Sunday, 22 February 2009

Oscar-winning interview?

"I have nothing to do with people who jump out of a plane with a suitcase and a key, and they open the case and they put their parachute on, and then exclaim ‘I did it!’ It is a completely different world. I don’t understand why people do silly things like this. I walk on the high wire.

"Of course there is something extreme when people point at me, a dot in the sky, but it is not what I am after. I don’t want to be thought of as a unique phenomenon, I want to do something I believe in, and doing it as beautifully as possible. Afterwards people come to me and say, it was inspiring, it was beautiful. That to me is a very different discourse, from forcing your name to arrive in the book of records."

That is Philippe Petit talking, the the man who walked a high wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. The film of his achievement, Man on Wire, is hot favourite to win Oscar for best documentary. Petit was in Edinburgh for the film's European premiere last summer and months in advance I'd booked at interview with him, only to be mildly stunned to find I had no takers from the Scotttish Sunday papers, who apparently hadn't heard of him. So I never wrote the feature I wanted to write, and eventually sold a tiny news piece to the Times, which you can read here: Petit in Edinburgh

But it was a much better interview than that piece. Perhaps because English is not his first language, Petit's English is very precise. I've stuck the whole thing below, and it makes a decent read.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Did you often go back to the Twin Towers?

I went back often, I had a VIP pass forever. There is no such thing as forever, but I went there just before the disappearance of the towers, for yet another interview. It was my home away from home.

Of course, I autographed the building – it was preserved, even when the building was redecorated.

The unsaid thing in the film is the towers aren’t there anymore ...

It was a very personal thing. I had toiled so hard to get to know those towers, they grew on me almost as a living entity and therefore when the towers died I felt something was pulled out of me. That is a very personal feeling. We know the death that day …. It’s hard for me to talk about my personal feeling with all this loss of life.

But like Edinburgh Castle [he can see it from his seventh floor hotel window] you imagine it will always be there…

Yes, yes. Whenever I put a wire somewhere, Notre Dame or the Eiffel tower people say, you know when I look at this place, it seems different because of what you did. I do that too when I look at Notre Dame. It’s not a normal cathedral, it’s my cathedral. I remember the wire. There is a certain conquest of the place where I walk.

People described what you did as beautiful – is that why you did it, for the beauty?

It's strange because those towers were maybe not seen by people as beautiful. For me they were not beautiful in an aesthetic way, they were just so grand. … an intimate theatre on which to set my wire …. After my walk, people said “Philippe gave humanity to those towers”

But what drew you to wire walking

A whole childhood of art and sport of climbing and solitude. Trying to achieve things. What drew me to the Twin Towers was at the time they were the most fantastic stage to put a wire, to create some kind of mystical theatre in the sky. It was a very weird performance. I was a dot in the sky the people were ants on the ground. Could they see me? Could I hear them? It was really an out of this world performance.

It is a performance. But it seems a very personal thing.

That is very well observed. It is a very intimate almost day-dreamy dialogue with those two giants who at the time of the walk for me were my friends. They were the enemy at the beginning – but as I approached they became my friends and accomplices, they let me walk between them. That was … it was a very intimate feeling. It was a strange performance. The first crossing was not even performing, it was more making sure the wire was safe, feeling it, because I had not even inspected the other anchor point which I always do before I walk. It was a very strange first walk.

But when I got to the other side for whatever reason, I went back on the wire and started walking and walking my eight crossings. That was unplanned, totally improvised. Then I could call it a performance. But it was made out of the personal joy of being there – it was a strange kind of performance. Unique.

The police officer encapsulated a lot of the feeling on that day …

Yes he was pulled out of his condition of being a policeman …. At some point I decided to give myself up. By then they were very frustrated. They were violent and angry – that dissipated after a while, but it is not a good memory.

[The film says that his violent arrest was the most dangerous thing that happened that day]

What do you think of other extreme sports and the absurd lengths people go to break endurance records?

