Monday, 2 April 2012

From a twinkling star to a passing angel

As I walked to the tube this afternoon, I was reminded that British eccentricity is not yet dead. My travels around the country often find me talking to people about characters from the past who have somehow defined an area in a specific era. Playwright Arnold Wesker, for example, talks about the man who used to wheel a pram around Brick Lane playing cracked Yiddish records on a wind-up gramophone, and there was the woman from my own childhood who used to throw bricks at motorists driving along the A6 through Higham Ferrers. Their only crime was apparently making her windows dirty. One day she was carted off by the authorities and we never saw her again. I often think that mass media has done a lot to iron out the kinks in society and left us with people whose raison d'etre is merely to fit in.

Highgate still seems to generate the occasional odd ball, however. As I walked to the tube, I noticed scores of tiny paintings on the pavement and realised that a young artist called Ben must have paid us another visit. Ben has dedicated his life to miniature art. His canvasses are pieces of chewing gum ground into the pavement. He'd be arrested for defacing council property if he painted straight onto the Tarmac, so he paints on the chewing gum that people spit out instead. The pictures are very detailed, and in order to paint them, he has to almost lie on the floor. My friend Ruth thinks this is so that he can look up the ladies' skirts.

chewing gum art...

As I admired Ben's artwork, I almost walked into another local eccentric. I've written about him before. He's the man who goes through the dustbins. I don't think he's homeless. One assumes he simply looks for things to recycle. He must have some success, because he roams the streets of Highgate at all hours dipping his fingers into the dustbins and recycling boxes and pulling out all manner of bits and bobs which he carefully places into carrier bags. It can be quite disconcerting to find him rifling through your bin liners. I dread to think what he's pulled out of ours, but he's harmless enough. As I passed him today, with his hand deep inside a council bin, he was singing very happily to himself. I liked that he was happy. I wonder what happens in the summer when the bins are filled with wasps.

I found out yesterday that my mother's paternal grandfather was Huguenot; one of those religiously-persecuted French Protestants who, for some reason, ended up making really good weavers in the East End of London. All of those fabulously-named streets around Spitalfields like Fournier Street belie their Huguenot past! Curiously, I’ve always been drawn to the architecture of those streets, and perhaps I now know why.  My Great Grandfather always told the world he was a gypsy for some reason. I’d always known he’d grown up in the East End, what I didn’t know was that his surname was Garnier, anglicised to Garner around the time that my own Grandfather came into the world. What with the Jewish blood surfing through my maternal Grandmother's line, I feel almost proud to be working with Rich Mix Cultural Foundation on the London Requiem. Their building is at the end of Brick Lane, and a huge amount of their work deals with communities in that area both past and present. I was there this afternoon. Feeling a renewed sense of ownership.
I’ve just listened to From a Twinkling Star to a Passing Angel, which is basically the sonic tory of the ABBA song Like An Angel Passing Through My Room. They’ve just released a mega-version of the song, featuring snippets of the various demos they made on the journey towards the band's most stripped-down recording; the only one which featured no backing vocals whatsoever. It’s an astonishing thing to listen to. You hear the song in all its guises; the original Bjorn demo with stupid lyrics, the disco mix, the version with the Thank You For the Music-style piano. It shows the extreme lengths the band went to in search of perfection, and it's an extraordinary lesson to us all. As Nathan’s just said, “anyone else would have simply abandoned the song.” Take eight minutes to have a listen. I urge you. Just before the final demo, there’s a sequence filled with harmonies where Frida simply shrieks pain into what she’s singing. It’s all very distant and very strangely recorded, but it absolutely finished me off. It’s 30 years since it was released, and I still remember the smell of the inner sleeve of the album. The song comes in at 1'40", so do some spooling!
And what of Pepys 350 years ago? Well, he went to a sort of charity gala at the Bluecoats School, which turned into the longest and most boring sermon known to man. He left after about an hour, unable to bear the pain any longer!
In the afternoon, he went with his wife to the theatre to see his favourite play, The Bondman, “most excellently acted, and though we had seen it so often, yet I never liked it better than today.” Pepys goes on to talk about the various actresses who he'd seen playing the central role. Instead of using their actual names, he refers to them by the name of the part he’d most enjoyed watching them act. There was Ianthe and Roxalana. He saw them as creatures, goddesses, not people. Just as I see Frida from ABBA.

And for those of you who don't believe one of the raffle prizes on Saturday night was a sack of spuds... check this out!

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