Cumming’s memoir lays bare a troubled childhood 03:55, 18 January 2015, Sunday Business Post

Not My Father’s Son

By Alan Cumming

Harper Collins, €17

Reviewed by Nadine O’Regan

In the afterword to this memoir, Scottish actor and Tony award-winning theatre veteran Alan Cumming – best-known these days for his role as the brash, witty campaign manager Eli Gold in the Emmy-winning The Good Wife – describes the conversation he had with his agent about writing this book.

Much to his surprise, Cumming was not asked to write a typical memoir about “my fabulous celebrity life”. Instead, Luke Janklow asked him to write about something he felt passionate about. Surprised and intrigued, Cumming was happy to comply.

The result is Not My Father’s Son, a brilliantly vivid and heartrending account of Cumming’s early life, interspersed with some well-observed, comic and intriguing scenes from his more recent past.

The book begins with a shocking recollection: Cumming as a young boy in his family kitchen near Carnoustie, on the east coast of Scotland. His father has walked in and demanded that Alan gets his hair chopped. “I’ll take him to the barber’s on Saturday morning,” his mother tries to interject. But that’s not good enough. Alan’s father drags him across the kitchen, through the hall, out the front door and to the bike shed, where he grabs a rusty pair of clippers used to shear sheep.

“They were blunt and dirty and they cut my skin, but my father shaved my skin with them, holding me down like an animal,” Cumming writes.

Later, as he cries in his bedroom, eyes so puffed up he can barely open them, he feels like he wants to die. It won’t be the only time either. Throughout his adolescence, he and his older brother Tom are kept in constant suspense, fearful of their father’s every move, knowing that the wrong glance, the wrong words, are enough to set him off. It wasn’t the actual violence that hurt the most; it was the threat of it, the anxiety that it generated as a constant.

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Artistic Licence (published in The Sunday Business Post, Ireland, on 11/01/2015)

Artistic Licence: My tardy resolve
03:55, 11 January 2015 by Nadine O’Regan

First, an admission. I’m one of those terrible people who is late for almost everything. I try my best, I really do. But it seems like in my head I think there’s a magic carpet that’ll get me to the right spot on time, not a taxi wheezing through heavy traffic or a bus inching along the quays. When I was a god parent at a baptism some years back, I arrived at the church exactly on time, miraculously, even slightly early. Then I stood bemused in a sea of empty pews, wondering if I was in the right place, until it hit me: I must have been given the wrong time on purpose. Reader, I am officially one of those people to whom other people lie about meeting times. It is not a good place in which to find yourself.
Still, right now, it is me. So in that spirit of tardiness (well, it is Jan 11, after all), and better-late-than-neverdom, allow me to belatedly offer up an alternative set of New Year’s resolutions to you. Resolutions that connect not just to traditional self-improvement but to my continuing quest to adapt to a world that sometimes seems to be evolving faster than I can quite keep step with.
1. Admit ignorance and take steps to improve matters. Find out how to use Spotify properly, get on track with gifs (short, animated online clips); generally speaking, do not be afraid to ask, discover, learn. A friend recently enquired on Facebook what the acronym ‘lol’ (laugh out loud) meant. Embrace her confident ability to admit absolute ignorance in the face of potential sneerers. Never be afraid to say: “I don’t understand.”
2. Declutter your life. Throw out gadgets that you do not use or even understand how to use. Every time I move house, I bring with me a box that contains a bewildering number of leads and connections. They could be for old printers (I don’t own a printer anymore). They could be for cameras. Maybe put together, they’d power that magic carpet I’m so keen on. I no longer have any idea. But I have them. This madness must end.
3. Don’t be condescending in your approach; the only loser in that game is you. In the case of the arts, remember that just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s bad. This is true not just for artists (Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran and U2), but also for television shows. Sometimes, when everyone is watching Love/Hate, it’s easy to give the whole thing a skip just because you missed the first season and you’re feeling huffy about being out of the loop. But do get on board; don’t maintain a sniffy distance.
4. Do what you love. It’s much easier to cope with having failed abysmally at something you really love, than to have grafted for years at something that was never right for you in the first place. Even if your passion can’t become your career, make it your hobby; that, too, will make you happier. By the same token, don’t be afraid to end bad relationships, whether they connect to work, friendships or romance. Better to have a short-term life disaster than a long-term life fail. That really would be a shame, wouldn’t it?
5. Don’t be afraid to fail, at objectives great or small. It is in this spirit that I will accept the challenge, given to me by friends and family, to take my driving test again in 2015. Second time lucky? I doubt it. In fact, I rather suspect I’ll be that 90-year-old on a provisional licence whom the guards all know, but the point is not the failing, the point is the trying.
There are other resolutions, of course. I’d like to buy a house, although that’s less a resolution than a hazy aspiration. But primarily this is the year that I’m going to be on time perhaps not all of the time, but definitely more of the time. Baptisms, weddings, coffee with friends; I will finally be that trusty buddy who’s first in the door. Or second. Or definitely no more than five minutes late. Well, it’s important to be realistic, right?