Climbing six peaks in six hours? I have no interest in that – there is no beautiful human achievement – there is a mechanical muscle achievement. But that doesn’t interest me – what interest me is the theatre of life, the mystery of life, and artistic achievement.

I have nothing to do with people who jump out of a plane with a suitcase and a key, and they open the case and they put their parachute on, and then exclaim ‘I did it!’ It is a completely different world. I don’t understand why people do silly things like this.

Of course there is something extreme when people point at me, a dot in the sky, but it is not what I am after. I don’t want to be thought of as a unique phenomenon, I want to do something I believe in, and doing it as beautifully as possible. Afterwards people come to me and say, it was inspiring, it was beautiful. That to me is a very different discourse, from forcing your name to arrive in the book of records.

The ironic thing is I have broken records – but it is not my goal. There are more noble activities in life than creating and beating records.

Fortunately I was not born in the circus. I reinvented in my own childlike and poetic way what it is to walk on a wire. It is the theatre and poetry which drove me to the wire.

I loved the line about taking your foot from the building, and [your friend and accomplice] Jean-Louis’s description of tension ebbing out of your face. That sensation of moving away from the safety of the building – can you still feel that?

Absolutely. I feel that sensation each time I grab the balancing pole and start a high wire walk. It is not exactly the same feeling each time, but it is a feeling of intimate decision. Not for nothing is it called the first step. The first step is a beautiful title for stepping into a new continent ….

Not many people dare to take that first step – to land on the moon, to dive into a great abyss in the sea.

Is it fear or expectation, or letting go?
Neither fear nor expectation. It is more of starting a voyage of exploration. In a word that has not been touched by man. Look out of the window. How many people are walking in the sky? None. In the past 100 years, how many giant walks can history record. One or two and most of them by me. It’s a mythic voyage, something out of this world. What I feel out there - and I love it so probably much for that reason – is something that you do not get on earth.

You’ve kept doing it?
Yes, it is one of my many passions. It’s life lived at its fullest. You cannot do it all day long, all your life. I usually practice four hours a day. Ok that’s a good part of the day when I am happy and in my element but unfortunately life calls for me to put my feet back on earth. Have lunch. Sleep.

And you always stay in the seventh floor of hotels, like this one?

It’s a little low. [laughter]

This sense of the Robin Hood in these walks is strong, isn’t it? Picking the pockets of the bureaucrats who want to stop you.

Exactly I was never very good at obeying the rules.

[in the film there are glimpses of his first two well known ‘illegal’ walks – Notre Dams, 1971, at 20; then Sydney two years later and the following year the Twin Towers]

I never thought of asking permission. It never dawned on me to knock on a door, to ask ‘Would you let me ….?’ It’s so obvious the answer would have been ‘Get out of here?’ I did it by intuition, illegally, because that’s what an artist should do; he shouldn’t ask permission, in my opinion.

The last time you were hired “professionally” …

For the Letterman show, three years ago [for the launch of a book he wrote]. It’s not a walk I like to remember, it’s a walk I did to help my book. It’s not one of my beautiful walks [16 stories high over Broadway and 42nd Street]. It was straight from one building to another. It was almost raining, it was co-ordinated with a TV show, and I don’t like TV.

It seems to be harder and harder for me to hired as a wire walker. It seems the world has changed, that people are more afraid of everything – putting on a giant event, and um … I don’t know, in a few years from now the profession of wire walker will be plainly illegal.

There was a century when giant feats would be attempted, when we would build things and attempt things . It the opposite now, we won’t attempt anything and it is better to say no than yes. People say ‘You never know’ and ‘what if’. I live in a world of what if’. Talking about my last walk, I am also thinking about my next. It’s very strange – I am the most famous wire walker in the world, and I am the one works the least. All the others are in the circus. That is easy – you do the same thing everyday.

