George Martin and The Beatles: 10 great moments

George Martin and The Beatles: 10 great moments

Yet another legend of popular music passes on. It was Ringo Starr who first broke the news of the death at 90 of George Martin via a tweet. Later, Paul McCartney added his own tribute to the Beatles’ producer, saying:

He was a true gentleman and like a second father to me. He guided the career of The Beatles with such skill and good humour that he became a true friend to me and my family. If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle it was George.

Continue reading “George Martin and The Beatles: 10 great moments”

Bowie: We can be heroes, just for one day

Bowie: We can be heroes, just for one day

Ch-ch-changes
Just gonna have to be a different man…

In Berlin: Imagine a City, Rory MacLean writes of how, in 1976, ‘rock ‘n’ roll’s blazing star fell to earth in Berlin’. Bowie arrived in the city a haunted, haggard wreck: barely six stones, sleepless and wired on cocaine, possessing little sense of his own self-worth. ‘I really did have doubts about my sanity’, Bowie wrote later. But, according to MacLean, Bowie found himself in Berlin (and he might know since, fresh out of film school, he was a young assistant to the director on the film shot in the city at the time, Just a Gigolo). Continue reading “Bowie: We can be heroes, just for one day”

Allen Toussaint, giant of New Orleans R&B, has died

Allen Toussaint, giant of New Orleans R&B, has died

Songwriter, producer and revered New Orleans R&B performer Allen Toussaint has died aged 77 after suffering a heart attack last night after a show in Madrid.

We saw him perform a great show just this summer at Ronnie Scott’sContinue reading “Allen Toussaint, giant of New Orleans R&B, has died”

Percy Sledge and Ben E King: dreams to remember

Percy Sledge and Ben E King: dreams to remember

Last week we lost two giants of soul music – Ben E King and Percy Sledge. Hearing the news brought back memories of listening to Radio Luxembourg under the bedclothes in the early sixties – back when the BBC Light Programme was a waste of time for teenagers, and before the advent of pirate radio. Continue reading “Percy Sledge and Ben E King: dreams to remember”

Jane Bown: looking for the light

Jane Bown: looking for the light

Jane Bown, self-portrait, c1986

Jane Bown, self-portrait, c 1986

‘I was terrified, I don’t think I even knew who he was. But the light was good …’

That was the photographer Jane Bown who died yesterday, speaking of her first commission for the Observer in 1949 – a portrait of the philosopher Bertrand Russell.  Her words, writes Luke Dodds today in his tender and funny Guardian obituary of one of Britain’s finest post-war photographers, ‘classic Jane: concise, self-deprecating and modestly assured’.

Bertrand Russell by Jane Bown

Bown differed from her male colleagues in the world of photo-journalism in many ways, Dodds tell us. She was intuitive, worked fast, and lacked all interest in camera equipment. In a typical shoot she exposed no more than a roll and a half of film, often in just 15 minutes.

Once, in a dark alleyway down the side of the Royal Court theatre in London, she cornered Samuel Beckett, who was notorious for refusing to be photographed. ‘With simmering hostility’, he stood long enough for Jane to expose five frames – the middle one, says Dodds, ‘is one of her most recognisable portraits and the best portrait of the playwright’.

Samuel Beckett, in 1976 by Jane Bown

Samuel Beckett, in 1976 by Jane Bown

In 1969, Jane produced another iconic portrait – of Billie Whitelaw, who also died yesterday. Best known for her work with Samuel Beckett, she has been described as his ‘muse’, and will always be associated with the three major works – Not I (1973), Footfalls (1976) and Rockaby (1981) – that Beckett wrote specifically for her, roles that placed enormous technical and psychological demands on the actress. ‘She doesn’t ask any damn-fool questions,’ Beckett once said wryly, explaining his preference for the unpretentious woman, daughter of a Liverpool electrician and his wife, who grew up in Bradford.

Billie Whitelaw by Jane Bown

Billie Whitelaw by Jane Bown

Jane Bown’s main preoccupation on any shoot was the light. She worked almost exclusively with natural light and in a completely intuitive way, preferring to ignore the camera’s light meter. Many of her best pictures involved a single exposure and she once remarked: ‘I was always a one-shot photographer … where I’m good is that I am very quick.’

Jane Bown at Guildford School of Art, c 1947

Jane Bown at Guildford School of Art, c 1947

In his obituary, Luke Dodds adds this little vignette of her working method:

She liked to be at the same height or slightly higher than her subjects: given her diminutive stature, this sometimes led to unorthodox requests – Michael Parkinson reclining on the floor of ITN’s reception; Björk perched on rubbish bins outside the MTV studios in Camden Town. Then she would begin to circle the subject, gently clicking all the time. She knew instinctively if she had captured a good frame and would often say: “Ah, there you are.” Jane liked nothing better than to concentrate on the eyes, often using such a limited depth of field that one of the subject’s eyes is slightly out of focus.

