Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Madcap Laughs No More

Roger "Syd" Barrett. RIP.

OK, I know I've been neglecting the Toffeewomble again. I've got several good excuses - I'm a first-time father of a two month old daughter (see below); I'm right in the middle of some furious writing, as I finish a novel (London Cries); also I've been in the wilds of the Hebrides for ten days, where there are more sea eagles than cybercafes.

So what's new? Well, the death of Syd Barrett is new, ish. I don't know why, but Syd's death has affected me more than any other rock & roll death of recent years; maybe more than any artistic death ever. Two weeks have passed since he passed on, and still every time I think about his death I get this weird dizzy sad feeling, like I am staring over a cliff at a picture of myself aged 9. Most odd.

Anyway, here's something I wrote on Syd's tristful demise.

Death of a Madcap

When old rockers pass away there's normally a twinge of selfish sadness - as another chunk of one's own youth goes sailing downriver. However, the news of Syd Barrett's death is more affecting than most. Why?

Partly its because of his role in one of the greatest of English rock groups: Pink Floyd. In the late 60s, Barrett fronted the Floyd when they were makers of experimental psychedelia; even when Barrett left the band, his influence lived on in the themes of their finest albums: Wish You Were Here, and Dark Side of the Moon.

But there's also something very poignant in the story of Syd himself. Born in 1946, he was a beautiful and talented young man, and an obvious leader for a supergroup in the making. But as the Floyd got famous, Syd's mental fragility became evident. Sometimes he would take so many hallucinogenic drugs he would appear catatonic on stage. Another notorious time he hid in a cupboard to escape all the groupies who fancied him; his friends didn't help by feeding his cat LSD.

So Syd left the band - or rather the exasperated band dumped him - and he went solo, recording two albums that harrowingly document the singer's descent into schizophrenia. Around the same time, photographer Mick Rock took some iconic shots of a wild, bewildered Syd in his Earl's Court Flat, with a naked girl in the background. Soon afterwards Syd fled London. When he resurfaced, decades later, he was a shambling, affable eccentric, who didn't like talking about music.

Here is the key to Syd's powerful story. Somehow he embodies the haunting idea of promise unfulfilled: a strikingly beautiful young man, hugely gifted, yet deeply fragile, who lost it all in the vortex of madness, yet survived to regain a semblance of a normal if reclusive life.

One day it will make a great musical. With Syd's music.

One of the famous Mick Rock photos of Syd, with attendant muse, in his Earl's Court flat. Weirdly enough, the apartment is still there, it's still got the stripey floor, and it's still occupied by Syd's old flatmate, the artist Duggie Fields.

Only Syd has gone.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Truth about Fatherhood


Regular readers of my blog (i.e. Bob Smithson in Melbourne) might have noticed two things about Ye Ancient Toffeewomble in recent weeks.

1. It's been a bit sporadic and crap of late.
2. The posts have not been as personal and insightful as they used to be, almost as if they were mainly pieces of warmed-over journalism that I have already published elsewhere.

If you have spotted these trends, give yourself the Pulitzer Prize for Insight, because both are true, interlinked and result from one circumstance: a few weeks a go I became a dad. Yup, a dad. A proper father. A daddio. Paterfamilias. A fraught sleepless zombie with babycack on his arm and milky-puke on his shoulder. A DAD.

The arrival of little Lucy May Lamorna (see pics above and below; my daughter is the small one without the stubble) has meant that I have been very involved in buying nappies and sterilizing bottles, and have therefore had not much time to post. And when I have felt like posting, I haven't felt like getting all emotional and personal due to my heart being full of tumultuous new feelings that I haven't quite worked out yet; also it's hard to post when your daughter keeps dribbling on your laptop.

Anyway. Now you know. And here she is. Joy to the World.

All together now: Ahhhhh.........

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Sex in the British Museum

Art or Filth? The Infamous 'Warren Cup'...

The Rights and Wrongs of Hanging Homosexuals

It's amazing what you can find at the British Museum. The other day, waiting for my ticket to the Michelangelo cartoons, I nipped into a a small, temporary display, dedicated to one silver Roman cup. It turned out to be a singularly disturbing experience.

My anxiety had nothing to do with the workmanship of the object. The Warren Cup, named for its onetime American owner, is exquisitely beautiful. No, what made the Cup so disturbing to me was the subject matter engraved on its surface: scenes of tender homosexual love between a man and a boy. A boy of barely 14.

How was I meant to react to this? Was I meant to admire the terrific skill of the silversmith, and ignore the sexual perversion being celebrated? Maybe the Warren Cup was telling me something deeper: about my own sexual ethics?

Here in the West we like to think we have reached the final stage of moral wisdom when it comes to sex: we believe, for instance, that we are right to condone homosexuality at the same time as we condemn pedophilia. I certainly share the fierce repellence most of us feel for the sexual exploitation of children. But how do we know these moral attitudes are absolutely 'right'? What is 'right' anyway - when it comes to sex?

In Iran they hang homosexuals, which seems barbaric to us. Yet ancient Greece and Rome might have regarded our ferocious attitude to pedophiles as equally barbaric. Furthemore, some societies that we admire, like Renaissance Italy, would have found our tolerant approach to gayness or transsexuality quite incomprehensible. If not repugnant.

So, are there absolute rights and wrongs in sex? Or is sexual morality merely a question of fashion? For a very small object, the Warren Cup provokes some mighty big questions.

The Warren Cup is viewable in the Permanent Collection of the British Museum. So there.