Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Oh sixties, where is your swing?

Stupid memory tricks: I'm haranguing the boys into getting ready for their half-day at school (parent-teacher conferences in the afternoon), and a tune comes into my head from decades ago. It's one of those insidious novelty instrumentals that have infested the pop charts over the years, like "March of the Mods" from 1964, which became a fixture of teenage dances as a kind of update to the conga.

I vaguely recall that the tune was whistled, and from somewhere in the recesses of memory comes the performer's name "Whistling Jack Smith." A quick Google later -- and who's not up for a quick Google on a damp morning? -- and there's the title: "I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman," from 1967.  (A year that otherwise produced some very good stuff. Sergeant Pepper, for example. "All You Need is Love." Spurs beat Chelsea in the F.A. Cup final. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the U.K. The "Summer of Love" began.)

Switch to the glories of YouTube, and you get this.

(Oh, please click. Truly one of the strangest things you'll ever witness. An attempt to do early MTV with three live black and white TV cameras and one man whistling. We were so easily pleased in those days. And apparently -- bless you, Wikipedia -- the character in the video was not Whistling Jack Smith and didn't record the original tune. The whistler who did record the tune wasn't called Jack Smith either, but may have been the same siffleur who did the whistling bits for the soundtrack of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.)

"I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman," as a title, seems to be a play on "I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet," which was also a song (with words!), but this was based on the name of a famous 1960s boutique that popularized the military look used by Jimi Hendrix and -- yes -- the Beatles on the cover of -- yes -- Sergeant Pepper.

I vaguely remembering going into the Piccadilly Circus branch, in the days when I was deemed old enough to be allowed to make the eleven-mile tube trip from Hounslow to central London on my own -- my early teens, early 1970s. I was disappointed that, by then, it just seemed to be another store selling jeans.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Roll over Lon Chaney.

Tertius is a master of disguise. It's not unusual for me to sense a presence while I'm working and turn around from my desk to be startled by a three-foot-tall Darth Vader or a poker-faced knight in chain mail staring at me. (I have got to move my desk so I don't have my back to the door.)

This evening, I was in the kitchen, making a shepherd's pie for dinner (I use lots of cumin) when there was a tap on my back.  I turn. Tertius is wearing a pair of those plastic "Groucho" glasses, with eyebrows and fake nose, and a fluorescent-yellow Zapata moustache and zig-zag beard cut from several Post-It notes. 

"Just a moment," he says, and heads off to his bedroom. A minute later, he reappears, having added a MacDonald-tartan tam o'shanter, pulled down to his ears.

"I'm French," he announces.

But of course you are.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Gods must be 3B.

To the school on Friday morning, to see Secundus and his class dressed as Greek gods, the culmination of a project on Greek mythology. Secundus is an eight-year-old Apollo -- type casting -- with a lyre that we made together from a small, gilded display easel found in the local art supply store and an old set of guitar strings. It is a sign of my pathetically non-misspent youth that I have no idea how to turn a bedsheet into a toga and had to resort to the internet for instructions.

The kids read us salient facts and then ask us to guess who they are. I get the obscure ones -- Iris, Orion -- but not, as I confess to the teacher, because I studied the previous evening, as requested. I just retain it from my passing childhood interest in the subject, which, along with heraldry, stage illusions, horror movies, typography, Lewis Carroll and many other totally nerdy obsessions, filled up my mind when other, normal British kids of my vintage were memorizing the line-ups of soccer teams.

Best costume (and one put together on the fly, because the family weren't expecting to be there): Cerberus, the three-headed hound of Hades, accomplished by a Scooby-Doo Halloween costume adorned with a dinosaur head on each shoulder.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

And how was your day?

I did two 90-minute sessions for the high school authors, on plotting the mystery novel. In the first session, I had a young man with Asperger's, who was a very talented and interesting writer but who required some on-the-fly adaptation so that I could absorb his unique contributions into the general proceedings.

In the second session, I got so enthusiastic talking about writing that I spilled a cup of coffee on myself.

I had the best time.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Best day of the year.

I once heard that a consultant is someone who doesn't necessarily know any more than you do, but has it organized into a PowerPoint presentation. (I've also heard it said that a consultant is someone you pay to take the watch off your wrist and tell you the time. I've been a management consultant of sorts, and it's all true.)

Tomorrow is my favorite gig of the entire year -- the annual Writers Conference for high school students in Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam counties (and the Bronx, if I recall last year's cheers). The best teenage creative writers from 25 high schools get a day devoted to their favorite activity -- well, favorite academic activity. And maybe a couple of them will turn up at one of my workshops on mystery writing.

It reminds me that I once wanted to be a teacher; but I'm also aware on these occasions that I don't have the added burden of addressing a group of schoolkids who don't want to be right where they are. I'm spoiled by their brilliance.

But as I go over my notes, I'm reminded again of (a) how much I do know about writing, (b) how much I still have to learn after only 30 years in communications, and (c) how little of (a) sits in my brain in any coherent form.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The image of Effie again.

I was watching a very old episode of the Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson comedy series "Bottom" from 1992, and I spotted a potential Effie in a very early career appearance of Julia Sawalha, soon to find fame as the magnificent Saffy in "Absolutely Fabulous" and then to go on to many other great roles, including voicing a hen in "Chicken Run" opposite Mel Gibson. (I registered her first as Mercy Pecksniff in the BBC's 1994 "Martin Chuzzlewit," when the equally wondrous Emma Chambers -- Alice in "The Vicar of Dibley" -- played her sister Charity.)

I'd forgotten that, in those early days, Miss Sawalha's hair was approaching the curliness of the fictional Effie. But this was also the first time I'd identified an actress who didn't merely match my visual image of the character, but who I felt could have performed the part to perfection.

There are plenty of images of the lovely Miss S. all over cyberspace, with the whole gamut of hairstyles, but I wanted to find her specific appearance on that Mayall/Edmondson show. So I Googled the phrase "Julia Sawalha Bottom."

It is to her credit that nothing inappropriate showed up, despite having "Safe Search" off, but I apologize nonetheless to anybody and everybody for any misunderstanding. I think the look says it all.

(Further proof that she'd have made a great Effie, incidentally.)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Hair today. Still. All of it. It's just a different color these days.

More hair from a bygone time. Talking of Extreme Englishness, here's a picture I found of Isleworth Grammar School's 1973 production of "The Mikado." I am on the right, playing Nanki-Poo, a wand'ring minstrel, a part I earned not because of my acting talent, but because I was the only tenor in the sixth form who could hit a top A-flat full voice. (I still can. I just can't hit anything lower with any accuracy.)

The fine young thespian on the left playing Koko, the Lord High Executioner, is my friend-emeritus, the great and good Robb Johnson, for whom Gilbert and Sullivan was a gateway drug into the world of performing/songwriting/recording and fame. Robb, I discovered much later, was kind enough to mention me by name in his classic song "Hounslow Boys." (His "Anarchy in Hackney" remains my favorite song ever.)

Robb is a songwriter who cares and who matters. For a taste of the simple power and the sheer bloody relevance of his work and his words, check out this YouTube video of "I Am Not At War."

Nothing of Robb's early start in amateur light opera or his time with me as his closest friend during our late high-school years has found its way into his online biography, but I refer you anyway to that page of A Break in the Clouds, his official website.

(Privately, he has thanked me for showing him how you can spice up the three-chord trick by adding the relative minor chord of the key into the progression, but that was the point -- 35 years ago -- when his skills as a guitarist overtook mine.)

Hands across the sea.

Back in the days when I lived in Manhattan, I used to volunteer in the audiobook recording studio of the Andrew Heiskell Library, the New York Public Library's facility for the blind and visually handicapped on 20th Street. I mainly worked on the outside of the booth, as the "sound engineer" -- back in the pre-digital days of reel-to-reel tape -- but during my ten-year stint, I also narrated several books, including my own complete works.

One of the first books I voiced was a young adult title called The Winter Hare by Joan Goodman, a lovely historical adventure set in twelfth century England. I knew Joan slightly -- she was married to an old friend of mine -- and she came in to the library to put her stamp of approval on the first recording session.

Later, she reported that she had played extracts from the finished audiobook to her agent. My performance was deemed  "just British enough."

This reminds me of an accusation that was once fired at me. I don't recall the exact circumstances, but I'm simply haunted by the memory of a female voice, possibly belonging to my friend Gillian, cutting in to one of my flights of enthusiasm with the dismissive: "Oh, Alan, you're so English!" The thing that stands out is that I'm sure this took place while I was still living in England.

Last year, I quietly passed the point where I'd lived more than half my life in America (and I deeply regret that I didn't get to celebrate it the way I'd have liked). In that time -- 26 years -- I've gone from too English for the English to just British enough.