To conquer the world, to run a wire between that beautiful church and incline towards the castle – well I am ready to do it tomorrow. It will take probably a few months of research and organisation and a few weeks of rigging and it will cost a lot of money probably – but then it will have a few hundred thousand people, and the entire world through the press to witness another miracle.

Why is it not happening? If I want it to do it, it will be like the end of the world, a total nightmare. I have to find the money, to get the permission, it is almost impossible. But it the phone rings, if the mayor of Edinburgh rings and says, ‘Hey Philippe I saw your film I looked at the press and you would like to walk. My city says “Come here, lets do something”’. This is a dream. Secretly I know it will never happen.

When most people think of what I do, they must think, this man is mad. He’s risking his life. It’s insane. We should stop him and put him in jail. I exaggerate, but that is a little of the feeling, when you think the world has changed. The world has changed immensely. We are surrounded by cowards who are not …. Who are forgetting to be poets. We are all born with a part of us who is a poet. Why are we now dulling our senses and not wanting to do beautiful things? My profession is do beautiful things, but I need to be invited.

Did you make money from the Twin Towers walk?

I am inept at keeping money. I am not a rich man. My financial life is a mess.

For the Twin Towers – there was not much involved – but most of it came from street juggling, in New York for eight months. A few friends of mine chipped in.

It seemed to be the end of friendships?

That was what they say, but I was surprised when I saw that in the film. Most of my friends cry when they describe the first step and that’s beautiful, its noble to cry, but there is something else, like the doubt. I was surprised. I can't talk for them, and they have the right to say what they think in the film, but this is not my film.

So you’re still friendly with your helpers?

No, but that is not my choice. So, it is a strange human chemistry again and I don’t know where it came from. People change, they do U-turns. But I don’t change. Two weeks ago I was in Western Square Park in New York, passing my hat. Nothing has changed for me. But anyway, that is their story not my story.

The tensions in the film?

This is not invented.

Where did the American helpers come from?

I needed people to help me. It was dream. But is was very demanding. People would say ‘Yes, yes’ at first and then later think ‘ Omigod, he really is going to do it’. They were scared to death, or feeling like cowards. Some of my friends said ‘I will’, and then said, ‘I have to stop, I can’t help you’. Some even betrayed me. That is the human dance. That is part of doing something and needing accomplices, there are the good the bad and the half and half.

And Annie? Was she your girlfriend afterwards?

Well, that’s what she says. At that moment something stopped, that’s not at all what I will say when I am 90 years old and write my memoir. I won’t tell it that way. Yes this relationship diffused and evaporated slowly, but it was not the guillotine of me having walked the twin towers. Everybody understands life the way they want - I respect the individual’s way of thinking, but don’t ask me to agree with it.

But you admitted bedding that American woman after you were released from jail …

I would never have allowed that to be part of the film, it is totally unnecessary. This is part of the differences I have with the movie maker, and it is healthy to have differences.

I suppose he saw it as a kind of adrenaline rush on your part ….

Yeah, yeah, probably. In my book, I mention it because I wanted to be very honest in explaining what happened after the walk, but it is mentioned in a poetic, very soft way in four lines. I never thought this would become a scene in a play – but it did when I allowed a play to be made from my book. The director decided to have a scene from that encounter. I thought it would never happen in a film. It disturbs some people, and disturbed me the first time. But that’s life.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Seeing Gaza from Scotland

Cluster bombs are preoccupying Peter Howson. “I'm obsessed with cluster bombs right now,” he growls. “And this picture - you even have the mosque in there, with the bombs going off all around it.” The artist stands by the window in his study. Behind him, the Ayrshire hills shimmer on a crisp winter's morning, a beautiful, tranquil prospect. But Howson's attention is entirely focussed on his work, scattered over the floor, images of desolation that he has pulled from the 20 or so sketchbooks piled on his desk.

