Hugh Laurie's Blues Changes: The devil in the detail

Laurie took to the lectern and described in detail the genesis of the song. The detail, the sheer pedantry, was simultaneously thrilling and unbearable.

“Gary Clark Jr there, with ‘When My Train Pulls In’. And as luck would have it, it’s a train that will pick us up the same time next week. I’m Hugh Laurie and this is BBC Radio 2.”
 
The first in a series about the blues (Mondays, 10pm) ended as it began, with an immaculate neatness from a presenter who had, among other things, been debating-society keen to over-enunciate dates and names (“That was ROBERT JOHNSON playing in NINETEEN THIRTY-SEVEN”).
 
The programme opened with Laurie and his band covering Alan Price’s “Changes”, a song Price had recorded for the soundtrack to Lindsay Anderson’s forgotten satire O Lucky Man! – a film 40 years old this year and every bit as mad and satirical as when the thirtysomething Price appeared as a member of the cast, banging out all the music on-screen and looking like the nicest and most unflappable person ever to have tuned a piano in the back of a van, while Malcolm McDowell worked his hands up a 28-yearold Helen Mirren’s jumper. (Ooh, isn’t she sexy? Will it never end? Now, I’ll tell you who is sexy. Alan bloody Price in 1973. Nice flat cap. Nice mustard suede shirt. Extremely nice fingers tinkling the ivories.)
 
After this, Laurie took to the lectern and described in detail the genesis of the song, from a Presbyterian hymn (played in full) to a First World War trench anthem (played in full) and beyond (played in full). The detail, the sheer pedantry, was simultaneously thrilling and unbearable.
 
Was the whole programme going to unfurl like this? Just a long, come-into-my-brownstudy dissection of one song, with Hugh booming, “Let’s tease out some further connections” and (you feel certain) doing his Bertie Wooster face to give oomph to his cadences; the face that implies he’s just had his bonnet knocked off by ragamuffins?
 
Laurie did end up changing the record (kind of a shame, although he did make room for a fantastically unpretentious interview with Muddy Waters) but I’ve got to hand it to him: most of the time, his listen-with-mother diction and whopping confidence had me all bright and responsive on my night trudge to buy yoghurt – and I never listen to Radio 2! Ever! Radio to forget the station to. This is probably a first.
 
Hugh Laurie: detail and sheer pedantry. Image: Getty

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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John Darnielle's Universal Harvester contains as much tenderness as horror

The Mountain Goats musician's novel has some structural problems, but is not without interest and insight.

It is the late 1990s in the small city of Nevada, Iowa, and Jeremy is getting complaints about the tapes that people are renting from the Video Hut. Weird images are appearing partway through films: the sunny romcom She’s All That cuts suddenly to a shot of darkness and the sound of someone breathing behind the camera; the Peter Bogdanovich thriller Targets is interrupted by amateur footage of a woman tied to a chair inside a barn, with a hood over her head and a rope around her neck. These menacing images cause confusion. Are they a manufacturing error? A prank? Or something more disturbing?

Jeremy, whose mother died in a car accident six years earlier, is in his directionless early twenties and expert at derailing his dad when he asks what he plans to do with his life. A customer, Stephanie, gradually persuades him to help investigate the scenes they have witnessed on the tapes. It seems a dangerous task; at best, the sequences are deeply strange, but the worst of them – bodies moving under a tarp, a woman fleeing down a dark country road ahead of the camera’s bobbing light – suggest kidnap and torture.

When Jeremy’s boss, Sarah Jane, watches one of the videos, she recognises the property where these mysterious scenes are being filmed. She embarks on her own investigation, one that involves her in a situation as sad as it is strange, and that transforms the novel from a horror story into something less easily classifiable. There are several changes of pace and tone throughout the book, some of which are less successful than others. The most serious problem – the one that hampers the reader’s ability to become immersed in Darnielle’s often highly atmospheric writing – has to do with framing. Just who is telling this story?

The novel is mostly written in the third person, but occasionally a first-person narrator interrupts to add their take on events. The first few times this happens, it’s thrilling: it adds a further mystery to be solved, and in one instance delivers a huge and enlivening revelation.

But Darnielle uses this trick too often and in apparently contradictory ways. Some parts of the book only make sense if we assume an omniscient narrator; others suggest that someone intimately involved with what is going on is controlling the narrative; while other asides suggest a narrator far removed in time from the events described, as if the story being told has passed into local legend. “There is a variation on this story so pervasive that it’s sometimes thought of not as a variation but as the central thread,” the narrator tells us, uncertainly. I cannot find a way to make these three modes of telling the story work logically together. I’m not saying they don’t, but the answer isn’t discernible on the page.

The pity of Universal Harvester’s structural problems is that they distract from some interesting and insightful writing – the kind that might be expected from Darnielle, the songwriter for one of the most intelligent indie rock bands of the past 20 years, the Mountain Goats. The book’s second and best section is a lengthy flashback about a woman who goes missing in the mid-1970s after becoming involved with a fringe Christian group. In the eeriest scene, her husband listens to her singing at the sink, “but the song continued at the same pace and tempo, and he realised she’d been praying – chanting”. He doesn’t recognise the prayer, “and he didn’t want to follow it out to where it went”.

That line reinforces the sense, skilfully kept always in our minds, of the threatening isolation of the vast fields of Iowa, where “a farmhouse has no neighbours, not real ones, and if you try looking for them, it shrinks… Walk twenty paces from its door and you’re waist-high in corn or knee-high in bean fields, already forgetting the feel of being behind a door, safely shielded from the sky.”

But there proves to be as much tenderness as horror in Darnielle’s novel, which ultimately has more in common with the small-town loneliness and desire for connection described in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio than it does with rural horror such as Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn”.

One of the things that Jeremy treasures about his sleepy town where the days “roll on like hills too low to give names to” – one of the things that the events of the novel put under threat – is “knowing where you were: this seemed like a big part of the point of living in Nevada, possibly of being alive at all”. 

Universal Harvester
John Darnielle
Scribe, 224pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder