Goodbye, South Bank Show!

Going since January 1978, The South Bank Show has finally been choked to death by the all-encroaching polystyrenisation of terrestrial TV. In the shopping mall that is weekend broadcasting, it came to resemble a beleaguered secondhand bookshop — quirky, cranky, unapologetically interesting — in the midst of a wasteland of junk food franchises. And now it’s gone.

And with its goes the second-best TV theme tune ever!  And that’s not faint praise. First place goes to the Alice-down-the-rusty-plughole theme to pre-eighties Doctor Who, which is religious music, as far as I’m concerned. (Third goes to Big Ron for Have I Got News For You.)

There were two criticisms people who didn’t like The South Bank Show had about it. One was that it was always about people you’d never heard of. It wasn’t, but when it was, then — duh, dat was duh point. The other was that it was pretentious. “Pretentious” in the sense of “It embarrasses me when people talk about things with any degree of curiosity or intelligence, so I’ll call them pretentious then run giggling for the exit.” So I don’t care about “pretentious” as a criticism either.

My favourite episode was the Clive Barker interview from 1994. I videoed it and watched it till the tape stretched, went snowy, and got tangled in my VCR. Then I transferred it to audio (having no way of getting it onto digital video at the time), and still listen to it on occasion when I need a dose of inspiration. (You can find it on YouTube, though the sound’s not in sync. I’d quite happily pay good money to have a proper DVD of it.) But The South Bank Show didn’t do much fantasy, nor horror. (There was a J G Ballard episode, and the inevitable show on The Lord of the Rings when the Peter Jackson film came out, but that was about it.) In fact, it hardly ever did the writers, musicians or artists I wanted to see on it. But I still watched it without fail. Even when I knew enough about whoever was on it to know I didn’t like them. I either ended up liking them, or spent a good hour arguing with the TV. Now that’s entertainment! Generally, though, it was just the air of books, art, films, or whatever creative pursuit it was — the atmosphere I like to breathe. I usually recorded it and watched it the following Monday evening, as a welcome corrective to the first weekday back at work. Now what am I going to do?

Well, it’s not the end of the world. Melvyn Bragg is still doing In Our Time on Radio 4 (which gets podcasted — thank you BBC!), and because it’s Radio 4, he can be as obscure and pretentious (or interesting and curious, as I prefer to put it) as he wants to be.

And Imagine… But, no, that’s no substitute. It ought to be, but it just isn’t. To my taste, Alan Yentob puts himself that little bit too much in the picture. Melvyn Bragg always began The South Bank Show with a quick, “Hello, tonight’s film is about so-and-so,” and then we were off. Alan Yentob has to make it a personal journey — his personal journey. We have to have interpolated shots of him wandering around with his hands in his baggy trouser pockets, looking thoughtful. The one Imagine episode I should have liked the most — on Haruki Murakami — was in fact about nothing but Alan Yentob, with no Murakami in it at all. And, yes, Melvyn Bragg did appear again to do the interviewing, but he always asked intelligent questions. Alan Yentob does the interviewing too, but, sorry, he just asks naff questions. Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe it was just the crap theme music which put me off from the start. (I mean, the show’s called Imagine. So why have the least imaginative theme music on TV? Even QI‘s plunky piece of nothing is a step above Imagine‘s. They’ve changed it for the latest series, but I can’t remember what the new music’s like, so it may be an improvement, but it’s still not Variations.)

But there’s BBC4, so that’s alright. It’s not like the demise of The South Bank Show is leaving TV a total cultural wasteland. (There’s the Culture Show, too. A bit magaziney, and it somehow always ends up covering the same subjects as Late Review, but at least it interviewed Alan Moore, which The South Bank Show never did.)

Still, The South Bank Show has always been my favourite, and I’ll miss it. And so, till Melvyn Bragg reincarnates into a younger looking boffin with a redheaded Scottish sidekick… Oh no, that’s the other programme. Oh well, goodbye, South Bank Show!


Trying not to be a collector of David Lindsay

I love books, though I try not to collect them, mostly for reasons of space and money. The impulse, however, is definitely there.

