The Phil Spector Christmas album is the aural equivalent of being inside a snowglobe. Photo: Getty
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Tracey Thorn: Not for me the party songs. Come, listen to the clanging chimes of doom!

Is there a darker Christmas lyric than Band Aid’s “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”?

The true reward of making a Christmas album lies in becoming part of people’s annual traditions. I released Tinsel and Lights in 2012, so this will be its third outing on the festive turntable, and I am already getting tweets telling me that it has been fetched out of the box in the loft, along with the actual tinsel – all scruffy with bits of Sellotape that fixed it to someone’s bedroom wall last year. It’s a time when many of us like everything to be unchanging; we play the same records to accompany the same moments, and their resonance deepens with each passing year. After we’d emptied our stockings, my mum would faithfully stick on her green vinyl seven-inch of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”, and we’d all groan, the groaning being half the fun. Later, I discovered the Phil Spector Christmas album and it provided the soundtrack to my present-wrapping, the aural equivalent of being inside a snowglobe. Audible glitter.

Actually making a Christmas record is an odd business, in that you have to start in the spring. So as one new year got under way, I compiled a tracklist of not strictly Christmas songs, but any that referenced winter, or ice, or just cold weather. The lovely melancholy of Harry Nilsson’s “Snow” and Joni Mitchell’s “River” encapsulated the mood I wanted to strike. Not for me a compilation of party bangers, but a collection of seasonally appropriate gloom. During the recording, the producer Ewan Pearson and I cheerfully gave it the working title The Clanging Chimes of Doom, though one or two songs proved too miserable even for me. For instance, Janis Ian’s “In the Winter”, where a lyric about freezing with a broken heater – being so lonely you call Dial-a-Prayer just to hear a voice, and bumping into your ex’s new “friend” – ends with the punchline, “I’ll live alone forever!” Wonderful stuff, properly festive.

Talking of the Clanging Chimes of Doom, is there a darker Christmas lyric than Band Aid’s? It seems to get more and more stick every time it’s released, poor song, particularly the line that was originally roared by Bono, “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you,” which I saw recently described as the worst line ever written.

I’ll come clean – I think it’s a good line. That doesn’t mean I think it’s a nice line, or a nice thought. It doesn’t make me feel good, and it doesn’t make the singer look good, which is perhaps why Bono was apparently reluctant to sing it. We always assume that singers believe every word they sing: he might have worried that people would for ever identify him with this ignoble sentiment. But it seems to me to contain a kernel of horrible truth, which we’d rather deny – that if something awful has to happen, if someone has to get it in the neck, we’d rather it wasn’t us, fearful, flawed creatures that we are.

It has always reminded me of the torture scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four. When Winston Smith is finally broken, by the imminent threat of his worst nightmare being visited upon him, he pleads not just for mercy, but for it to be done to Julia instead – “Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me!” We seem to take for granted that someone has to suffer; we just plead for it to be someone else. In that howl of Bono’s, the Band Aid song deliberately undermines all its good cheer, letting in the shade and banishing light. Lovely and Christmassy.

We can’t take too much of it, though. Indeed, it seems we can’t take that line at all any more – it has been edited out from this year’s version of the song. A little reality at Christmas goes a long way; we need to temper it with hope, dreams, fantasy. Everyone knows that I love sad songs, but only Ben knows me well enough to have stuffed the Michael Bublé Christmas album into my stocking a couple of years ago, leading to a new tradition now where I happily potter around the kitchen on Christmas morning, cooking and singing, in a glow of bubbly and Bublé, while everyone else groans, the groaning being half the fun.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear