Monday, January 29, 2007

Great Suburban Traditions No. 1 - The Piano Recital

All suburban kids take piano lessons at some point in their lives. If they don’t, their parents worry they might turn to drugs, alcohol and under-age sex, and all before the age of ten. Mine are no exception. They’ve been taking lessons for two and a half years now, which is fine by me because which one of us wouldn’t like to be able to play the piano? But no one warned me about the recitals, a ritual whereby parents gather in a suburban living-room and politely pretend to be impressed by the below-average musical skills of kids they don’t know.

At their last piano teacher’s (whom we left because she accused one of our daughters of stealing “knick-knacks” from her – quite what a ten-year-old girl would want with the possessions of a pious, austere woman in her 50s is anybody’s guess, but when, at the end of one lesson, she was ordered to empty her pockets, only to show that there was nothing in her pockets to empty, we decided it was time for a less Victorian-era approach to piano tuition), recitals were stiff occasions, with printed programmes, formal dress and the inevitable pot luck obligation, an important part of modern American culture which decrees that people showing up at someone else’s house without a plastic Tupperware container or a foil-covered casserole dish will be mace-sprayed, gagged, bound and dumped in the basement until the occasion is over. Purely for the sake of sparing them the embarrassment of not having contributed, of course.

Things looked more promising with the new piano teacher, and not just because she’s a very kind and friendly woman. Recitals would be informal, she said, with people milling around and chatting while kids played piano in the background, if they felt like it. Did we need to bring anything? Nothing at all. This looked good. Plus, the new teacher is in our neighbourhood, so perhaps we’d bump into one or two people we knew. Though my wife made the kids promise to play as early as possible to make sure we were home in time for ‘Desperate Housewives’.

We didn’t meet anyone we knew, although this could be related to the fact we don’t actually know many people in the neighbourhood. And though it was all very civilised, the problem with the new recital format soon became clear. The White American Suburban Pop (WASP) has yet to learn the basics of making conversation in any situation where there is no flaming barbeque loaded with burning dead animal parts, a six-pack of beer, or a large screen TV about to show some form of ad-blighted sporting spectacle whose result will be forgotten by tomorrow morning (or, even worse, remembered). There was no opportunity for buddy-popping – an all-male version of body-popping that involves a mutual backslap, the clinking of two bottles and a joke about “the wives” talking a lot, but which is not at all gay - and soon I found myself babbling on to reserved, silent types about piano lessons, and pianos and, erm, the time I played baritone euphonium in the school band over thirty years ago. Receiving little response, I then felt as awkward as they looked and shut up too.

So while kids ran around, ate biscuits and played piano, the buzz of conversation among adults, who looked like they were spending their first evening out for a decade, remained absent. Not that the women were much better, but at least they smiled instead of looking like they’d just landed in purgatory and would rather be off hunting wild boar. My daughters played and we indulged them with praise, though thankfully they were as imperfect as all the other kids. No one wants to look like the smug prodigy’s Dad, eh? Although the night could have been a little more memorable if I’d started grunting primevally at the mute WASPs, pointing at my scrotum and shouting, “Look what this produced – a perfect note rendition of ‘The Merry Farmer’! Ha!”

We left in time to be home for ‘Desperate Housewives’. I was astounded to find out we’d only been there for 45 minutes. And we made no new friends. But it's the taking part that counts.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

One Of My Narrators On The Academic's Couch

FWTBR - now academically analysed
It's not untrue to state that there are very few people on this planet who have read my book (see links, right). All the more astonishing, then, to find one of its stories, The Man In The Mascot, analysed as part of a German's academic thesis on the subject ‘The Depiction and Function of Football In Contemporary British Literature’.
    I came across the entire thesis while fiddling about with my Googles on the internet. I contacted the author, Sonja Wild, and asked her if it would be okay to translate the chapter on my story and post it on my website, and she was more than happy to consent. As when the book was translated into Czech, it won't make me much money, but it feels at least as though it has been acknowledged by the Brainy Community, just as the Czech edition gave me the comforting, if entirely deceptive, feeling that the book had somehow edged a tiny step closer to the world of Kundera, Klima and Skvorecky.
    And strange as it is to see your work encompassed in a sentence like: "The figure of Jacob [the narrator] stands not just for failure in itself, but also for the relationship between self-loathing and professional fulfilment," you realise that not only has the author of the thesis summed it up rather nicely, but she has made some spot-on interpretations you perhaps never intended, or consciously thought of, when you wrote the story in the first place.
    I liked this bit, for example: "In Plenderleith’s tragi-comic story a world is evoked in which there are not just winners and losers in the game of football, but in which the weekly humiliation of the mascot stands in stark contrast to the idolisation of the players." Though maybe there are happy and fulfilled mascots out there without a drinking problem, and with a steady girlfriend, who would beg to disagree.
    The whole thesis, covering authors such as Nick Hornby, John King and Attila the Stockbroker, can be read, only in German, here.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Hawk Kills Dove

Not a remarkable event, but it happened in my back yard, and it was witnessed by my eight-year-old daughter just as I'm getting her into bird watching.