Occasionally I give in. I bought the Small Beer Press limited edition hardback of Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners — having reduced the paperback to a battered wreck because I kept it in my work bag to read at lunchtimes. Kelly Link is, I think, one of the most innovative and interesting fantasy writers of recent times (ditto Thomas Ligotti, ditto Ted Chiang), and her story “Magic for Beginners” just blew me away in the most pleasantly confounding manner. Besides, it’s a beautifully produced book and it came with a free pack of playing cards. So, when I say I try not to collect books, I basically mean I tell myself I’m not collecting them, but buy a few for their collectibility anyway.

There’s one area, though, where, however much I might deny it, I’m definitely forming a collection, and that’s the works of David Lindsay. I started collecting Lindsay first of all because, having read A Voyage to Arcturus and been profoundly mind-zonked by it, I wanted to read all his other books. So it started off as a desire to get a readable copy of each of his novels. He only wrote six (seven, if you count The Witch as finished, though it has never been published in full), and only five of them were published in his lifetime. But it’s still something of a task to get them all. (And that, I suppose, is what collectibility is about. The quest, or the hunt. It’s as close as I get — as close as I want to get — to spearing wild mammoth, or whatever the reductive “we’re all cavemen really” explanation for the impulse to collect things is. Which I don’t believe, anyway.) I still remember the thrill of, in the early days of the internet, finding Blackwells had a secondhand book search service, which promptly found me a copy of The Violet Apple for £20. (And the added thrill of reading it and finding it was a wonderful book.) Then the distinct un-thrill as I followed that up with a request for Bernard Sellin’s Life & Works of David Lindsay, which they found… for £170. (It has since come out in POD paperback, much to my relief.) The crisis point of this particular stage of collecting came when I realised there was only one David Lindsay novel I didn’t have — his least characteristic book, usually called a “potboiler”, The Adventures of Monsieur de Mailly — and that was because it hadn’t (at the time) ever been republished, meaning that it was only available as an expensive first edition. (It has since been published in paperback.) I tried telling myself I didn’t need to read it. But then I thought, “Do I really want to go through the rest of my life knowing there’s a David Lindsay book I haven’t read? Whatever the cost?” I ended up buying it in its US-retitled edition, A Blade for Sale (which was slightly cheaper than the UK first), but still at £{preposterous (for me anyway)}, which remains the most expensive book I’ve ever bought, by a long chalk.

The thing was, by this time, my collecting of David Lindsay had entered another phase. Popping down to Worthing one afternoon, to see a performance of some M R James stories adapted for the theatre, I found a hardback copy of A Voyage to Arcturus (a Gollancz reprint, not the original) for £5 in one of those lovely secondhand bookshops they have down there on the coast. I couldn’t help picking it up. All I had, at that point, was the Ballantine paperback, which has a good cover, but also its fair share of typos. (Though not as many as the execrable Bison Press edition, which was obviously scanned in, OCR’d, and not even properly spell-checked afterwards. So, okay, you get the occasional number 1 instead of a letter l, but you also get the occasional word that has been changed — “comforted” for “confronted”, for instance, which is a significant alteration of meaning. After buying that book I wrote the only letter of complaint to a publisher I’ve ever written. Of course, I got no reply. If they can’t be bothered to proofread their own books, why should they care what their readers think?) Having picked up that Gollancz hardback (it was a really nice palm-sized edition), I couldn’t help buying it. But I could justify it to myself by saying it was merely a nicer edition than than the one I already had. I wasn’t collecting David Lindsay…

