christopher james

Poems and prattle

Month: March, 2012

Scott of the Antarctic

One hundred years ago this evening, Captain Scott lay half out of his reindeer sleeping bag, Bowers on his right and the scientist, Wilson on his left. Both of Scott’s comrades had already drifted into ‘a kind of sleep’ according to Trygge Gran, one of the rescue party. In some accounts, Scott had his arm around Wilson. This then, was the final scene in Scott’s extraordinary life – in which achieving the South Pole had been the last frontier. Their suffering had been extraordinary: blizzards, temperatures below minus 40 F, an inexplicable lack of fuel in their depots and shortage of food. And yet Scott kept up his diary to the end – and his last harrowing entry: ‘For God’s sake look after our people.’   

captain-scott1

Having just read Edward Evans South with Scott (gritty, elegantly written and totally loyal to Scott) I am in nothing but awe of the men that joined Scott on his Terra Nova expedition. They were to a man, the most cheerful, patriotic, cultured and loyal bunch you could ever imagine, and remained so in the most desperate of circumstances. The flickering images of the Polar party cheerfully sharing Fry’s cocoa before heading south was not just for the benefit of Ponting’s camera.  

What stands out in Evan’s account is not just the heroism; it is the commitment to art and especially to science. Less than a month from their death, the Polar party were still collecting geological specimens and hauled 35lb of scientific samples back with them on the sledge, despite their suffering. The Terra Nova expedition was not a mad dash for the pole (how much happier for them if it had been). Rather it was a considered, meticulously planned expedition, with the noblest of aims: to claim the pole for king and country; to further scientific knowledge and in the writings and images to create a poetic account of their voyage. They succeeded in all but one of their goals.

The Natural History Museum are currently staging a fine tribute to these gentlemen explorers. They have recreated the expedition hut, assembled much of the original paraphenalia including their gramaphone, supplies and skis; they have even marked out their bunks on the ground.  But quite rightly they have placed the emphasis on the scientific legacy of the expedition – the Emperor penguin eggs Cherry-Garrard and co fought suffered so much to retrive and countless other specimens. Visit the exhibition, read some of the other tributes written today and saltute these fine men still lying out there somewhere in the snow.

PRINTS

 

‘On the outside grows the furside;

on the inside grows the skinside.’

      Herbert Ponting, Antarctic photographer

 

You made them ghosts before their time

silver figures on the pack ice, like chess men 

scattered across a tabletop; that year

you banished rainbows, your lens like a moonstone

impressing their spirits on the glass.

You established your aesthetic in a soft hat,

goggles and frozen moustache. Yours was

the all-seeing eye, the Terra Nova in the distance,

the dog in the mouth of a gramophone

and Scott in his study, plotting his fate. 

You watched their prints disappear south

and would not look up at the copper moon. 

In the darkroom, you printed the blankness

of midnight across the great white silence. 

 

See also

 http://www.jolybraime.co.uk/blog/?p=463

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The Brother

It’s not easy being the only brother. It’s even worse when three of your sisters happen to be literary geniuses. This then was the predicament faced by the still prodigiously talented Branwell Bronte. Originally ear-marked as the most gifted member of the family, it seemed he only had to choose between poetry and painting to achieve success. As we know now, his was not the name that history remembered.  

Painting of Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Bronte by Branwell Bronte

THE BROTHER

‘All my life I have done nothing either great or good’.

Branwell Brontë, you died standing up,

your talent eclipsed by whisky and genius.  

A station master’s assistant, you were

let go for translating Horace in the ticket office;

you made announcements only in Latin.

As a tutor, you were driven to distraction:

Mrs Robinson, seductress of Thorp Green,

she became your one blaze of excitement.

On Sundays you had the hall to yourselves; 

you drank tea in the nude and read Keats in the bath.

She always said the maid was not to be trusted.

You took to the hills with your brushes

to escaping the chattering of your sisters

and the prison of your father’s love.  

You chased phantoms across the moors.

Merely gifted, you painted yourself out of life;

and could not remember setting fire

to the bed or Emily dousing you with a bedpan.  

Branwell Brontë, King of Angria, forever cast

to the shadows of history, you found laudanum

no cure for heartache or mediocrity. Your sisters’

greatest love: the brilliant boy, who never shone.

Paul Simon is not my father

It’s summer 1986; we’re driving through Cornwall in our orange Chrysler Alpine listening to Paul Simon’s Graceland. It’s the only tape in the car and everyone, including my mother and smallest brother know all the words. Russell, through close study of the inlay card, knows who plays second bass on I Know What I Know and vibes on Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes. Sharing a room, Russell tests me in the dark on the lyrics. This, perhaps, is why I forever associate these polyphonic hymns to Africa with leafy Cornish lanes.

We are staying in a wood cabin near a lake with the unimaginable luxury of a sauna; we take it in turns to boil in there, turning our books to mushy pulp. One morning I drive with dad out into Truro, where we manage to get hold of Paul’s film, The Concert for Africa. It’s a beautiful, inspiring sun-lit concert of hope where we see Lady Smith Black Mambazo come to life with their bear hug harmonies, loony dancing and giant white trainers. Paul’s at the front conducting proceedings in his trademark black jeans and white t-shirt, looking slightly pensive as usual. We spend a glorious night together, a rare moment of family unity, transfixed by the optimism and incredible music. 

Down the years, we follow Paul’s career, turning his concerts into family reunions, and devouring his infrequent albums. My brother goes through a phase of wearing trilby hats with white t-shirts and suit jackets, which is an incongruous look on a 16 year old from a small town in the midlands. From my loft hatch, revising for GCSEs, I blast out the South American street drumming that powers his 1990 single the Obvious Child. On his way to work, Dad plays steering wheel bongo to the old stuff – Cecilia and Mother and Child Reunion, which every Paul fan knows was inspired by a chicken and egg dish in a Chinese restaurant.     

As my dad turns 60, we hear Paul is back in the UK promoting his luminous new album, So Beautiful or So What,(which for old time’s sake, begins with a peon to ‘a chicken gumbo’) . There’s the promise of fan favourites alongside the latest stuff – he’s playing Peace Like a River as well as funky old favourites from Graceland like Crazy Love Vol II (no one ever heard volume one). It’s impossible to turn down and we manage to tempt dad back from his retirement house in Italy for one night of Paul Simon mania in Birmingham.

It’s the day of the concert and I’m getting texts from dad telling me his plane has been delayed. The customs officers are on strike and presumably it’s their supervisors who are rummaging amateurishly through people’s under wear instead of the professionals. I’ve taken the day off, so this all fine with me – it’s more time to chase my one year old daughter around the house pretending to be a lion, and earn some brownie points by taking my wife out to lunch. The texts keep coming and they’re increasingly desperate, telling me not to worry about picking him up from the airport and just to get myself over to Birmingham in good time.

I’m just polishing off my pizza Napolitano when I get a particularly despondent communication from my father and think perhaps I should give him a call. He’s been at the airport for three hours already and has just about had it. He’s uncharacteristically resigned.  

‘Just go!’ he sighs. ‘If I get there, I’ll find a train or just wait for the next flight back. It’s more important that you and Russ get to the concert.’

‘Why is it more important?’ I ask him, moving away from my table to a quieter part of the restaurant.

‘Because you paid for the tickets and have been looking forward to it for months.’

‘That’s completely irrelevant,’ I said. ‘It’s your treat, not ours.’ I find myself next to a table of elderly ladies finishing their lunch.

‘It’s Paul Simon!’ dad reminds me.

‘Paul Simon is not my father!’ I shout back. One of the elderly ladies peers at me, somewhat taken aback.

Eventually, my father’s plane is given clearance for take-off and I head down to Stansted, with perilously little time left. Once parked up, I drop by the car rental desk and ask to borrow a large piece of paper and black marker. Having made my sign, I go across to International Arrivals and wait with the taxi men, husbands and wives for the flight to arrive.  Soon, I have attracted quite a bit of attention, which I studiously ignore. I can hear whispers and people sidle round to check for themselves what’s written on the sign, in large capital letters:

ART GARFUNKEL

News of this celebrity arrival spreads and a sizable posse of the bored and curious assemble behind me, waiting for a glimpse of the big hair and waistcoat. Eventually my father appears, a slim, smart, but undeniably bald gentleman, looking a little stressed, with his phone to his ear, scanning the crowds. He stops right in front of me, without registering either me or my sign.

