Nelly and the elephant

I wrote this posting a few months ago in memory of my beloved nan who’d come into my thoughts following a tv programme about my home town. This isn’t her by the way….

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Remember this image because it’s absolutely perfect for this piece. It’s about my nan, affectionately known as Nelly, who was indisputably the kindest, warmest, most decent person I’ve ever known and I loved her utterly. She’s no longer with us of course – she died just before Carol and I got married almost 40 years ago. But I think of her often and this evening I had a fond smile at her memory sparked by a clip from tonight’s TV.

The programme was about the summer season in Blackpool, which regular readers will know was my home town when I grew up (well it was the nearest big town, as we lived 3 miles away in Poulton-le-Fylde which, be honest, you’ve never heard of have you?). There’s been a short season of these programmes looking at the town’s reputation as the ‘Las Vegas of the North’ – no sniggering at the back – and it’s been poignant to view them because they evoke so many memories.  But tonight I had the most telling flashback. There was a feature, inevitably, about Blackpool Tower and it’s a fact that beneath the 4 legs of the structure sits the quite marvellous Tower Circus. Now we used to go every year to see the show and because my dad delivered to the venue where the main performers stayed, he managed to secure some back-of-house visits for us post-show. In those days many of the acts were animal-based and the biggest thrill I had was being shown the big cats by the very glamorous lion-tamer. But the biggest of the animal acts was the elephant troupe and the TV programme showed a few scenes from one of the performances. I always remember how poorly treated these animals were behind the scenes.

All these animals were kept in cages behind the scenes during the sumer season and the elephants were regularly taken out in the morning to exercise in the sea across the promenade. This always seemed like a scene one of those Attenborough documentaries from the Serengeti rather than a drizzly morning along the Lancashire coast and whatever the weather it usually attracted a huge crowd. Candy floss and pachyderms – only in Blackpool.

Another little known fact about these lovely animals was that during the off season they were kept at a farm in nearby Staining which was famous for its ice cream production. Now that farm was only separated from where my nan lived in Whitemoss Avenue by an apple and pear orchard at the rear of my nan’s garden (and which supplied the fruit for her unbelievable apple pies).

You may be ahead of me here but one evening as my nan was sitting in her lounge cosied up to the fireside and probably sewing as she always used to do before her eyesight went, she heard this loud knock on the back door. I always remember her telling me that it was a real thudding sound and it completely startled her. She was alone and understandably she was a little hesitant to go and see who it might be. But she realised from the strength of the knocking that it must be something serious. So she made her way quickly through the hallway, into the kitchen and opened the back door with a sense of trepidation. As she peered around the gap an extended trunk tapped her on the face and stood there was this huge elephant, just like the one in the picture above, which had escaped from the farm and had been gorging on the fruit in the orchard. And here it was all 8,000lbs of her staring my nan in the face at her back door.

How she didn’t have a heart seizure I’ll never know. A little old lady in her 50′s but she was made of oak as they all were in her generation. Of all the things it could have been – escaped prisoner, crazed psychopath, desperate neighbour, the Sweeney, the Spanish Inquisition – the last thing you’d expect to find knocking at your back door is a frigging 3.5 ton African elephant! If it had opened up and said ‘Have you ever seen our publication the Watchtower?’ it would have been sublime. Even so, as surreal experiences go, it was pretty damn awesome.

I like to imagine that my nan simply told it to pack its bags and head off back to the circus but she was an angel so she’d never turn any lost soul away.  Fancifully I rather think she probably fed her some apple pie and gave her a bucket of water and cared for her until the handlers arrived though reality is she calmly shooed it off and closed the door, sorted her hair and went back to her sewing. Old school.  But don’t you think it’s a little profound that a lost female circus elephant ends up knocking on the door of someone called Nelly? I like to think it’s a little bit of Blackpool kiss-me-quick kismet.

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James Gandolfini

Here’s a piece written by the fine journalist Tom Sutcliffe in the Independent newspaper on the 22 June following the shocking news that the actor James Gandolfini, best known for playing the role of Tony Soprano, had died at the age of just 51. I tried to do a similar piece but this was far more poignant…. 

In a strange way we’ve rehearsed for this moment. For a lot of James Gandolfini’s fans the first instinct on hearing that he’d died in mid-career was to go back to an earlier ending, the very last scene of The Sopranos.

Tellingly it wasn’t a neat resolution but an abrupt caesura. The life of that series – so vital, engrossing and richly unpredictable – didn’t conclude (a word that has too much calculation in it). It simply stopped, cutting to black in mid-phrase. And it left behind it a pang very similar to that which a lot of us felt when we heard the news of Gandolfini’s death.

Brilliance had been truncated, and though in that case we knew precisely what was coming, we had no idea that we would be left with nothing but memories. “Try to focus on the times that were good,” AJ had said to Tony a few minutes earlier.

It was the kind of thing you say at a funeral, as if the series itself was offering condolences for our loss. And now we were feeling that sorrow all over again, at a different pitch. At Holstens, the diner where that great ending was filmed, someone put out a Reserved sign on the booth where the Sopranos sat for their last supper, in Gandolfini’s honor.

Is it the actor or the character we’re mourning? For those lucky enough to work with him there was no question that it was Gandolfini who was missed. Social networks and blogs filled up with tributes not just to his skill as an actor but also to his warmth as a human being, the modesty and generosity with which he assumed and carried his fame. But for those who only knew him on screen, and overwhelmingly through his role as Tony Soprano, I think it’s that character we’re grieving for a bit as well. The catch being that Gandolfini’s greatness as a screen actor was to intermingle self and fiction inextricably, so that it felt as if his New Jersey mobster really lived and felt.

In interviews Gandolfini expressed his admiration for Mickey Rourke above all. He respected the other screen greats of his generation but it was Rourke he really wanted to emulate as a young actor starting out. And in that I think he’d grasped a quality of vulnerability and self-exposure in his own talent, which was what transformed Tony Soprano from genre brute into a kind of everyman. He might have been a monster but he was also his own victim.

He was charming too. Other people had done volatile mobsters before. Think of Robert de Niro as Al Capone in The Untouchables, suddenly unleashing his rage against an underling. Or Joe Pesci shooting the waiter in Goodfellas. But the difference with those explosions was that you never trusted the characters again. It didn’t matter how charismatic they were or how solid their bonhomie felt. You felt only anxiety when they were on screen.

Tony Soprano was different. You never doubted that he could kill without compunction — and the series regularly reminded you of that fact. He wasn’t in therapy because he was conscience-stricken; he went because he wasn’t satisfied with what his life gave him any more. But Gandolfini made it possible for you to like Tony too, to understand why people were drawn to him.

After every atrocity you worked at getting to like him again. That’s because there wasn’t a shade of judgement in the performance, only a sympathy for the messy, disappointing business of trying to make life work. It’s why Gandolfini had no problem at all in shedding the mobster when he played the doveish general in In The Loop.

Watch him play the scene in that film where he locks antlers with Malcolm Tucker and both men trade threats of violence: you don’t for a moment think of Tony, only that this is a man who could win the fight but doesn’t really want it to start.

It’s genuinely sad to think that we’ll never see Gandolfi lose his temper again. Even sadder to think we won’t see him recapture it, and give that low chuckle at the absurdity of the world.

OK so what would you spend £20m on?

This is a posting taken from my blog Pasta Paulie which cheered me up writing it one evening back in February. I hope you enjoy it…..

So, picture the scene (and it’s one that we’ve all fantasized about I suspect); you win £200m on the Euro lottery and you’re thinking about how to spend/invest it all. Ah choices, choices. Here’s the twist, just suppose one of the conditions is that a 10% chunk of the prize has to be spent on a single thing. What would it be for you?

Tricky eh? You’ve sorted out your nearest and dearest so they don’t have to worry about paying their utility bills ever again. You have a lovely house and a second glorious pad in the spot you just adore on the Cornish coast, or overlooking Central Park or beach-side in Barbados or nestling in Sydney Harbour etc. You also have a fleet of cars to cover every situation, including something very fast and bright red once owned by Rod Stewart. The trust funds have been set up for the grandchildren and you’ve made generous contributions to the charities you feel most connected to. You have £80m left and perhaps the time has come to indulge your ultimate fantasy and buy the thing you’ve always wanted secretly.

So what’s the thing eh? I know guys who would buy their local football club (or a large shareholder stake in it) and absolutely love it. But to me it’d be a money drain and a drag. Imagine having to deal with all those football divas – ball boys, players, agents, managers, media reporters, pundits, fans, Garth Crooks! No thanks. What about a private jet? A bit of fun but what an indulgence. When would it be seriously beneficial to fly privately over flying first class? I genuinely can’t imagine it unless it was a dire emergency or for critical business reasons. For simply getting from place to place a tiny bit more quickly? Forget it.

How about the yacht? Ah getting closer. But what type and what size? I have a horrible suspicion that whatever you’d choose there’d always be a slightly grander and faster one in the harbour which would drive you sea-green with envy. It’s like watching the oligarchs and oil sultans whose yachts today are almost as big as battle cruisers. What is the point – is there any enjoyment from having a crew of 50 onboard to do all the work? Possibly but only until the next mega-rich guy comes by in one just 1 foot longer. Just to annoy you intensely. Then your plaything is just an embarrassment. No I couldn’t deal with all that.

So how about becoming the owner of a fine vineyard and building a substantial wine collection? Getting very warm now. But one of the things I’ve learned about having a small olive grove is that it takes a fair bit of work to maintain it but conversely all the real pleasure comes from doing the hard graft picking yourself and watching it being pressed. Would it be as much fun knowing that you owned a substantial vineyard/grove and that all the work was done by others and you’d just become another absentee owner like Sir Cliff Richard for goodness sake?  Ah I know you’re going to disbelieve me but I couldn’t own it without knowing I was a full time farmer and committed to the estate. I’d have lots of holidays of course but I’d need to get the ground dug and the new vines/trees planted and older ones pruned. And I’d have to be involved in the picking process, maybe involving some old friends just as we do now.

Another choice would be to invest in a business of course. At least that might provide an income source and a focus for all that spare time. A restaurant perhaps? I’d love that but everyone I know who’s been in that business says it’s incredibly time-consuming if you want to be hands on and subject to constantly shifting changes in public tastes. A bakery with my dad perhaps – too late now. A small marketing agency – too competitive. Property development – possibly but in reality what do I know about gutters and waste systems and is the economic climate really that favourable? I’d love to own a successful architectural practice but how would I play a creative part – I wouldn’t of course.

See it’s not so straightforward is it when you start to think about it? But I do have a secret dream if you want to know. I’ve always enjoyed having a bit of art on the walls – mostly it’s been framed prints and self-collected material. But we’ve started collecting a few original pieces from our good friend Keith (see http://www.keithjansz.com). But if I had a fortune I’d love to invest in something stunning that I could look at on the wall of the office in our Italian home overlooking the olive grove and valley beyond, as I sat down to write something brilliant for my column in the Sunday Times/Independent, with a glass of chilled white wine by my right hand. Ahh picture that.

And what artwork would do it for me? Well absolutely anything original by Picasso (my daughters and son-in-laws treated me to the next best things for my 60th) or by Matisse. Or something by Pollock, David Hockney, Lucien Freud or Roy Lichtenstein would be very very nice. But if there was one piece I could own it might have to be ‘Nighthawks’ by Edward Hopper, the realist American painter from the mid-20th c. At BT I was lucky enough to host a private event at Tate Modern to preview the retrospective show on Hopper. We’d been very irreverent and created an American diner scene as the eating backdrop on the Turbine Hall balcony. I had to introduce the showing and thought about what I was going to say to an audience of art lovers. Play safe and say nothing other than welcome or talk about what I personally felt about Hopper’s art. Well who wants to be known as a no-view no-mark? So the audience got my considered thoughts on this, Hoppers’ most famous piece ‘Nighthawks’, and the star exhibit of the show:

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I just love this painting. It’s a late night diner in New York painted in 1942. Now what attracts me more than anything else, as I dared to explain, is the context. What is the back story to these late nighters – the couple, the single guy and the waiter? I’m fascinated to know. To me Hopper has created something stunningly evocative. This scene could so easily be the opening scene to a movie; it’s so rich in potential. Are the couple lovers or has he just chatted her up? Why’s the guy there alone? Has he just split up or been disappointed in some way or is there something more sinister going on with the girl or the couple or is he a hoodlum waiting to knock off the joint? Equally the picture could just as well be the final scene in a movie; are the couple about to commit to each other at last or split up, is the lone diner about to hit rock bottom, is the waiter going to get home or get shot? Every time I see the painting I imagine another scenario. That’s the genius of the work.

I don’t remember sitting down to thunderous applause for this insight but I do recall that my burger was cold. Hey ho. Here’s the thing, ‘Nghthawks’ was sold to the Art Institute of Chicago shortly after its airing for just $3000. Would they take an offer of $20m now? It’s not a bad RoI and they have had the pleasure of viewing it for 70 years now. If I could have it for one year they could have it back for the same price plus a crate of great wine and an honourary VP.  I’m not a greedy man.

What’s your dream investment?