The truth and Truman Capote

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In his introduction to an anthology of New Journalism, published in 1973 and now out of print, Tom Wolfe lampoons the appalled reaction of the old guard to the blend of literary technique and newspaper reportage which made his name as a feature writer.

“These people must be piping it, winging it, making up the dialogue… Christ, maybe they’re making up whole scenes, the unscrupulous geeks…”

It turns out the stick-in-the-muds had a point.

Ronald Nye, the son of a Kansas lawman involved in the investigation of the brutal murders described by Truman Capote in his ‘non-fiction novel’ In Cold Blood, is to publish his father’s field notes which he says contradicts important elements of Capote’s groundbreaking account.

“Capote had a fact here, and a fact there, and filled in the gaps with literary licence,” Nye said.

In 1959, two drifters, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, were convicted of murdering Herbert Clutter, his wife and their two children. The pair were hanged in 1965 after a manhunt and trial which gripped the United States. Capote’s account of the senseless slaughter of a family and the search for the killers had an equally powerful impact. As Wolfe points out, Capote was a respected novelist and his account ran as a serial in The New Yorker before it was published as a book. Capote’s book, along with Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night, established the non-fiction novel as a genre worth taking seriously. In Cold Blood, Tom Wolfe wrote, was “a very meticulous and impressive job”.

That wasn’t the reaction of Harold Nye who worked at the Kansas Bureau of Investigations for 20 years. His son says his father threw Capote’s book across the room in disgust, calling it “garbage”.

Capote made no notes when he interviewed people for his book. He later claimed to have “near-perfect” recall. In his account, KBI agents raced to interview the parents of one of the murderers following a tip off and smartly extracted incriminating information. But according to Harold Nye’s detailed records, investigators visited the house five days after the tip off, by which time the killers had fled to Florida where they would be implicated in another killing.

Nye suggests Capote played up the role of KBI investigator Alvin Dewey who gave the novelist access to key witnesses and also to the convicted murderers.

Of course, journalist have always shaped their material to make it more readable. Hunter S Thompson made no bones about the fictional framework that held up his manic accounts of presidential elections, boxing matches and an off-road race near Las Vegas.

But it is one thing to pepper a colour feature with twisted scenes of drug-induced mania and another to exaggerate and invent incidents in an account of the murder of four members of one family.

The legacy of New Journalism can be found in the tedious features detailing a writer’s tube journey to interview a movie star, the colour of the hotel carpet and the quality of the canapés. More seriously, it can tempt a writer to play fast and loose with the facts.

The journalist Johann Hari was suspended by the Independent newspaper when it was discovered that he had plagiarised material previously published by his interviewees. He was also accused of exaggerating his use of Ecstasy and of falsely claiming to be present at the death of an anti-capitalist protester during the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa.

Hari later apologised but the damage had been done. The editor of the Independent, Chris Blackhurst, told the Leveson inquiry that Hari’s behaviour had “severely damaged” the newspaper’s reputation.

No doubt to some practitioners of New Journalism, Hari’s faults probably seem marginal at worst.

Tom Wolfe wrote: “One of the greatest changes brought about by this new breed of journalists has been… that the proof of one’s technical mastery as a writer becomes paramount and the demonstration of moral points becomes secondary.”

There is no doubting Capote’s technical mastery and In Cold Blood remains essential reading. But if you want to read an accurate report of an event, you should probably avoid the literary lion in favour of someone with decent shorthand.

This article was first published by The Guardian on December 5.

Little Dragon need more firepower

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Little Dragon

Corn Exchange

Church Street

Brighton

November 17

Yukimi Nagano, the frontwoman for Swedish electronic outfit Little Dragon, may be diminutive but she possesses the stage presence to dominate a venue ten times the size of the Corn Exchange. Dressed as a goddess of spring flowers she prowled, skipped, struck arabesque and neo-classical poses and had the enthusiastic audience under her full control from the start. Her vocal range is limited, but her charisma is like a tidal river sweeping all in its path.

The same cannot be said for her fellow band members. Fredrik Källgren Wallin (keyboards and bass), Håkan Wirenstrand (keyboards) and Erik Bodin (drums) exuded the collective personality of a beer mat and their musicianship on this occasion verged on the sloppy. On the bands recordings, first-rate production polishes some very average songs. Live, they were reduced to reverb-drenched longueurs.

This is not to say the night was a total disappointment. ‘Klapp Klapp’, ‘Ritual Union’ and ‘Nabuma Rubberband’ are sturdy constructions and were able to withstand the rough treatment they received.

On this showing I predict a starry future for Nagano and perhaps back room careers for the boys.

This article was first published in The Argus on November 18

It’s early! Brighton Baroque on a roll

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Ars Eloquentiae

Latest Music Bar

November 1

If you bumped into the five fresh faced members of Ars Eloquentiae cooling their heels at a train station you might guess that they are musicians. Pressed to specify what kind of music they perform, you’d probably plump for something along the lines of the virtuoso sturm und drang of Radiohead.

In a sense, you wouldn’t be that wide of the mark. The six-piece ensemble may have swapped guitars and drums for recorder, cello, violins and harpsichord , but their performances of 18th century pieces by Marais, Rameau, Vivaldi and others, posses a swagger and dynamism not a million miles away from Thom Yorke’s boys.

At the Latest Music Bar in Manchester Street, Brighton, on Saturday morning, they presented a ‘Sentimental Journey’, punctuating the musical performances with quotations from Laurence Sterne’s novel. Laszlo Rozsa on the recorder tackled the tricky Baroque licks with aplomb while violinists James Toll and Guy Botton displayed an unbuttoned flair for period pieces that can feel stale from more self-effacing performers. Gavin Kelly on cello and Chad Kelly on harpsichord laid a secure floor from which their more florid partners could tackle the dizzy changes in keys and temp that characterise the enduring appeal of Early Music.

Brighton Early Music Festival: Paris – Convent Divas, St Paul’s Church, West Street, Brighton,

Sunday

November 2

The fact that it was standing room only at St Paul’s Church is testament to the appeal of 17th century church music.

The wind was howling down a sodden West Street, but inside the church an atmosphere of ethereal peace was conjured by Musica Secreta, Celestial Sirens, and the Brighton Festival Youth Choir under the direction of Esther Jones and Deborah Roberts.

Compositions for chromatic a cappella performances grew out of the taste for high voices in 16th century Italy. Composers such as Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Jean Baptistse Lully, and Marin Marais gained fame in the world of small scale sacred vocal music.

For this evening’s performance, the directors chose the Propers for St Margaret. Propers are liturgical texts that vary for service to service. The singing mostly featured solo voices with the choir responding to the sopranos’ lead.

The performance was all the more powerful for an absence of vocal pyrotechnics with Katharine Hawnt, Elizabeth Dobbin and Deborah Rogers delivering plain but enchanting melodies, subtly augmented by Claire Williams at the organ.

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Brighton Early Music Festival: Leipzig: Bach’s secret addiction – Bach and Telemann meet at Cafe Zimmerman, The Old Market, Upper Market Street, Hove
Sunday,
November 2

It was George Santayana who said that those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

The 19th century philosopher would no doubt take pleasure in the fact the city elders of 18th century Leipzig were unnerved by the habits of the youth who were spending far too much time sitting around in coffee houses talking about changing the world – after the next invigorating cuppa.

The trend was sufficiently widespread for Bach to briefly abandon the religiose themes of his cantatas in favour of a mild satire revolving around a father who despairs of his daughter giving up the evil caffeine in order to make a decent marriage.

The Little Baroque Company commissioned a new translation of the work by Carla Blackwood to drive home the modern parallels: “It’s always Starbucks! Espresso! Latte! Aargh! When will you hear my phrase/and give up this coffee craze!”

The audience were treated to coffee and cakes while they listened and the brew was given added piquancy with the addition of Handel’s Overture to Ariodante and Telemann’s Burlesque de Quixotte.

It was light frothy fare, which sent the audience back into the autumnal squalls feeling slightly perkier than when they arrived.

Why a stand up comedian says she’s nothing special

Francesca Martinez

Ropetackle Arts Centre

Shoreham

October 30

When Francesca Martinez was born, medical professionals told her parents that their new-born daughter was physically and mentally retarded. This is patently not the case, as she told the audience at the City Books event, as she doesn’t read The Sun or vote UKIP.

The actor-cum-comedian is on tour to promote her new book “What the F**** Is Normal” which describes the pleasures and pitfalls of growing up wobbly. Her brain was deprived of oxygen at birth causing cerebral palsy. But Martinez is not one for misery memoirs. This was an evening of joy, laughter and at times anger as Martinez, interviewed by fellow comedian Jen Brister, delivered her very straightforward message – don’t let others define you – with charm and wit. She even had a good word for Russell Brand as one of the few celebrities willing to stick their neck out and say that all is not well with the nation’s political leadership.

Not that Martinez wishes to be seen as a role model. “It’s not inspirational it’s common sense!” she insisted as she dissected the needs of others to judge her based on the way she looks and talks – and the fact she likes Frank Sinatra.

She raised a big cheer from the audience when she declared: “Accepting who you are is an act of civil disobedience.”

Catch her when you can – just don’t call her inspirational, ok?

This article first appeared in The Argus on October 31 2014

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Browsing the bookshop shelf is more rewarding than surfing souless sites

 

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The next time you spot a book you have been meaning to read for ages nestling among the items conveniently suggested to you by your friendly giant online retailer, pause before you hit “one-click ordering”. There is something soulless about the process, a commercial transaction untouched by human emotion.

How much more rewarding to stroll into an independent bookstore, each as individual as its owner, in search of the latest John Le Carre, only to stroll out instead with a biography of Churchill, a compendium of crosswords, a present for your partner, and, possibly, a little bit of gossip about what the vicar told the council officer when they were in the shop last week.

Last week “super-Thursday” in the book world – the day when major publishers launch what they hope will be their big Christmas blockbusters. New books by John Cleese, Jacqueline Wilson, and Heston Blumenthal will crowd the windows of bookshops across the county. The promotion will give a much appreciated shot in the arm to beleaguered booksellers.

Sales nationwide dropped by £98 million or 6.5% last year but the rate of the decline is slowing, according to experts. Super Thursday generated sales of £34.7 million and this year booksellers are hoping for more of the same.

But beyond the once-a-year hype, entrepreneurial booksellers are showing what can be done to drum up sales. In Hove, City Books, founded and run by Paul and Inge Sweetman, is a beacon of civilisation on Western Road. Its imaginative events programme has attracted a raft of well-known authors to talk about their works. This season will see appearances by Will Self, John Lydon, Claire Balding and the Reverend Richard Coles, among others.

Events such as these foster the sense of community and help to bring the books alive in a way that the online behemoths never can.

It’s a myth that bookish people are loners – as the mushrooming of book clubs has shown.

Shut down that computer and head off to your nearest independent bookshop – you never know where that journey might take you.

 

This piece was first published in The Argus on October 12, 2014

Why Owen Jones thinks the system is fixed – and we should break it

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If you see Sid, tell him Owen Jones wants a word.

The fresh-faced, fiery-penned, polemicist has written a trenchant analysis of how the con-trick of ‘popular capitalism’ has become the only political game in town. His new book The Establishment aims to provide a forensic examination of how the bankers and business owners that drove the economy over a cliff in 2008 managed to walk away unscathed. They remain the biggest beneficiaries of Government spending.

I’m old enough to remember the British Gas ad campaign in 1985 which was trumpeted as the high-water mark of the Thatcher government’s privatisation programme. In reality, the share-owning democracy proved a damp squib – private investors now make up less than a 10th of stock market ownership. But the seed had been sown – “we are all in this together and if the ship sinks there’ll be no lifeboat for you lot”.

The neutering of the  trade unions underlined the notion that workers owed their souls to the company store, and the destruction of building societies fanned the flames of debt as a lifestyle choice.

I can vividly recall the wild talk of my twentysomething contemporaries about how the house they had just paid a fortune for would make them rich. My partner and I narrowly avoided catastrophe when one of us (it wasn’t me) had the good sense to insist we turn down a mortgage facility put together in a matter of minutes by a financial adviser on the other end of a phone. We were all neo-liberals – though few of us back then had heard of the term.

Many years later, I happened to be in New York when Lehman Brother collapsed. Grown men were running up and down Fifth Avenue yelling into their cell phones: “The  Dow is f*cked! The Dow is f*cked!”

But no senior figures  found themselves tossed onto a tumbril bound for the guillotine. Owen Jones wants us to understand why.

What I liked most about his previous book Chavs: the demonisation of the working class was his gumshoe reporting. He had clearly hit the road with his notebook in hand. Early reviews of “The Establishment suggest the same thorough approach has paid off again and I am looking forward to reading the new book. I might even go along when his rolling tour hits Brighton.

But I winced (and I bet the author did) when I read the blurb on the cover by Russell Brand hailing Owen Jones as “our generation’s Orwell”.  I’ll have to break it to him that my daughters (18 and 23) had never heard of him. They favour political action over polemics and they know that the current economic order offers them precious few opportunities.

Sid might want to give them a wide berth also.

 

Peyton and Byrne pledges to pay suppliers before quitting Brighton

Catering services at Brighton's Royal Pavilion have been put out to tender

Catering services at Brighton’s Royal Pavilion have been put out to tender

A catering company run by a celebrity restaurateur has insisted it has the cash to pay suppliers before it pulls out of a city’s iconic venues.

Last month Peyton & Byrne announced it will stop delivering catering and hospitality for Brighton Dome, the Royal Pavilion and Hove Museum.

Brighton and Hove Council said  the bars and cafes will return to in-house management, while joint tenders are sought for a new firm to run the catering and the cafe operations.

The GMB union is in negotiations with the council and the caterer over the future of its members employed at the venues.

According to the latest figures filed at Companies House, Peyton & Byrne has a negative balance sheet of £891,056 . It has a net debt of £1,192,751 and has issued a debenture with Barclays bank.

In the previous year it borrowed £300,000 from Olga Polizzi, the mother-in-law of BBC Great British Menu judge Oliver Peyton. The loan has since been repaid.

A spokeswoman for Peyton & Byrne said:“The company is well funded and has had recent further investment from British Growth Fund to ensure its strategic aims are met.  This included a £6.25 million investment deal signed in November 2012.

“Brighton Dome and  Brighton Festival and Royal Pavilion and Museums will be working with Peyton & Byrne to best protect staff and the facilities during the transfers of the bars and the tendering process.  All suppliers will be paid by Peyton & Byrne, who are currently continuing to run the site as per normal.”