I clear my throat and his eyes suddenly flash with recognition. He is momentarily confused by the sign, but not as confused as the large crowd behind me when I give him a hug.

‘Is that what he looks like now?’ someone asks.

‘Wow,’ another mutters. ‘Art Garfunkel.’

Collecting a speeding ticket, we imagine, in each county between the airport and the concert hall, we make the gig, missing only one song. The three of us are shown by torchlight to an area overlooking the side of the stage, curiously away from the rest of the crowd. When Paul looks over, it’s as if he’s only looking at us.

‘Thank you,’ Paul sings to us, in his new song ‘Rewrite.’

‘Thank you,’ my father returns as if conducting a personal conversation.

Later, the iconic pilgrim from the cover of Graceland is beamed onto a giant screen behind the diminutive genius. We hear the defiant accordion intro to The Boy in the Bubble and it’s like Cornwall all over again. Rising to our feet, the hall fills with brilliant white light and we disappear in miracle and wonder.

The Wash

The  Wash is a strange and wonderous place. In parts neither land nor sea, the bay is our largest estuary and the sea’s most daring encroachments on the land.  It is as if a giant wave has swept across the fens, then failed to retreat.

We found ourselves in Snettisham, Norfolk, on Saturday, on the eastern edge of The Wash. It was an unsually warm March day and we looked out at the sunlight glittering on the mudflats. Stranded buoys rested on the mud like bare headed men buried up to their necks. Gulls picked their way across the glistening mud looking for lunch.

It was impossible to determine whether the mud would sustain the weight of a man – until somewhere in the distance, in the heat haze we saw a figure striding confidently across, as if he had walked all the way from Lincolnshire. As he got nearer, we saw he was naked, except for a pair of yellow shorts. He was tanned, fit and barefooted; he followed a greyhound across the mud, which in silhouette looked oddly like a small deer. We all imagined the hot mud beneath our feet, the delicious solitide of the mudflats and the hot sun on our backs. His journey seemed so heroic and miraculous; it was the nearest I have come to seeing someone walking on water.  

 

 

The Nest

CITY CENTRE LOCATION – £85,000 FREEHOLD

This one bedroom open plan studio nest is offered for sale chain free on the fashionable north side of the city on a gently swaying branch. Access is via a mature beech tree, although the vendor will offer flying lessons to genuinely interested parties. The property would suit smaller buyers, meteorologists, and those not planning an extended stay in the city.

A nest, yesterday

Largely of wood construction, the property retains many original features including bracken, leaves, twigs, and moss carpets throughout. Local amenities include a plentiful supply of grubs and worms, and buds as sweet as honeysuckle. Leisure facilities include the close-by sky, extensive pavement network and the warmth of the sun. Accommodation comprises a single large living room. The property is sold without a bathroom, however a delightful tree canopy offers leafy shade in the summer and conservatory-style space in the winter.

Planning permission has been granted for a second nest in the upper tree canopy. Residents will enjoy the cosmopolitan atmosphere, regular choral and discussion groups and all the benefits you would associate with loft living. Winter accommodation is situated in the lower branches and the southern hemisphere. The nest is part of a secure development with a shared janitor offering a morning call service to residents. The buyer will be responsible for the upkeep of their own branch, must have a good sense of balance and own their own set of wings. The price reflects the vendor’s wish for a quick sale due to emigration. Please note cuckoo gazumping syndicates need not apply.

The Bob Dylan Sat Nav

To begin with, he is young and sarcastic. So where do you wanna go? he says. Take the fourth turning on the left, but don’t let people tell you what to do, man. The fields fall away like dreams. The sky furrows its brow and there’s rain all the way to Leicester Forest East. I knew a chick once, she used to cry every time she heard Beethoven. I bought her a Monkees record and taught her to dance.  

