The Great and The Good

I’ve been reading F Scott Fitzgerald again, obviously. All that glitters is certainly not gold in the lap of luxury over in The Great Gatsby’s West Egg, but did being tawdry and broken and lost ever look so damn good?  And yes, the beautiful were damned, but hell they looked absolutely lovely while they did all their damning, and I’ll drink to that.  F Scott Fitzgerald drank to that every morning.   And afternoon.  And evening – because, like Hemingway, he understood that the great American writer also had to be a great American drunk.  The beauty of The Great Gatsby is that the lure of wealth and fragile opulence sweeps over you, grabs you by the throat, pulls you along and then flips the image over.   The georgeousness of it is magnificent.  For sheer glamour, you can’t do much better than read the first two pagesof Chapter III: “There was music from my neighbour’s house through the summer nights.  In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars…. The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher…” Fuck, that’s beautiful.   But, why did no one ever write this way about London?   Or, perhaps the Bluebird is mistaken, perhaps some of you know someone who has?  If so, pray tell.

I read the complete works of F Scott Fitzgerald in the summer of 1999, when a firm of Chartered Surveyors thought I was answering their phones for four weeks, the fools.  In the days when it was rare to find an office with internet connection, reception was a great place for reading books.  I drank up all of Fitzgerald and it changed my life:    “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past….”  “Hello, Foppington and Fappington, may we help you?”   That was basically my life when was 23.  And you wonder why I’m confused.

 Tender Is The Night affects me more with each reading, where the glamourous Americans holidaying graciously in the South of France turn out to have several uninvited guests in their transatlantic luggage; nervous breakdown, romantic desire and psychological instability.  Money can’t – and it never can in Fitzgerald’s world – offer a lifeboat.   The Beautiful and Damned is a chilling reminder of what happens to people who are swimming in a void, lost in misty drunkenness and that most sobering concern – a lack of purpose.  Money destroys as much as it gathers, provokes moral crises, depraves and exults, and the “Lost Generation” of Fitzgerald’s anti-heroes go around puncturing the fallacy of the American “dream”.  And Gatsby is probably the greatest American book ever written.  It’s not just the setting of Fitzgerald’s world, which at first seduces and then exposes, but the turn of phrase is indulgently glamorous too.   He has an errie way of describing character’s faces, and I’ve never read a writer who captures character and atmostphere as well as FSF does.

Of course, he taps into America at the time of its cultural zenith.  London’s high point of cultural and literary excellence was in the 1890s, New York’s in the 1920s.   Both these decades in these respective cities contained cultural works that were associated with anxiety, lethargy and degeneration.  But great books that are set in London are never that glamorous.  Mrs Dalloway, anyone?  Patrick Hamilton’s Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky, Dickens’s Little Dorrit and Bleak House all draw you down into the depths of a salubrious sub-culture with accent on grimness of social inequality, the shabby underside of London.  But glamour relating to our capital city? Hello?  Is that not very un-English?     You can’t imagine Gatsby motoring with his Rolls down Oxford Street really, can you?   The only one we can think of at Bluebird Towers is Evelyn Waugh’s wonderful Vile Bodies, a ruthless satire of 1930s upper class London sensibilities and social posing, containing so much hedonism and vicarious indulgence of “naughty salt” that it makes the drug-taking of our generation look tepid in comparison.   But it’s an ultimately hopeless book, unsympathetically pushing it’s characters towards oblivion.  Have there been any other truly glamorous book about rich Londoners? Not many.  Perhaps it is because that in England, being a classed society, the upper classes are not liked, indulged nor trusted, and it is a naughty indulgence to be seduced by them.    All that privilege is seen as slightly vile and in very poor taste.   Are the novels of Jilly Cooper the only ones written today in which money in England looks gorgeous?  And is it that which makes her a bit of a joke, not a “proper” writer-  that she focuses on fictional posh chaps called Rupert, the master of the hounds?  Is it that which makes her a “bad taste” writer?   English spy fiction offers the thrill and seduction of money, such as the books of Ian Fleming, but only set in exotic locations outside England.  And, tellingly, the magic of James Bond is that the glamour is intact.  Fitzgerald takes the glamour, stares at it full in the face, deconstructs it and tells you exactly what lurks beneath it.  He couldn’t have been a product of any other country than he was, nor a writer of his kind at any other time that when he was writing.  Despite the English inventing the class system, laughing at it, observing it and satirising it with our famous English sense of irony, why is it that this totally American writer was so much better at exposing the tawdry foul dust that lies below monied glamour in their novels than we are?