I now have fifteen copies of A Voyage to Arcturus. Largely, this is because I run a David Lindsay website, Violet, and started buying a copy occasionally so as to add better cover scans and bibliographic information to the site without having to nick other people’s information and feel guilty. But this is, I think, just a backdoor way of allowing myself to collect David Lindsay. I have, for instance, two German editions of A Voyage to Arcturus, one of which is the neatest-feeling paperback I own (though of course I can’t read it), and which had the unexpected bonus of being illustrated. I also have a German paperback of The Haunted Woman (retitled Fenster ins Frühlicht, which Google translates as “Window in the early light”), and a French Arcturus. I want the two other French editions, partly to solve the mystery of why I’ve found two quite different cover scans of un voyage en arcturus for the same year. My current Holy Grail, though, is the third Canongate edition of A Voyage to Arcturus; I have two, one with a Frank Brangwyn cover, one with a James Cowie cover. There is a poor-quality, black and white scan that’s been floating around the internet since about day one, of a Canongate Arcturus with a Max Ernst cover. I want that most of all. Partly so I can get rid of that horrible little smudgy webcam photo. Partly just to see if it really exists (which I’m beginning to doubt.)

But the thing that, ultimately, stops me from collecting David Lindsay is the next step on from this. What I’ve been buying so far has basically been paperbacks. I bought them at first because they have interesting covers, but also of course because they’re cheap. The next step is a quantum leap in collecting stakes. Because David Lindsay has never exactly had mass appeal, there weren’t many of his books printed, which means there aren’t many around now. First editions of his books are ridiculously rare, and ridiculously expensive when they do appear. The true Holy Grail of any David Lindsay collection is, of course, a first edition Voyage to Arcturus, but that is so far beyond even thinking about, for me… (A quick check with AbeBooks tells me that, to buy a first edition of each of David Lindsay’s six books (including The Violet Apple & The Witch in a single edition), would cost £3,728, and that’s with having to buy a reissue of Sphinx, because there’s no first edition around at the moment. Alright, it’s hardly first-edition Harry Potter, but it’s still a lot as far I’m concerned.)

So, instead of furthering my collection by buying first editions, I’ve distracted that particularly expensive urge by branching out with a little lateral thinking, looking for books and items associated with David Lindsay in some way, with the intention of adding new information to the site. (Not much happens in the world of David Lindsay. I struggle to find a couple of news items a year.) One of the breakthroughs here was a copy of The Radio Times from 1956, when A Voyage to Arcturus was adapted for the radio. I bought it in the hope there would be credits and perhaps a bit of a blurb about the production, but was thrilled to find an accompanying article and an original illustration, as well as a full cast list (which you can find at the Violet Apple site). I doubt there are going to be many finds like that, but it’s fun keeping my mind open for similar oblique approaches to forming a collection.

Far more fun, I suspect, that spending one and a half grand on a battered first edition of A Voyage to Arcturus. I’ll leave that for when my Premium Bonds come up… After all, they’re about thirty-eight years overdue.


A boy called Sue and a boy called Yellow

We’ll start with Exhibit A:

My daddy left home when I was three
And he didn’t leave much to ma and me
Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze.
Now, I don’t blame him cause he run and hid
But the meanest thing that he ever did
Was before he left, he went and named me “Sue.”
“A Boy Named Sue”, written by Shel Silverstein, sung by Johnny Cash

And here’s Exhibit B:

Everyone considered him the coward of the county.
He’d never stood one single time to prove the county wrong.
His mama named him Tommy, the folks just called him yellow,
But something always told me they were reading Tommy wrong.
“Coward of the County”, written by Roger Bowling and Billy Ed Wheeler, performed by Kenny Rogers

Now, what’s going through your mind as you read these lyrics? If you know the songs at all, it’s the stories they go on to tell. The boy Sue is forced to grow up “quick and mean” because of his name, and with a sore-headed grudge against the man who gave it to him; but when he finally meets up with that man… And Tommy, or “Yellow” as everyone calls him (the colourblind fools), promises his dying daddy to always walk away from trouble if he can; but then one day the Gatlin boys catch his girl Becky on her own…

“A Boy Named Sue” came out in 1969, “Coward of the County” in 1979, but both were played pretty frequently on Radio 2 in the early 80s (when I used to listen to it before walking to school). Or at least they seemed to be played pretty frequently. Probably, they were played just as often as any other songs at the time, it’s just these two went on playing in my head. I thought about those songs. Particularly that line from “Coward of the County”:

They took turns at Becky…. n’ there were three of them!