 Just past Nottingham, he starts speaking with the smooth croon of a country singer. He seems to know what I’m thinking; Leave the roundabout at the third exit and don’t deny me the capacity to change. At Scotch Corner, I get out and buy a copy of The Best of Joan Baez. When I get back to the car, I find him making a long distance phone call to a girl in a red skirt in New Orleans. Why not come back in an hour or so? He says. And by the way, can you check the oil?

 I tell him we’re going north – I knew a girl there once, she kept catching colds. Take the first road on the right and stop putting sugar in your coffee – you’re missing the whole point. He coughs. Say, don’t you ever get lonely? Let’s make some friends, We draw alongside a brunette driving a tiny sports car. Bob feeds me chat up lines and tells me to keep smiling. What are you afraid of man? That you might feel alive? Paint your face white, stop at a different town every night and drink Grand Marnier. Sit on top of the car and recite some Shakespeare. Hey, don’t you think it’s time we got some snacks?

By Gateshead, he’s found God. You thought about where all this came from? The Angel of the North stands like a sentinel. By Edinburgh he’s weary. All this driving gets me down. It reminds me of my second marriage. We park up and let the engine cool and I stick Blonde on Blonde on the stereo. He sings along for a while in his cracked voice. I should have put Blind Willie McTell on Infidels, and used a full band on John Wesley Harding. The Devil has all the best tunes, but Slow Train Coming still had great production values.  

He tells me to pull off the main road, then after half a mile seems to change his mind. Turn the car around, he sighs, there’s nothing down this lane except loneliness and heartache. Between the Trussocks and Loch Lomand he goes completely quiet; the silver pools collect in the valley like oil on a garage floor. The river flexes below us like new guitar strings.  

What kind of car is this anyway? He says, a Citroen? I knew a French girl once; she knew too much. She had yellow hair and thing about Christopher Marlowe. We pull off the road to find a pub and pick two hitchhikers, old men with old guitars who sing in croaky harmony and smell of whisky. That’s not bad for a pick up band, says Bob. I drop them off on a track leading back to the pub. Rick Danko and Richard Manuel he mutters, I haven’t seen them in a while.

On the outskirts of Glasgow, a police car appears in the rear view mirror. Let me do the talking, he says. We make the coast and watch the Largs Ferry nose through the water. By the time we reach the islands, he becomes distracted. Continue straight on he mumbles. The sky goes dark and horses gallop alongside us. I get out to take in the view then see the handbrake release. The car slips towards the black waters of the bay. Don’t remember me this way, I hear him say and don’t forget to buckle up. You’ll have to find your own way home.

McCartney/Harrison – the forgotten partnership

One of the indelible images of the ‘Sixties is of Paul McCartney and George Harrison sharing a mike, their guitars akimbo, shaking their mop-tops while nailing their trademark falsetto.

While Paul’s left handed bass playing saved The Beatles the expense of a third microphone (and by 1963 they could probably afford it) very little has been said of the musical collaboration between the two youngest Beatles. Overshadowed by the all conquering Lennon/McCartney partnership, it seems a McCartney and Harrison teaming was given very little consideration.

In fact they were responsible for the very first Beatles’ original committed to disc. ‘In Spite of All the Danger’ was a slow, moody blues in the style of Gene Vincent recorded by Percy Phillips in his Liverpool living room. It was amateurish for sure, but an entirely competent pastiche; it would still have been the finest song Elvis never wrote.  Paul later took full credit for the song, claiming George simply played the guitar solo – at the time he said, they did not realise that this did not constitute part of the song itself. For such ancient history, this does seem a littl bit like nit picking. It did not bode well for future collaborations; they only again shared credit on such innocuous instrumental fare as ‘Flying’ from the Magical Mystery Tour Soundtrack, ‘Dig it’ and the back-from-the-dead track ‘Free as a Bird.’

Lennon and McCartney were, at least to begin with, in awe of each other’s talents; Lennon envious of McCartney’s seemingly endless supply of melodies while Paul admired John’s compellingly direct lyrical style. They were excited about their song writing, quickly realising they would benefit from each other. Their remarkable pact to credit everything they did to ‘Lennon/McCartney’ was made when they were sixteen and honoured (just about) to this day. In the glow of this attraction, it seems Harrison found himself the musical gooseberry. Their underestimation of Harrison’s gift was later a cause of regret (John thought that ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’ were the only decent things on Abbey Road) and this early closing of ranks was a resentment Harrison carried with him beyond The Beatles’ demise.

