Wednesday, August 30, 2006

This is the first verse

Nothing much here lately. Just to stop the grass growing, here's another 25-first-lines thing: song titles and artists in comments, please. This one's a bit different, as you'll see. Some more obscure than others; there are a couple I'd be particularly pleased for somebody to get, and one which would probably earn you a pint (it's from a privately-produced CD by a friend of mine). (A couple of bona fide Chart Hits, too.)

Update 4/9/06 An email from Tina bags the last easy ones, plus a couple of difficult ones. (Hi Tina!) The rest are all a bit on the obscure side, I'd say - not that I'd mind being proved wrong. Have at it.

Update 13/9/06 All remaining beans spilled.

  1. A certain kind of love, I’d say
    - Soft Machine (Rob)
  2. A long time ago, we used to be friends
    - Dandy Warhols (Tina)
  3. Bonfires in forests, lamplights in houses, all obscured
    - Graham Coxon (Tina)
  4. By a waterfall, I’m calling you
    - the Bonzo Dog Band (Rob)
  5. Colin Zeal knows the value of mass appeal
    - Blur (Tina)
  6. For years unspotted, Henri Dupont wheeled his barrow in Marseilles
    - Barry Booth (lyrics by Terry Jones)
  7. Give me your love and I’ll give you the perfect lovesong
    - the Divine Comedy (John)
  8. I can see clearly now the rain has gone
    - Jimmy Ruffin (JJ)
  9. I don’t know what to do with my life, should I give it up and make a new start?
    - Buzzcocks (Jamie)
  10. I often dream of trains when I’m alone
    - Robyn Hitchcock (Tina)
  11. I stand by the building in the pouring rain
    - the Mekons
  12. Inside of me, take as much as you can find of me
    - David McComb
  13. It’s happened before, most likely it will happen again
    - Ed Kuepper
  14. Jacqueline was seventeen, working on a desk
    - Franz Ferdinand (Biscit)
  15. Loving you is easy 'cause you’re beautiful
    - the Charlatans (Syd)
  16. Mother Mary and the morning wonder, take me home
    - the Earlies
  17. Nothing you could say could tear me away from my guy
    - Mary Wells (and subsequently Aretha Franklin, among others) - Alex
  18. Put your hands on the wheel, let the Golden Age begin
    - Beck (Justin)
  19. Red rain is falling down
    - Peter Gabriel (JJ)
  20. Señor, Señor, can you tell me where we’re heading?
    - Bob Dylan (Rob)
  21. Sometimes love is friendly
    - Hilary Bichovski
  22. This time we almost made the pieces fit, didn’t we girl?
    - Jimmy Webb (Brian)
  23. Waste of time - it’s all a waste
    - Peter Blegvad
  24. Well, it seems like the funky days are back again
    - Cornershop (Rob)
  25. You rolled into town like an unscheduled train
  26. - Nothing Painted Blue

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Never return again

It's been a bad week for deaths. Arthur Lee died last Thursday. If you drew a line from Brian Wilson's ice-cream symphonies to Dylan's lyrical manifestoes, you'd meet the Arthur Lee of Forever Changes right in the middle. Arthur Lee was a great artist, responsible for some of the strangest and most beautiful moments in recorded music. His best years were well behind him when he died - but then, I would have said something similar in December 1980, and that was still a dreadful loss. So is this.

On the same day that I heard about Arthur Lee, I read that Pierre Vidal-Naquet had died (thanks, Paul). Vidal-Naquet was a great scholar, a lifelong political activist, a consistent left-libertarian and an equally consistent challenger of historical revisionism - no small matter on the French ultra-left, sadly. He leaves a gap which it's hard to see any one person filling. (Writing that line reminds me of yet another recent departure, for whom it's just as valid: Murray Bookchin, who died the day before Vidal-Naquet. Hard times for left-libertarians.)

But I have to say that none of these losses affected me as much as a fourth. Bob Smithies, who died the same day as Arthur Lee, was a gifted photographer, a Manchester Guardian man and a local TV personality. But more, much more than this, he was Bunthorne, compiler of some of the best crosswords I've ever attempted to solve. Bunthorne didn't go in for the kind of themed crossword which John Graham ("Araucaria") made his own, or for Araucaria's meticulous distribution of easy and hard clues. The puzzle as a whole, for Bunthorne, took second place to the clue. Here Bunthorne had two specialities. One was the vast, sprawling anagram of thirty or forty letters, spread over six or seven separate lights and immediately identifiable by the liberal use of punctuation marks and contractions. The other is harder to describe, but can be summed up as "clues that don't look like clues": sequences of words which make a kind of sense, but seem to supply either far too little information for solving purposes or far too much (the page linked above features a celebrated example of the latter: "Amundsen's forwarding address" (4)).