How much?!

And so a beleagured and recession-clad nation may rejoice, as the Great Bonnie Prince Balding of Wales is to be betrothed to Kate Middleclass who comes from a place that sounds so Miss-Tiggywinkle-ish it must have been made up.  Bucklebury, Berkshire sounds like the beginning of a limerick (“There was a young girl from Bucklebury….”)  but is in fact the birthplace of the lady who hath no upper lip and shall be Queen.  She has good legs, though.  Well, better than Prince Balding anyway.  Not that I’ve seen his legs.  Well, not since that night at Mahikis when Prince Harry filled the fish tank with vintage champagne and then poured the contents on top of a selection of proles hired for the occasion, while dressed as a member of the Third Reich.  Ah.  Halcyon Days.  Dear Harry and his funny ginger hair.  Mostly, I remember the laughter.

Now, the thing about Royal Weddings is they are very seductive to the British people.  Out comes the bunting.  Out comes the trestle tables and the belief in all things English, out come the sandwiches and buckets of fizzy pop for the youngsters (steady on Harry) and everyone gets to pretend that we still have an Empire.  For about six hours.  Everyone pretends they are in fact someone else.  This someone is usually a village spinster circa 1920, who spends her life baking pies, making jam, believing in “lovely Queeny” and cups of English tea and living in a thatched house in the Cotswolds.  Nothing can excuse the British, who are I believe are a stylish nation, and who have been at the forefront of fashion, music art and design for half a century, for the absolute bloody awfulness of the Royal Wedding celebratory mug.  I still have nightmares about the over-twee Times New Roman 10 font royal blue writing on our celebratory mug from the village post office on the wedding of Andrew and Fergie.  I believed it damned their union.   No marriage could grow from such crass kitchenware.

We are all mugs it seems, as Queenie here – who has estates, property and land worth about £348 million – is not entirely footing the bill.  Added to this £348million of estates and property and land, she has a “personal fortune” of £350million.  This does not include her art collection which runs to a modest £10billion.   And don’t give me that fluff about the gold-plated HM tax return, because it’s actually voluntary whether she fills one in and pays income tax at all.  Estates passed sovereign to sovereign are also ineligible for inheritance tax.  If a commoner attempted to avoid either of these things they would be imprisoned immediately.  Astonishingly, HM is still at large.   “She’s self-sufficient,” many say, “as her income comes from her land haha.”  WHOSE land?    Oh hers, apparently.  Not ours.  It’s decidedly odd, that people in this country go looney-toon crazy when they find out that someone from Lithuania has got a council flat or something, and there’s an old German lady (immigrant! foreigner!  Guards – seize her!) who is grazing on vast swathes of  land (800,000 acres to be precise) that would be very productive in an era of rising population and home shortages.  This has always struck me as decidedly peculiar.  Suggest at a social gathering that we ought to get rid of them in one fell swoop and an uncomfortable silence descends, as if you’ve gone a bit potty.  Whereas, I think it’s rather mad, in this day and age, to have a monarchy at all.

But you see, they may have zilch fashion sense but they are clever.  Because they distract us by street theatre and the clever placing of horses.  Watching the change of the guard, seeing those funny soldiers outside St James’s Palace with those bearskins that look like enormous vaginas on their heads, it’s the ultimate in British class performance art.  As the lyric from Razzle Dazzle says “How can they see with sequins in their eyes?”  As far as I can see, the German – sorry, British – Royal Family have got this art down to a tee.  We may be angry about the 800,000 acres, vast wealth and making our taxes pay for maintaining police and doing a massive preparation and clean up for the Prince Balding / Kate Middleclass nuptials, and then the Royal Family show us a golden coach, show us marching shiny soldiers and horses from the Household Cavalry with pretty ribbons in their plaits, and we have sequins in our eyes.  It drugs us with fairy dust.  It prevents us from standing stock still in the middle of The Mall and saying to our fellow commoner:  “It’s 2010 and one in ten children in London live below the poverty line.  And we’re standing in front of a coach made of gold to take a girl from Bucklebury Berks to marry a prince.  And we PAY for it.  And they’re fucking minted.  We really are a bunch of stupid, monarchist arse kissing cretins.”