David Hockney by Jane Bown

David Hockney by Jane Bown

I enjoyed Dobbs’ story of when Jane photographed Tony Blair just before he became prime minister in 1997. He writes:

Looking at the contact sheets it is clear that she struggled. When I asked her about it she replied: ‘It was impossible … he was nice and he allowed me to follow him upstairs so that he could try on a different shirt.’ When I pressed further, she scrunched up her face trying to remember the day and eventually said: ‘It was impossible, because there was nothing real there.’

Maya Angelou by Jane Bown

Maya Angelou, who also died this year, by Jane Bown

WH Auden

WH Auden by Jane Bown

John Betjeman by Jane Bown

John Betjeman by Jane Bown

Mick Jagger

Mick Jagger by Jane Bown

Lucian Freud by Jane Bown

Lucian Freud by Jane Bown

Keith Richards by Jane Bown

Keith Richards by Jane Bown

John Lennon by Jane Bown

John Lennon by Jane Bown

Joan Baez by Jane Bown

Joan Baez by Jane Bown

Doris Lessing by Jane Bown

Doris Lessing by Jane Bown

Church cleaner, Ashbrittle, Somerset, 1950s by Jane Bown

Church cleaner, Ashbrittle, Somerset, 1950s by Jane Bown

Beryl Bainbridge by Jane Bown

Beryl Bainbridge by Jane Bown

Eamonn McCabe, one time picture editor at the Guardian adds an affectionate footnote to Luke Dodds’ obituary, in which he writes:

Nobody has taken so many wonderful photographs of so many great faces with such little fuss as Jane Bown. She was a reluctant star, hating the attention of being well-known herself. She hated being photographed too. I was lucky she trusted me, but she watched me like a hawk when I photographed her at 80. She photographed the Queen that year and I photographed the queen of photography.

I worked alongside her at the Observer for nearly 15 years and she was as nervous as the rest of us every time she went out to take a picture, but unlike many of us, she prepared meticulously. Light was the most important thing in her life. She never used flash, probably didn’t know how it worked.

If you look at many of Jane’s pictures, the subject is often smiling and relaxed. That was because they were often taken after a long lunch, at which Jane would never drink, and shot by a light-filled window. But the real reason was that they all loved Jane. I often see her kind of picture when I look through a lens now, and think to myself, I can’t take that … it’s a Jane Bown.

Jane Bown in 2006.

Jane Bown in 2006 by Eamonn McCabe

Germaine Greer once wrote of Jane Bown: ‘If we are to assess the best of her photojournalism it is to Cartier-Bresson that we must turn to find her soulmate.’

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Maya Angelou: do not be wedded forever to fear

Maya Angelou: do not be wedded forever to fear

Maya Angelou history

What you looking at me for?
I didn’t come to stay…

So, in the space of six months two beacons of justice and equality have flickered out.  First Nelson Mandela, now Maya Angelou. Confirming her death today, Maya Angelou’s son said: ‘She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace’.

Maya Angelou’s life was a s remarkable as Nelson Mandela’s: born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1928, she survived the trials of a terrible childhood. Born into poverty in the depression and the racist, segregated American south, she survived a childhood rape, gave birth as a teenager, and was, at one time, a prostitute. The opening section of her 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an indictment of the racial discrimination she experienced during her childhood, closes with this vivid assertion:

Growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an
unnecessary insult.

Yet that volume opens with the words quoted at the top of this post: ‘What you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay’ – a suggestion of her fierce determination to transcend her circumstances. It’s the same spirit that burns through her wonderful poem ‘Still I Rise’  – the determination to rise above ‘history’s shame’, the past of pain, terror and fear, of terrible suffering. But the shared history of her people has also yielded so much pride and beauty:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Maya Angelou

Like Mandela, Maya Angelou did rise – above the hatefulness and suffering, the violence and prejudice directed against herself and her people, to write inspirational texts such as ‘Human Family’:

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I’ve sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I’ve seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I’ve not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England’s moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

At the same time, in memoirs such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou wrote with brutal directness of the racism she had endured: of  ‘the rust on the razor that threatens the throat’:

A light shade had been pulled down between the Black community and all things white, but one could see through it enough to develop a fear-admiration-contempt for the white “things”—white folks’ cars and white glistening houses and their children and their women. But above all, their wealth that allowed them to waste was the most enviable.

In one scene that she describes, Maya is among a crowd gathered around a store radio with the rest of her community to listen to Joe Louis, ‘the Brown Bomber’, defend his world heavyweight boxing title. In a passage that conjures black pride in the face of oppression, she writes:

My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching,yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. . . . This might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true, the accusations that we were lower types of human beings. Only a little higher than the apes.