The Feminism of Fashion

Artistic Licence: What not to wear, taken from The Sunday Business Post
03:55, 28 September 2014 by Nadine O’Regan

Recently I was browsing through a clothes shop in Temple Bar when I became aware of two women, a mother and her indie rocker daughter, lingering nearby. The conservatively attired mother was showing pretty necklace after pretty necklace to her slumped-shouldered teenager.
“Would you not think about this one?” she beseeched. “Or this one?” The daughter had a face like a squashed bug, she was pale and mortified. I winced with sympathy for them: the daughter having the day from hell, and the mother trying to force her child into her own clothing ideals, not realising her daughter wanted to wear anything but her mother’s version of herself.
This being September – the key month in fashion’s calendar – every newspaper and magazine, including this one, is putting its best face forward, ready to advise its readers on the hottest Autumn/Winter trends to wear. And for most adults, fashion is that simple: a collection of things nice and not nice. But consider the lot of the indie-rock teen discovering themselves. A decision about whether to wear Doc Martens or high heels isn’t simply a sartorial issue to them, it’s an expression of the kind of person they want to be. Fashion as an expression of indie-rock individuality is the 1980s tan trench coat worn by John Cusack in Say Anything. It’s the succession of cool band T-shirts sported by Jack Black in High Fidelity. It’s the Ramones’ dusky fringes. It’s every cool on-stage outfit Meg and Jack White ever wore.
Fashion is about being yourself, even when that self is a cross 16-year-old who wants to do anything but wear something “nice” or “attractive”. Going to my teenage discos in west Cork in the 1990s, I used to wear suede Doc Martens, pale blue cord flares with scuffed ends and a plain top. None of these things was attractive. That wasn’t the point. I remember my mother’s friend Evie sitting by the fireside, looking at me with a horror verging on despair. “But would you not wear heels?” she asked, in a strained voice. “And a dress?”
Evie wasn’t to know that what actually happened at our town hall disco was hardly quiet waltzing. No, our favourite thing at the time was to wait until Nirvana or Rage Against The Machine blasted from the speakers, then literally pile ourselves on top of each other in a kind of human pyre. Breathing was difficult in the pyre. Heels would not have been the correct sartorial option.
At the time, if you’d asked me, I would have said that fashion didn’t matter to me. I wouldn’t have understood then that – as a child of the increasingly feminist 1990s – my anti-fashion stance was in itself a statement, and a very definite choice. Forget fashion, I wanted to be judged on my brain, not my shoes. And I didn’t have the confidence back then to think the world both allowed girls to wear short skirts and to be simultaneously perceived as intelligent.
Are things different now? You’d hope so. But last week, the former Harry Potter actress Emma Watson gave an impassioned and important speech on feminism, broadcast to millions. She wore a conservative white dress doing it. The tabloids later ran the story, but alongside old pictures where she was attired in a tiny skirt, clearly on a casual day off. They used her clothing to undermine her, juvenilise her and patronise her. They were like a parent insisting on one interpretation of their child, unwilling or unable to admit how much more there was to see.
Fashion can be frivolous. It can be fun. And it should be. But fashion is also socially important in ways that sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to admit. I’d like to think that if I were a parent, I’d allow my children to be who they wanted, to find a form of expression through fashion and also to find themselves while doing it. Let them eat cake and wear capes – or goth boots, if that’s their bag. If nothing else, the pictures in later decades will be amusing.

