PARIS – With the world no doubt feeling tense over the possibility of an Act II to the riots of D.C. at tomorrow’s inauguration for Joe Biden as president of the United States, and the end of the reign of terror by Donald Trump, I wanted to do a post of a kind I have never done before. It has to do with the writing of my new song, “What’s All This Talk?!” Normally I prefer to leave as many interpretations open as possible for a song I write, since I do believe that sometimes songs can be interpreted even in ways the author did not intend; so why limit it with an explication de texte?
But as you can see from the video that I made for this song – which I will put here below again – I have already decided, by using news footage from several different sources of the riots at the Capitol Building on 6 January to give one interpretation to the song. In fact, I was pretty surprised myself how well those riots seemed to illustrate the meaning. Especially since I wrote the song in late October, early November, just before the 2020 U.S. presidential elections.
And it is true that Trump was first and foremost in my mind when I wrote it. But he wasn’t the only one. I also had Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro, Salvini, Orban and many other world leaders involved in the current trend for populist destruction and manipulation in mind. And I even had past such leaders, like Hitler and Mussolini in mind. But when I saw the riots at the Capitol, I said, crap, this thing is really coming to a head here, and these images are the perfect illustration for this sad protest song “What’s All This Talk?!”
So I decided to try to string them together as a background for the song. For me, personally, it was an interesting project, because pretty much without fail all the songs I have ever composed have had to do with a broken heart, a love story, an emotional relationship with a lover, etc. The old stories. I never thought I could write a protest song about politics.
Then something happened and I only saw it once I made the video. In fact, there were one or two listeners who when I sang them the song wondered if it was about a personal relationship rather than the politics I had intended. But now I know and understand: For the past four years I have been emotionally devastated by witnessing these political populist movements we are surrounded with and by the seeming loss of a world where the highest values are truth and beauty for one where lies and ugliness seem to reign. In other words, I did indeed have an emotional crisis; but not with any particular person, rather with our vanishing world of decency.
So it turns out that this is only just another love song of a broken heart after all. Let’s hope for a clean and peaceful transition of power tomorrow, followed by the whole world coming back to its senses bit by bit.
P.S. I also decided to put up the video on my YouTube channel, so anyone who doesn’t use Facebook, or who wants to link the video somewhere themselves, can have access to it. So here is that link here for “What’s All This Talk?!“
PARIS – Just a quick post to mention that I have updated my personal music site, Bradspurgeonmusic.com with my new song, “What’s All This Talk?!” This is a new protest song that I wrote just before the U.S. presidential elections last November, and which I decided to make a video for after seeing the attack on the Capitol Building illustrating everything I had been protesting about. I’ll probably do another post to speak more of that in the coming days, but for the moment, I just wanted to note that the song and video are now on my music site under the news section on the opening page, and in the video section. And here, for good measure, is a link to that video here too:
As it turned out, sitting in the back of that same bookstore, drinking a coffee and eating a brownie, and reading Jim Haynes’s book, who should walk in but Jim Haynes. With his big moustache, and slightly drawling accident, he was easy to recognize. I wasted no time in approaching him and telling him of the coincidence that there I was reading his book at that very moment and in he walks! So began a 37-year-long friendship that came to an end two days ago when Jim died at the age of 87. In fact, as anyone who knew Jim knows, it was not just Jim who left us, but a whole chunk of cultural life in Paris (and dare I add a cultural life of the 1960s and 70s in Britain too), and a living, walking, smiling philosophy of life.
Thinking about his life in the last few days since he left us on 6 January, it struck me that Jim was born in the same year that Hitler took power in Germany, and that he should die in a hospital in Paris at the same moment that the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. was being raided by violent haters, was very significant: Nothing could be further from Jim Haynes’s philosophy of life than the hatred that both Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump knew so well how to manipulate in their followers. Jim was all about love and togetherness and sharing; and if that sounds like some kind of 1960s hippie peace sort of dreamy approach to life, well, not only was it just that, but Jim successfully – and contagiously – lived by it right to the end.