Each one is more terrifying than the last. A line drawing of a figure in agonising pain. Children fleeing some unseen horror. A couple embracing - they seem lost in a moment of sexual ecstasy, until you look closer. “It's actually a dying pregnant woman,” Howson says in his slow, resonant voice.

This is Peter Howson, the Scottish artist, whose chaotic, difficult life, can't subdue his talent. Howson is famous for his often shocking figurative work - and for his extraordinary life, in which he has overcome his Asperger's Syndrome, his addictions to alcohol and cocaine, a failed marriage, and the attentions of all sorts of strange and occasionally vindictive people.

He is a tremendous interviewee, who just takes on direct questions, however impertinent they might seem to an outsider. Among other things, in the course of this interview, we moved into his personal life, where he almost unhesitatingly revealed the unusual domestic arrangements he shares with his partner of six years, Annie.

We don't have what you might call a normal relationship,” he says. “We stay in different parts of the house. She takes care of me a lot of the time, I take care of her in some ways. Sometimes we get a bit confused, but not really. I know we are a couple who love each other very much and care for each other. We're just not a proper couple in that we don't have a physical relationship.”

He meets Annie in the evenings, he says, for a hour or so, when they sit in front of the television. When their programmes are finished, they go their separate ways to bed.But how can such a passionate man resist a beautiful woman such as Annie? “I love women, I do,” he pleads. “Probably that's one of my big dangers. I'm a visual person, I love beauty. There's comes a point in life... Beauty can lead you to God, in the way that Dante was led through Beatrice. You have to sanctify it at some point.”

Read the full interview, which appeared in the UK edition of the Times, here: Howson on Gaza

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Say it in Scots

"Without some kind of understanding of the Scots language, you can't really understand Scotland. It informs and infiltrates every area of social and cultural life, for virtually everyone, because everyone comes into contact with Scots at some level - that might be someone who just says “hame” or “didnae” occasionally, to someone who never speaks English at all, but Scots. But Scots has not been given official sanction for a long time."

So the novelist James Robertson told me, at a conference on the future of the Scots language at Stirling University. You can read the full piece here: Scots revival. Robertson wrote The Testament of Gideon Mack, a really dark, claustrophic but funny book which is more than dimly reminiscent of James Hogg's Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Should you need an instant fix of Robertson's writing, click on the link, and scroll down the Times article, where he has written a comment on my article. You will also come across the word "leitmotif".

If you didn't know, Gideon Mack enjoyed the twin distinction of being featured on Richard and Judy's Book Club, on ITV, and was nominated for the Booker Prize. In his spare time, Robertson translate children's book into Scots - like the Roald Dahl (in the pic above) and Winnie the Pooh. They are an amazing read in Scots.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Dean Friedman bites the Biscuits

At moments like this, it's easy to reach for clichés, but I mustn't. Honestly, though, I feel the hand of history on my shoulder. After 30 years, Dean Friedman has had his revenge on Half Man Half Biscuit, and I had a hand in making it happen.

It went like this. Five years ago and more, I met Dean, best known in the UK for a handful of schmaltzy hits in the late 1970s, at the Assembly Bar in Edinburgh, during his first run on the Fringe. We got on very well, and I was soon pointing out to him that Half Man Half Biscuit, “England's greatest folk band” (according to Andy Kershaw) - who have a song entitled "The bastard son of Dean Friedman" - were playing in the city and we could maybe go and see them. Dean knew the song well, and he was keen to go. It turned out to a tremendous night, with a great band, very friendly people, and a fairly large dollop of “I can’t believe this is happening”, as the article below will tell you.

Fast forward to last weekend. On Groundhog Day, Dean emails me for the first time in a couple of years; I point out that there is a Half Man Half Biscuit Society on Facebook, which I have just joined. Dean immediately joins the group, and straightaway pastes up a song mocking Half Man Half Biscuit, getting in his revenge after ... must be nearly 30 years after The Bastard Son was written.