Despite their lack of joint publishing credits however, their work together was still remarkable. Think of McCartney’s sizzling guitar solo in Taxman (perhaps returning the favour for In Spite of All the Danger) which was reversed to double the length. It became a source of irritation to George when fans declared it his best piece of work. George was equally careful with Paul’s songs; it was only in the last year or so that Paul confessed that the memorable four note signature in ‘And I Love Her’ was George’s work. It would have meant a co-writing credit in most other bands.

Both exciting players, they let rip together on such rockers as Birthday (1968) – their doubled bass and guitar lines powering this Cream-esque pot boiler. They traded similarly distorted guitar licks on Abbey Road’s ‘The End’ like members of The Eagles. 

Perhaps their finest collaboration was in George’s stellar ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (also 1968) with Paul’s fine high harmony and powerful juddering bass making it the closest they came to a duet. They repeated the trick on ‘Something,’ by which time Paul realised that it was he that was playing catch up in the song-writing stakes.

While their personalities clashed (the dour, acerbic Harrison irritated by the cheerful, driving McCartney) their bond was deep and enduring. Too much was made of their rift immediately after the Beatles break up when George wrote the mean-spirited ‘Wah Wah’ about Paul’s musical lecturing and played snide slide guitar on John poisonous character assassination ‘How Do You Sleep?’  When George Harrison died in 2002 Paul said ‘he was like a little brother to him.’  

Hearing their two voices together, pure and full of conviction, makes you realise that ‘McCartney/Harrison’ was a partnership of equally intriguing possibilities and lasting value.

‘Between two fires’ – Poetry and the supernatural

In poetry, special effects are standard kit. From the moment the Green Knight removed his own head before an astonished Sir Gawain, the walls of reality dissolved forever. Poets realised they could pretty much do as they pleased (and still turn a sestina with a flourish). Not only did the potent imagery of the supernatural give their work an ethereal glow, it allowed them to cast themselves as alchemists and propagators of ancient myths. It underlined the unbroken lineage between them and the early mystics; the language of poetry and the rites of pagan ritual.

Poetry has a natural affinity with supernatural idioms: think of Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’ – it’s an incantation, a high style that poets deploy freely. And the art of poetry has always drawn on alchemy, conjuring the wondrous from the mundane. Prospero commanded the supernatural world to serve his own ends: “Spirits, which by mine art / I have from their confines call’d to enact / My present fancies.” Poets continue to work the same magic, often calling upon players from other worlds to reveal the essential truths of this one.

For Elizabethan playwrights, the supernatural presented a heady brew of art, magic, science and religion, as rational minds applied themselves to inexplicable things. Faustus wonders if it is within the realms of his science “to make men […] live eternally / Or being dead raise them to life again”.

His curiosity leads to a rejection of God for magic: “Divinity Adieu / these metaphysics of magicians are heavenly.”

Ghosts and angels

In the centuries that followed, religion and the supernatural formed an uneasy alliance. Metaphysical poets like Henry Vaughan drew from both traditions to articulate the relationship between the spiritual and physical worlds and the sense of humanity being trapped between the two. He describes an epiphany in ‘The World’ in oddly modern terms: “I saw eternity the other night / Like a great Ring of pure and endless light.” It is a visionary moment of clarity but a transitory one – as if this magical realm, this glimpse of heaven and perfection is just beyond the reach of man.

