Today I popped into the library at Manchester, which has temporarily relocated to Deansgate while the Central Library building is being renovated. Hopefully that renovation will involve removal of the ‘reading-room echo’ which turned creaks into gunshots under the central dome.
Having selected three interesting books to read (Stuart Diamond, David Hewson and Amir Aczel) I decided to browse thru New Scientist in case the latest issue carried any exciting job adverts.
Alas, it did not; but one of the news articles concerned a peculiar biological defect, the reverse of colour-blindness; it seems that a small fraction of the female population has superior colour vision and is able to discern four different primary colours. The author helpfully pointed out that they eye has receptors for red, blue and green, which combine to give the entire range of colours – just like the printing process. No! I cried: surely a magazine like NS would expect their readers to know about three-colour printing, and how it is subtractive not additive.

Then I went for a look round the Museum of Science and Industry, which may have to close due to proposed reduction in funding. Some of the exhibits are a bit dull and scruffy, with little in the way of explanation. It occurred to me that there is a basic problem with this kind of museum, in that it is devoted to technology and production – unlike art galleries or concert halls, which belong to the world of cultivated leisure. The large, heavy exhibits (aircraft and Model-T cars) need to be positioned to make use of the room available, and cannot easily be moved afterwards; because of this, maintenance of the building is neglected and the place begins to look shabby and forlorn. But I was looking at the caption on one of the items on display, and read that “Frank Whittle developed the world’s first jet engine in 1937.” What towering significance lies in those four words!




Last night I went to the cinema to see ‘Behind the Candelabra’, the new Liberace bio-pic based on the memoirs of his one-time boyfriend, Scott Thorson.
The film was preceded by various commercials, one of which was for a fantastic new Jaguar Sports Car (‘He had the biggest, the fastest, the reddest sports car…’) and another was a long advert for Army Recruitment featuring the ordeals of a squaddie’s boots. It seems odd to schedule these adverts in a screening of this camp masterpiece; or perhaps the airtime before this movie was heavily discounted and the marketers couldn’t say no.
A few years back I went to see ‘Some Like it Hot’ at the Metro cinema in Derby, and before the film itself they showed some items from 1959; one of these was the Oscar-winning Tom and Jerry Cartoon, and another was a public info film about learning to ride motorbikes. This had been shot in a school playground in Birmingham, and featured a group of housewives in raincoats and headscarves riding mopeds, watched by a man in a white coat with a clipboard.
Maybe the Liberace trailers should have included some contemporary TV or cinema adverts; it would be fascinating to see the clothes, and the cars, and the hairstyles. If you could see through the fog of tobacco smoke of course; the people on screen and the audience members were all allowed to smoke, so the shafts of light coming from the projector room were acutely visible.
Anyway, going Behind the Candelabra, we were treated to a perfectly straightforward story of boy-meets-man; except that in this case the man was rich and famous and was accustomed to getting whatever he wanted. The film was made by HBO, and occasionally the structure of the narrative gives away the fact that it’s not a Hollywood studio production. But if one of the big studios had decided to make this movie it would have taken three times as long and cost five times as much, and probably not been quite as entertaining. Hollywood films are very good; they kindly add music to remind you of what the appropriate emotional response should be at any given time. But here, Soderbergh allows us to hear the characters arguing without telling us what to feel.
There are some wonderful lines in the script (“Ludwig the Second – he was the Liberace of Bavaria”, “I can take a cheque”) and Michael Douglas gives a tremendous performance as the charming predator. Some people have criticised the movie for casting Matt Damon as a teenager, but the only way to make this story work was to have two heavyweight lead actors. It’s not the story of Liberace – this is the story of a particular relationship towards the end of his life, and it will be interesting to read in future about how the movie departs from the truth…if we can ever know what the truth was.
However, Jonathan Romney, writing in the Independent, recounts incorrectly the plastic surgery undergone by Thorson to make him resemble the younger Liberace. Romney says: ‘Scott is modified, the Liberace dimple inserted in his chin, and his features become a pumped-up non-specific blur of a face.’ But it is made clear that Lee had no dimple, and this could be a subtle in-joke about a young man actually wanting to look like Kirk Douglas.

