Monday, 3 December 2012

The art of seduction

Blythe Gruda runs the bar at Il Buco, a restaurant in NoHo, New York that somehow manages to be upscale, chi-chi, rustic and cosy all at once. Slight and beautiful, with long dark hard parted in the centre like a young Janis Joplin (she also sings), she is warm and chatty. The bar is her domain – and watching her work is a lesson in hard work, efficiency and the art of seduction. 

We met last week for Thanksgiving with mutual friends. I promised I'd visit Il Buco, where she and her husband Paul work, before I left for home. 

Her role is, ostensibly, to keep the half dozen people perched at the bar happy; welcome new arrivals with a drink before they are seated; confer with waitresses. But her real job is people skills. And these she has in abundance. 

She greets regulars like family, with kisses, smiles and tasters of new wines just in ("It's not as heavy as you usually like"). Not-so-regulars, whose names she has almost certainly forgotten, are met with a cheery "Hi, long time no see. How've you been?" And newcomers, such as the young men at the end of the bar, are welcomed with a beaming once-over of the menu, and a hearty recommendation of a glass of something. I look over and, within minutes, they too are beaming. 

Assholes are treated almost as well as the nice customers. Almost. "Would you like a top up?" she asks one. "First, I want a water, then I'll have another wine," he barks. Gruda smiles, narrowing her eyes almost imperceptibly as she slides the water glass sitting under his nose a few inches closer. 

Nothing goes unnoticed. If one half of a couple is drinking faster than the other, she tops them up with a splash of wine so their partner isn't drinking alone. She informs me I have a bit of food between my teeth by gently setting down a toothpick and quietly telling me I could use it. She moves a candle a few inches closer so I can see my menu more clearly. And she softly informs a waiter to hold back on the next course if someone is eating slowly. 

At the end of the night, as I get up to leave, she beckons me closer. She has gossip. Turns out, the couples on either side of me had history. Nice Guy to my right was dumped by Not So Nice girl to my left, in favour of the Quite Irritating guy she was mauling all night. 

There could have been a scene. But Gruda let it run. And if things had turned ugly, I have a feeling this supremely confident woman would have had it all under control. 

Photograph: Victoria Matlock

Friday, 12 October 2012

The sixth Beatle

If Pete Best is the fifth Beatle – or is that Stuart Sutcliffe, Brian Epstein or George Martin – then Hunter Davies is surely the sixth. More than Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr themselves, he is still the go-to authority on all things Beatle-related – 44 years after he wrote the only authorised biography of the world's most famous band. 

Davies is one of my very favourite people. Warm, funny, nosy and indiscreet, he is still, at 76, a prolific author and old-school hack. I first met him through a close friend, his nephew, and when Ross lived at his uncle's house one summer in my early 20s, I fell in love with that leafy corner of London, close to Hampstead Heath. Fifteen years later, I live there, as does Davies still. We sometimes meet for lunch, during which he hounds me for Guardian gossip, insists on wine, and supplies me with feature ideas I should be writing.  

This week, nearly half a century after his first, Davies has published his second Beatles book, The John Lennon Letters (on what would have been Lennon's 72nd birthday). Davies turned sleuth, tracking down letters, postcards, scribblings and doodles from all corners of the world. Yet the hardest part was persuading Yoko Ono, keeper of her late husband's estate – and owner of the copyright to all his letters – to let him go ahead with the project. He did it by pointing out that the owners weren't getting any younger. 

Although he has written over 40 books not about the Beatles, Davies will probably be remembered for his Fab Four one. But with good reason: he spent hundreds of hours with them at the height of their fame; was there, in the studio, while they created some of their best-loved songs; was there for the shoot of the Sgt Pepper album cover. But more than that he watched, observed and made sense of them – something they never did themselves. They were too busy being Beatles. 

Doesn't he ever tire of them? Yes and no. As he wrote, by default, the only official biography (they split by the time his exclusivity ended), he could, he wrote in the The Guardian this week, "spend the rest of my life, every day, giving a Beatles talk somewhere around the world. Sad thought". 

But he admits that he was, as a humble hack, privileged to be part of history. Listening to him talk about that time, at the book's launch last night at the British Library, he's as excited as if it happened yesterday. 

He even showed a Super 8 video he shot in 1968 when he was living in Portugal for a year, enjoying the proceeds of his newly published book. Just before Christmas, there was a knock at the door – it was McCartney, with his new girlfriend Linda and her young daughter, Heather. They ended up staying for three weeks. The photograph below was taken during that time. 

Davies is the first to admit he's no match for Beatles experts: he spells things wrong, forgets sequences of events. But, as he pointed out last night, that's what they're for. One fan is writing a taxonomy of the typewriters Lennon used in his life, using Davies' new book as a key reference. I don't think that one will trouble his publisher. 

Hunter Davies portrait: David Woolfall

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Renaissance men

At the end of the new film Liberal Arts – a sweet, campus-love-literature-coming-of-age story starring Elizabeth Olsen – the camera pans out from the leafy college town in which the movie is set, as a jaunty song starts playing. 

Although it had a medieval feel, it sounded so fresh, so contemporary with its syncopated rhythms, drums, and folky Mumford & Sons vibe, I thought it must be a modern reworking of an old tune by some hip music producer.

But no. It was a madrigal called Zefiro Torna by Claudio Monteverdi, an Italian composer who lived from 1567 to 1643 and was a bit of an innovator in his time. He composed a lot of madrigals – secular pieces for voice – and is generally believed to have marked the transition from Renaissance music into Baroque. This is him, above, aged around 30 – a touch of Javier Bardem. 

Monteverdi's modernity made me think of another Renaissance man who speaks so clearly to our generation, Michel de Montaigne (1533 to 1592) – a book about whom I am currently devouring (How to Live, by Sarah Bakewell). 

Montaigne was a French nobleman and writer of "essays" – free-floating think pieces with titles such as "Of Friendship" or "How we cry and laugh for the same thing". He jotted down whatever was in his head, while trying to answer the bigger question: what it feels like to be alive. 

By writing about the essence of human nature, and pondering the emotions and motives behind what people did – which, arguably, haven't altered over the centuries – his words still feel fresh today. "To read Montaigne is to experience a series of shocks of familiarity, which makes the centuries between him and the 21st century reader collapse to nothing," writes Bakewell. "Readers keep seeing themselves in him." 

Just as I mistook Monteverdi for a contemporary songwriter, so Montaigne, with his exhortations "Wake from the sleep of habit", "See the world" and "Do something no-one has done before", could be a 21st century self-help guru. In fact, they are both those things – modern men whose work resonates through the ages. 

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Music and words

Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs – “last” because they were the final works he wrote, in 1948 when he was 84 – are sublime spiritual meditations on life and the acceptance of its passing. The soprano who sang them with our orchestra last night, Helena Dix, was young, beautiful and voluptuous, with a voice like creamy velvet.  
A week earlier, while performing the last song, Im Abendrot (At Sunset) – based on a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff about finding peace with death – she noticed an elderly couple in the audience reach for each others’ hands at precisely the point where the words say: “We have gone through sorrow and joy hand in hand”. The music, after cascading, Out of Africa strings, resolves onto an exquisitely tender major chord that makes the heart ache. 
The gesture moved Dix so much she had to fight back tears on stage. Did they know the piece, she wondered afterwards, or understand German? Or had Strauss simply created a musical expression of the words so moving and so perfect that ordinary people, unaware of the poem’s meaning, felt it on a profound physical level? 
She sought them out after the concert. No, they said, they neither spoke German nor knew the piece. They weren’t even aware of what they’d done. But they too were so moved by what she told them that they broke into tears, right there in the bar. It's testament, I believe, to the powerful combination of two things I love, music and words. 

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Trespassers will...