London, austere and depressed, foots the bill alone for the security.  Whoops.  That’s about £30million or £80million, depending on what newspaper flopped through your letterbox this morning.  although the Standard announced yesterday that Jenny Jones, the Green Party member on the Metropolitan Police Authority, has suggested that it would be unrealistic to expect London taxpayers to foot the bill in a time of austerity and has suggested “the royal family can contribute”.   This morning Jones said “The Queen’s personal wealth is estimated at £290 million. I just think she has got to pay for it.” Oh well, bang goes Jenny’s invitation (she probably didn’t want one anyway) but she ain’t half right, even if she underestimated the Queen’s personal wealth by £60million.   The Standard also predicted that consumers will spend an additional £360million on groceries and provisions for the big day.  Champagne, bunting, celebratory tea towels, street parties, barbecues and a bucket load of ibuprofen for the morning after will all be bought.  But this is a “consumer spending boost” to the limping British economy.  So we are going to have to spend £360million to enjoy the privilege of celebrating a wedding we have already paid for.   And this is a country where we can apparently no longer afford to send students to university for free.   Today the Daily Snail reported in its usual bovine and recidivist, no-words-of-more-than-four-syllables, lazy journalism that Prince Charles was going to spend “millions”.  But surely if he actually had millions he would have already had that operation to have his ears pinned back.  I suggest a straight swap:  Queen’s personal fortune £350million.  Oh, consumer boost to the economy £360million.  DOH?  Obviously pleasing mathematics.  In return for being award-winning citizens of this ‘ere green and pleasant land I would like the Royal Household to furnish us with the appropriate refreshments for Royal Wedding Day, free of charge.  It’s the least they could do.

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Passing by

I had an argument with my engine oil cap before my journey out to the Chilterns last Sunday.   I was only going 37 miles but for a Londoner who doesn’t get out much it’s enough to make me want to pack thermos, sandwiches, check RAC card and pack a sleeping bag.  I was only going to Aylesbury. There was me, sensible, prepared, checking the water (which plastic-y looking barrel in the engine is THAT?), doing things to check the dipstick (how do I get the lid off?  What do I do?  Is that cooking oil in there?) and acting as if I was about to drive 600 miles to Inverness.  Continue reading

97, 98, 99….

100.  Oh yes, of course I know you all can count.  After all, you read this here erudite blog, doncha?  My 100 this week is the 100 of the club variety, which sits at the Tottenham Court Road end of Oxford Street like an old man waiting to be knocked down.  By all accounts, that is what is going to happen.  At the end of this year, the 100 Club, with its bevy of orange plastic chairs and its quite extraordinary toilet facilities, will close its doors and, in doing so, will lock shut seven decades of musical history.  That’s it.  Gone.   My first visit there was in the Christmas of 1990, on a Tuesday lunchtime, when my Dad was recording Jazz Score for Radio 2, and the club was decked with reassuringly childish paper decorations and tinsel glitterballs that had clearly been in annual use since 1975.  I remember seeing George Melly arriving at about 12.30pm weaving around the tables in a bright blue trilby, although I didn’t know who he was.  At lunchtime, the club smelt of a mixture of weak ‘Pledge’ polish, instant coffee and last night’s Silk Cut King Sizes.  There used to be a servery towards the toilets that served teas and coffees at lunchtimes in curious white, institutional cups and saucers, and free entry (or £3) to jazz trios and quartets was a regular occurrence.   Over the next decade I learned how not to be sick from alcohol, how not to have an affair, how not to travel to Suffolk, how not to jive, how not to give up smoking and how to avoid your ex boyfriend’s ex girlfriend in the toilets.  I did it all in the 100 Club. 

If there is one word that sums up the essence of 100 Club-ness that is the 100 Club, it is “smear”.  The tables were always a bit smeary.  The lino floors were always slightly sticky underfoot, and the stairs from the back of the club to the Mews behind Newman Street were lain with old, greying lino.  When I was fifteen (watching “The Big Town Playboys” I think) me and two friends sidled up to the bar, thinking we were dead cool, and ordered three Malibu and lemonades.  The barmaid, a girlfriend of my brother’s at the time, later said that when it came to the Malibu she had to “blow the dust off the bottle”.  That’s the kind of place it is.  If you didn’t want to listen to the music, you wouldn’t actually want to go there for the cocktails.  Although I particularly like the bunking-off atmosphere that was present at lunchtimes, the atmosphere on full nights were some of the best I have ever known.