From the Archives: Artistic Licence: Getting robbed

[Note: I’m posting the below article from Spring 2014 because I had cause to think back to it this week, when my landlord announced that he has decided to raise the rent by 10 per cent, despite the fact that I’ve been living in my shared house for just six months and got robbed two weeks into living there. Dublin, eh? Oh, the humanity! I wrote the below piece on an iPhone — I’d come home at 7pm to write my column that night, but then of course, with the robbery, had nothing left to write the piece on except the phone I was carrying. Nothing was ever recovered — which won’t surprise anyone, I guess. Anyway, here ’tis.]

 

Artistic Licence: After the break-in
By Nadine O’Regan
How do you measure what’s valuable to you? One answer, I guess – at least if we agree to forget about monetary terms for a while – is this: its value can be calibrated according to how much you feel the pain of its loss when it’s gone.
I’ve had cause to think about this question lately. Not to go all U2 on you (you may not start humming ”all that you can’t leave behind quite yet”), but last Wednesday night I came home to discover that my house had been broken in to and many of my things were gone. So many things that it hurts to think about it.
So many things that when I walked into the Dublin 6 house, past the forced and jammed front door, after my housemate told me the news, I felt a little faint. The drawers from my bedroom lockers lay sprawled across the ground. Photo albums were open on the wooden floorboards. Bits of my life – notebooks, mix CDs – were flung into odd corners. Even my wash bags had been rifled through, suggesting the thieves thought I had diamonds buried in my toothpaste. I had been living in the house just two weeks.
When the guards arrived, they quickly adopted what I’ll call The Calm Face of Crisis. Garda Brian saw my stricken expression, as I started reciting what I had lost – laptops, a microphone, my jewellery – and his face grew calmer and calmer. By the end, he was so calm that I felt myself almost sedated by his placidity, ready to crack jokes about the burglars’ borderline offensive taste in my possessions – why did they skip taking my sunglasses?, I found myself idly wondering. Did they not like them? Is it possible to be aggrieved that your burglar didn’t steal something?
Of course, as the hours spiralled on, I couldn’t help but dwell on the missing stuff that’s of little monetary value, but that was still hugely prized by me. They took an old laptop with a bad virus on it, but which also contained the novel I wrote between the ages of 21 and 24. Now let me tell you, I wasn’t about to give James Joyce a run for his money. It was an intense coming-of-age drama, and I would never have wanted to publish it. But still: it was part of my history. They also took a necklace given by my late father to my mother, who gifted it recently to me. Bad timing, I guess.
People ask you questions when you’ve been robbed. Questions about house insurance. Landlords. Locks. Security. Questions that, when you answer, you feel like you’re failing an exam. They talk, too, about violation of space, and it’s true that you do feel differently. Did they look at your pictures? Do you even want to think about it? Or should you just concentrate on being glad, glad that you weren’t there, glad that no one was harmed, glad that Apple Macs and fancy gadgets can be bought back with money? And grateful to remember that at least you’ve never been too hung up on possessions anyway? And that it’s not good to be so?
A friend of mine took a decision a few years back to become a Buddhist monk. He went off to a monastery in England. For two years, he wore orange robes, he gardened, he meditated, he sought to reach a higher plain. Then, abruptly, before Christmas, he left, deciding that his fate lay elsewhere. The last time he emailed me, it was from Thailand. He was raging because his Kindle had broken. I shouldn’t have laughed, but I couldn’t help it. If a trainee monk can get upset about a broken Kindle, then there’s hope for all of us yet.
I’m going to do my best not to mind the burglary. And to be very evolved indeed. But reader: I may be a while with this. And if anyone buys a laptop off a truck with a brooding, unpublished novel on it in the meantime, let me know, will you?

From the archives: why music should still matter (August 11th, 2013, SBPost column)

Is indie-rock music anywhere near as important culturally as it used to be? I’ll admit to having that rather gloomy rumination recently while standing in a crowd of thousands at Blur in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. Like most punters there, I was experiencing an intense wave of nostalgia, but it wasn’t simply for the indie music made in the 1990s, when Blur were in their hey-day.

Instead, with a bittersweet pang, I was realising how much I’d missed the thrill of being at a big indie-rock concert where everyone could sing along to the songs – where everyone knew every line. From Parklife to Tender to Out of Time: Damon Albarn sang to us, we croaked joyfully back at him. It was a heady, embracing experience.

