Thursday, 8 May 2008

PORTISHEAD: Nylon Smile


"Looking out, I want a reason to repair."

"You're not being honest! You are on the side of the people - aren't you?"

Looking through K-Punk's characteristically thoughtful post on Gordon Brown, in tandem with recent re-viewing of the crucial "Free For All" episode of The Prisoner - the first to be written and directed by McGoohan himself - it suddenly became perfectly clear; Brown's supposed Aspergic tendencies, his perceived inability to sympathise, let alone empathise, with his people, the feeling, both intrinsic and extrinsic, of a power unearned...

"'Cos I don't know what I've done to deserve you,
And I don't know what I'd do without you"

...is what Number 6 would have ended up becoming if he'd really been allowed to win the Village election and continue as Number 2. Rather than yet another psychological trick to hammer him further into his place, suppose that Eric Portman's outgoing chief - and if you know Portman as the glue-pourer of suspicious allegiances in Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale his surface benignness is even more terrifying - lets McGoohan have his way, allows him to run the Village as he would have planned to do. Notice how at the moment of victory, Portman brings McGoohan out to meet the voting throng, allegedly triumphant, raises his arm to a reaction of total, static silence. The people gape at him as though he is on his way to the gallows - and he is being slowly nudged along that route - or, perhaps more pointedly (as not enough people are yet doing after last weekend) realising the terrible mistake that they've just made.

For McGoohan's Number 6 has already been proved as a man uncomfortable in social situations, happier in books or solitary travel than having to speak to the person three feet away from him in the same room. Given that he has already been drugged to spout cliche and nothing but throughout the brief election campaign one would expect his pitching to be wooden, but in or out of control he seems a curiously charmless leader, palpably ill at ease in any surrounding involving anyone else and his pledges can hardly be credited ("Apply to me and it will be easier and better!" What will? The torture?).

But let's just suppose that Portman and the fake Eastern European (or is it Esperanto?) maid leave McGoohan be; he's not persuading anyone. His harsh, stuck needle bark of "You are free to go!" wouldn't convince even the smallest mouse skulking at the back of the Cat and Mouse nightclub to venture out. He will continue, coolly frustrated at his inability to change anything that matters, and eventually step down to allow a sighing Number 58 to get on with the real job in hand. This is someone who doesn't want to govern - think of the extended psycho-building block interview with George Benson's interrogator where the latter seems genuinely concerned and anxious about what he correctly perceives as solipsism ("You mustn't think of yourself all the time - you have a responsibility!" he says, more in pity than sinisterly).

Of course, all these indicators are building blocks in themselves and McGoohan will still have thirteen episodes left to figure out how to put them together in such a way that reveals the true answer. Or, if he's Gordon Brown, two years; a Bartleby Prime Minister, someone who would be much more at home in the Mitchell Library, dutifully researching and assembling data, history and beliefs, than speaking...

...but then, is it his fault that Gaitskell and Attlee and even Thatcher were not required to make the monkey faces required to win over the 21st century electorate, in the same way that The X-Factor is not a talent contest and that The Apprentice is not a practical business training tool but an opportunity for a deliberately prohibited public to select futures on the grounds of how well the contestants can make those faces, the ones they know from TV, the ones they never see outside the house, the hooks to which they can hang on, like frozen gangsters? Is anonymity, in the end, the best disguise for really important people?

So to "Nylon Smile" and its detuned Ze-era Tropicalia with Derek Bailey scrapes and seagull squawks of guitar, its concerned, dark chordal cloisters, and she is singing about her wish to be able to laugh at what "you" have just said but she cannot find a smile and so looks out, craving to be "someone I wanna be," probing for "a reason to be there," but finally can see neither good nor bad on any horizon, and concludes, the barrel of consensual indifference aimed at her temple, "I never had the chance to explain exactly what I meant."

"You needn't worry. There will be no remembrances."

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