As Lyn Innes writes in her obituary for the Guardian:

The book is also a celebration of the strength and integrity of black women such as Angelou’s grandmother, who enforced the respect of white adults and endured the impudence of white children. […] It gives a sympathetic and compassionate account of a beleaguered black community while also humorously dramatising Angelou’s need to find self-fulfilment outside it.

And what a fulfilling life she achieved for herself.  Lyn Innes summarizes the bare outline of an amazing story in her obituary.  It’s a story narrated by Angelou in the several volumes of autobiography that began with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:

While this first volume of her memoirs is generally considered to be the best, the subsequent instalments – Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin‘ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes (1986), A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002) and Mom & Me & Mom (2013) – have also achieved a large and appreciative audience. Collectively, they portray Angelou’s experience as a young single mother; her travels in Europe and Africa with the cast of Porgy and Bess; her involvement with the civil rights movement and meetings with iconic figures such as King, Malcolm X and Billie Holiday; her life in Ghana, her son’s car accident and her decision to leave him in Ghana to recover; and finally the years after her return to the US in 1965 and her decision to begin writing her first book.

Also in the Guardian, there’s a lovely appreciation by Gary Younge which begins with his memory of a day spent in her company in 2002.  He recalls:

She was 74 and high on life. I honestly couldn’t tell if she was drunk or not. There’d been plenty of serious talk throughout the day. But she’d also been singing and laughing since the morning. Anyone who knows her work and her life story – which is a huge part of her work – knows that this is a huge part of her currency. Those maxims that people learn on their death bed – that you only have one life, that it is brief and frail, and if you don’t take ownership of it nobody else will – were the tenets by which she lived.

Angelou was, Younge writes:

A woman determined to give voice to both frustration and a militancy without being so consumed by either that she could not connect with those who did not instinctively relate to it. A woman who, in her own words, was determined to go through life with “passion, compassion, humour and some style”.

Finally – was there ever any moment in our lives more inspiring than Maya Angelou’s recitation of her poem ‘On the Pulse of the Morning‘ at President Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993?  Those lines:

Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

And the concluding verse:

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

Remembering Stuart Hall and The Unfinished Conversation

Remembering Stuart Hall and The Unfinished Conversation

Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall

Sad news today of the death of Staurt Hall, a giant force in post-war intellectual life on the left in Britain.  Born in Kingston into an aspiring Jamaican family, Hall received a classical English education in Kingston before winning a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University.

Hall arrived in Britain in 1951, part of the Windrush wave of Caribbean migration. He found himself in a country that was both familiar and yet one to which he never entirely felt he belonged: he once recalled that when he took the train from Bristol to Paddington station in London, he saw a landscape familiar to him from the novels of Thomas Hardy.

Throughout his career as academic, activist and polemicist, Hall produced countless articles, essays and collectively written volume, as well as radio and television talks.  In 1979 he became professor of sociology at the Open University, attracted by the idea of teaching those who had previously missed out on educational opportunity. He remained at the OU until 1998, focussing on questions of race and postcolonialism, and on theorising British society and culture from a migrant perspective.

From the mid-50s he wrote for New Left Review (he was a founder member) and Marxism Today in the company of such figures as EP Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class, Raymond Williams and Ralph Miliband.  The impact of his writing on race, gender, sexuality and identity, and the links between racial prejudice and the media was felt far beyond academia.

Stuart Hall explains racism on British TV

The Spectre of Marxism: 1983 Thames TV documentary written and presented by Stuart Hall

Last autumn a documentary about his life by the film-maker John Akomfrah, called The Stuart Hall Project, was released. Writing in the Observer, Tim Adams wrote of the film:

You come to see how pivotal his voice has been in shaping the progressive debates of our times – around race, gender and sexuality – and how an increasingly conservative culture has worked lately to marginalise his nuanced understanding of this country.

That film grew out of The Unfinished Conversation, a three-screen video installation that I had the privilege of seeing at the Bluecoat Arts Centre in 2012.

Here is the post I wrote in celebration of Stuart Hall after seeing The Unfinished Conversation:

John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation

In one of his last interviews, with the Guardian two years ago, Staurt Hall expressed his pessimism about politics generally and the Labour party specifically (in a fine assessment of Stuart Hall’s legacy for the Guardian, Stuart Jeffries reminded me of that line of Gramsci’s that Hall would quote with approval – the one about ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the spirit’):

The left is in trouble. It has not got any ideas, it has not got any independent analysis of its own, and therefore it has got no vision. It just takes the temperature: ‘Whoa, that’s no good, let’s move to the right.’ It has no sense of politics being educative, of politics changing the way people see things.

Amen to that. A great voice is silenced.  The conversation left unfinished.

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