Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
I found a couple of old photos
the other day. I took them with my old Kodak Instamatic at a summer
fete on Harpenden Common in 1966. They're snapshots of the late
Steptoe & Son star, Harry H. Corbett. For me, at the age of 13,
newly returned to England after two years in Singapore, he was the
most famous person I'd seen in real life, close-up.
I write this because lately,
I've become interested in the changing nature of fame and its
evil-twin, celebrity. Fame, which of recent years has become
another currency, like money and time, isn't quite the same thing as
celebrity. Fame is the public's recognition of an individual or group
of people who've becoming successful at a particular activity. As
likely to come to a sportsman or scientist as to a politician or
artiste, fame can at times be useful for promoting existing products
and helping the creator obtain work.
Celebrity, which is fame with
its flies undone and a drink in each hand, seems fairly useless.
Since cancelling my TV licence two years ago, I hardly have a clue
who the current celebrities are. In a supermarket, I now gaze baffled
at the magazine racks, at least half of which are filled with
celebrity magazines. It's confusing, because the cover pictures often
depict stressed-looking people, usually women, who are mostly pop
stars, models or TV soap actors. Trying to guess whether a
front-page headline such as “Should she go back to him?” refers
to a fictional story-line or a real situation becomes increasingly
difficult as these lines blur. Then there's the question of why the
faces on the magazines covers are famous in the first place. Is that
pouting, pan-sticked beauty a bona fide talent, or simply someone
famous for being famous?
The stories in such mags, often
concern themselves with people, real or fictional, who are undergoing
a crisis of some kind. The moral of the story, if one exists, is that
attaining celebrity status won't necessarily bring you happiness.
language of celebrity constantly struggles under the weight of its
own leaden superlatives. All female singers are now Divas. Anyone
who's lasted longer than two years is an Icon. People no longer have
a story, but a Journey. You only need score one goal or chalk up a
minor chart hit in order to be Living the Dream. The celebrities in
upmarket soaps such as Downton Abbey – an Upstairs Downstairs for
people with short attention spans – probably manage to separate
their on-screen and off-screen personas more successfully than say,
the stars of Geordie
Geordie Shore, which I caught a
soul-corroding ten minutes of recently, was shocking. Not because
of the cast's earthy language, or their strange aspirations but
because the descendants of a breed of once-proud northerners, will
now accept a reptilian TV company's scabrous shilling just to prove
to the world that they can rival their U.S. or Essex counterparts for
sheer gonzoid stupidity.
In the past I have been around
fame quite a bit and to a lesser extent, celebrity.
Fame, should you happen to work
in arts or popular entertainment, can be quite beneficial in small
doses. Taken occasionally, it helps immunise you, against the larger
more toxic dollops of it. Celebrity, on the other hand, which is
what happens when fame overflows, is a mask; a big grinning, winking
mask with a flashing bow tie underneath it. It'll serve you well at
a party or a promotional launch. But when a loved one dies, your
marriage unravels or your child becomes seriously ill, that's when
you'll find that the mask won't come off, no matter how hard you tug
as you lie on your hotel bed in some foreign city, unable to sleep at
4 a.m. knowing that someone will wake you in three hours for a
press-call, fame may not feel quite as zippy. When you finally give
up trying to sleep, you'll switch the TV on and stagger to the
bathroom. Here you may catch yourself unclothed by that weirdly
unflattering light above the shaving mirror. Then you'll hope that
those little electric pains which you've been feeling in your chest
are nothing more exotic than a bit of tour-anxiety. Soon you'll brace
up, pack your bag, adjust the mask and take the lift downstairs in
time for the pick-up. Days later, you'll arrive home tetchy, just in
time to meet the journo and snapper who are doing a three-pager on
your perfect home for Wotcha!
Now, back to Harry H Corbett,
cherished actor, former marine, and all round good bloke. One of my
teenage snapshots shows him smiling as he signs autographs. The other
is darker, more defensive, a thing which probably bypassed your 13
year-old cub reporter at that time.
Corbett, who died of a heart
attack at 57, already shows signs of suffering the dull ache of
celebrity. At the peak of his fame, on a golden Saturday in 1966,
he's working: opening the summer fete on Harpenden Common and signing
autographs. Later he'll fire the starter pistol for the Donkey Derby.
Fame isn't everyone's flute of
Tattinger. But there others, it's said, who'll attend the opening of
a tin of tuna. They never tell you this when you go into showbiz but
it's not actually compulsory to attend the parties or meet the
never do. But then I'm not very famous. Mwah!
returned to my spiritual home recently, a proper recording studio. It
has a full-size mixing desk, FX racks and an engineer to sort out the
sound for me, so that I can get on with being a pretentious tart.
There's an engraving by Hogarth, dated 1741. It's called The Enraged
Musician. Here, a violinist attempting to rehearse is disturbed by a
cacophony in the street below. All manner of street traders shout
out their wares. While they do so, a man sounds his horn, a busker
plays a hautboy and a child thrashes a drum. It's a picture which I
very much relate to.
of the time when I'm not writing, I'm either recording or composing
music. The archway above which I work stands on a busyish sidestreet.
The cars and supermarket delivery vans go back and forth. The two
cheery young families living either side of me come and go
downstairs. When school ends, the young mums and their children,
often halt at a point just across the road from me, for a pavement
chat Passing boys bounce their footballs loudly on the road outside
my window or rumble past on skateboards. Lastly, commuters returning
from London, trundle wearily by dragging their wheelie-bags. How are
they to know that I'm at work on something so brilliant, that one day
it might eclipse Penny Lane? I mustn't complain. They're only
civilians. They too have lives. The working world cannot attend my
fragile genius. It's my cross, and I'll bear it, okay?
I've found ways around some of the noise problems. At the busiest
times of day, I'll work in headphones, recording electric guitars
and basses directly into the desk. I mainly leave the vocals for
early afternoon, which is a quieter time. Provided that nobody's
sanding a floor, hammering, or road-drilling, which they often do, a
bit of extraneous noise can be passed off as ambience.
technology is marvellous these days. Long gone are the times of
sound-proofing half a garage with eggboxes, building a chipboard drum
booth and promising your mum or the neighbours that you'd be done by
my upright piano however, has been a constant problem. In addition to
the 'natural street ambience' my floorboards creak. Every chair in
the house creaks, the piano keys themselves click and squeak -- often
in untraceable places. Oh and certain bass chords sometimes set up a
sympathetic rattle in other instruments. It drives me nuts. Then I
solved the problem when I discovered a large professional recording
studio only a few miles away from my home. It has a good grand piano.
I have to hire it of course, but it's well worth it. In two or three
hours, I can now record my piano parts cleanly, put them onto a
memory stick and add them to the master recording at home.
earlier times I'd spent months of my life in studios. How I loved it,
locked away from the world, not even knowing what time of day it
was. All of this in the company of sterling fellows just like
me:selfish, obsessed studio rats, only interested in getting the song
the 1990s, as home-recording technology improved and became cheaper,
the golden age of the studio rat waned. Access to digital
technology, for many hard-up musicians, was a godsend, enabling them
to have multi-tracking facilities in their own homes.
the technology soon superseded the artform. This made many
songwriters lazy. Creativity itself gradually began to boil down to
how many presets you had on your new electronic toys. Since the
digital cut'n'paste revolution has happened, few stars of the
Auto-tune age now walk into a studio with a batch of fully-formed
songs. They tend instead to get a few half-mast ideas, then expect
the producer and the studio to weld it all up into something vaguely
chartworthy. Songwriting, as it once was, as Rodgers & Hart,
Lennon/McCartney, Carole King and the Gershwins knew it, has largely
degenerated into a Preset Pie, topped with cliche and nursery rhyme.
The megastar singer Adele may be an exception. Okay, she's not Amy
Winehouse, but she can write a song. The song, A Million Years,
from her current smash album is a case in point. However, I do
mischievously urge you all to also listen to a 1966 Charles Aznavour
song called, Yesterday When I Was Young. Please don't write in.
let's move on to how it all worked, yesterday when I, your
correspondent, was young. The tunesmith and wordsmith wrote the song. The
agent took the song to a publisher. The publisher ran it round the
record company. The A&R man matched the song to an artiste. An
arranger sorted out the backing, while a producer told the musicians
and singer how to perform it. The recording engineer got it down on
tape, the record company mastered, pressed and promoted it and
finally, in a best-case scenario, the public bought it. Sometimes,
almost as an afterthought, the songwriters were paid. The difference
nowadays? The Internet has eaten everything. Most of the jobs I've
mentioned no longer exist, while songwriting has become a curious old
pastime, like sedan-chair upholstery or gibbet-building. Popular
songs are probably the worst-crafted and least memorable they'e been
in sixty years. Never have so many listened to so much, so cheaply
and got so little back. If you don't want to know the score, don't
pay anyone to write it.
day they took possession of it, priest and worshippers had gathered
on the small green in nearby St Helens Lane. It was the first
religious service that the building had witnessed in 461 years.
