Archive for April, 2009

Writing to your audience – a concrete example

Posted in General on April 27, 2009 by jkiparsky

Most of us who write, for any purpose, have been told to shape our writing to our audience’s needs or interests. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better example of this than a headline from the copy of the Brazilian Times that I picked up today.
The Brazilian Times is a free paper aimed at the Brazilian community in Boston and the surrounding area. Like many papers, they carried a story on the recent awarding of Pulitzer prizes. Unlike most local papers, they were able to find a local angle in the main award, which went to the New York Times for its coverage of the Eliot Spitzer scandlet. While most papers simply reported the well-known facts (Spitzer hired someone to have sex with him, and the Times followed up the leak that they were given and won a prize for it after he resigned his position as governor) the Brazilian Times ran this headline:

“Caso de prostituta brasileira dá prêmio ao New York Times”

In English:

“Case of Brazilian prostitute gives prize to the New York Times.”

Okay, it misses the point entirely, but I do admire their ability to focus on what’s important to the Brazilian community…

The final blow (Saramago)

Posted in From Saramago's Notebooks on April 7, 2009 by jkiparsky

Following is a page from the notebooks of José Saramago (“O Caderno de Saramago“), published in Portuguese on 16 December 2008 under the title “O Golpe Final“.


The Final Blow
The laughter is immediate. To see the president of the United States hide behind a microphone while a shoe flies over his head is an excellent exercise for the muscles of the face that control one’s laughter. This man, famous for his abysmal ignorance and for his continuous linguistic follies, made us laugh many times in the last eight years. This man, also famous for other, less attractive reasons, paranoid stubbornness, has given us a thousand reasons to detest him, him and his acolytes, complicit in the lies and the intrigue, preverted minds that made international politics a tragic farce and simple dignity a target of absolute mockery. In truth, the world, despite the desolate spectacle offered to us every day, doesn’t deserve a Bush. We got him, we suffered through him, to the point that the victory of Barack Obama was considered by many people a sort of divine justice. Delayed, as justice usually is, but definitive. In the end, it wasn’t so, we lacked the final blow, we lack still that those shoes that an Iraqi television journalist threw at the lying and shameless facade he has on his forehead and that can be understood in two ways: either those shoes should have had feet in them and the target of that blow should have been that rounded part of the body where the back changes its name, or then that Mutazem al Kaidi (there is his name for posterity) would have found a more bruising and efficacious way of expressing his displeasure. By ridicule. A few kicks in addition would not be bad, but ridicule is forever. I vote for ridicule.

Saramago: The Watch

Posted in From Saramago's Notebooks on April 7, 2009 by jkiparsky

The following was originally published, in Portuguese, on José Saramago’s web site, “O Caderno de Saramago“, on 6 April 2009,  under the title “O Relogio”.

One of my friends has just offered me a pocket watch. Not just any machine, but an Omega. He promised to move earth and sky to get it, and he has been good to his word. You will say that fulfilling this promise wouldn’t present difficulties of any significance, all that is needed is to step into a watch shop and choose among the various models, including some which the buyer never imagined. The thing seems easy, but let the reader try to find in one of those watch shops an Omega made in 1922, the year of my birth, and tell me what happened. “Probably”, the employee would think, “this fellow has lost his balance wheel.”

My watch is spring-driven, every day it needs to have its store of energy renewed. It has a serious look which comes, I think, from the material, silver, of which is is made. The face is an example of clarity; to look at it consoles the heart. And the workings are protected by two covers, one of them hermetic, which not even the smallest particle of dust can penetrate. The worst thing is that the watch began to cause me problems of conscience from the first day. The first question that I asked myself was “Where do I put it? Do I condemn it to the darkness of a drawer?” Never, I haven’t got so hard a heart. “Then do I wear it?” I already have a wristwatch, of course, and it would be ridiculous to wear both, and it should be remembered that the ideal place for a pocket watch is a vest, which one no longer wears. I decided, therefore, to treat it as if it were a domestic animal. It spends two or three days lying on a little table beside where I work and I think that it is a happy watch. And, to consolidate our relationship, I decided to take it on my travels. It deserves it. It has a tendency to get ahead of itself a little, but that is the only defect I’ve found in it. Better that than falling behind.

The friend who gave me this present is named José Miguel Correia Noras and he lives in Santarém.

Pogues – House Of Blues – Boston

Posted in Music on April 5, 2009 by jkiparsky

The Pogues
House Of Blues
Boston, MA 3/20/09

(originally appeared on Boston Music Spotlight)

When a punk band performs its old material to an audience consisting largely of people who were still in diapers or not yet born when that material was recorded, one must immediately suspect that nostalgia is at play. In the case of the Pogues, however, I suspect something else might be going on.

The Pogues’ period as a really vital punk-folk band is a very small part of their overall history as a band. The band formed in 1982, and by 1989 they’d recorded their seminal albums and kicked out a place for themselves in musical history. A few years later, they’d recorded one final album with founding singer Shane McGowan and kicked him out as well. Had they stopped playing after the release of Peace and Love in 1989, they would still be the founders and source for the trad/punk blend now carried on by bands like the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly. The last twenty years of the Pogues have consisted more or less of breakups, re-formations, and touring on the strength of those first albums, with very little of note added to the band’s repertoire or sound. Since 2001, the band has been touring with the lineup that became definitive after the departure of Cait O’Riordan following the recording of Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, and this is the band that came to the House of Blues on Friday night.

The setlist was no surprise: starting with “Streams of Whiskey” and “If I Should Fall From Grace With God”, the band uncorked a nice long set of material drawn almost entirely from their first four albums, all of which was played quite well, sticking close to the original recordings for the arrangements. McGowan’s voice has not improved over the years – he still does more to suggest the melody than to actually produce it, and his enunciation is dodgy at best – but he delivered the songs with the air of a half-mad poet, sometimes slightly surprised at what he’d come up with and pleased by his own work, sometimes in full possession of – or fully possessed by – the song, as on a fierce reading of “Turkish Song of the Damned”. Between verses, he stood quite still, listening, and it seemed that mostly it was the music he was hearing. His between-song banter was, as ever, an incomprehensible garble out of which one could extract a speck of sense, but the half-smile on his face made me wonder if he wasn’t having us on a bit. Hard to say, really, as with the best poets and drunkards and madmen. When he tottered off the stage to let the band play an instrumental, he was clutching a bottle of white wine, but it never looked like it had been hard-used when he returned. It was unfortunate, however, that he got some of his biggest cheers of the night when he took a slug from the bottle. It’s one thing to celebrate an alcoholic for his poetry, it’s exceedingly poor taste to cheer a poet for his alcoholism.

And his poetry is really the reason this band is still playing in 2009. Hearing him, and watching him, it was easy to remember that this is one of the finest poets of the punk era, and there is something in him which is worth hearing, apart from and despite his commitment to a life of alcoholism. This is a man who can put his own poems against those of Ewan MacColl, one of the finest lyricists of the working class, and come out standing, a test that not many would want to face, and few would survive. Hearing MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town” and MacGowan’s “Sally MacLennane” played almost back to back made this comparison explicit: after this concert, one could believe (and many do!) that both songs were written by the same man. On later albums, MacGowan’s slurred delivery fails to conceal a broad and literate mind, able to get the kids to pogo while he name-checks Coleridge and Jean Genet, and to get them to stop pogoing for a song that does in two minutes something that takes a French director an hour and a half, and that most short story writers today can’t manage at all.

It’s a pity that this literary brilliance was largely lost on an audience which seemed more interested in having been there than in being there, but the band didn’t seem to mind too much. The cool professionalism that they brought to the songs – all of which must be thoroughly burned into their synapses by now – did not mean boredom on their part, it meant they had attention to spare for having fun, each in their own way. Spider Stacy, the band’s tin whistle player, was old-school about it, stepping up to play his parts with a fierce determination and stepping back to wait the next blast, beating time with his whistle, the very picture of a punk rock tin whistle player. James Fearnley, on the other hand, never stood still for a moment. Unfettered by microphones and wires, he was all over the stage with his accordion, running back and forth in front of the monitor lines and leaping off the drum risers with an impressive disregard for the condition of his fifty-five year old knees. Fearnley and guitarist Phil Chevron came out vying for the title of “best-dressed Pogue”, but Fearnley ceded the competition early on, by ripping the knees out of his trousers on one of those flying leaps. Chevron showed more concern for his threads (a particularly natty grey suit, and a sharp pair of shoes in the bargain), and limited his physical exertions to stepping over the monitors periodically to stir up the crowd, and some occasional goofy dance steps.

So, was this a nostalgia show? Watching the audience, I think there are some who came for the good old days, either the ones they miss or the ones they missed out on. I hope that they got what they wanted, and a glimpse of something more, but I imagine they felt the thing to be a bit hollow – a bunch of old guys on stage, playing at being young. But there were others – including, I suspect, some members of the band – who came to pay respect to a great poet and a great band. What they got was more than they had the right to expect: they got a great show.