Monday, 30 April 2012

By Any Other Name

I was on a crowded bus last week which fell into incredulous silence when a young mother admonished her toddler daughter to "sit DAAAAAHN, Boadicea."(no word of a lie.). Looks were exchanged, and there was an outbreak of furtive sniggering as everyone suddenly scrutinised the child's pushchair for signs of giant blades protruding from the wheels. 

I mused that at least perhaps the kid can shorten her name to 'Bo' (not great but better than the full-fat version) when the inevitable teasing by her peers begins, and then reminded myself that in a class peppered by Chardonnays, Chanels and Chyennes, nobody was likely  to raise more than an eyebrow at little Boadicea. And I hoped that at least the kid might grow into a statuesque flame-haired Amazon, and at least not be at physical odds with such a demanding and evocative name. Because like it or not, that name is going to bring about some very primal psychological responses in those who hear it, the kind that stay with you for life no matter how you consciously try to resist or deny them.

I am as guilty as hell in this matter (despite having been given an absolutely ridiculous first name of my own by my misguided parents.). I will maintain that I have never met a man called Alan or Colin that I like, due entirely to very early associations formed in childhood after  having encountered disagreeable examples of both. When doing some further research on this matter, I felt actual relief that no babies at all were given the name 'Clifford' last year, purely because I met a boy called Clifford who I hated beyond reason at a holiday camp when I was ten, and a second in my teens who was equally obnoxious and therefore set the seal of evil on that name as far as I was concerned. 

In fact, I have a whole list of names that evoke immediate, seemingly irrevocable pre-judgements in me when they arise, and a load more which instantly throw up slightly more benign but very specific images. For example:
Keith - pale blue eyes and yellow teeth.
Graham - wiry red hair, likes E.L.O, good at maths.
David - blond and popular, despite being sensitive. 
Andrew - hearty with a booming voice, sporty, dull.
Thomas - always has a runny nose.
Gary - flash, with a bad haircut; can't dance but thinks he can.
Michael - altar boy.
Timothy - spoilt, with a snub nose and freckles.
Tom - big feet.
Alan - loudmouthed bore with barrel-chest.
Colin - anaemic, lank greasy hair.
Nigel - snide mother's boy. 

And for the girls:
Catherine - all boys fancy her.
Sarah - pony club princess.
Jackie - tart.
Mary - spots and sweaty hands.
Laura - tomboy in ankle socks.
Claire - bit of a swot.
Carol - moody redhead.
Debbie - cheerful airhead.
Sandra - blousy, large bosomed.
Maria - enigmatic, secretive.
Sheila - has at least four younger siblings and babysits a lot. 
Pamela - never stops talking.

This is not a scientific survey and is the result of my own stewed subconscious alone. I sincerely hope that any others reading these lists will come up with flashcard responses of their own which are at complete odds with mine. My conscious, adult mind knows full well that it has been presented several times with confounding examples of all these names (maybe not 'Nigel'.). I've had patients with all these names, friends with a few, and even one boyfriend (I'm not saying which name.).

Several of the ones in my list are currently 'in retirement' until the wheel of fashion takes another turn and brings them back into vogue (probably for the generation after next.). Only 23 Keiths were added to the world (well, the UK) last year to up the stock of greasy pale babies, and there were a mere 16 Jackies to  provide the next crop of gum-chewing, lovebite-toting teens. I was surprised to see there were just six Shirleys (thin legs and frizzy dark hair, since you ask), whereas back in junior school there were three in my class alone. Ten years ago my friends were all having babies called Max, Joe and Lily; now you can't move for Olivias and Olivers. Interestingly, none of these names evoke any associations in me - they produce no 'flashcard' responses at all, as they weren't around when I was a child busily laying down illogical emotional associations. And my own name remains stubbornly classified under 'funky-quirky', having neither declined nor increased significantly in popularity since I was born. I dread to think what associations might well be evoked in my childhood classmates, if I'm the only one they've ever met. Good grief. That's a responsibility I don't even want to think about. 

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Worst Man

I  was chatting yesterday with a  young chap (21, so literally and not just relatively young.). He's due to be Best Man at a friend's wedding in a couple of weeks, and was appropriately anxious about making his speech. "I went through it last night, though, and I think I've got it just about right," he told me. I asked him if he'd read it aloud to anyone else, or at least recorded himself reading it and then played it back to get the pacing right, and he looked at me like I was mad. "It's got to be a surprise on the day," he said quite patiently, obviously seeing me as a demented elder female who had no concept of the purpose of a Best Man's speech. I suggested that he maybe tried it out on someone who, er, wouldn't actually be at the wedding. He eyed me suspiciously, clearly seeing a germ of a point in my suggestion but not quite trusting that any such a person might exist in real life. "You can run a few lines of it past me if you want," I said. 