You can read the lyrics of Dean’s song and the Biscuits original at the end of the article, which is from August 2003.

Pix: Above is Dean, on the night of the Gig. Below is Nigel, at the Liquid Rooms again, last autumn. Half Man Half Biscuit have a gig in Glasgow in May; Dean is hoping to play the Fringe again this year.

Surreal or what?

OVER the dark of the dance floor, the first thumping chords sail towards us. "Here it comes, here it comes," he says and he moves fractionally towards the bright stage, as if a step closer could make him hear better.

A big, urgent Scouse accent joins the guitar in song: "Well I heard a lovely rumour that Bette Midler had a tumour ..." It’s Friday night, we’re packed into the baking-hot Liquid Room in Edinburgh and for the first time in his life the prince of songwriting schmaltz, Dean Friedman, is listening to a band called Half Man Half Biscuit play the song that takes his name in vain.

Nigel Blackwell, the singer, speeds to the lyrical crux: "… and they reckon that I am, but I hope to God I’m not/ the bastard son of Dean Friedman." In front of us a tall middle-aged man is singing along lustily. Nearer the stage, young, late-flowering punks are pogoing as if there’s no tomorrow. Biscuit - as the cognoscenti apparently call them - are independent and post-punk, a cult band with a huge following. "They’re really melodic," reckons Friedman. "Boy, they sure know their genres," he adds as they rip into a country song.

By now things are getting lively and someone throws a bra at the band. When the singer takes on Bob Wilson, Anchorman Dean yells: "You’ll have to explain some of these cultural reference points …"

It’s too hot, so we head to the courtyard for fresh air. Outside, Friedman remembers how he felt when he first heard The Bastard Son of Dean Friedman in 1987. "My wife was about to have our first child. For a couple of seconds I was real nervous; I was thinking, ‘She’s not gonna understand this one.’" He really thought it was true? "Well, I quickly figured out I’d have had to have sired him at the age of seven, so it wasn’t possible. I relaxed. And it’s a great song. There are so many funny lines … I just feel bad for Bette Midler."

With his curly locks and his vintage moustache, Friedman was a man-sized version of Billy Joel, on the brink of world domination when his country duet Lucky Stars went to No 1 in Britain in 1977. The lyrics offered a humdrum scene of life - a couple arguing about his ex-girlfriend - which appealed to middle England and middle everywhere. That’s exactly why the Biscuits hated it, wasn’t it?

"Let me tell you something," says Friedman. "That guy Nigel was hip to the fact Lisa and I didn’t just do lunch. You can’t interpret a song that way unless you understand what it’s about. And the bottom line is, under all his satire, Nigel is obviously a literate craftsman, who’s probably as middle-class-normal as the rest of us."

As things turn out, he might be right. When we knock on the dressing-room door after the gig, it’s as if a long-lost maiden aunt has come calling on the boys. They shuffle around with big vacant smiles, making smalltalk. "Everyone sang Lucky Stars in my school," recalls Blackwell, from the depths of a scabby old sofa. "I’ve got the Rocking Chair album, which is worth loads. You see it in rarity catalogues." "I wish I had a clean copy," Friedman says, a little wistfully. There are polite enquiries about what he’s up to, where he’s from (Paramus, New Jersey) and good wishes for his Fringe shows. But Blackwell has Lucky Stars in his head. He sings a line in broad Scouse: "Did you see Lisa," then he says, "when you say, ‘No, I’m not being nice,’ … I like that bit."

It turns out the singer who dueted with Friedman on the song is called Denise Marsa. Blackwell’s wife is called Denise and she shakes Dean’s hand. "I should have introduced you before," mumbles Nigel.

We talk about Friedman’s career. The guys didn’t know he had been dropped by the industry for 17 years from 1981. It was because of his song McDonald’s Girl, banned by the BBC because it was deeemed to be advertising. The Blenders later took it to No 1 in Norway. "We had a Norwegian hit," says Blackwell, reaching out for connections. "Stavanger Töestub."

