Big fat telly

Channel 4's documentary series about travellers is misleadingly simplistic.

To watch Big Fat Gypsy Weddings on Channel 4 is to be bombarded with big fat stats: wedding dresses that weigh 16 stone, leaving indelible scars on the wearer; holy communion frocks that are twice the weight of their 12-year-old occupants. At one traveller wedding, even the icing on the cake comes in at a whopping nine stone. Perhaps not surprisingly, the bridal rig that reached the greatest parodic heights belonged to a non-traveller, a "gadgi', who was marrying a gypsy and felt she had to out-travel the travellers. It was trimmed with battery-operated butterflies and fitted up with UV and fibre-optic lighting that meant a fire extinguisher had to be discreetly brought to church.

One watches these exercises in hyperbole with a mixture of fascination and alarm. The romantic notion of the rootless, horse-powered purveyor of the wild music that informed jazz and flamenco, and the snaking hips of Eastern dances, is quickly derailed by Channel 4's presentation: the soundtrack of choice booming from the party limos is electro-house by the Black Eyed Peas. The Appleby Horse Fair, a "major event in the traveller social calendar", sounds like an Arcadian pageant from a Thomas Hardy novel, but the young males who attend don't get beyond the car park. Here they size up flesh quite other than horse.

The hips are still snaking but they belong to the little girls: jet-tanned, spray-painted Lolitas, who appear to have picked up their outfit in Versace then left most of it at home, and who ape the moves of Shakira and Beyoncé; shanks and bellies bared for the consumption of others. In fact there's a whole lot of aping going on at these gypsy celebrations. Little distinction is made between factual and filmic, celebrities and cartoons (arguably quite rightly). The glass-coach is just like Jordan's; the cake is a model of the Disney fairytale castle.

The provocative show of breast and haunch sits queasily alongside a deeply conservative version of bygone Catholicism, where women cannot go out alone (or they are "scandalised", "filthy"), cannot drink or have sex until they are married, and are taken out of school and into domestic servitude at the age of 12 to swab out the trailer and rear younger siblings. It was hard not to be moved by the fear and the dread of one 13-year-old girl when confronted with her older sister's marriage, which marked the start of her own skivvying sentence.

Gypsy lads, on the other hand, are free to do as they please with their leisure, though they, too, are taken out of school in order to work. Whereas their girl-brides are so burdened by their giant dresses that they cannot walk (an evolutionary positive-feedback loop; the cost of display impeding basic biological function), the groom is free to strip to the comfort and ease of his vest. No amount of mealy-mouthed cultural relativism can talk away the Irish traveller custom of "grabs", where sexed-up swains extract a kiss from the girls by force. This assault is the courtship's opening gambit, the nail on which a lifetime's relationship hangs.

And yet some of what we experience when we watch the documentary is surely recognition: the traveller life holds up a mirror, albeit a fairground one, to the community at large. The featured Holy Communion dress was an exaggerated version of all the other creepy mini-brides of Christ; the church attendees were Lady Gaga-ed to the max, but not so very different from the show of plumage we are more accustomed to. Substance abuse with Carlsberg or Cloudy Bay -- the object of getting off one's face remains the same. The programmes concern themselves only with the major celebrations in traveller life, the times when they are at their most theatrical, as it were. Perhaps an unblinking gaze at the high days and holidays of Middle England would reveal similarly fantastical preoccupations with being a princess for one day, with price tags to match, in an otherwise unexceptional lifetime.

Not only is "them and us" a misleading binary (as the mild-mannered Romany Pat points out), but crucially the documentary fallaciously yokes Romany and Irish travellers together, neatly eliding the two with the tags "traveller" or "gypsy". This semantic amnesia conveniently ignores a complicated plurality of traditions and values, and is a mistake that "muscular liberalism" would do well to avoid. The Romany are no strangers to crude catch-alls: the very word gypsy is a misconception about their Egyptian origin. But then, more accuracy would mean less big fat telly.

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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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