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Spoiler Alert: The sick, the weird and the dead.

January 24, 2013

Not feeling too well a few days ago, I was mooching around from bed to sofa and back again, unable to settle. (The Fleet Foxes saved me the bother of inventing a name for the exaggerated effect this had on my mood, by coming up with Helplessness Blues.) However, I took the first steps towards calm by reaching for a CD of Tallis’ Spem in Alium, lying back (on the sofa, if you’re interested) and being taken instantly to a still, small place inside my head.

In that small place I found my friend James (I hope he doesn’t mind me calling him that – he was my boss at the time in question), and a visit we made to York a number of years ago. We made a quick diversion to York Minster during the afternoon, where The Sixteen were rehearsing. What a tremendous stroke of luck. I’m sure it was Tallis they were singing – possibly not Spem in Alium, but unarguably blissful music performed to a wonderful standard in a setting such as it was written for. Better than the sofa, anyway.

dean-gales-york-minsterThere was something captivating in hearing perfect choral polyphony resounding and rising to the vaults and high roof of that beautiful space. Even the chatter of tourists (and there was plenty) making the trip round the Minster didn’t disturb. When I am in that small place, peripheral noise just doesn’t register, a point which Mrs simonsometimessays will be quick to recognise. 

I have to digress here, because in searching for a good link to Spem in Alium  I discovered that it has become associated with Fifty Shades of Grey. I don’t know how I feel about that. I want to disclaim prior knowledge, but would that look judgmental? And have I now rather neatly got round that dilemma by saying both that I don’t want to pass judgment and that I didn’t know anyway?

After the Tallis I thought I’d watch a movie, struggled to muster up sufficient concentration even to choose one, but eventually, realising that I was at the point of succumbing to the awfulness of daytime television, I picked up They’re a Weird Mob, a Powell and Pressburger film, and thought I’d give it a try. I didn’t know anything about it at all. It’s only because it’s part of a box set that I knew it was Powell and Pressburger (I nearly typed P&P, but resisted, knowing that those initials are reserved for Pride and Prejudice in our house and I’m simply not going up against Mrs sss on something so sacred).

I loved it. It’s a warm and charming movie about a young Italian man settling in Australia. The narrative, such as it is, is a loose framework for a fairly affectionate look at Australian city life in the mid 60s, not through rose-tinted spectacles so much as a rose-tinted long-range telescope, possibly held the wrong way round: you can infer that it is probably not to be found filed under cinéma vérité. Australians in general – or possibly Sydneyites in particular – are the eponymous weird mob. But there is nothing more to it than that, so once you understand the title, you’ll understand that the title is actually the whole movie.

That’s a bit of a pity, isn’t it? Giving away the content by the cover. A bit like the chapter headings of some Victorian novels beginning “In which our hero is introduced to a young lady of fortune”; “Wherein we renew our acquaintance with a gentleman of law”. Or worse: Samuel Foote’s Genuine Memoirs of Sir John Dinely Goodere, Bart, who was murdered by the Contrivance of his Own Brother on Board the Ruby Man of War in King’s Road Bristol, Jan 19, 1740; and as if there were anything left to give away, the authorship is proclaimed to be by S. Foote of Worcester College, Oxford, etc., and Nephew to the late Sir John D. Goodere.

This last example (unlike the others) is real, and I know of it because I am currently reading Ian Kelly’s Mr Foote’s Other Leg – the story of Samuel Foote. Really, it should be A Recollection of the Several Episodes in the Life of the Celebrated Wit and Actor Mr Foote, and of the Circumstances leading to the Unhappy Occasion of the Removal of his Leg, and Recovery therefrom, and regarding the Matters of Law in which he was concerned. Perhaps that looks like a spoiler – but it’s all there in the blurb.

The genuine account that Samuel Foote wrote was indeed a true one – the murder of one of his uncles by another, leading to the latter’s execution. Kelly’s description gives some of the gallows-scene colour associated with the “turning off “ of a criminal, including the habit that grew of composing ballads recounting the tragic story of the unfortunate centre of attention. From there my mind (feverish*, obviously) ran to the ballad of Jack Hall, sometimes Sam Hall. I’ve heard two versions of this lately: first in a Victorian-set detective story, in which the ballad is declaimed by an actor on the music hall stage**; secondly in this very modern recording of a folk-song setting by Sam Carter. Ghoulish already, the ballad takes a yet more macabre line in that, being in the condemned man’s voice, the last two lines are after his death.


(This parenthesis is for the prurient: don’t say you’ve not been warned. The phrase “turning off” a criminal, meaning his execution, is given its more precise meaning in Kelly’s book, referring to the  privilege of gentry to be executed turned away from the crowd, so that onlookers could not see a particular physical reflex – peculiar to men – supposed to occur as the victim approached unconsciousness. Just how grotesque is the reasoning that can have led to making that dubious distinction?)

I’m not sure how I got from near-heaven in York Minster to voyeurism-prevention in 18th Century Bristol. Let’s just forget it ever happened and wrap up, noting that between them, Tallis and the weird mob removed all trace of grumpiness, and allowed me to get on with being ill rather than moaning about being ill. Subsequent recovery was sufficiently demonstrated by going straight for Hard-Fi – Tonight. Brilliant.

Thank you for your kind attention.

* I hereby award myself the prize for feeblest excuse for a link – but I’ve been wanting to share this song by Dengue Fever – Uku – ever since the star of Snig’s Kitchen shared it with me.

** See The Remarkable Performance of Mr Frederick Merihew. In the end, all roads lead to Holmes.


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  1. From one so clearly in the depths of unisex flu you have, as always, managed to be remarkably coherent! 😉

  2. De Quincy, Coleridge, simonsometimessays…. 🙂

  3. Unisex flu is a truly horrid disease! It is indiscriminate in its unpleasantness! Thanks for the mention, and for linking to the wonderful Dengue Fever. But I have one question; do you like Fleet Foxes or did you just fancy using the 2nd album title because it was (as you said) such a perfect expression of the general flu malaise?

    • Thank you! I have to say that since I was introduced to Fleet Foxes last year, I really like them. I can’t say that I know all that much of their music, but I have a very helpful daughter who leads me to the highlights!

  4. Agree about ‘They’re a Weird Mob’ – just re-watched it after many years and it grows on me more and more. I’m Italian-born, Sydney-raised so it’s all very familiar to me. My latest blogpost plays homage:

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