It doesn’t happen anymore. Take away your Bruce Springsteen, your Rolling Stones, your hoary grandfathers of modern rock – and you’ll quickly realise that in indie-rock, some time ago now, everyone quietly stopped knowing the lyrics by heart, because everyone quietly stopped being quite as passionate about the tunes.

When did you last stump up for a rock album that made you feel as exultant as you might have done about Nirvana’s Nevermind or Oasis’s Definitely Maybe? Could we mention MGMT in that regard? Mumford & Sons? Mercury Prize winners Alt-J? Or should we fess up and admit that we hear radio singles these days rather than album tracks, remixes rather than records? We have the attention span of gnats and the tolerance of Ian Paisley at a hippie gathering.

And no, it’s not an age thing. It’s not because I’m in my thirties and getting ready to kick out my festival wellies rather than the jams. It’s a technology issue. Like everyone else, I have a zillion songs at my fingertips, so many that sometimes the pressure of all I haven’t heard weighs down on me, like a million countries I’ll never visit. The proliferation of bands has perversely made the experience of loving music more tricky.

We don’t go to trouble for a band anymore. If they birth something ‘difficult’, we’ll shrug our shoulders and click the next download. There are so many fledgling acts, each occupying an infinitesimal, pressuring space. In accommodating the din, we’re creating an attention deficit problem on the part of the audience. Spotify this, YouTube that, stream the other: your new favourite band is still your new favourite band, but only for the next five minutes. And mainstream radio, with its effective kibosh on indie-rock music (pop sells better), doesn’t help. We don’t commit to music.

It’s a shame, because in troubled times, we need communal experiences. Public events, whether rock gigs or football matches, serve to bind us together, hold us in a warm embrace. Rock music can be life-changing. Recently, the British papers were full of an account of a British MP who, seemingly inspired by his love of the band Drenge, decided to resign his post. The story was shocking, because it seemed so anachronistic: here was a man who still cared about indie-rock. On a micro level, at Blur, there was a punter who arrived wearing a giant milk carton, in homage to their Coffee & TV video.

I loved how much trouble he’d gone to – how much Blur mattered to him. I want to live in a world where indie rock music is a powerful force, capable of making people change themselves in inspiration. For all that the likes of services such as Spotify have given us, it’s important to recognise how much they’re taking away.

Artistic Licence column (Sunday Business Post, September 14, 2014)

We have to talk about U2, don’t we? That’s the funny thing about U2. Even when you’re tired of talking about them, when you’d rather talk about anything else but them, you still find yourself talking about them. The band who hyperactively need to be acclaimed as the biggest band in the world; who just won’t settle for being their already brilliant fiftysomething selves, are – like your granny in a miniskirt – back once again clamouring for your full and undivided attention. Sigh.
Before I complain, however, let’s at least applaud them for a stealth marketing plan that, to be fair, borders on genius. On Tuesday, all you had to do was click on your iTunes library to discover that – hey presto! – the new U2 album was magically there for your listening pleasure. The album itself will be released by Island Records on October 13, but since more than half a billion iTunes customers already possess it, that release date is effectively redundant. The album is out and you own it. How could you not talk about that fact? In homes, by office water-coolers, on blogs and in social media all over the world, people who couldn’t give a fig about U2 are talking about U2. Smart move, guys.
U2 have hobbled their musical critics, too, in what was probably Section 5, Paragraph 17 of their fiendish Pinky and the Brain-style world domination plan. Said plan has been orchestrated by Guy Oseary, their new manager, who has it all to prove after becoming the successor to the band’s unofficial fifth member Paul McGuinness. The thing about inserting an album into iTunes by stealth is that every major website and newspaper in the world instantly needs a review of it. Cue urgent calls to rock hacks and queries about how fast something could be cooked up. So what if the album has 11 tracks and is 49 minutes long? You only need to hear the record once, right?
The problem with this scenario is that reviewers barely have the time to listen to the new record, much less digest it. Without the appropriate examination time, all but the most naturally vituperative of critics will default to a positive analysis, hesitating to criticise without the time to properly formulate their feelings. In double-quick speed, the Daily Telegraph whipped up a four-star review by Neil McCormick, who – despite his status as Bono’s school chum – admitted he did not get access to the album any earlier than anyone else. His review was a feat of hesitant positivity, full of wavering lines like “on first impressions” and “on first contact”.
The truth is that albums need to be lived with. They need to be examined like you might inspect a horse: have their teeth checked, be weighed, get their hooves felt. By short-circuiting the usual advance promo copy listening format, U2 denied themselves the benefit of early reviews last week that were genuinely the product of serious consideration. Still, they’ve downloaded themselves into the homes of millions, and that’s self-evidently a good thing for them in terms of keeping their profile stratospheric and earning them a fortune on the touring circuit. More people will see U2 live because of this move, and that’s where the real money is.
But – and call me naive – I question why, at this point in their career, the marketing and the money are so important to them. Aren’t there greater imperatives for artists at this juncture? What is this confounded insistence on being the biggest and best? Would, say, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen or David Bowie so nakedly require or seek out such status?
I can’t say a bad word about U2’s plan. It’s bloody brilliant. But I wish that I didn’t feel so manipulated by them, so exposed to them, so forced to talk about them. I’d rather write about them because I thought their new music was great. That’s the best reason to write about any band. Bono, you might break into my iTunes, but my heart has sturdier firewalls against you.