I will not spend time on this blog post reiterating the events of his life. That has been well handled all over the place, including in this obituary about Jim Haynes published in The Guardian, or on Jim Haynes’s own web site. The only thing I feel I can bring that would serve any purpose beyond what everyone else – and he himself in that autobiography as well – would say, is my own experience of Jim. And I look forward to reading many more such accounts by the other legions of people from every walk of life who knew him.
Even so, in a nutshell: Born in the U.S., in Louisiana, after coming to Europe in the military, he decided to live in Scotland in the 1950s, where he created the first paperback bookstore, then helped found the now-famous Traverse theatre, before then moving to London where he founded the Arts Lab theatre space, and the International Times newspaper. He then came to Paris on a teaching assignment at the University of Paris, and stayed the rest of his life here, writing, holding Sunday dinner salons for more than 40 years, creating his publishing company, as well as many other manner of homegrown artistic thing.Jim also, by the way, wanted to meet and know everyone in the world, and it was for that reason that I had no qualms about introducing myself to him in that bookshop. After that first meeting, we had many different kinds of meetings or communications over the years, never as close friends, but always as welcome friends. In the early years he would periodically call me up while I was working in the library of the International Herald Tribune – a newspaper that he read daily – in order to find some clip or other fact that he needed for whatever purpose. We would talk for a while, I’d find what he was looking for, and life went on.
I met him on occasion at the various book launches and small press nights at The Village Voice, at Shakespeare and Company or other meeting points during the period of the 1980s when it felt as if the literary expat world of Paris of the 1920s and 1930s or even the 1950s had returned. Several young expats from the English-speaking world decided to create their own literary magazines, and Jim, who had his own Handshake Editions at the time helped to encourage many of those young people with their literary magazines and actions. “Frank,” by David Applefield, was one of those, John Strand, who went on to have an excellent career as a playwright had another called “Paris Exiles,” and a woman named Carole Pratle had one called Sphinx. And, yes, Ted Joans, the famous beat poet was hanging around too. Jim had even helped advise AND occasionally work for Odile Hellier, the owner of that very same Village Voice bookstore where we met. (Applefield, by the way, who spent most of his life in Paris until he returned to the U.S. a couple of years ago, ran for Congress last summer, lost, and died suddenly the next day.)
One of the astounding things about Jim was just how many people he did indeed know. And the range of the kind of person they were. From the famous to the unknown, it didn’t matter who you were or what you did. He just liked people. But more important, even his act of knowing people was not something only for him: He loved to introduce people to each other, to make connections, to start relationships. One of his ventures was a global address book, comprising many of the people he met. And his famous Sunday dinners in Paris were always an occasion for Jim to introduce people to each other, and I mean in a really, outgoing, almost formal way: “Brad this is so and so; so and so, this is Brad.” That sense that we were all there to meet and share was one of the first signals you would receive upon entering the dinner.
On one of our early meetings at his home in the 1980s, I went because I learned he had some kind of recording studio at home and I wanted to record a couple of songs and a piece of prose writing I had done. I secretly hoped he would love it and use it in his then popular “Cassette Gazette,” a cassette tape collection of all kinds of writing and music and everything else you could put on tape. He showed no interest in the written piece, but he did sincerely and with some surprise in his voice, compliment my recording of the Raggle Taggle Gypsies song. At the time I was no longer playing music in public and had no ambitions to do so. So I was a bit pissed off he liked the song but not the writing!
That recording, by the way, was done by his longtime friend, Jack Henry Moore, who I knew nothing of at the time, but who I would eventually learn was also very much at the center of the underground of the 1960s. Jim wrote a Jack Henry Moore obituary for The Guardian when he died in 2014.
That, I believe in fact, was my first visit to Jim’s atelier at 83, rue de la Tombe Issoire, where one of his illustrious neighbours and friends was Samuel Beckett, by the way. Yes, Jim was friends with countless literary people, including Henry Miller, another one-time Paris expat, and he had a long running friendship with the book publisher, John Calder, with whom he founded the first Edinburgh international book festival. And to my delight and surprise, he had also corresponded with Colin Wilson, one of the original Angry Young Men of British literature, whom I would later meet, interview and befriend. I was delighted to be able eventually to give to Jim a copy of the interview book that I did with Colin Wilson. How strange the world is! (I recall now that I had also run into Jim at the Frankfurt Book Fair the one time I went there, which he attended regularly, and he introduced me to Calder.)
