thought. Indeed it could be argued that this was the real golden era of cinema, a time when acting and writing were the principal components of any worthwhile movie. Of course the only way for me to discover whether this assertion holds any weight is to continue my exploration of 1950s film. Now, what else was Brando in during that decade I wonder?

Friday, April 17, 2015

Album Review: Paul Simon - Still crazy after all these years

You know that question, the one that goes “if you could live in any era in history what would it be”? I always answer it in the exact same way, my reply never deviates. And while some people dream of returning to prehistoric times or to that of the Roman Empire I'd like to return to a much more recent period of time: the 1970s. I actually lived through nine months of that decade but I don't recall much of it, and I certainly wasn't old enough to savour the cultural melting pot that was 1970's New York. That's where I'd like to go, right into the heart of the rotten apple, into Harlem, The Bronx and Brooklyn. I want to see Scorcese's Mean Streets, run wild with The Warriors and end the night dancing to disco music in Studio 54.

The 1970s represent a high-point for modern popular culture; the music, the movies, the books, the singers, the directors and the writers. Fuelled by a sense of freedom, an almost anarchic need to express themselves while simultaneously snubbing their nose at the authorities, these people created a mass body of work that will never be equalled. Imagine this, imagine if you gathered all the greats works of that era, the records, the original film reels, the dusty first drafts of the decade's great novels and placed them in one confined area. Imagine what that space would represent, what an Aladdin's Cave of originality and imagination you would have on your hands.

Musically the seventies are responsible for the birth of many important genres – punk, rap – but moreso for the continuation and the development of those that already existed. I make no secret of my admiration for one of the decade's most decorated stars, Stevie Wonder has long been my musical idol, the one whom I compare all others against. And with good reason, the seventies belonged to him; three Best Album Grammys in the space of four years attest to that. Who knows, it could have been four in four if Songs in the Key of Life hadn't taken so long to complete. But perhaps it was for the best, because 1975 (Stevie's year out) saw the release of an album that deserved the ultimate accolade, one that would arguably have won the Best Album Grammy in any year regardless of what it was competing against. That album was Still Crazy After All These Years. And its creator was Paul Simon.

This was the first time I'd ever listened to a Paul Simon album. Yes I was aware of his work and knew the hits, the singles and the jingles. But he'd always been one of those artists I'd deigned unsuitable for my tastes. However as you get older your tastes expand, and you become less inclined to dismiss music based on ill-informed preconceptions. At the rate I'm going, I expect to be listening to Religious Thrash-metal rap by the time I'm forty.

My first reaction to Still Crazy is one that has stayed with me throughout repeated listenings: this is an album full of sorrow and pain, one of anguish. And yet despite all this sadness and melancholy it is in many ways an uplifting piece of work. That is why this is such a special collection of songs; its creator is bearing his soul, allowing us a glimpse into the darkest, most tortured, parts of his mind, and yet by its completion we are left with a sense of joy, a feeling of hope for his (and maybe our own) future. How does he this? How does he recall failed relationships, the pain of his childhood and the hardship of life in general without bringing us all down with him? Simple; he forms songs with themes that we can relate to, lyrics full of heartfelt emotion and musical arrangements that soothe and placate even the most cheerless listener. And then there's his voice.

These songs couldn't have been sung by anyone else, that much is notable almost from the first minute. The very notion of someone covering any of the album's ten tracks is laughable to me. These are Paul Simon's songs, based on incredibly personal experiences and delivered in the manner of someone who has struggled, and continues to struggle, with the effect of those experiences. Each word, each syllable, every single intonation is uttered with unflinching honesty and candour, so much so that it is almost too much to bear. And unlike many of his contemporaries Simon affords his words the time and space they need to make an impact on the listener. This might sound like a silly statement but arguably the best thing about his voice is that you can hear and understand every single word. Much of this is down to the album's pitch-perfect production: every instrument is given room to breathe. In a similar manner to the aforementioned Songs in the Key of Life there is a hell of a lot going on in these songs, so much so that I had to pause the music more than once to ask myself “what on earth was that sound?” At one point I thought I heard the gentle hooves of horses as they meandered down a country lane. During another I was sure there were some cow-bells ringing in the distance. Had Simon spent some time on a farm during the making of this album? But the point is that you can hear all these sounds and tones, as mysterious as they may be. There is no clamour, everything has its place, and knows its place.