Artistic Licence column: Battle of the budgets

Artistic Licence: Battle of the film budgets
02:53, 5 May 2013 by Nadine O’Regan

Some months back, I had a rather doleful conversation with a young Irish film-maker who really should have been jubilant. His new film Earthbound had just been released. A sci-fi comedy, Earthbound was the product of several years’ hard work and had received a number of strong reviews. But still, Alan Brennan was despondent. The problem, he said, was that few of his mortgage-strapped, 30-something friends would go to see the film, and he didn’t feel it was something he could reasonably expect of them either.
“They get to see one film every three months,” he said. “That’s their big night out for them, when they hire a babysitter. They want to see something big-budget, something Hollywood – not a micro-budget film. And how could I ask that of them?”
In the current Irish cinematic climate, his concerns are valid. Several fine Irish films have been released in the last few months – Good Vibrations, Pilgrim Hill and Earthbound among them – but when we’re talking about home-produced fare, there’s always a silent caveat: even with the more lavish productions, there is little chance of big-budget-style glamour: Scarlett Johansson is not going to walk through the door in a catsuit. Robert Downey Jr will not be on hand to crack a joke. There will be no David Bowie cameo.
So, how much do good reviews even matter for Irish film-makers, when Irish audiences are horrified by the prospect of spending an hour or two watching cows in a field (Pilgrim Hill) or observing a shop owner complain about Belfast (Good Vibrations)? “Sure, if I wanted that I could have stayed at home,” goes the patter as you leave the cinema.
The problem isn’t limited to Irish cinema. Last week, renowned US director Steven Soderbergh took the opportunity of a speech at the San Francisco Film Festival to complain about the industry machine. He explained the juggernaut effect; the phenomenon whereby the likes of Iron Man 3 would command huge audiences, while, say, a small film like Earthbound would snatch just €374 during its second weekend on release.
“Unfortunately the most profitable movies for the studios are going to be the big movies, the home runs,” Soderbergh said. “How many $10 million movies make $140 million? Not many. How many $100 million movies make $320 million? A pretty good number. There’s this domino effect that happens. Bigger home video sales, bigger TV sales. You can see the forces that are draining in one direction in the business.”
It comes back to the idea of those two struggling parents in suburban Dublin, who have a mortgage, young children and who haven’t been to the cinema in months. No matter how good the reviews are, no matter how much they want to support their friends, the fact is: they shelled out 60 quid for a babysitter and they need to have a good night out guaranteed.
What can be done about this? In the parallel world of Irish theatre, interesting initiatives have been taken to encourage bums on seats. At the Abbey Theatre, Richard Dormer’s Drum Belly has opened itself up to wider audiences – selling tickets for a tenner a head from Mondays to Wednesdays. At the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar, if you’re under 30, you can buy tickets to Digging For Fire for just ten quid.
Irish cinema may never win those mortgage-riddled parents. But Irish film distributors might attract students if they play their cards right – and for the sake of our Irish film-makers they have to try. Imagination, after all, shouldn’t be limited to simply what’s on the screen.
…..
Nadine O’Regan is The Sunday Business Post’s Books and Arts editor.