Well, I do have the deathly pallor, but my front teeth are all straight. And they're still mine.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Daily Insult . . .

. . . and for once, not aimed at me.

Primus and Secundus are brushing their teeth before school when Secundus remarks on the self-contradiction of a phrase he's heard: "individual team efforts." Seeing an educational opportunity for the smug parent, I leap in.

"Do you know what we call it . . "

"An oxymoron!" Primus anticipates gleefully. Not to be upstaged by a mere eleven-year-old,  I switch gears.

". . . when someone interrupts you before you even finish the question?"

"A moron!" says Secundus.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Oscar afterthought

I hope my ex-wife doesn't start writing mystery novels.

Goodbye, Tokyo

In the bin at the A&P, a single DVD containing three Japanese movies featuring Gamera, a giant fire-breathing prehistoric turtle. For only $1.99! What a world!

Who are you wearing?

Another triumph for me. The major Oscar results turned out exactly as I predicted, except that Avatar, James Cameron, Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Stanley Tucci didn't win.

(I'm joking, of course. I actually picked Quentin Tarantino. Unfortunately, I got confused and picked him for best visual effect.)*

First time watching the red carpet arrivals on high definition television. Who knew movie stars could look old?

The New York Times was fairly catty about the show, but I thought the clips of the nominated performances were, after all, what the whole thing was about.  And two minutes out of four hours to mention the technical awards is hardly excessive when you consider the stunning advances we see in what movies can do and show from year to year. If anything, cut the dances. The thousand or so in the auditorium don't really care about Vegas showgirls or street performers, they want to see famous people; and live performances across a wide stage never manage to transmit their energy to the television audience. If they did, we'd still have variety shows in the schedules.

Horror movies get their due in a very good montage. But we jumped from the Universal 1940s to The Exorcist. Where was Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, or even Vincent Price? Was there even one clip from a Hammer Studios film?

Wasn't till last night that I realized A Serious Man and A Single Man were actually two different movies. I was wondering why Colin Firth looked so different in some of the clips.

Ben Stiller . . . hilarious. Tina Fey and Robert Downey Junior . . . brilliant. Plus TV's Tina, who's nearly 40, is better looking than any movie star on parade last night, with the possible exception of the actress whom CG turned into a big blue space cat.

When will the Academy recognize me for my brilliant ideas about acceptance speeches? Go to every nominee in advance, get them to list all the people they want to thank, including their lawyers and their mothers-in-law, and run it as a crawl across the bottom of the screen. Then tell them to use their 45 seconds to say something interesting about the movie or their careers or their lives. And none of this "I wasn't expecting to win, oh, gosh, so I haven't prepared . . . I can't think . . ." crap, especially if you're part of a winning team and you get to the mike first. Write it down. And above all, don't tell your children to go to bed now -- that joke was already old when the Lumiere brothers filmed that train arriving at the station.

A quick check on Meryl Streep's 2-for-16 average. I think La Streep is the greatest American movie actress ever, but her 14 losses were pretty well all to very worthy winners. Except for 2002, when she was nominated as a supporting actress for Adaptation. But the crime here was the nomination process. Antipodean Viking Nicole Kidman won best actress for wearing a false nose for 30 minutes of screen time in The Hours. Julianne Moore's 33 minutes of chilling brilliance in the same movie got her a mere supporting actress nomination, only to go down with Meryl to Welsh bombshell Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago. But the amazing Ms. Streep was on screen in The Hours for 42 devastatingly heart-rending minutes and got nothing, zip, zilch, bupkis. Utterly shameful.

*That joke was funnier with Mo'Nique, but politically incorrect on so many fronts. Including the phrase "so many fronts." Sorry.

And in reality -- a rare condition these days -- I predicted all the major categories correctly and won the office pool. Since the office consists of me and the dog, I'm now up by three kibbles and a tennis ball. Mind you, those kibbles are pretty tasty after you've spent four and a half hours immobile in front of the the television.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Seek and ye shall hide.

A beautiful day after so much cold and snow. Leila almost catches a rabbit after a long high-speed chase around the back yard. I repair the kids' slide, which had mysteriously detached itself from the rest of the swing set and found a new function as an escape chute from the deck.

As the sun goes down, Tertius and I are the last ones still outside, and he demands a game of hide and seek. He hides first while I solemnly count to twenty and immediately spot his red shirt behind a pine tree. But I maintain the fiction of not seeing him, probing a nearby euonymus until his giggles are impossible to ignore.