There’s more chat, before Friedman leaves the band to their rest and recuperation. "I really enjoyed tonight," he says at the door. Blackwell smiles again, and stretches out a hand: "Good luck with all the shows."

Back in the cool air, Friedman breathes out hard. "That was a little surreal," he says into space. "Did Nigel really say he had my album?" He did, he did.

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The bastard son of Dean Friedman
by Half Man Half Biscuit

Well I heard a lovely rumour that Bette Midler had a tumour
So gleefully I went to tell my friends
But they said it was a lie and she wasn’t going to die
“And by the way, have we got news for you.”

And they told me that the man I had always known as Dad
Hadn’t met my Mum when I was born
And they reckon that I am but I hope to god I’m not

The bastard son of Dean Friedman
The bastard son of Dean Friedman

And my schoolwork fell behind with this bombshell on my mind
But the art teacher said he understood
But he could only sympathise with the sadness in my eyes
Even though he showed me his Magritte
And in the corridors of fear I would shed a lonely tear
And ridicule flew at me from both sides
And they mocked me in my mocks and embroidered in my socks
The bastard son of Dean Friedman
The bastard son of Dean Friedman


And you can thank your lucky stars that you’re not
The bastard son of Dean Friedman
The bastard son of Dean Friedman

Tale of a Baker’s Son
By Dean Friedman

Once upon a time there was a baker
Who spent all day making buns or cakes or
Rolls or loaves of bread or muffins
And he loved his work but it wasn’t enough and…

He longed to offer up his heart
to not just any tart,
but to one of substance and of virtue
but suitable candidates were oh so few.

Nigel Blackwell, pray please do tell:
How could your parents risk it?
A baker’s son, born of a bun…
Half a man, half a biscuit

He gently took her from the oven
Her sweet scent set off waves of loving
His eyes beheld her flakey crust.
He thought, ‘I mustn’t… but I must!’

Alas, Nigel’s dad could not resist her
He held her close and then he kissed her
Before another word was uttered
His momma’s buns were buttered

Nigel Blackwell, pray please do tell:
How could your parents risk it?
A baker’s son, born of a bun…
Half a man, half a biscuit

And so, please mark this poignant tale
Next time you see baked goods for sale
Which proves true love defies convention
(And leads to couplings we can’t mention)

And so, it comes as no surprise,
The kneady baker’s dough did rise
Though some may scoff, deride and scorn
From such forbidden love, Nigel was born.

Nigel Blackwell, pray please do tell:
How could your parents risk it?
A baker’s son, born of a bun…
Half a man, half a biscuit

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Darwin was Scottish shock

Darwin aficionados in Edinburgh say that if you want to get to grips with the intellectual growth of one of the world's most influential thinkers, you have to understand the timing. The young Darwin arrived in Scotland's capital city at a critical moment in its development, when Enlightenment ideas were bursting out in their rich final flowering.

John Scally, head of collections at Edinburgh University, says that Edinburgh in 1825was a city of almost unlimited potential, of scientific innovation and philosophical enquiry. The shadow of the sceptical David Hume loomed large; Sir Walter Scott was still in his pomp - Darwin even attended the Royal Society of Edinburgh when Scott himself was in the chair.

“We have one of the greatest intellectual fireworks displays that ever happened in Europe. And then one of the greatest minds which the UK ever produces happens to settle on it. You would expect something very important to happen,” Dr Scally said.

It's been a quiet January, but here's a handful of stories.

To read more about Charles Darwin in Edinburgh, go here: Young Darwin.

On Hogmanay in Edinburgh, a woman's head was discovered in a shopping bag, by a footpath in Edinburgh. Her name was Heather Stacey. This is an interview with her brother, Tim Stacey.

And here's an update on the state of the Edinburgh fringe: Ticket fiasco.