After a long suspicious silence, he suddenly launched into his speech like a speedboat engine revving into life. "Ladies an gentlemen a very wise man or was it my Dad once told me that a Best Man's speech should take as long as it takes the groom to make love so I'll be very quick," he gabbled, straight into his own chest. I smiled encouragingly. "Or you could just pause, raise your glass and say "so thank you for being here and I give you the bride and groom". He shook his head. "No. Can't do that. Her Dad's making a speech after me and he wants to do the toast. If I do a pretend toast too it'll confuse everyone, and anyway I've got some other things to say afterwards. That line's just a warm-up."I sensed I was on a loser, so nodded. "Do go on, then."

It would be mean of me to reproduce the whole thing, but his climactic anecdote involved the phrases "it floated","it just wouldn't go down", "it was still there an hour later," and the punchline "in the end we used a coat hanger." I don't know his friend and I don't know the bride-to-be, but I imagine like most people they'll have an array of aunties, uncles, little nieces and grandparents who will all be sitting happily on the top table in a couple of weeks, waiting for that nice young fellow who's Best Man to begin his speech. 

I suppose at least it won't be as bad as the wedding a friend went to about ten years ago, when the Best Man rose to his feet, chinked his champagne flute with his knife, and when he had the attention of the assembled guests said "Phil and Gemma, it's your big day today, and I'd like to begin by saying that you're a pair of smug tossers and I've hated you both for years. Cheers," before walking out. It won't be that bad, not quite. 

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

To Sir with love...

I heard on the grapevine yesterday that my old headmaster from Primary School has died. He'd made it well into old age and by all accounts was active until quite near the end, which is consoling. As is often the case when one is in middle age, I was surprised after a little simple arithmetic to work out that when he was Head, he was actually a few years younger than I am now. A man in the physical mould of the late Stratford Johns, and in his prime in an era when 'men's grooming' didn't extend much beyond a tub of Brylcreem and a styptic pencil, he always seemed ancient to us. And nobody ever saw him wear anything but the same baggy navy pinstriped suit, which became so shiny over the years that it already resembled taffeta by the time I left. By all accounts he got another decade of wear out of it before taking early retirement in the mid 80s. He was not a man visibly troubled by personal vanity.

When he 'conducted' the school orchestra, which he loved to do, he would become demonically animated and clouds of embedded chalk would fly from his body as he tried to urge a tune out of the resolutely unmusical ensemble. When the sun shone through the high arched windows of the hall and illuminated him in this state, he looked like an angry god meting out thunderbolts. He was no more sparing of the school choir, almost inducing an aneurism as he tried - for the thirtieth time - to coax our Cockney/Irish vowels into a semblance of a Scottish burr for a folk song called 'Westering Home'. "... Ain' it's waistering  haim wi' the soon in the airrr..."he demonstrated desperately, waving his baton wildly. We cleared our throats and began again.
 ".... an' it's wessssssterin 'ome wiv the san in the aiiiiiia.."
 "STOP HISSING!! WILL YOU STOP THAT...THAT PERISHING HISSING!!"He was beside himself, purple, sweating. We never did master the rolling Hibernian brogue, but the words of 'Westering Home' are forever embedded in my memory. I could sing it right now, although it's better that I don't.

It was said that nobody - not even the scary caretaker Mr Washington who looked like Mike Nesmith - ever arrived at school before him, or left after him. Despite having four kids of his own he was dedicated to the school, with its rattling Victorian windows and parquet-floored corridors that you could speed-skate on (but woe betide you if he caught you - and he could move surprisingly fast for a man of poundage.). He seemed in constant turmoil as to how he could possibly raise money, and then more money still, for new sets of exercise books (we often had to share), luxury items like a second TV (which would be wheeled into classrooms on a trolley like it was the Eucharist itself), or ultra high tech kit like a film projector (when thick black sheets of sugar paper would be hastily stuck over the windows to recreate that home-cinema atmosphere.).  There was always a bring-and-buy sale, tombola or tote in the offing, and our mothers would rummage in the backs of cupboards for tins of fruit salad or ravioli to donate as prizes. There was certainly no sign of Hot Stone massages or balloon rides over the Weald at those particular raffles.

Though an Englishman, he understood the dynamics at play in many of the Irish immigrant families who sent their children to him, my own included. He knew full well the strict triangular route favoured by the hard-drinking fathers who worked at Fords - assembly line - bookies - pub, and he coped with the gimlet-eyed competitive rivalry of the mothers, already a step on from their own families back in Cork by virtue of home ownership or their Ford Cortinas and seeking a still better future for their own offspring. He knew about the violence, the affairs, and the poverty which meant kids from certain families arriving at school in shared Wellington boots, because there wasn't enough money to buy shoes for them all and keep Dad happy in the Prince of Wales (these were the biscuit-smelling kids who got blamed for, and were often actually responsible for, the relatively rare acts of direct subversion within the school. You could always blame it on a Lynch or a Flaherty.).