Solving a crossword clue (for me at least) is primarily a matter of letting my mind work on it while I'm doing something else; the answer generally comes to me fully-formed, leaving me to work out how the subsidiary indications fit in afterwards. Still, there are clues that you can solve by mental brute force, decoding the subsidiary indications one after another and trying to make a word from what comes out ("between the points, that'll be compass points, maybe it begins with N and ends with S?"). It's a perfectly valid way to set a puzzle; most of Araucaria's puzzles could in theory be solved entirely by this approach, without any relegation to the mental back-burner. Not Bunthorne's. I've never known a setter whose clues were so unamenable to the methodical approach or so insistent on being solved in a flash of (delayed) realisation. There was a teasing, gnomic quality to the best of Bunthorne's clues: you knew you were being told something; you knew you didn't - yet - know what it was; and you knew that thinking wouldn't help. You couldn't say, afterwards, how you'd worked it out, because you hadn't. Every Bunthorne clue solved was a small but mysterious victory.

And now it's over: there will never be another Bunthorne crossword. Bob Smithies has left a gap - and, unlike the other three people I've mentioned, he's left a gap in my life personally. I hate that feeling, particularly at the moment. It's been four months now but I still miss my mother, in much the same sense that somebody in a liferaft misses being on board ship. I've lost people before now and felt there was a gap in my mental skyline, but this time it's more as if the ground's gone.

Death just doesn't seem like something we're equipped to deal with. Tolkien wrote somewhere that he'd realised, after seeing friends killed around him in the First World War, that death was the great paradox: on one hand, for a loved one to die is the worst and most unbearable thing that can happen; on the other, death is absolutely universal and absolutely unavoidable, the one thing which we can say with certainty will happen to everyone who's been spared it so far. Crushingly unbearable yet universal and inevitable: how can that be? Apparently the story of Aragorn and Arwen began as an attempt to deal with this paradox, as it were by taking a God's eye view. If love, among mortal beings, leads to the worst pain imaginable, how could an immortal love a mortal? But if love is divine and mortals are worthy of it, how could an immortal not? To put it more simply and without the elves: how can love be worth the pain?

The answer is, I suppose, that it is because we need it to be - or else that it isn't but we still need it to be, because the only alternative which would be even halfway comfortably numb would be a life without love, and that would be unbearable in itself. Shortly after a friend died, a couple of years ago, I saw a prize example of stoner-philosophy graffiti, which nearly sums all this up:


Nearly, but not quite - life also leeds to birf (and a whole new round of LOVE + PAIN), as eny fule kno.

Friday, August 04, 2006

The cold in our eyes

Is it anti-semitic to criticise Israel? Is it anti-semitic to criticise Zionism? Is it anti-semitic, even, to oppose Zionism - to believe that the state of Israel (as established in 1948) was a thoroughly bad idea which should be replaced by something better?

To put it another way, does anti-semitism lead coherently to opposing Zionism - would we expect somebody who hated Jews also to hate the state of Israel? Because, if this logical entailment is invalid, it follows that the reverse inference - from anti-Zionism to anti-semitism - also falls. To put it crudely, if you can find me one Jew-hater who doesn't also hate the idea of Jews having their own state, then we can no longer assume that anti-Zionism follows from anti-semitism.

Sir Oswald, would you care to comment?
[anti-semitism is] a very old growth in British soil especially with people who come from the countryside when they come into contact with Jews. It is probably latent in the racial or traditional consciousness of a great many of these men. I am not arguing the merits of it. You may think me a great scoundrel for indulging in this and for developing it as much as we have, but there is something in it ... [My solution] is constructing a national home for them which would put an end to all this friction it engenders which is as harmful to the Jews as it is to us. It changes his character into a gangster and arouses in us a certain brutality and it is bad for the Jew and bad for us.
From the records of Mosley's appeal against detention as a fifth columnist, 1940 (quoted in the Skidelsky biography).

Now, Oswald Mosley is not the most reliable witness, even (or especially) on his own account. Skidelsky portrays him (apparently without realising it) as a monster of arrogance and sadism, utterly without loyalty or scruples, consistent only in his drive for personal dominance. If Zionist sympathies would make it easier for him to get out of jail, Zionist sympathies he would have. Nevertheless, it's a coherent argument he makes here. If British Fascists attacked British Jews, their objection was not to Jews per se but to the 'friction' which inevitably results when Jews live among Gentiles (T.S. Eliot had developed a similar argument). Since Fascists are primarily concerned with building their own homogeneous nation, there's no obvious reason to object to the formation of a Jewish nation by some of the Jews who were excluded from the Fascist fatherland; indeed, Fascists might offer Jewish nationalism a distant brotherly welcome.

I don't know what Mosley would have said about the invasion of Lebanon; it's entirely possible that his anti-semitism would have triumphed, and that he'd have been prominent among the critics of Israel. That said, it's clear that there's a line leading directly from hatred of British Jews to approval of a Jewish national home - and that it was possible, without any kind of contradiction, to oppose the presence of Jews in Britain and approve of their presence, under suitably nationalist auspices, in Palestine.

So, you can say that criticism of the Lebanon operation is anti-Israeli; you can even say it's anti-Zionist (some of it certainly is). But don't even think of saying it's anti-semitic.