She's doing a project at school on the goldfinch, so we bought a new hanging feeder containing nyger seed - which attracts the breed especially - to go with the suet holder that brings us woodpeckers, and the green, metal, house-shaped feeder that lures nuthatches, chickadees and titmice, but is usually covered with house-sparrows and flying death-wish squirrels (they can't climb on to it, so they hurl themselves at it from above to dislodge seed on to the ground). This weekend we were watching some low-level garden activity, and when I left her to go to the kitchen, there were just a dark-eyed junco and three mourning doves on the lawn, pecking away in that docile way that makes them possibly the least interesting bird in the world to watch.

A minute later she came running through, distraught and in tears. "A hawk came and ate one of the birds!" My first reaction was "Cool!" and I ran through to the window to see if it was still around. A couple of years ago a sharp-shinned hawk came down and frightened an American Robin into flying against the living room window. When I looked out past the circle of feathers left on the pane, there was the hawk sitting below, its talons in the dead bird, looking around furtively before it flew off.

This time there were just a few feathers where the dove had been, and a grey squirrel peeking out of the log pile where it had scarpered for cover. After a hug and some consoling words, I managed to get my daughter to describe what she had seen. It sounded like a red-tailed hawk. I persuaded her that, for a novice birdwatcher, she'd witnessed something pretty special, and that such deaths were just a part of nature. By the next day she was breezily telling everyone about it. I only wish I'd hung around for another minute and seen it myself.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Actually, The LA Times Called My Writing "immaculate"...

An interesting footnote to Thursday's Beckham piece. In one of seven (yes, s-e-v-e-n) pieces that the LA Times printed yesterday about the Beckham transfer to the Galaxy, Chuck Culpepper wrote in his column 'With Beckham, what you see is what you get', the following:

The Guardian's Ian Plenderleith wrote immaculately, "Due to his limitations as a player, Beckham may actually fit in very well in U.S. soccer."

Which is an accurate quote, but taken completely out of context in order to support the writer's angle that British commentators were largely cynical about Beckham's move (they were, but I wasn't one of them). Still, why let context get in the way of a shoddy article when you've a deadline to meet.

The full quote was: "Due to his limitations as a player, Beckham may actually fit in very well in US soccer. While his name reaps sponsorship money, merchandise sales and enhanced media attention, we all know that on the field he's brilliant at what he does - but that that includes little beyond crosses, free-kicks and probing long passes. This will be ideal: he won't dominate games, but he'll produce the kind of highlight moments that can be easily packaged to a sporting audience that loves short, sharp thrills."

Mind, if he'd printed all that, I might have demanded a cut of his fee. And at least I can play the counter-distortion game, should I ever have a book published again, by having on the jacket: "Plenderleith writes immaculately" (LA Times). Sure, it would involve tinkering with the word 'wrote', but clearly the LA Times doesn't mind about technicalities on matters of mere accuracy.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

'LA Story Is Just Right For Beckham'

That's the headline on my Guardian blog piece today, although I would have modified it to 'could be just right for Beckham'. As I write, the 'comments' section is filling with undoubted experts telling me how wrong I am.

Major League Soccer is damned whatever it does. For years it was told to relax its rules so that it could sign marquee players, and that by failing to sign big names like Beckham, it had no ambition or marketing nous. When it changed the salary cap rules, as it did last November, to sign him, people immediately protest that MLS is wasting its money, while people who've never seen a US league game in their lives condemn Beckham as a mediocre player (he's not, in many respects) for a mediocre league (which may be true right now, but only in the sense that every league in the world has its great share of mediocre games thanks to negative tactical mores).

My view is that it's a potentially healthy signing for a still developing league. To damn the league, and Beckham, in a fit of internet tub-thumping is easy enough, but as short-sighted as saying that Americans will never 'get' soccer. Millions already do, and many more will in the years to come. Some, even, thanks to Beckham.

Monday, January 08, 2007

An E-Mail From Nowhere

I have to admit that I don't often get e-mails from people who've read my book. In fact it's not even an annual event. But the other day, as we head for the sixth anniversary of the publication of the first edition of 'For Whom The Ball Rolls', I received the kind of missive that brightens up your day because it lets you know that out there, somewhere, at least one or two people were paying your work the attention you always secretly thought it deserved. So many thanks to Liverpool fan Don Chesney for writing the following:

"For Whom The Ball Rolls - my favourite ever football book. Reading it for the third time and still love it. Recommend it to all 'real' footie fans. Played for and ran local football teams for 20 odd years, was in heaven reading this book. Wrote a 'book' about the Sunday team I played for and eventually helped run, called 'Flu Pitch'. Just gave it to mates to read. I tell everyone to read yours - superb!"