Sunday, February 1, 2009

In the bleak midwinter

I don't suppose January is anyone's favourite month, but for me this year's has turned out to be, in some ways, even more depressing than usual.  In quick succession, we've lost a number of individuals who, at various points, played a significant part in my cultural life.  The first was Patrick McGoohan.  I was too young to see The Prisoner on its first outing, but as a teenager I was transfixed by a repeat showing.  It struck me then, and it still strikes me now, as an extraordinary piece of popular television - pretentious, perhaps, but with an imagination and daring that seem largely to have disappeared from UK television.  Even a series like Life on Mars seems rather pale by comparison. 

The second loss was that of John Updike.  As a teenager and undergraduate, I read endlessly (I still do, but somehow the impact isn't the same now).  At the time, it seemed as if the US was where the real action was - I subsequently learned that there was plenty of action going on over here as well, but usually with fewer pyrotechnics.  And the writer who made the most impact on me, along with the very different Thomas Pynchon, was Updike. Updike, more than anyone, seemed to write about a world I recognised, albeit refracted through a dazzling prism.  The Rabbit books remain, I think, the finest chronicle of ordinary, middle-class America in the 20th century.  

The deaths of McGooghan and Updike were, I suppose, not entirely unexpected.  Neither perhaps, in a different way, was that of the singer-songwriter John Martyn, but somehow it still came as a shock.  Martyn's was anything but an abstemious lifestyle, and stories of his drinking are legendary, and yet one half-expected him to go on forever.  His early albums were one of the soundtracks to my adolescence, and his music remains as glorious as ever.  One can speculate forever about whether Martyn's addictions were a necessary condition of his talent.  Martyn thought they were, but then of course he would.  The truth is probably that his talent and his excesses were simply all part of one complex personality.  The relationship between them was perhaps not a causal one, but a more restrained figure might never have explored the distinctive musical territory that characterises his finest work.



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