He may look like a kid in a hoodie, but Bradley Garrett holds a degree in an
 anthropology and history, a PhD in social and cultural geography, and is about to take up a research post at Oxford University. But away from his lofty academic work, this bespectacled American is a trespasser – “urban explorer” has a nicer ring – who infiltrates abandoned buildings, sewers, bridges and office block rooftops, filming and photographing them to bring these hidden spaces to public view (his work is on show at the Brighton Photo Biennial from 6 October). 

Garrett’s curiosity about what lurks above and beneath our cities has taken him, among hundreds of other places, to the top of The Shard, the drains of Las Vegas, St Sulpice church in Paris and New Court, headquarters of Rothschild Bank in London, where this shot was taken. "I've been to lots of cities, and feel an intimate connection to them, but I couldn't recommend a good restaurant to you. I've spent most of my time underground," he says. 

While studying for his PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London – subject: Place Hacking: Tales of Urban Exploration – Garrett and his fellow explorers snuck into steam tunnels under campus and onto the college roof. With names like Winch, Marc Explo, Furtle and Shotgun Mario, they cut undeniably glamorous figures – young, good-looking, dressed in combats and tattoos, kit swinging from their backpacks. 

Garrett believes we aren’t drawn to off-limits spaces in built environments the way we are in the countryside, where we happily explore mountains and woods. “We’re reacting to increased surveillance and control over urban space,” he writes. “Essentially, we’re trespassing, so in some ways what we’re doing is always illegal. If we're ever caught, we're treated differently depending on where we are. Europe is more relaxed. But in the US, security guards will restrain you, and the police take it much more seriously, whether or not that's justified." 

Now he’s left Royal Holloway, Garrett hopes students there will continue to explore its hidden nooks. Meanwhile, he is currently “exploring” somewhere in the world until he heads back to the UK in October to take up his research post. Oxford City Council, watch out. 

Monday, 10 September 2012

Reactions to cancer

In April 2011, Angelo Merendino’s wife Jennifer was hospitalised. Diagnosed with breast cancer 2008, her condition had worsened and she remained there for two weeks. When she was discharged, doctors advised her to take a walk every day, so she wasn’t stuck in the
couple’s Manhattan apartment.

With no hair from chemotherapy, and a walking frame, Jennifer was “not what you would expect from a 39-year-old woman”, says Angelo, on the phone from New York. “We couldn’t cross the street without people staring.” Struck by people’s reactions – some shocked or pitying, others curious – he started to shoot these passersby when he and Jennifer were on their daily strolls. 
He photographed at hip height so people would react to her, not his camera. “We weren’t mad that people were staring. We just wanted to show this was what life was like for her.”

Angelo had already been documenting Jennifer’s battle with cancer, keen to show the daily reality of pills, injections, doctor’s appointments and paperwork, as well as the fear, sadness and frustration. He had no intention of making the photographs public, beyond friends and family, until he entered a few in a competition. It was then the emails started coming in – condolences, thanks for what he was doing, and experiences shared, all from strangers. 

“From then on, we felt we had an opportunity to help other sufferers, and to give people who had no experience of cancer a deeper understanding of what it involves.”

Jennifer died on 22 December. She fell ill just five months after she and Angelo were married, in Central Park. He can still remember the numbness that enveloped him that day, and says it has still not left him. “Life is quite strange these days, and I am taking things a step at a time.”

