Desert Island Discs

What’s the soundtrack of your life?

At school it was metal like Iron Maiden and AC/DC. There was quite a lot of hell invoked for a religious boy. It was probably part of the appeal for some of the people but not for me because first of all I didn’t really notice the lyrics so much, not when the guitar sounds and rhythms were far more exciting. Secondly, if you’ve hung around Christian people much, you soon realise that hell gets a lot more attention than heaven does. So, Hell’s Bells is my first track.

Afterwards, Leo introduced me to Talking Heads, especially Stop Making Sense. There is something that will always feel comforting about sitting in the near dark listening to that album over a pair of warmed headphones. Other people’s heads can be very warming.

I discovered The Grateful Dead at university. I would work through the night on a Thursday writing an essay due at 10:00am on a Friday morning with American Beauty playing quietly on a cassette radio so as not to disturb my flatmates. I had the room at the end of a corridor on the upper storey of our student house. Darren downstairs would either be sleeping the sleep of the dead or awake himself. The room next to mine was empty, I think. I would keep myself going by stopping every hour to light a menthol More and wait for the sun to come up before I headed in to town to hand the essay in. They weren’t good essays.

I bought two CDs before I ever bought a CD player. One was the soundtrack to Ally McBeal because… Well, I don’t really remember why except perhaps I really fancied her. The other was First of a Million Kisses. I mentioned this to Eddi Reader on Twitter once and she was kind enough to Tweet me back. She said that they’d explicitly intended it to be released on vinyl. I think she said that anyway. I was so astonished to have her reply to me at all that I may be misremembering what she’s said. Perfect is still one of my absolutely favourite songs.

I bought a CD of Kind of Blue not long after I moved in with Jane. I listened to it first one night over headphones like I did with Stop Making Sense in Leo’s bedroom 15 years before. It was late evening, dark outside and I was sitting at the dining table while my partner was watching television with her sister. I think my life changed because nothing else sounded the same after that. Nearly everything sounded too simple and not quite good enough. Thrust was all the right kind of funky though.

In order to find something interesting enough, I started to dig through J S Bach because that’s what you do. Once you’ve done the whole Toccata and Fugue in D Minor thing and got that out of your system, pretty quickly you fall into the Matthew Passion and you will never, ever climb out. You could be quite happy there for ever as well as long as someone tosses Thomas Tallis’ 40 part motet Spem in Alium in there after you.

I heard the Tallis Scholars sing that in Beverley Minster one night and I don’t think I have ever quite recovered. The moment all forty voices come in together hit me like an old girlfriend’s slap. The choristers were all around us hidden in galleries and spaces above our heads. If nobody tells you what to expect, if nobody’s there to nudge you and say, “Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it… NOW!” then you’re going to leave a changed person.

That’s a little out of sequence. It should have come after Perfect. 

My friend Alison threw parties in Oxford where as part of the evening’s entertainment she would sing Tom Lehrer’s Poisoning Pigeons in the Park with piano accompaniment by Ian. Some of the best fun I have ever had.

Last track is My Baby Just Cares For Me. Nina Simone’s song was what we played as we left the Registrar’s Office when Anne and I got married. It wasn’t strictly true that I didn’t care about cars and races but compared to Anne, even McLaren in their pomp were as mud to be scraped from the bottom of an icky, sticky shoe.

That’s nine but I’m having Nina Simone as my luxury only to play that one song and Anne’s Night’s Masque trilogy as my book. Another cheat because they are three single volumes but I’m getting a special single volume binding just for these cheating purposes. If that’s not allowed then I’ll have Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy so I can live with those characters for as long as I’m on the island.

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The Problem With Creativity

This is not a post about work. I repeat: this is absolutely not a post about work. In my day job I do have books to sell about creativity and of course they are all brilliant and you should buy them them when I tell you to because then you would be brilliant and insightful too. And that was quite a long sentence. It got away from me a little and that’s what I want to talk about. I’ll come back to it.

I used to draw a lot when I was a child. An awful lot. My grandfather was an artist and my mother was an artist and there were always paper and pencils and crayons and paints in the house. Whenever I didn’t have a book in my hand, I had a sketchpad and a pencil. From quite an early age I had a very definite idea about the lines I wanted to see on the paper. They were precise and they flowed just so. I wasn’t really bothered about representing anything in particular but I did want the lines themselves to work on the page.

Later, when I took up music I could hear my own tunes in my head and they were interesting and complex. They had strange intervals between the notes and the key shifts made things fizz just a little. I sang and played a guitar and bass and much later took up saxophone too. I’ve even plinked a few keys on a piano from time to time to no good effect, sadly.

That’s the thing. Nothing has been to much effect. I have a surfeit of ambition over ability. I’ve always been like this. The line never worked out on paper in the way I saw it in my head. The curve just wasn’t ever quite elegant enough. The shapes turned out ill-proportioned and just wrong. My fingers wouldn’t do what they needed to do with the pencil. It was frustrating.

Nor could I ever sing the melodies which rang out so clearly in my imagination. They came out more like some old hymn tune. That much shouldn’t be a surprise given my upbringing but it’s always been a disappointment. In this case, it’s as if the muscle memory generated by years of singing Abide With Me completely overwhelmed the most interesting tunes which still want an outlet from the sweary confines of my head.

And at last we come to the point. I try to craft the things which appear on these pages as carefully as I can. I throw away much more than I publish. Sometimes that’s because it’s just another empty rant about politics. The bitterness and disappointment evident in the previous post is still very real for me. At other times, it’s been one more In’t Running Great! post and it is but saying so again and again isn’t necessarily interesting.  Sometimes, most of the time in fact, it’s just been a good idea poorly executed like one of the drawings from when I was ten or twelve or that tune which popped into my head in the shower last night but sounded wrong when I tried singing it later. The problem with creativity isn’t necessarily having the idea, it’s executing it to any great or lasting effect.

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