Friday, January 28, 2005

Ladies and Gentlemen choose your London mythos

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I've been far too grumpy about living in London lately. Here I am, moaning away about the place, yet, for some reason, countless thousands of people are pouring into this city.
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London clearly has something going for it.
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And, for several reasons, I'm stuck here for the foreseeable future. So, I've decided to make the best of it. I've decided that the most constructive things I can do to make the best of my remaining time here are:
  1. Get rich
  2. Create a lucrative London mythos that romanticises the city, makes me feel better about the place AND helps me to achieve Objective #1
For anyone coming across this post, not familiar with the concept of a mythos, a mythos is merely the term used to describe a collection of myths. More powerful than the concept of a mere genre, a really good mythos can both entertain us and act as a useful vehicle for self-delusion; fairy stories for adults if you like.
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We're surrounded by countless examples. The first few that come to mind include:
  • The myth of Ireland. An oppressed, yet happy, island filled with spunky flame-haired girls clad in shawls and white horses galloping through Dublin council estates. The home of 'The Crack' and wily old men supping Guinness in ancient pubs. The land of The Commitments, Riverdance and Roddy Doyle. Somewhere in the background, old Clannad albums are playing constantly.
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  • The myth of the Highlands. A harsh, yet beautiful land, also filled with flame-haired beauties. Noble warrior-poets tramp the heather, righting wrongs committed by the perfidious English. A land filled with kilts, tartans, fiddles, swords and lots and lots of whisky.
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  • Sometimes the Irish, Scottish and Welsh mythos' are merged into a mushy Celtic super-mythos; the key features of which are drinking a lot, fighting and whining like bitches.
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  • The England of Constable paintings and Vaughn Williams' Tallis Fantasia. Just chock-full of sturdy, contented peasants manoeuvring noble shire horses around an exceptionally twee, non-threatening landscape.
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  • Lord of the Rings World
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  • Jane Austin World
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    etc
Personal favourite mythos' include 'Western, Spaghetti' and 'South, Deep'. Yes, all it takes is to overhear a few bars of an Ennio Morricone soundtrack, Ry Cooder slide guitar number or a snatch of Delta Blues and I am mentally transported to mythical lands; far, far away from a cold and crappy Lambeth in January. Marvellous. I watch O Brother Where Art Thou? frequently.
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There's actually no reason to restrict yourself to an off-the-shelf mythos. It's really quite easy to make your own or adapt a pre-existing one. A few Arthurian novels here, a couple of Enya CDs there, an aromatheraphy kit, healing crystal and handful of candles somewhere else and away you go.
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Intriguingly, different mythos' can also occupy the same point in space and time. Alien v. Predators was recently turned into a movie but how about the Man with No Name v. John Wayne? Or Woody Allen meets Taxi Driver?
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The power of a mythos to distort reality can be significant. Having visited both Almeria, in Spain, where the first spaghetti westerns were filmed and much of the Southwest of the US I was initially troubled by the fact that Almeria looked more like my spaghetti western-fed vision of the Old West than the Real McCoy. I've long since dumped those concerns, realising that it's all bollocks anyway and trying to connect a fantasy to reality is a silly thing to do.
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My other half, Tracy, experienced a similar epiphany when she first visited Italy. Brought up by films and television to expect a land of brightly dressed peasants, singing opera in the streets and sitting at tables laden with huge amounts of tomato based products, set outside on a terrace bathed in perpetual bright sunshine, the reality came as quite a shock. She's over it now.
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On a creative level, once a mythos has been successfully lodged into the public psyche the author / film maker / advertising executive has access to a wide variety of characters, clichés and backdrops to call upon. When the cowboy rides into town there's no need to explain the rules of his world and you can also recycle material and sets left over from the last production. Yes, a really good mythos is both lucrative and cost-efficient.
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Lucrative and cost-efficient but in no sense real. Unless you’re one of those people who entertains the possibility of an infinite number of parallel universes, meaning all scenarios are possible. On the plus side, a good mythos sometimes encourages people to delve into the reality behind the myth; many archaeologists, historians, authors and film-makers have been drawn to and inspired to create non fiction works off the back of fantasies.
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A good mythos can be frequently be translated into political strength and is usually a prerequisite for any successful nationalistic movement. As such, the risk of a powerful mythos being harnessed to support extremist behaviour is high. On the bright side, and more relevant to my current line of thought, a good mythos can also be used to sell an awful lot of sh*t; music, books, movies, clothes, food, paintings, home furnishings, tourism. The power of properly crafted bullshit and fantasy can be converted directly into cold, hard cash.
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and London is just gagging for a new mythos.
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There have been stabs in the past. There's Richard Curtis World; the land of Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral. There's Guy Richie World; the realm of Lock Stock and Snatch. But these efforts have been deeply flawed; if for no other reason than being intensely parochial. These past mythos' have been limited in their scope and have totally failed to adequately embrace those qualities that make London the city that it is; the ethnic diversity, the extremes between rich and poor, the vast array of subcultures, the sheer depth of the hidden side. The best efforts that I can recall date back to the days of 1960's Michael Caine films or Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday. Both now well-past their sell by dates.
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When it comes to weaving a web of myths around a city, New York is the Daddy. Woodie Allen and Martin Scorsese have based long and lucrative careers on churning-out countless homages to the Big Apple. These directors draw from their own, long-established creative pools; containing the same actors, the same locations, the same music, and the same dialogue. And we've been lapping it up for decades.
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For some reason, London hasn’t benefited from anything like similar treatment. Sure, we've got phone boxes, double-decker buses and guardsmen wearing furry hats, but we've never had a Scorsese, an Allen, a Gershwin or a Copland.
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New York does not nurture a superior mythology because it's better than London in any significant way. What it does possess is better myth makers; in abundance. Think about it. New York film makers have even managed to romanticise the act of buying hot dogs from roadside barrow vendors. We have such things in London but Who in their right mind would ever dream of buying food from one? let alone glorifying the purchase in celluloid. So rubbish are we in London at sustaining myths that the temptation to portray Al Pacino pooing his guts out and suffering from a severe dose of gastroenteritis in the next scene would probably prove irresistible. 'I'll have that with extra mustard'. Yeah, right.
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New York is supplied complete with iconic images of heroes standing with their hands held in the air crying out 'I love this city!!!', framed by brightly lit fountains playing up and down in time to Rhapsody in Blue, all in front of a silhouette of the Manhattan Skyline ...
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In the London, the best we can do is some fat man in a wig, who's been dead for 200 years, saying
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"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
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That was back in 1777; no big band in the background, no fountains, no dramatic skyline.
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What is wrong with this town? Why is it no-one gets up in the morning saying to themselves 'This place is great. I'm going to write a tribute symphony'? I know why I don't. I have no musical talent and I stopped loving this city years ago. It changed too quickly and became too alien to me; so quickly that I can't even pin-point when it actually happened. But why hasn’t anyone else come up with something?
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Anyway, this post is far too long already so I'll get to the point. After a boozy chat with a mate in a pub yesterday, I've decided to lay down the framework for a new London mythos. The idea being to kick-start the process by coming up with:
  1. An iconic soundtrack
  2. A list of interesting London locations; iconic but not cliched
  3. A cast of characters; larger than life but still representative of people who live here
in that order. The plan is that, with a list of music, locations and people, ideas for a definitive London screenplay or novel will just come leaping out. I will become the godfather of a commercially cynical new movement that glorifies and romanticises this city and become rich, rich I tell you, in the process.
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We didn't get much past the initial concept last night. Only so far as agreeing that the soundtrack should feature some Clash, some Jam, probably a cover of Waterloo Sunset, some Reggae, some R&B, and no music that has been used in glossy, cobblers car adverts; so, scratch M People and Morcheeba then.
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Anyway, anyone who's read this far please feel free to contribute your thoughts on what could be included in the London mythos soundtrack, or ideas for people or places; by comment or email. If they're any good you might even get a piece of the action.
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6 comments:

Kate said...

What a challenge! What a great way to while away my next evening in the local! Too hungover at the moment to contribute anything worthwhile I'm sure, but I'll be back. For now:

squares in bloomsbury - routemaster on the 73 or 38 route - brick lane - soho square - fleet st - antiques in angel/portobello - battersea power station - the zoo - regents canal - northern line tube stations (and accompanying rats) - etc.

Maybe they're all too cliched though. Damn, it's hard!

Stef said...

I too spent most of the day buzzy and hung over; after a retro Saturday night in a pub in Rotherithe. But I digress.

No, not cliched at all. Cliched would be ...

Buck House
Tower Bridge
Tower of London
etc.

The fact that a) someone read to the end of the post and b) gave an 1/2way intelligent answer, in keeping with what I was trying to get at, is heartening. Also, a couple of other people have emailed me direct with ideas rather than commenting. I'm going to think about this for a few days now ...

thanks for chipping in

Anonymous said...

OK, I'm sure you could make a mythos out of this lot.

Guns of Brixton – The Clash
Parklife – Blur
Fit but don’t you know it – The Streets

Victorian rail stations.
Blue police station lights.
Council estates.
Hammersmith Bridge by day.
Albert Bridge by night.
Mind the Gap.
‘Tube wind’.
Nutters talking to themselves.
The sound of doors closing and the BR train pulling away form the platform.
The sight of the sleek Eurostar crawling past Victorian housing.
Loud melodic Eastend male voices at market stalls and railway staton exits “Lovely sweet eating bananas, only pound a pound”.
Uncut / wild commons.
Brick walls partly covered in soot.
Ubiquitous yellow brick.
Beautiful Victorian water towers.
Teenagers in new but poorly fitting label clothes.

Stef said...

I am not worthy. I am not worthy ...

Class stuff - thx

Kate said...

I like it when I'm halfway intelligent.
;D

I will add to the above:
Banksy. For now.

Stef said...

Aw, you know what I meant ... ;-)