Independent Review, Romney

Last might I found myself watching Liberace on YouTube, some elderly footage from the fifties. Not a rhinestone or ostrich feather in sight; instead, we had a pleasant young(ish) man in black jacket and white tie seated at the piano. He seemed keen only to reassure his viewers that the classical repertoire wasn’t stuffy or forbidding, but instead was a catalogue of irresistible tunes which had inspired songwriters ever since.
As well as an unseen orchestra. Lee was accompanied by two soloists, on flute and guitar, and he made no attempt to hog the limelight when it was their turn to perform. A far cry from the vaudeville monster portrayed by Michael Douglas in his recent film….

Glue, Piano, Mirrors!

Juxtaposition gives context and perspective; two adjacent stories in today’s Daily Mail shed an uneasy light on one another. In one article, we read about how the entrepreneur James Caan insists that parents should not help their children to get jobs. This proposal drew scorn from Tory MP Brian Binley, who said “If parents aren’t there to give all the help they can to their children then I don’t know what they are there for.” A Downing St spokesman offered David Cameron’s view that “…every parent wants what’s best for their children.”
However, the next story on this page describes the case of four-year-old Daniel Pelka, who had apparently been starved and beaten to death by his mother and her husband. Obviously, not all parents are filled to bursting with devotion and kindness.
Several years ago I was preparing to test the adhesion of a paint coating by using sticky tape (press it firmly down, then yank it briskly off-voila!). This tape is remarkably expensive, since it is rigorously tested to confirm that it has the required bond strength. But when I pulled the free end of the tape it unrolled itself, showing almost no adhesion; and the un-tacky ribbon exhaled a faint acrylic smell, suggesting that the contact polymer film had been incorrectly prepared.
I was reminded of this by a news item in today’s Telegraph; Polish-born pianist Krystian Zimerman recently spotted an audience member filming his performance on a cellphone, and left the stage in protest. He later explained that his recording contracts were being jeopardised by unauthorised YouTube postings of concert footage; how can a record company be expected to make a profit when their merchandise is already being given away? The news item ended by mentioning that (shortly after 9/11) Zimerman’s Steinway Grand was confiscated (and destroyed!) at JFK Airport by security officials who thought that the glue used in its construction smelled like explosives. Strange, I thought most airports have forensic laboratories which can precisely identify tiny amounts of explosive or narcotic materials. Perhaps the customs officials undergo special training – like sniffer dogs – which enables them to detect drugs and Semtex.

One performer whose instrument would never have been handled badly by the airport staff was Liberace, the corny, charming showman who dominated Las Vegas for much of the 1970s. Watching elderly footage of this character (on YouTube, naturally) one is reminded of how innocent and uncynical the world was back then. He was exceedingly camp, but vigorously denied accusations of homosexuality; this refusal to acknowledge the truth meant that he was not seen as provocative or challenging, and audiences were still happy to watch him perform. A newly-released film, Behind the Candelabra, covers the six-year liaison between Mister Showbiz and his secret boyfriend, Scott Thorson. It seems absurd that anyone would want to make a film about this character nowadays, and ludicrous that the lead roles would end up being played by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. And completely unbelievable that the film is being hailed as a critical triumph, despite having originally been shunned by all the Hollywood studios.
The film was broadcast on HBO Television in the States, and one viewer headed for the IMDB message boards to post an angry tirade, ending with the sentence: “This movie could definitely distort young minds as the script is quite disgusting.”
Than which I can imagine no higher praise!

Meanwhile, in February 2020 the Telegraph carried this report:

Ballake Sissoko found his instrument in pieces

A top Malian kora player said his handmade instrument was destroyed by US custom officials as he flew back from a concert, sparking outrage over the treatment of African musicians performing abroad.

After a two-week tour of the United States, top Malian kora player Ballake Sissoko was flying back to Paris when he found his handmade instrument in pieces.

Inside the case, a note in Spanish from US customs read: “intelligent security saves time.”
A photo of his kora, a 21-string harp played by the Mandinka people of West Africa, posted on Facebook shows the instrument lying on the floor with its neck separated from the rest and strings wrapped around it.


Drama Moving Jobs

 Journal Entry, Sat 14 Jul ‘01
Contract and medical questionnaire from Sterling Tech. They want me to start on the 23rd of this month.
Went up to Manchester on train, called into CZ and Rem, while walking past Hollywood Showbar who should spring from the door but Chris Bond and his mate!
(Notes: the contract from STL arrived in a DL-size envelope, so the sheets were folded twice. Why not use an A4-sized one? Contract was three pages and medical questionnaire was two pages, and they had included duplicates of each. Called into my GP to ask about medical and he said there’s a three-week waiting list for examinations. But STL gave the impression that I should provide them with the results of this medical before starting work. In nine days’ time!)

Journal Entry, June 2001:
Not really a journal entry, but a list of people to notify. In mid-2001, after about three months of being jobless (applied for about 80 jobs and attended 17 interviews) I had been offered work in Manchester, so I set about moving house.
At that time I had no computer, or printer, or e-mail address so my list is handwritten in blue ballpoint on fine-ruled A4 paper. It reads:
Moving House – People to Notify:
Abbey (Abbey National, which later became part of Santander), Britannia (Building Society, which later became part of the Co-Op bank), RIGP Finance (but the 3-year loan on my bike was fully paid off a month before I was due to move), ntl: (a telecoms provider who later became Talktalk), and MSF (the Manufacturing, Science and Finance trade union, which later became Amicus and then turned into part of the Unite organisation).
I had also been reading Terry Hodgson’s 1992 book on Modern Drama, and made some notes about his various chapters.
Melodrama – violent on-stage drama perfectly suited to cinema, Chekov moved melodrama off-stage. Dramatists narrate violent events rather than enact them. Ibsen and Chekov – complex moral patterns, rounded characters like Dostoyevsky in novels.
Ibsen – dynamic arrival, naturalist plays, like Zola and Balzac, Ibsen was poet with social concerns, ‘Ghosts’ provoke condemnation, sombre play it deceives both audience and performers. ‘Enemy of People’ – one man vs unfree society. Dreams of freedom in all his plays, questions possibility of ever attaining.
Stanislavski – analysed technical and psychological aspects of a role. Connect inner and outer work on text with inner and outer work on self. Chekov was concerned with personal and social freedom – freedom not same as success, moving on may solve nothing; enslavement to one’s own nature and talent.
I made all these notes – not sure why – and then put them away to gather dust while I moved to Manchester to start a new job, on better money with better career prospects and more interesting duties. Only now, twelve years later, do I read through them and wonder if it was a warning. I have moved on, but am no better off. Hundreds of miles and thousands of pounds later, I still have a routine job that a school-leaver could perform, at a salary level that a new graduate would spurn.

To return to my notes on Hodgson’s book:
Pirandello – concerned with individuals fixing categories on others, and on the way events and situations force people to adopt a mask. Seek to be free in order to become whole. P- was pessimist, attacks conventions of naturalist drama and sees human relationships as mutual incomprehension.
Symbolist Drama – Maeterlink, poet, mysticism, Pelleas et Melisande, his works depend on exact technical effects. Strindberg combined symbolist with aims of Ibsen and Chekov, realm beyond visible world, conflict between real and ideal.
Artaud, Brooks and cruelty. The manifesti explore his thoughts about psychological theatre, and about essential passions – myths, heroes and monsters. Experimented with drugs, obsessed with madness, plague, orientalism and synaesthesia, spent years in asylums.

Journal Entry, 25 May 2001:
…They asked me if – having cleared all the issues of compensation out of the way – I would be willing to work for them. I said yeah, the only problem is trying to get to work in winter when it’s ten below freezing.  He then asked about salary; I said that I don’t know what I’m worth, and would have to consult the RSC salary survey.
“Well, we know what you were on before, and we would be looking for a figure in the same region” said he.
“Fine” said I, “if you think that’s a suitable level for a 37-year old in the paint industry with a PhD.”