Later, ghosts and angels became the predominant supernatural presence in poetry, and dreams the gateway to the supernatural world. In Leigh Hunt’s poem, Abou Ben Adhem wakes from his dream of peace to find “an angel writing in a book of gold” and from there negotiates his way into God’s favour (‘Abou Ben Adhem’). By the time of Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, begun in 1798, Gothic melodrama has sunk its fangs into poetry. The poem’s opening, “’Tis the middle of the night by the castle clock” is pure Hammer Horror and the apparition Christabel sees is the archetypal ghost: “a damsel bright / Drest in a silken robe of white.” There is something horrific about the mysterious Geraldine: “her bosom and half her side / A sight to dream of not to tell”, the intimation that she may indeed be the living dead – a simultaneously beautiful and terrible vision of sex and death. Perhaps because of its B-movie plot and hackneyed mysticism, Wordsworth considered ‘Christabel’ too sensationalist to earn a place in Lyrical Ballads. And yet, in its dreamlike framework and lack of a resolution (Coleridge, characteristically, never finished the poem), ‘Christabel’ continues to beguile – and of course is replete with enough supernatural imagery to keep Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in long and gainful employment.

There is an implication in the work of the Romantics that the poetry itself is channelled from another dimension. In their séance-like writing sessions they see themselves as mediums as much as poets.

Echoes of the Gothic continue into Hardy’s ‘The Shadow of the Stone’. He finds himself in “the shifting shadows” of the garden with the sensation of someone standing behind him. He admits he dares not “turn my head to discover there was nothing in my belief.” He is reassured rather than repelled however by the idea of a spirit world; he feels warmth and company from ghosts of loved ones – and does not wish to dispel this illusion by looking round and finding the garden empty.

Family ghosts

The supernatural allows an escape from the rational world. Poetry does not always have to explain itself. It can move more freely through time and nimbly from the real to the unreal; the living and the dead mingle easily.

When Hamlet receives information from his father’s ghost (the supernatural as plot device), they temporarily inhabit the same realm. This had a ghostly echo in reality when Daniel Day-Lewis fled the stage during a National Theatre production of the play, after finding himself face to face with an apparition of own father, Cecil Day-Lewis. Haunted by their unresolved relationship, Daniel Day-Lewis identified similar traits in them both – by turns reticent and attracted by danger. Some of this generational tension is pre-figured in lines from his father’s poem, ‘The Conflict’: “For where we used to build and love / Is no man’s land, and only ghosts can live /Between two fires.” W.H. Auden, you feel, would have had much to say about this incident, given his interest in ‘family ghosts’ – the potent, invisible effect of preceding generations on your psychological make-up.

In Louise Gluck’s brilliant and unsettling ‘Gretel in Darkness’, the mythic framework of the fairy tale underpins the psychological entrapment of the adult world. While Hansel denies the memory of the “witch’s cry” in “the moonlight through a sheet of sugar”, Gretel recalls how she ‘killed’ for him and is haunted still by the “spires of that gleaming kiln”. For her adult brother, the admission of a supernatural dimension is too much to bear, compounding the guilt and moral desperation of an incestuous relationship as “in our father’s hut we sleep”.

In a post-supernatural age

In a secular age, with the universe seemingly explained in the hula-hoop of a Large Hadron Collider, (the scientific successor to Vaughan’s “ring of pure endless light”?) we are more relaxed about solving religious and spiritual conundrums. The playful behaviour of ghosts is now the prevalent motif. “The spirits of chance and chaos” in Roddy Lumsden’s ‘My Limbo’: “stand in doorways: / quaint, foul allies, swivelling their ghost hips, /tugging at their gowns of transparency / and mischief.” Billy Collins meanwhile muses on the secret life of angels who “fly through God’s body and come out singing”. They are hip, and carefree. He singles out one “dancing alone in her stocking feet, a small jazz combo working in the background” (‘Questions About Angels’).

The poet as magician is the enduring image, the writer summoning forth apparitions from the world of the imagination to create enduring symbols of truth. Ultimately, the world of the imagination is deeper and richer than the spiritual world, which by definition is a human construct. In ‘Transgressing the Real’, Robert Duncan reveals the poet’s art: “under the cloak of his poem he retires / invisible”. And yet if we are wise, warns James Merrill in ‘Voices from the Other World’, we should not discount the supernatural entirely:

“Last night the teacup shattered in a rage. / Indeed, we have grown nonchalant/Towards the other world.”

Still stuck for a Mother’s Day present?

So there’s no time now to send your mum a card but you still have one trick left up your sleeve.

In exchange for all that nose-wiping, why not buy her some poetry to raise the tone of her Kindle? It’s thoughtful, convenient and best of all, cheaper than it’s paper counter part.