Monday, 16 July 2012

Brief Encounters: frisbee

Plateau Mont-Royal is Montreal's bohemian quarter, full of bagel stores, coffee shops, bakeries, and young guys strumming guitars on their stoops. At the foot of the small mountain after which the city is named, is a park: tennis courts, a small baseball pitch with wooden bleachers, and best of all, shade. 
It was here I took shelter while I finished my book – by 11am, it was heading quickly towards 30 degrees and the sun was searing my shoulders. 
It was only when I stopped reading that I noticed the small group next to me: a cheery guy about my age, three boys aged between around seven and 12, and a tall teenage Indian girl and her father. They had a frisbee, rugby ball, football, kite, and a large cooler filled with snacks. They were clearly settled in for the day. 
After watching them for a few minutes, I wandered over and asked if I could play. For the next hour or so, we frisbeed, ate homemade egg mayonnaise sandwiches, and talked. 
The father and daughter were from Mumbai, on holiday, just the two of them. They, like me, had gatecrashed the frisbee. He was divorced, and this was his way of spending quality time with his daughter. They were headed, via Toronto and Buffalo, to New York in ten days' time. "I am soooo excited," said the daughter. I loved their company – they were intellectual, curious and sparky. He read the Guardian online back home, and she was filled with plans for her life. 
The guy was playing Dad to his friend's three boys for the day – "I love them to bits," he said. He threw them over his shoulders, wrestled them to the ground and flung rugby balls in their direction, shouting encouragement. He has travelled all over the world, but grew up a block from where we were, and used to play in the park as a boy. He had lovely brown eyes. 
A couple of hours later, as I packed up to leave and catch my plane home, I felt a tug of emotion in my chest. From three continents, seven strangers had converged on a park and enjoyed an unexpectedly happy morning together. These intense, but fleeting, friendships are both the best and worst side of travel. You taste the start of a friendship and then leave, too soon. But the best leave a strong impression. 

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Portuguese Pepperpot

As long as I've known my adored, talented writer/English professor/DJ friend Jason Tougaw (we met in Mexico six years ago under extremely funny circumstances and have remained friends ever since), I've known about his grandfather, Ralph Neves. 

Neves was a jockey, 4'9" and "dominated any room he inhabited". Hot-blooded and fast-living – nicknamed the Portuguese Pepperpot – he hung out with all the Hollywood celebrities of the day. 

He started riding at 13, after he ran away from a Catholic school for orphans, where he landed when his father was institutionalised for schizophrenia, and found his way to a horse ranch in Oregon. He was ruthless on the track. In life, he was as charming as he was callous, writes Tougaw. 

One day in 1936, he came back from the dead. You can read Jason's piece about that amazing day here. Enjoy. 

Friday, 18 May 2012

Less pomp, more circumstance

When you've done something so often it becomes routine, it takes someone pretty special to lift that experience out of the ordinary. Adrian Brown is that man. 

Brown is a conductor who recently started working with my orchestra. I met him for the first time a few weeks ago. He is twinkly-eyed, charming, quick-witted and sounds a lot like Michael Caine – Carry On humour his speciality. But more importantly, he has a deep, spiritual passion for music, and knows instinctively how to convey this to an orchestra full of people like me who have been playing long enough to have heard it all before. 

A conductor will tell you how he – and sadly, he is usually a he – wants something played: shorter, faster, quieter. A good conductor will try to explain why. Brown did both, using language not usually associated with music, while also exploring the more interesting idea of why the composer might have written what he – and sadly, he is usually a he – did. 

An example. A passage in Edward Elgar's magnificent First Symphony sees the strings surging forward in a crescendo and then stopping, abruptly, to play almost inaudibly quietly. Brown told us he believed this was a musical manifestation of Elgar's passion pouring out of him, before he remembers where he is – prudish, Edwardian England – and pulls back, keeping his emotion in check. 

"This is autobiographical stuff!" he told us, more than once. "People think Elgar is all Pomp and Circumstance, but he was actually incredibly fragile." In an interview before the concert, he said: "I am deeply, emotionally attached to Elgar: his foibles, his moods, his difficulties, and his inferiority complex."

He also encouraged us to try to forget the last century of history and imagine we were hearing this music for the first time – not easy. "That key change would have been incredibly radical back then," he said. Later, sitting down to play Beethoven's fifth piano concerto, he stopped us after the first note, as he thought we weren't giving it our all. "This was written for an Emperor!" he said. And thus, without telling us how to play, he conveyed so much more. 