From a coffee and brownie meeting while reading his book, and him calling me up as a librarian at the IHT, soon he would be complimenting me on “writing half of the IHT newspaper,” or however he put it, while referring to all my regular Formula One writings and multiple-page special reports in that paper. He had treated me with the same respect as a support staff member of the IHT as when I became a regular journalist for the paper. Over the years we would meet in various circumstances, maybe at an organized play attendance followed by a dinner with a small group of people whom he had encouraged to see his friends’ play – or at a Sunday dinner at his atelier.
In another interesting Jim Haynes phenomenon, through the decades the number and kinds of people who I knew and who I learned also knew Jim Haynes grew and grew. They would, again, be from different countries around the world, and my relationship to them would vary completely, never being entirely to do with journalism or the arts, so vastly large was his relationship “footprint” around the world.One of our more recent meetings happened four or five years ago at a book launch of a friend of his, Varda Ducovny, in a home art space in Paris, in Montmartre. I had met Varda at one of the above mentioned dinners. At the end of the evening, he left a few minutes before I did, and as I descended the stairs of the building, I found Jim, sitting oddly on the bottom stair, with a couple of his friends either side. He had fallen and hurt himself; in fact, he had fallen before the start of the evening, and despite being in pain throughout, he stayed for the full launch and cocktail ceremony. By then in his early 80s, such a fall felt ominous. And as it turned out, it really was the beginning of a series of incidents that would remove from him his strong good health and easy mobility.
One of our last meetings I now see in a short recorded interview that I did with him for some research that Ornella was doing, was in January 2018. Three years ago. While he was 100 percent there mentally – and morally, ie, in his usual good spirits – I seriously worried about how many months he might last. That he lasted three more years is testament to his incredible inner strength, which I put down to that Jim Haynes optimistic, happy, loving and thankful philosophy of life.
Ornella found a key to that philosophy in the book he had given her that day three years ago, a copy of his book, “Everything Is!” She posted these words from the book on her Facebook page, and I agree with their profundity, so I finish this post with them too: “Some people say that when they are happy they sing and dance. But I say: when I sing and dance, I am happy!”
Under that menubar you will find a collection of all sorts of bits and pieces of writing from this blog of stuff about writers and writing, books, bookstores, Not Book Reviews, etc. It is not an exhaustive collection of such writing that I have done over the years, by any means. It is just like the rest of this blog, stuff that I chose at any given time to devote a page to. As a result, I took away some of the articles previously held in certain other parts of the blog – like from “Blog Articles as Opposed to Posts,” and I gave them this their own home.
I am hoping that it will inspire me to contribute regularly to them with many of the pieces of writing on writing and writers that I have done in the past, and perhaps, eventually, I will create subheadings for each area that may grow too big, such as the writings specifically about the French crime writing scene.
Also, I decided that it was a good place to carry the definition of what should be linked there just a little further, by adding links in the menu to such things as my interview book with Colin Wilson, linking to its place on Amazon: Colin Wilson: Philosopher of Optimism. Or the video interview that I did with Colin Wilson when a new edition of the book came out.
Finally, I also decided to add to the Fiction menu the some of the translations that I have done of other people’s fiction, notably the three stories by Marc Villard, and a story by Jean-Hugues Oppel, that appeared in an anthology in the United States, and then later made its way to a BBC radio play, which is where the link goes.
And so it is that under semi-lockdown I have finally found the time to do some long-required housekeeping on this blog! (You will have seen the huge lack of blog items in recent months about playing music in public! And you will not, coronavirus oblige, wonder why!)
So who, you will ask, is the real-life Beth Harmon and why does this bother me?