Here’s a digital book chosen entirely at random that is sure to get you back in her good books.

Farewell to the Earth

Farewell to the Earth (Arc, 2011)

Were Decca right to turn down The Beatles?

It’s a preposterous question, of course. But let’s look at the evidence. Without the benefit of foresight – the Ed Sullivan Show, the Technicolor glory of Sergeant Pepper and John Lennon in a fur coat on a London rooftop – all they had to go on were the tracks The Beatles recorded for them on New Year’s Day 1962: a slightly bizarre selection of novelty tunes and standards chosen by Brian Epstein to showcase his boisterous charges.

After fishing an old copy of Anthology 1 out of the British Heart Foundation charity shop last weekend, I listened again to five of the tracks recorded that day. And the choices and performances seem odd indeed.   

Seasoned from long residencies in Hamburg and Liverpool, The Beatles were without question a magnificently tight unit. The drum fills and guitar flourishes are drilled to precision and the band could stop on a dime (or sixpence) when required; they loved to come to a dramatic halt mid -song often followed by a sotto voice pronouncement  (think of Paul’s slightly wobbly solo line in Love Me Do or in Like Dreamer’s Do).

Three Cool Cats is a savvy piece of Brill Building song writing but listening now, it sounds hilariously un-PC. George, not yet an entirely confident vocalist, takes the lead and while the performance is spirited, it feels a little flat in places. Paul and John, the other cats, each make a comedy contribution in the form of a silly voice (‘Looky there!’) –  John in a rather dodgy Arabic accent. Considering the stakes, The Beatles certainly seem relaxed, larking around as if playing to a half empty room of drunken sailors.

Searchin’ (another Leiber/Stoller composition – the ubiquitous songwriting duo soon to by usurped by Lennon/McCartney) finds The Beatles’ bursting with confidence.  They expertly deliver a supercharged of The Coaster’s 1957 hit. But Paul’s vocal is highly Americanised – almost a pastiche of the soul shouting they so admired. And there is some curious high pitched gurgling half way through.

The Sheik of Araby meanwhile is firmly back in novelty territory. Another comedy effort, although delivered entirely straight by George, it could have been part a Morecambe and Wise sketch, complete with Fez hats. Beginning with a comedy instrumental that wouldn’t be out of place in a pantomime of Aladdin, the song even features some Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman ‘Not Arfs!’ When their whole future was riding on the session, not least the 17 shillings a piece for the night in the posh hotel that Epstein stumped up, it all seems rather baffling. It’s telling that none of these tracks ultimately made it onto a Beatles’ album. Another effort on the day was Besame Mucho, a Mexican bossa nova written by a fifteen year old. It’s hardly Twist and Shout.  

It’s all quite revealing as to how the Beatles saw themselves in 1962 – not just as graduates of rock and roll but also part of a wider culture of light entertainment. In an effort to be true to themselves, they perhaps portrayed themselves as more eclectic than might have been prudent when the label was simply looking for some straightforward rockers. But the Goon Show and Morecambe and Wise were as much part of The Beatles’ upbringing as Elvis and it was an essential part of the mix. Their wild success at the Royal Variety Show the following year proved their instincts right. The band’s quirky tastes and comic sensibilities would gain full rein in such tunes as Rocky Raccoon, You Know my Name (Look up the Number) and Honey Pie.

So we know what happened next. Decca banked on The Tremeloes instead (who auditioned the same day), while palming the Fabs off with the made their famous prophesy: ‘guitar groups are on the way out .’ and the even more damning: ‘the Beatles have no future in show business.’ Decca’s loss was EMI’s gain, who went on to build forty years of prosperity on the band before disappearing down a venture capitalist’s plughole. Still if they had been taken on, The Beatles would never have met George Martin and the 20th century might have sounded different entirely. On that London rooftop seven year’s later, as part of their last public performance, John Lennon quipped for posterity and perhaps to those suits at Decca still in the back of his mind: ‘I hope we’ve passed the audition.’   

But it’s an interesting question to pose fifty year’s on. If only they had sung I Saw Her Standing There, the world might have been a different place.