The star-turn, and the most important instrument of all, is his voice however, his voice, and the words that come out of it. Despite this album being forty years old it speaks to the listener and taps into the things going on in your own little world. Who among us hasn't recalled our little towns? Those places which hold so many memories, as many of them unwanted as cherished? I don't know where Paul Simon grew up. But I know it was somewhere many miles from here, and I know he grew up there long before I was born. And yet he may aswell be talking about my little town during the album's second song. While he wanders the streets of his birthplace I recall the fields and lane-ways of the little village in which I spent my formative years. And isn't that what song-writing is all about, connecting with the listener, taking them to places they haven't been to in years?

Even an intensely personal song like I Do It for your Love resonates deeply. We've all watched as once beautiful relationships have turned sour before our eyes, that feeling of helplessness as what we once thought unbreakable sunders into a thousand tiny pieces. Simon taps into that, the sheer normality of it all, sharing a cold, stocking up on orange juice, and then pulls it from under our feet with a simple metaphor that we can all relate to “Found a rug, In an old junk shop, I brought it home to you, Along the way the colours ran, The orange bled the blue.” We don't need to be told what happened, it's all there for us to see. The album's biggest hit, the one which garnered Simon the most success, is Fifty Ways to Leave your Lover. Much of this is down to its insanely catchy chorus, the humorous rhyming of names as he recites some of the ways in which you can actually leave your lover. But it is the song's measured, considered verses which capture the heart. Once more Simon is conversational, almost jocular as he recounts a discourse which we can only presume is fictitious. It almost comes as a disappointment, a couple of tracks later, when he reveals that he has suffered “a long streak of bad luck” but he “pray(s) it's gone at last.” As much as we hope he can overcome this difficult period in his life we find ourselves praying that it doesn't affect his output. More break-ups, more mid-life crises, that's what we want. Because that way we'll get to listen to some great music. 

That song, Gone at Last, is quite incongruous when taken in comparison with the rest of the tracks. An ode to Motown's golden era, complete with a soul diva and blazing rhythm sections, it depicts Simon as a troubadour, a travelling Wilbury capable of entertaining audiences at the drop of a hat. Any concerns that he might be going all cheerful on us are quickly dispelled in the album's next track (arguably its high-point), Some Folks Lives Roll Easy. Once more Simon bridges the gap between monied musician and impoverished fanatic. He may have all the trappings of fame but he, just like us, has found himself literally praying to God for salvation, for a way out of the pit of despair he now finds himself in. And yet, unlike all the tragic depressives whose music was an escape from the harsh reality of their worlds, Simon's lament offers solace and hope. This is not a man on the edge of reason, he is just someone who occasionally slips and needs a helping hand as he clambers back to his feet.

Such is the personal nature of this album that it comes as a shock when the one-on-one reverie is broken. Yes Phoebe Snow makes her presence felt on Gone at Last, but even that feels like a friend of Paul's has come over for tea and ended jamming the night away with him. But on the album's final track, Silent Eyes, an entire symphony interrupts what I had grown to believe was an inter-personal relationship. Their arrival is not unwelcome, merely unexpected. But this is what the album needs, a final flourish, an epic, bombastic song to round it off in style. Don't let the grand scale of this track fool you though, this is another lesson in melancholy, rounded off by the hitting of a note I hadn't realised Simon could reach. This is his departing battle-cry, you can almost envisage him throwing his mic to the floor as he completes the note, declaring himself done and walking out of the studio, “my work here is done.” And yes it is done, it is done in quite magisterial style. I may never be able to return to the 1970s and experience it first-hand, but thanks to Paul Simon I may never need to. Because here, in this album, I have a piece, admittedly a small piece but a piece of nonetheless, of that decade's history. But more than that I have a piece of him, a piece of the man himself. That he is so willing to give it, and to so many, says more about him than I ever could. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Seven days and one week

A round-up of the week's major news stories as seen through the eyes of an inattentive, misinformed moron.

Throw away the key

If, during any point in Ched Evans' nascent football career, you'd told him that he would become one of the most talked about footballers in the land he would have been, quite naturally, thrilled. If however you quantified that statement by telling him that his career would all but be over by the age of 26 he would have been less pleased. But that is precisely the situation he finds himself in at this moment in time. Evans was convicted of rape in April 2012, and served half of his five-year sentence before being released in October of last year. He has maintained his innocence throughout and a review of his case is scheduled for the near future. He is now a free man, but he is unlikely to ever play professional football again. A handful of English clubs have expressed an interest in acquiring the services of the Welsh international, but all have subsequently backed down and denied ever making him an offer. The latest club rumoured to be interested are Oldham Athletic, but the news has divided fans, with some vowing to never set foot inside the club's stadium again if Evans signs.

Before I go any further I must state that I believe rape to be the most abhorrent of crimes, and one that should carry a far greater sentence than it currently does. Most rapists are out within five years, a laughable amount of time given the sickening crime they have committed. But I'm not here to talk about legal reform; what I want to know is why can't Ched Evans return to the workplace? He has served his time, why release him from prison if he is going to continue to be penalised for his crime? He may as well serve another ten years or so, thus effectively ending his football career. Why is his case any different to that of Lee Hughes, the former Premier League striker who served three years of a six-year conviction for 'causing death by dangerous driving'? Hughes received six years for his crime, Evans just five for his. Which by my logic makes Hughes' offence the worse of the two. And yet Hughes was allowed to resume his career without too much fanfare, going on to play league football for the next seven years.

What's needed here is some clarification. Whether it be the FA or the British Government someone needs to impose restrictions, or lift sanctions, on Evans. Can he play in England? Can he play abroad? What exactly can he do? Until the FA says otherwise Evans should be free to join any club he wants. He should be able to train with them and play for them. He should be allowed to earn a wage and support his family. But we all know this won't happen, Evans will be hounded out of the game, he'll never play again. Where football is concerned he received a life sentence, with no chance of parole.

It's an outrage

I think I can count on one hand the amount of times I've been outraged in my life. Whether this is down to indifference or cold-heartedness is up for debate, but what I do know is that life is a lot easier when you don't get so worked up over everything. Take this newly-commissioned Channel 4 show about the Irish Famine for example. When details of the programme were first announced one word stuck out like a sore thumb: sitcom, a situation-comedy. Now on the face of it this appears strange, millions of people dying from starvation is not a particularly humorous situation. However when you read more about the forthcoming show, entitled Hungry, you realise that it's not going to be a crass, distasteful look at one of the biggest tragedies in Irish history. Instead it will be something made in the finest of Irish traditions; a dark, brooding, blackly-comic documentation of an event which defined a nation.

But why let the facts get in the way eh? Why wait until the programme comes out before sticking the boot in? Let's all just go mad now, let's take to social media, let's start an online petition, LET'S GET FUCKING OUTRAGED!! The reaction to Hungry was as predictable as it was tiresome, thousands of knee-jerk reactions from people who had seen the words “Irish Famine” and “comedy” in the same sentence and lost the plot. I can't speak for all of these people, or indeed any of them, but I wonder how many of them actually took the time to read Channel 4's missive? How many of them read the quotes attributed to Hungry's creator, Hugh Traver? Not that many I would say. Instead they just saw the headline, mused upon it for a moment or two, and then said; “fuck it, I think I'll get outraged.”

Luck of the draw

Barely a day goes by without someone – usually a wild-haired scientist – telling us what will and won't prevent us from getting cancer. Foodstuffs like dark chocolate, red wine and beetroot have been afforded elixir-like status by those in the know; and us poor fools have gratefully scoffed them all down, leaving us with red-stained teeth and cirrhosis of the liver. But now, after years of being told otherwise, a new report states that there is not a single thing we can do to stave off the world's deadliest disease. This study into the causes of cancer suggests that contracting the illness is, in a lot of cases, merely down to bad luck. The report showed that in as many as two-thirds of cases the disease takes hold due to “a random mutation in tissue cells during the ordinary process of stem cell division.”

So does this mean we're all wasting our time? Does it mean we should forget about the healthy lifestyles and live on fags and Monster Munch? Sadly not. Because while things like diet and exercise cannot be directly attributed to some forms of cancer, others such as lung cancer have been proven to be triggered by that forty-a-day habit. However there are 22 types of cancer which, according to Dr Cristian Tomesetti, are unpreventable regardless of what we do. These are the ones that hit the clean-living, never smoked a fag in his life, rarely drank more than a couple of pints, fella down the road. These are the unfair cancers. These are the ones that will get you no matter what you do. You can look at this in one of two ways; either curse the Gods for being so capricious while waving your fist towards the skies, or alternatively, just say fuck it, if it gets me it gets me. Me? I think I'll go with the latter.

Should old acquaintance be forgot

I've never liked New Year's Eve, all that shoving and pushing and huffing and puffing; followed by an orchestrated countdown and lengthy bouts of hugging and kissing. Fuck that. It's too much for me. If I want to hug or kiss you I won't wait until a five-minute window appears at the end of the year, I'll just do it, so watch out. But not everyone is as cynical/miserable as me. Some people enjoy celebrating one number turning into another, they enjoy gathering around a giant clock and chanting in unison like the rapt audience of a children's television show. And because of this New Year's Eve is generally a very busy night for the emergency services of every major city in the world.

Try telling that to those zany Romans though. Clearly infused with the spirit of Caligula himself a whopping 83% of Roman police called in sick on New Year's Eve. These weren't restaurant workers or bar-staff, they weren't even taxi-drivers or pizza-delivery men, they were the fucking police, the ones supposed to ensure the whole thing doesn't descend into chaos. And where were they? Right in the middle of it all, pissed out of their heads, stood beneath the clock chiming it down like everyone else. Thankfully the city still stands at the time of writing and this dereliction of duty didn't result in the fall of the Italian capital. But for all fans of looting, or for anyone who's ever fancied a bit of looting (me, me!) you know exactly where to go for the New Year's celebrations come December.

The fear

There's nothing worse than exiting a nightclub and discovering that there's not a party to be had. You were only getting started, the pills are just kicking in, it's only half-two, you're not ready to call it a night. But tough shit. You can either stand around in the cold, sipping from the half-empty bottle of beer you smuggled out of the club, or you can fuck off home. Or, you could break into the local college and hide in a cupboard for two days. That's why John Arwood and Amber Campbell did when they couldn't find anywhere to smoke their crack and meth. The Florida couple entered Daytona State College on Sunday last, and liked it so much they didn't leave until Tuesday.

However the drug-taking miscreants didn't decide to enrol in class during their stay, no, the silly fiends managed to lock themselves inside a cupboard. Or did they? After two days spent inside the janitors storage space Arwood was left with no choice but to call the police and ask to be rescued. When Daytona Beach troopers arrived on the scene they found an unlocked cupboard containing two bumbling criminals, various drug paraphenalia and (wait for it) a substantial amount of human excrement. The two were charged with trespassing, with Campbell facing a further charge of violating her probation for a crime committed in 2013. Expect this case to feature in an episode of “When Sessions Go Bad” in the coming months.