During this time, among many other things, St Helen's Chapel had been
a private house, a shop and a workshop. When the small congregation
entered and began to sing, “It sounded as if the walls themselves
were singing back at us, asking us: 'Where have you been all this
is very hard –
even for a benighted heathen like myself –
not to be moved by Father Alexander Haig's account of how in the year
2000, the Orthodox Church came back to the chapel in Maidenburgh
Street, Colchester. The emotion is in his voice and in his eyes while
he tells this story.
Helen, or St Helena as many call her, was mother of Constantine the
Great and of course, Patron Saint of Colchester. Depending upon which
sources you believe, she was born nearby in Colchester Castle –
then her father King Coel's castle. She is said to have built the
chapel for her own worship. According to history though, she was
actually born in Asia Minor –
modern-day Turkey. Here, religious doctrine, local legend and and
blurred historical account all conspire together to make what
Hollywood film-makers would call 'a reality soup'.
thing is for certain though. St Helen's Chapel is very, very old.
Nobody knows exactly how old but it was here before the Normans
(autumn of 1066 onwards )and even then its restoration was on their To Do list.
Appearances can be deceptive. The chapel's walls, three of which are
on the foundations of the ancient Roman Theatre, have seen much
rebuilding over the centuries. The exterior, in a town rich in other
historical treasures, is a rather unspectacular Victorian one. It is
the interior which is so interesting. The luminous red-golds of the
saintly icons which line the chapel's walls–
along with the candles which quietly hiss and sputter during my
visit, combine to make the little church far more atmospheric than
many much-grander places of worship.
Haig, does his erudite best to crash-course me through the basic
history of Orthodox Christianity, which is fascinating. Eastern
Orthodoxy was the earliest form of Christianity. Catholicism is a
stripling by comparison. A schism then occurred between Eastern
Christianity (Greek) and its rival Roman Catholicism (Latin) in the
11th century. The emergent Catholic Church in turn experienced its
own dissenters a few centuries later and so Protestantism was born.
Father Haig himself was an Anglican priest for three decades, but
converted to Orthodox in the mid-Nineties. The matter of women
vicars, he says, was one issue which prompted his decision. Looking
around St Helen's now and absorbing something of its overwhelming
mystique I can partly sympathise with this. If you'd been brought up
with a theological package –
one rich in ritual and reverence–
and then woken one day to find that your place of worship was now
full of people playing drum-kits, blasting saxophones and guitars and
happily clapping along, all
conducted by someone a bit like Dawn French in her Vicar
role, might you not yearn for a return to an older weightier
wholemeal faith – one with no additives and nowt-taken-out so to
The matter is obviously more complex than this but it is the simplest
explanation that a theological chowderhead such as I can muster.
Haig's flock comprises Greeks, Greek-Cypriots, Bulgarians, Serbs,
Arab-Christians and others.
There may be between thirty and fifty worshippers attending any one
service One feature of an Orthodox service is that all music is
chanted or sung. The Orthodox faith believes that the voice comes
from the soul, whereas musical instruments are of the earth.
Similarly, the Sanctuary of the church, which represents heaven, is
curtained off from the Nave, the area where the congregation pray.
The Sanctuary may be observed when the curtains are opened but only
the priest has access to this area. “It is” adds Father Hague,
using an Olympian analogy, “As if life were a race – and this
were the stadium.” Here he points at the many icons of the saints.
“And these, are our spectators who cheer us on, should we tire or
it is the sheer antiquity of St Helen's Chapel, or maybe it's
something to do with the candles, the icons and the quiet measured
tone of the priest's voice. But time seems to dissolve while I
listen to him and I suddenly find that an hour has slipped by in what
seems like five minutes. As I walk out dazed into the cold drizzle of
Maidenburgh Street, I pause to look back down the hill and north to
the distant fields on the outkirts of town. Well over a thousand
years ago – when the Riverside Estate to the east – was still
marsh and water meadows, a St Helen's Chapel, in some form or other,
existed here. At the top of Maidenburgh Street, the High Street
bustles moodily about its midweek business. Two minutes walk away,
nestling in quiet sidestreets, is this ancient, holy building that
has somehow fallen back into the hands of the very faith that created
it. St Helen's Chapel is Number 2 on Colchester's Heritage Trail.
It's also on a rather older, more venerable trail – one which leads
all the way back to Antioch.