  It hasn’t escaped my attention that the 100 Club seems determined to go out with a whimper rather than a bang.  The current owner has not been vocal about bowing out, and has not issued a rallying cry for support.  And the Horton’s – Roger and then his son, Jeff – have owned the venue since 1964.   This is singular.  Although trying to raise £500,000 worth of capital in six weeks is a daunting task for the most sanguine of business owners, the fund at is created by musicians, not the club management.  If the amount of emotional investment people have in the 100 club has blinded them to the financial impossibility of this fundraising, the same thing hasn’t seemed to happen to the club owners.   Nevertheless, the campaign is moving ahead swiftly, and I urge everyone to pledge whatever they can, because if they open another Starbucks on that site, filled with boiling hot coffee (wrong! Ask an Italian) with no crema, and coffee that is served in big cups (Wrong!  Ask an Italian) with one third foam and the other two third gnats piss (Wrong! Ask an Italian)  I will personally drive down to No 100 Oxford Street and ram my car into it. 

I don’t need to tell you about the 100 Club’s contribution to music in Britain.  A simple Google search will do that, but what is particularly sad about this closure is that it comes so hot on the heels of the demise of the Astoria at the junction of Charing Cross Road and Tottenham Court Road.  Although I am not one of those oafs who think that music venues are more authentic if they are sweaty and smell unpleasant, I think the Supper Club revival doesn’t speak to the under-30s, and one of the strengths of the 100 Club is that it is as faithful to it’s Monday night jive classes (where you are likely to bump into the only kind of people in the West End who are dancing with sandals on in mid-February) as it is to it’s Friday night neo-punk gigs promoting young talent.  And – let’s face it – on a weekend evening in England it’s either that or the X Factor.

And although regular readers will realise that emotional entanglement with the many Londons of the past is something the Bluebird often indulges in, that is not the case here.  I actually don’t think the 100 Club should have to become something else in order to survive, as it ought to be allowed to survive on its merits.  That’s what City Mayors are for; and that is why pressure on municipal bodies will work if you harangue them enough.  Personally, I would pay good money to see Boris Johnson dancing to R&B on a Thursday night in the 100 Club, but only in the interests of mockery.  However, realistically, I cannot see it surviving without becoming something else.  It is too cheap a night out in the West End to be sustainable in a 2010 of obscene business rates and rising rents.   It is too casual; one of its merits being that popping in on any given night of the week and putting down £10 / £12 on the door is a civilized way to operate socially.  It’s what cities are for; you go out in the evening and you are presented with a choice which is dependent on mood.   The necessity of having to pre-book our entire lives feels antiseptic and few people want to live that way.   But, if it can’t survive in its current offhand and basic manner, better it folds quietly than reappears in an altogether ignoble existence at a later date.  You know what I mean, thick white tablecloths, squirmingly embarrassed young staff leaning hands clasped behind backs to take you order of roast duck, undignified door staff in knock-off Paul Smith demanding £40 a pop for supper club dinner jazz.  Oh no, no, no, no, no.  If the club does survive – and it’s a huge if – here’s hoping it is able to retain something of its former self, and not shrug it off entirely.  I very, very much hope that happens.  But I doubt that it shall. 

And the closure of the Astoria, which I mentioned earlier, had little to do incidentally with suffering in the current economic climate.  It was part of a compulsory buy-out scheme due to the Crossrail development which has farked up the entire Tottenham Court Road / Charing Cross Road area for pedestrians for the last year.   They simply swept it away.  Imagine the indignity of surviving quite competently for decades, only to be demolished because of a fast track train to Southend that no one wants.  Let’s hope the Save the 100 Club campaign gets on track just as quickly, before time runs out and the 100 Club train leaves the station. 

A good development arrived this morning with Mick Jagger launching his gym fit frame behind the growing campaign to save the venue:

and sign up to join the Facebook page here – with details of how to support the fundraisers:

And – please – visit while you still can in case the campaign does run out of steam.  Remember this is a working music club that is in fact still open for business:

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.