Do you think I'm sexy? Rod Stewart. Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Never underestimate how unbelievably boring we all are

Rod Stewart laps it up in the BBC's first History Hour of 2015.

The History Hour
BBC World Service

“Light and shade for you this week,” cheeps Max Pearson at 2am, presenting the first of 2015’s History Hours (4 January, 2.05am), the weekly slot that showcases historical reporting, from the Battle of the Bulge and Hong Kong’s 1967 riots to the Kyoto conference and the release of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. “In a moment, a post-World War One tragedy concerning servicemen returning to Scotland,” says Max, “but before that . . . the biggest ever free party on a beach!” It’s a segment on Rod Stewart’s humongous New Year’s Eve 1994 gig at Copacabana, featuring a recent interview with the Epoxy Resined One himself, who turns 70 on 10 January. “I thought there was, like, 30 rows of fans at most . . .” mused Stewart. In reality, there were 3.5 million people in the crowd and 35 million watching on the box. Rod’s spatial awareness is about as good as mine. Three and a half million: that’s like the entire population of Uruguay.

Never, ever underestimate how unbelievably boring we all are. Or forget that the biggest-selling album in the world is Thriller and the second is The Eagles: Greatest Hits. Stewart’s faithful Swedish production manager Lars interjects, entirely without double-entendre: “You are enormous down there. Enormous. Down there. Enormous.” This, Rod takes seamlessly as his due. “I love it down there,” he says. But then adds Scroogeishly, “It’s one of the hardest places to work, mind you. Down there. They’ll tell you one thing and do another.”

“The morning sun when it’s in yer face really shows yo age,” goes the song in the background and you have to admit it sounds pretty good. Followed by snatches of “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy”, played in such a way that immediately indicates it’s the stadium version – the kind that stretches out like a fat man in a hammock while you go off and look for more ketamine – and no doubt featuring Stewart’s session favourite Jeff Golub (RIP. Best blond curls in rock, bar Daltry) casually walking about the stage while noodling away convivially on his guitar, occasionally approaching the 300-foot-high sound desk and staring at it with his back to the audience for another unhurried 15 minutes, as though reprogramming a gas metre. Still, the crowd are lapping it up. “I think they’d been drinking a little.” No shit, Rod. 

The Biggest Rock Concert Ever is available on BBC Radio iPlayer until 3 February

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 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496