Now it's my turn to hide. I put the cover from the barbecue over my head and stand prominently in the middle of the deck, legs together, feet splayed. He gets to twenty, and I expect more giggles when he sees my pathetic attempt to conceal myself. All I hear, though is approaching footsteps and a wry comment of "Nice lamp" as he passes.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A match made in heaven.

I'm not sure I believe in everyone having a "soulmate," a partner that Fate or God or karma or destiny has intended from birth. I think that particular conviction has led too many people to be passive about finding love, trusting in the UPS of destiny to deliver the perfect Prince(ss) to the doorstep instead of getting out there and slaying the frogs or kissing the dragons, as appropriate.

Of course, when you look at all the strange, puzzling factors that contribute to a lasting romantic relationship, there logically has to be someone in the world who scores more highly for you than anyone else. (Bad luck if you're in Colorado and he's in Addis Ababa.)

Similarly, when you consider the factors that go into story-telling (which is so much more than mere "writing"), there is clearly one way of presenting your tale that's better than any other. What you have to do is find Mr. or Ms Right (Write?) and fall in love. Fortunately, when you're plotting and planning a story, you're not facing 3.5 billion potential partners -- 7 billion if you're not fussy about gender.

Chapter 19 was my "reveal" chapter for the main murder of This Private Plot, and it's just come under the scrutiny of my writers group. Lots of good ideas from them, as always. But I was already dissatisfied with it, convinced there was a better order for the revelations, where one would flow inevitably from the other, where I could make the most of the surprises, where the speculations and assumptions of the detective figures didn't seem to spring out of nowhere, but made sense given what we know of the characters, filling in the synapses between the salient clues. Cut and paste, read and rewrite and read again, and hope for the dizzy, dancing way you feel.

In the process -- a decision made once again while walking the dog (I owe Leila a lot) -- I dumped one whole, major, clunky clue, meaning I had to carefully tease out the thread through all the chapters that it had affected and hope no scenes would unravel completely. (A little darning remains.)

I still don't know if I'd marry Chapter 19, but I'd buy it lunch.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

It's been a quiet week in . . .

Anyone who reads the comments after my posts will notice that some of them devolve into conversations between me and my friend, fellow-blogger, and fellow-mystery writer Kathleen Taylor. (She's inspired me to write a perfectly embarrassing paean to ABBA under the ". . . and Effie" post on February 26.)

I am indebted to Kathi for her good advice in getting me started in blogdom and for her plug on her own blog. So I reluctantly return the compliment -- reluctantly, because if you go there, you'll see how much better hers is than mine: http://kathleen-dakotadreams.blogspot.com

Although I've met Kathi and her husband Terry, most of our contact is electronic, since she insists on living in South Dakota out there on the edge of the Prairie, where she also set her six (six!) mystery novels, in the mythical town of Delphi. But if you check these out on Amazon -- and I couldn't recommend them more -- you'll also find her name on a growing series of books about knitting and other crafts, which she also covers in her blog.

And now it can be revealed -- Kathi and I began corresponding by email after an exchange on a mystery bulletin board led us to discover our shared passion for a seminal record album of the late 1970s. It was, of course, the first album released from the TV series "The Muppet Show."

Just don't ask her about Rocky Mountain oysters. Look at the reaction of one young reader who picked up Kathi's Sex and Salmonella and found out what they were. Nine years later, and he still hasn't quite recovered.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Barnes and Noble and me and him.

Primus and I spend a happy hour on Saturday in Barnes & Noble, selecting titles for party favors and inevitably sneaking a couple of items for ourselves into the basket. (I can now boast that I have every volume of Calvin and Hobbes.)

We sit in the cafe with coffee and chocolate milk and pastries and discuss the pleasures of holding new books up to the nose and inhaling deeply, and we agree that there should be names for the various distinct but distinguishable bouquets of books. ("Mystique de McGraw-Hill"?) I still can't resist sniffing my 45-year-old copy of the Puffin "The Story of the Amulet" by E. Nesbit, a tale incidentally that would make a great movie in these CGI days.

Primus is amazed that B&N allows customers to take books and magazines into the cafe without necessarily having the slightest intention of purchasing them. I must admit it, it foxes me too, although I attempt to find the economic justification. He works out how many visits it would take to get through his current favorite trilogy, without forking out for the goods. Finally, he declares that when the day comes to find vacation employment, he wants to work in a bookstore and would do it for a dollar a day. By then, he may have to.

Who says I don't know how to raise a kid?