With what I am certain would have been a heavy heart, he wielded his cane to the boys, once silencing the whole school in the playground as he meted out six of the best there and then to Timmy John Malone and Brendan Burns. They'd insulted the dinner ladies, and it didn't matter that Timmy John regularly had to carry his drunk father home from the pub (we'd seen him on Christmas Eve, as we came out of midnight mass) - he'd done wrong, and it wasn't going to be tolerated. It's hard to reconcile the two halves of a man who clearly loved children but could and would eke out harsh physical punishment to them. I often wondered if he'd do the same to his own children, but none of us ever met them. I always imagined a world of ponies and piano lessons for them, or that they lived like the Famous Five. When I myself transgressed, with a clumsy attempt to fix the school lottery so my Mum could win a pound, he didn't cane me. He took me to his office, sat me on his lap and waited - over half an hour - for me to stop crying and tell him the truth. Then he gave me a hug and told me he understood why I'd done it, but I was never to do anything of the sort again. I suppose I never have, looking back.

I'm sure there were and still are head teachers all over the world coping with the same or worse problems, and stoically trying to manage the brood they've been sent, not to mention the staffroom intrigue (the exploits of miniskirted Miss Ford and denim-shirted Mr Norris Who Was Married are a whole other story.). Encountering JP was the first time I can remember having nascent feelings of actually admiration for a man, and of seeing something in his values and attitude that I actively wanted to know more about, and maybe even adopt.

I'm glad to have known him. Thanks for everything, JP. It's meant a lot, I now realise.

Thursday, 19 April 2012


Here are a few things I've done recently that you might also like to try, and one that you won't be able to, so hard cheese.

If you find yourself in London you might like to idle a few hours away on the South Bank. Start with David Shrigley's "Brain Activity" exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, which runs for another couple of weeks. This collection of oddball, spiky line-drawings ("killed for wearing shorts!" is the caption under a scrawling of one stick figure decapitating another), bizarre looped animations (see  how long you can last in the 'Headless Drummer' room), and unsettling installations ("I'm dead", reads the sign held aloft by a stuffed Jack Russell pup) all add up to a playful, irreverent, silly and sometimes savage exhibition, and one of a handful I've been to punctuated by regular outbursts of spontaneous, helpless laughter as one or other of Shrigley's sly little observations strikes a particular chord with one or other of its visitors. I've never met David Shrigley but I imagine everyone has a mate a little bit like him; the one you're really fond of but are never quite sure about inviting to a party, because "he doesn't half come out with some weird stuff sometimes". Being surrounded by so many other attendees who were giggling like naughty kids at his questionable taste and twisted wit was a huge tonic, and I came out smiling like a fool.

I also had a slightly half-hearted whizz around the accompanying exhibition, Jeremy Deller's Joy in People, but found it harder to engage with. Deller's doesn't draw or sculpt, so if multimedia installations are your particular kick there may be much to detain you here, but personally I found the reconstruction of his teenage bedroom and the mockup of a local greasy spoon cafe (where smart London gallery-goers could actually sit, and actually drink a mug of actual tea) a bit trite. A man of his time (the 80s and 90s), he's  famous for having staged a reconstruction of the Battle of Orgreave, where striking miners clashed violently with the police (deployed by the government of the day* in a particularly quasi-militaristic fashion.). The film of the reconstruction was included as part of the exhibition, and what I hadn't realised about it was that some of the original Orgreave strikers and coppers took part, effectively 'playing' their younger selves. Their inclusion, voluntary though it was, made me quite uneasy as it added a troublingly voyeuristic element to the film - you couldn't help but wonder if taking part in a re-enactment would resurrect all the old memories, and re-ignite long-suppressed rage and resentment. Faced with a sighting of the 'old enemy', would they forget this was a mere re-eneactment and actually start laying into one another again like it was 1984, and all while Deller's cameras were running? It seemed opportunistic and exploitative, and I didn't want to be part of that so I headed off midway through the film. Call me a philistine if you like, I don't care.

I headed from there straight along to Tate Modern for the main act, Yayoi Kusama's exhibition. There is a lot to see here, as Kusama is now in her eighties and has been a prolific, driven artist since she was a child. It would be fair to say she's packed a lot in, even as a woman who has been living voluntarily in a psychiatric clinic for over twenty years. Born into a wealthy bourgeois Japanese family, she was expected to conform to the cultural stereotype, and put away her paints to concentrate on acquiring and pleasing a husband. Of course she did no such thing and ran away to New York, where she and the emerging avant-guarde 60s counterculture met one another head-on. Always psychologically fragile, her vast obsessively-worked 'Infinity Net' canvasses seem like some kind of visual attempt to impose order and self-soothe while she effectively emptied the contents of her head (fear/obsession with phalluses (her father was a serial shagger) visual/emotional disorientation, lysergic distortion of the physical) into her work. Some of her installations - a rowing boat packed with willies, a room bristling with more willies, a repeating loop of a filmed 60s orgy featuring, well, willies being tenderly daubed with paint by flower children) may grate after a while, but others are incredibly beautiful, disquieting, and striking. I could have stayed forever in the Infinity Room with its labyrinth of mirrors and shifting lights, although I could also see that for someone in a more fragile state (like Kusama herself), the visual distortions and disorientation could feel far more menacing. This is definitely a woman who has lived for her art, at some great personal cost. Do get down to Tate Modern if you can, and see for yourself.