They took turns turns at Becky? God, what did that mean? It didn’t mean — surely — not on Radio 2?!? I would have been about 8 or 9 at the time; I knew what it meant, but I didn’t want to know what it meant. Because of that line, whenever “Coward of the County” came on, I couldn’t help but listen. First I had to hear the line, how awful it was, then hear the story to the end, to try and get rid of the awfulness. I still thought Tommy finally overcoming his pacifist scruples to slug the Gatlin boys was a little late for poor Becky, but at least it was some resolution. It at least seemed a little bit heroic on his part. (If also un-PC. Nowadays, Becky would lay hold of a pitchfork and do those Gatlins in the goolies. And deservedly so.)

But the point is the song had a pretty powerful effect on me. And the reason for its effect is that it was telling a story. Stories just have a primal power, and stories in songs are among the most compressed examples of storytelling. The only types of stories which are more compressed that I can think of are jokes and anecdotes. And, at least as far as jokes and songs are concerned, compressing the story into a shorter space (fewer words) seems to increase its punching power accordingly. (Anecdotes less so. But the very word “anecdote” always reminds me of Steve Martin’s outburst to John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, having listened to him drawling on pointlessly for hours: “You know everything is not an anecdote. You have to discriminate. You choose things that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting. You’re a miracle! Your stories have NONE of that. … And by the way, you know, when you’re telling these little stories? Here’s a good idea — have a POINT. It makes it SO much more interesting for the listener!” (See imdb for the full quote.) It’s the frustration he feels that proves the power of anecdotes, in this instance through their lack of story.)

There’s something about a song which contains even a hint of a story that compels you to listen. I’ve heard “Coward of the County” countless times, but if I hear it, I still have to listen. Same goes for “A Boy Named Sue”, and the same goes for any number of others. Even ones I don’t particularly like as music. As in, “The Devil went down to Georgia, he was looking for a soul to steal.” Argh! Endless fiddling! But it’s got a story. Or “The bravest animals in the land are Captain Beaky and his band…” Funny the first time, just slightly irritating the tenth — but still, you can’t help but listen.

And that’s the point. Once the story starts, you can’t help being drawn in. You have to listen all the way to the end. Even if you know what’s going to happen. Especially if you know what’s going to happen. There’s some weird combination of the way the music forces the story to progress at a steady, even pace, and how you, as listener, just need to hear those events related one more time, in the same order, in the same manner, with the same outcome.

I suppose it comes down to suspense. Suspense, as Alfred Hitchcock was always fond of pointing out, is not about wondering what’s going to happen next, but knowing what’s going to happen next and being forced to wait to have it confirmed. You see a mad axeman hiding down an alley and the hero’s disposable sidekick walking towards him. You know what’s going to happen, so why watch? But you have to. Every slow-mo step. And it’s the same with songs. You know Johnny’s going to out-fiddle the Devil, but each time you’ve got to listen.

There’s a dark side to all this. Story songs which aren’t proper stories. Those are the worst. They have enough of a story to make you listen, but don’t deliver the goods. All too often the denouement of the story is summed up in one line, and it’s just not clear enough, or it’s too compressed (after all, it’s either fit the end of the story into one line or add a whole extra verse, and we’ve only got three minutes of radio time). This is particularly frustrating if you’re an 8 or 9-year old boy who can’t be sure that what the adults are implying is what he thinks they’re implying. I could never quite be sure why “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge“; it all sounded rather mysterious and grownup, but also, I suspected, a bit groundless. And ZZ Top’s “Master of Sparks“? I still don’t know what happens in that song! Just what is the “Master of Sparks”? A rocket? A plane? Does the narrator die? Then how come he’s singing? Just play the damn guitar, Billy Gibbons, and I’ll forgive you anything!

Anyway. The power of stories in songs isn’t just something I felt when I was 8 or 9. I still can’t hear the start of Fairport Convention’s “Matty Groves” without stopping to listen to the whole thing. And it’s over eight minutes long! And I already know what happens!

(Fist in mouth.) Argh!