First, I want to put into a few words the premise of the Netflix series for those readers of this post who have not seen it. In a nutshell, Beth Harmon is the fictional character in the novel of the same name as the series, written by Walter Tevis, an American novelist, and published in 1983. It is the coming of age story of a girl whose father has abandoned her, whose mother dies, and who ends up in an orphanage and discovers the game of chess through the janitor. She finds she has a talent for it, and she goes on to build a career in the game, rising to win the U.S. national championships, and culminating in a tournament in Moscow against the top players in the world.Beth Harmon also has another essential aspect to her character, which is her addiction to drugs and alcohol, which began with her force feeding of various medications at the orphanage. In another nutshell, I want to say that while I loved the series – watching it became my own short-lived addiction – there were some fundamental parts to it that were indeed pure fiction. No drug addict under the influence is going to play chess the way Beth Harmon did. (And while this made her character interesting for fiction, it is questionable as an example for other young women seeking to find themselves in today’s world, where drugs are more accessible than in the fictional day of the 1950s and 1960s in which Beth Harmon lived.) Beth’s rise quickly through the ranks without actually having any chess teachers or coaches of any note was another aspect to the fiction that was farfetched. Also, there was a huge mismatch between the player rating level (called an Elo) we heard she had at one point – something like 1800 – and the kinds of players she was supposed be beating. The top players at the time were already pushing for the 2700s. The final outstanding aspect of this fictional character is that she is a kind of drop-dead gorgeous woman, portraying a kind of man-beating femme fatale of the chess world.
While the chess world is excited to see attention paid to it like nothing since when Garry Kasparov played – and lost – to the Deep Blue computer more than 20 years ago, and while it is being reported that the Netflix series has led to a massive new demand for chess sets, books, and people playing the game online (at sites like Chess.com or Lichess.org ), there is another way in which coverage of this Netflix series is doing no good at all.How so? First, my shock: In those almost daily articles about “Meet the real Beth Harmon,” the subject of the articles is usually not only a million miles away from ever having achieved any of the exploits of the fictional character, but worse, the subject of the article is rarely even within the Top 100 of rated women chess players in the world (or even the Top 100 “girls,” which is for women under 20 years old). I had considered naming names and putting up links to some of the subjects of these stories, who hail from countries all over the world – every country is seeking to show its very own “real Beth Harmon” – but the goal of this blog item is not to point the finger at any one particular person or media. Let me just continue outlining the broad brush strokes of this con game. Every time I have found an article about the latest “real Beth Harmon” I have started by doing research to find out what the “phenom”‘s rating is. Most of the time, as I said, the women are not even close to the Top 100 lists of women players – which may be found on the site of the world chess federation, at FIDE.com – and in many cases, the women do not even HAVE an international rating.
What they do almost invariably have, is a great presence on the social media, with photos of their undeniably feminine good looks – à la Beth Harmon. They are usually featured looking sexy sitting over a chess board, often in clothes that match the black and white squares of the game, or some other chess-related image. They have online followings and their image is more important than their chess success. Still, some of them did have at some point in their lives periods playing the game at local, or even national level, and met with some success in tournaments, even if they never achieved any kind of internationally recognized results or ratings.
What am I getting at? What’s the problem with all of this? Certainly it is great publicity for the game of chess to be talked about more than it has perhaps, in fact, since the biggest international battle of wits in the early 1970s Cold War match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer. Certainly, for the noble, intelligent game of chess that helps form young minds to be learned and discovered by more people than ever before is a great thing.
But what bothers me here is that another of the themes of almost every one of these articles about the “real Beth Harmon” is that the women are invariably asked to speak about how difficult it all was as a woman in a man’s world, and how much sexism they faced by paternalistic male players who could not accept being beaten by a woman. Fine. Judit Polgar – who in fact is as close to being the “real Beth Harmon” as any woman could be, since she was the top woman player for decades, and also sat within the top 10 amongst men players for many many years – has spoken about her own encounters with such sexism. So, yes, this is a natural subject. If only the articles would not be hypocritical on another level….