So those are the things I've done that you could perhaps do too. I've also been to see Killing Joke again, and sadly their short tour is finished now so you won't be able to. However all is not lost as they seem to be around again here and there later in the summer - if you like a bit of reliable, perfectly delivered noise from four old geezers who've been dishing it out expertly for three decades, they won't let you down. I'm pleased to say it was the first gig for years I've attended where I've gone 'down the front'. It was just too good to stay at the back. My only slight sadness was the surprising omission of top anthem 'Follow the Leaders' from what was otherwise a blistering set - and it set me worrying that Big Paul, one of the best rock drummers EVER, might now struggle with the relentless demands of that particular song. Anyway, I wanted to give them an honourable mention, as I realised that the first time I saw them was in 1981, which really was over three decades ago. I wonder if I'm ever going to develop a taste for subtlety now?


©KolleyKibber 2012

Monday, 16 April 2012

Let's start with a gig...

New blog, same schtick. I get to yammer on about what I've been doing, and you get to shrug indifferently. And let's see if this new identity has any discernible effect on what or how I write (maybe I'll come over all Ernest Hemingway and feel an overwhelming urge to write about wrestling bulls, or even all Catherine Cookson in which case an overwhelming urge to write about forbidden tubercular love up against a cotton loom*. We'll see.).

So first things first; Laibach at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall on Saturday night. What could be more perfect for this space than the industrial avant-garde outpourings of this intense bunch of Slovenian noise terrorists? I was terribly excited, despite my relatively limited knowledge of Laibach's back catalogue. Their unique cover of Sympathy for the Devil (they thoughtfully made eight versions, all  of which will upset your ears) played relentlessly at a party I once attended, caused me some disquiet, as did their playful German-language take on Queen's One Vision ('Gebert einer Nation', which takes on some pointedly sinister undertones when transformed into a bombastic marching tune.). They've been rumbling away sepulchrally about the state of Europe for thirty-odd years now, seemingly as unimpressed by its conversion to capitalist democracy as by its previous Warsaw pact monotony. The Turbine Hall - a former industrial space become bourgeois pleasure temple - could not have been a more appropriately symbolic location for Laibach to express their disdain for modern life.

The gig seemed to have begun early with our bonus spotting of basso-profundo voiced vocalist Milan Fras, striding manfully across the Millennium Bridge towards the venue and looking for all the world like the advance party for a conquering army with his leather coat flapping in the cold spring breeze. Assorted middle-aged goths and nu-metalers nudged one another and made a respectful path for him as he marched, all but saluting. So far, so good.

However, Tate Modern hasn't done many of these sorts of gigs - as far as I know this may even have been the very first - and on the night, the organisational skills required to ensure that everyone ended up inside the building at the right time were not in evidence. A massive queue of disgruntled, pierced and heavily costumed punters built up, snaking round the corridors to the Turbine Hall (good to spot Daniel Miller among them, though. Daniel Miller!!), and there it (we) remained for nearly an hour while terrified-looking gallery staff checked wristbands and squeaked among themselves.

The gig began half an hour late, and as the first thirty minutes comprised Laibach noodling quietly over a backwards-projection of a 1960s documentary on the history of Yugoslavia (not uninteresting, but the point that anyone born in the Balkans during the first half of the Twentieth Century is likely to have had a terrible life, was quickly made and then remade, and remade). The audience became subdued and withdrawn, and it wasn't until a good 40 minutes into the gig that the pace began to pick up a bit and Fras started to roar rather than grumble. From my vantage point by the mixing desk the whole thing felt terribly restrained, and I kept feeling the urge to shout "Onetwothreefour!"in a Ramones-stylee, just to get them to let rip a bit. Of course, by the time they began to do that, it was time to sprint back to London Bridge station to get the last train home. I felt very short-changed and very disgruntled.

There's a wafer-thin chance that anyone might read this who was able to stay for the whole thing, but should a miracle happen and such a reader pass by, please let me know what the second half of the gig was like. I'm pretty sure I missed out on all the excitement, but I'm not too proud to grab a little bit vicariously. Grrr.

*I have no experience whatsoever of either