For me, I responded more than I ever have to a conductor, caring deeply about how I played and coming away with a more profound understanding of what I was playing. "Go to the tenderest place in your heart," he told us when we were rehearsing the symphony's exquisite slow movement. We did, and our performance on Monday was all the better for it. 

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

"I didn't think I'd ever recover"

In February 1964, Angela Patrick was a happy, carefree 19 year-old living outside London, working in the city, and having fun with her girlfriends. One Saturday night in Essex, she did what most teenagers that age do – went to a party, got a bit merry, and slept with her new boyfriend.

The consequences of that night are still being felt by Angela and her loved-ones nearly 50 years later. She found herself pregnant, and was forced to do something almost unimaginable – give up her baby son for adoption.

We met a few weeks ago over coffee in the National Gallery and she told me her story, published in yesterday's Guardian. Nearly 50 years on, re-telling it still makes her cry. She was beautiful – less polished than above, pictured left with her daughter – intelligent and warm.

What impressed me most is how she survived her ordeal and went on to live a happy life. And how one tiny event can affect you for life. For once, the platitude "what doesn't kill us..." seems apt.

Photograph: Sarah Lee

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Drawing inspiration

Quentin Blake was ten minutes into a chirpy monologue about who inspires him as an illustrator when something occurred to me: with his small, bird-like features, wispy hair and lively eyebrows, he looked not a little like the people he draws (self-portrait, above; portrait, below by Eamonn McCabe).

I cast my eyes across the rest of the panel taking part in the talk at the British Library –illustrators and cartoonists, Posy Simmonds, Martin Rowson and Jamie Hewlett. Simmonds had the soft, open features and grace of her Tamara Drewe and Gemma Bovary characters; Hewlett, the cheeky, boyish grin of the Gorillaz crew, below (and see him speak briefly here).

Do people who spend their lives creating other people turn to the most obvious person for inspiration – themselves – even if it's subconscious?

My theory, of course, ended with Rowson, a brilliant "visual journalist" whose intricate, political cartoons resemble modern-day Hogarth but look nothing like him. Hey ho.

I adored Blake as a child, never sure if it was his drawings, or Roald Dahl's words, that I loved best. So it was fascinating to discover who inspired him: turns out, he was not alone in his idolatry of Ronald Searle, who died last December (below). "The Godfather," said Blake. "He had the best line," said Rowson (it's a drawing thing). "The greatest illustrator of all time," said Hewlett. "He has completely inspired me all my life."

Hewlett, Blake, Simmonds and Rowson were intelligent, funny and generous, and gave the impression that being an illustrator is an extremely rewarding way to spend your life. It worked for Searle, too: he lived in France, with the woman he loved, and drank champagne every day. As Hewlett said: "What's not to admire?"

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Encounters: concert

It sounded like a skit from a Woody Allen film:

First man: Are you ready for the next instalment of the tragedy on Sunday?
Second man: Götterdämmerung?
First man: No, Tottenham.

Half the fun in going to a big classical concert – and with André Previn and Anne-Sophie Mutter playing (at the Barbican on Monday) they don't come much bigger – is people watching. It's a great tradition: they did it in all the grand opera houses in Europe.

The people in our row didn't disappoint. The conversation above was between a well-heeled man a few seats down, and a well-heeled friend he met in the aisle. One, fittingly, had a touch of Alan Sugar about him, only with a German accent. The other seemed to know everyone.

But it was their women-folk who were the most jaw-dropping. Hair was expensive, dyed just the right tawny shade, tonged and set with so much hairspray it shimmered. Clothes were showy and tight; jewellery, ostentatious. Faces were taut with Botox, but captivating. And best of all were the accents: exotic Anglo-Euro-German, the voice of a 60s Bond girl.

I don't doubt they were enjoying the music. But as they settled into their seats for the second half, dinner plans were already being urgently discussed. I thought of the sandwich I'd wolfed down before the concert, and vowed, one day, to be this glamorous.