In my description of the “real Beth Harmon” that I discover almost daily, you will have noticed that all of the women are beautiful, that they flaunt that beauty, they flaunt the femme fatale aspect of their image, as well as their social media image popularity. But on the other side of all of this is those lists I have mentioned of the world’s current Top 100 woman and girl players. Very few of those players are using their feminine attractiveness to sell their image. They are devoting their lives to learning how to play and win the game of chess. And they are succeeding. The Top 100 women players – lightyears ahead of the vast majority of the “real Beth Harmons” that I am reading about in the media (including many, many reputable, traditional media) – are great chess players, women or not. But they are being, for the most part, ignored by the media that wants to exploit the image that the Netflix series is exploiting: Beautiful, sexy, fashion-model-like woman beats man at man’s game.
Therein lies the problem for me – one of the two main problems – which is that in the guise of saying that women are equal to men and not being reduced to their physical attributes, these articles are doing the very opposite. They are only presenting us with the woman whose image is that of Beth Harmon – sexy young women looking like fashion models and with a great social media presence – rather than showing us the REAL REAL BETH HARMONS! Those Top 100 at most, but really, say, the Top 20 women or “girls” in the world. Let me introduce to you Hou Yifan. She is currently No. 1, and a little like the Judit Polgar of our day – as Polgar has been retired for several years – by being far ahead of the second placed woman player in rating.
So what is actually happening here is that the media is indeed again using women’s beauty, women’s physical attributes, their image, their sexiness, as the thing that makes them worth talking about or not. These media are not sticking to the reality of whether or not these social media objects are actually great chess players by the standard of the world’s top-rated players!
This now leads me to the higher level point of this whole rant: It is again and clearly the kind of shorthand that passes for a story in today’s media that is actually leading to what in another area would be referred to as “fake news.” People are reading mainstream media – as well as less mainstream, but perhaps just as popular – media and if they know nothing about chess, then they cannot know that what they are reading is fake news. The woman being portrayed as a “real life Beth Harmon” is nothing close to a real life version of the fictional mastermind, BUT…but…but… a little more honesty would reveal that there are indeed many other real life Beth Harmons who are NOT being written about because they do not flaunt their bodies, faces, images, online in social media or otherwise talk about themselves as women men-beating geniuses.
So I take this to the final level: It is only because chess is a world that I am very close to, and very familiar with – I have a very low international rating, and I have played online for years as an addiction, but my son was a highly-placed national player in France for years until he quit age 15 – that I am not being duped by all these stories about the “real life Beth Harmon.” But what does this mean for all the other aspects of world politics, science, geography and social life that I know nothing about and which I am spoon-fed untruths or exaggerations daily without realizing it?
I hate to think what the answer to that might really be.
The clown act was that of an Italian from Turin named Paolo Locci, which he calls “Hobo.” And while that name and Locci’s makeup and costume fall right in the Emmett Kelly tradition, this was an act with a twist: The clown was both the hobo and his dog; most importantly, throughout most of the act, the dog is trying to feed itself, but the food falls just short of his grasp. There’s the metaphor of the clown that today cannot feed himself – like most actors, circus performer, musicians and other live entertainers!
Asked after the show where he got the idea, Locci said he got it from his own dog. In fact, it was a beautifully executed and imaginative pole act from beginning to end in which Locci interweaves classic pole performance with the characters of the hobo and dog. Locci has trained at circus school in both Italy and France, and he performs around Europe.
Paolo Locci Hobo on the pole
I managed to get a little bit of it on video, but I as too far from the stage to get a good quality video. This can just give a small idea of what it as about. Making the video was also a bit difficult as we were seated on the ground level in front of the stage, not in the arena seats behind, so there were plenty of spectators’ heads in front of us.
But that is part of the theme too: The show took place during an annual festival for street theater, contemporary circus and music called Valdemone Festival that was founded in 2010, but which, this year due to Coronavirus was not supposed to take place at all. The organizers fought to keep it going and managed to set things going in record time.
Our seats were spread out according to social distancing laws, and there were not so many spectators as to make it dangerous proximity anywhere in the theater. Locci’s act was preceded by a music concert by a three-man band called Trio CasaMia – a small acoustic bass or viola, guitar and saxophone – that mostly entertained by telling long stories about the music they would then play, most of which had come from popular films and television series of the past.
It felt a little like we had driven 150 kilometers to get fed, but it was just outside our grasp…