Tuesday, 28 July 2020

OK Karen- Karen Hill and the reality of Goodfellas

Goodfellas is one of my favourite films of all time for a variety of reasons. But over recent years I have come to realise that the portrayal of Karen Hill and Lorraine Bracco’s performance and joint narration of the film are one of the reasons I keep returning to it. It is a rarity in the gangster film genre that a female character is afforded such a central role and even more rare that we get to be privy to how they feel. Indeed it is interesting to compare this to Scorsese’s subsequent gangster films like ‘Casino’ and especially ‘The Irishman’ that caused controversy for it’s lack of female representation. However ‘Goodfellas’ is based on a true story and involves real people. The (apparently) actual story of Karen Hill casts a very different light on the events portrayed in the film. So while the majority of this essay will look at Karen Hill as portrayed in the film, the final part will address how the film diverges (apparently) from some significant parts of her story.

We first meet Karen in the 1963 section when Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is already at 21 firmly established in the mafia life working for Paul "Paulie" Cicero (Paul Sorvino). Henry meets her on a double date he has been reluctantly talked into by Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci). Henry’s rude behaviour on this date initially is off putting to Karen and he stands her up on the subsequent double date, enraging her. This is the point where Karen is also introduced as a narrator. We get to hear how she feels about the events she was involved with throughout the film. She looks back almost wryly at these first two encounters with Henry in her narration. Karen proves that she is not a woman to be trifled with as she gets Tommy to help her find Henry so she can give him a piece of her mind. We then switch back to Henry’s narration. Rather than be annoyed by Karen’s behaviour he is struck by how attractive she is (he compares her eyes to Elizabeth Taylor’s) and their argument turns into a mutual flirtation and he promises to take her on a proper date. The song on the soundtrack is Chariot by Betty Curtis. The most famous version of this song is the English language version ‘I will follow him’ by Peggy March. Ironically Karen has indeed followed Henry just to yell at him. But more seriously Karen will end up following Henry ‘wherever he may go’ (as the song goes) – be it through infidelity, to prison or into the drug trade, as a result of this encounter. As the song continues ‘He (Henry) is my destiny’ for Karen. Possibly Henry was also impressed Karen was the sort of woman who would stand up for herself and who knew her own mind. As the film progresses Henry will come to see that this is both a significant asset and liability in a Mafia wife.

Karen comes from a middle-class Jewish background. Like her we experience Henry’s world from the perspective of an outsider seeing both its attraction and danger. As someone from a different background Karen will several times misunderstand or disregard the rules that Mafia wives are expected to live by with significant impact for Henry over the years.

It is worth noting that over the course of the four ‘dates’ Karen’s dress and hair become more sophisticated indicating her maturing feelings toward Henry On the first ‘date’ she is dressed in blue with a cardigan, which reflects her coldness toward Henry. On the second date she is dressed in red indicating her anger at Henry standing her up. On the third date she is dressed in a floral dress and cardigan indicating her blooming feelings. On the fourth date (at the Copacabana) she is dressed in a black dress suggesting the maturation of her feelings is complete.

Karen gets an insight into Henry's world in the famous scene where he leads her through the Copacabana club. The soundtrack ‘Then he kissed me’ by the Crystals tells of a nascent relationship which ends in marriage echoing the situation between Henry and Karen. Henry and Karen’s courtship progresses with Karen gradually beginning to pick up clues that Henry does not simply make his living in ‘construction’. We get to experience the excitement and romanticism of this courtship through the soundtrack and camerawork. Karen is shown to enjoy the perks that come with being with Henry and to be impressed by his apparent maturity and connections. Like Karen the audience is seduced by the apparent glamour of Henry’s lifestyle. Matters come to a head when Karen is sexually assaulted by a neighbour Bruce. Henry decides to avenge her by pistol whipping Bruce. It is interesting this is the first act of violence we as an audience actually see Henry perform. It is not against a fellow mobster but someone who has hurt someone he is close to. This is an early indicator that while Henry is a committed gangster he has bonds outside the mafia which have their own requirements which may be in opposition to what his mob ‘family’ want. He gives Karen the bloodied gun to hide. This leaves Karen in no doubt about Henry’s criminal background and what he is capable of. But rather than being repulsed her narration relates ‘I got to admit the truth- it turned me on.’

This seals Karen and Henry’s relationship and the next scene is of their Jewish wedding ceremony. Karen’s narration discusses how she was introduced to Henry’s ‘family’ at their wedding. She jokes about being introduced to countless Marie’s, Peters and Pauls and how disorientating this was. The camerawork and soundtrack of the Harptone's ‘Life is but a dream’ re-enforces the dreamlike nature of the scene. The words ‘My life, my love’ repeat over the scene confirm that with marrying Henry Karen has entered a very different way of life.

We get a clue as to why Karen chose to marry Henry in the following scenes between her and her parents when Henry fails to come home from a night with his gang friends. Her mother berates her for not knowing where Henry is but Karen angrily accuses her of controlling her father’s life and not understanding (or indeed caring) how she feels. Karen did not want to replicate her parent’s relationship with her mother domineering her father. She has chosen Henry because he has shown himself to be independent and go getting. She also wants to move beyond the confines of the respectable world she has known. Karen’s mother asks if she knows what sort of person Henry and his friends really are and there is a lot of truth in this. When I asked Lorraine Bracco about her feelings about Karen at a BFI Q and A about the film a few years ago she said she felt Karen marrying Henry was an act of rebellion, and that she felt she had to stand by it even if it meant spending almost twenty five years married to a mafia member. It is worth noting Karen was only nineteen when she married Henry and had only known him four months- it is arguable whether she truly understood what she was getting herself into.

The scene of Mickey Conway’s (Julie Garfield) hostess party is a further baptism into life as a mafia wife for Karen (‘We weren’t married to nine to five guys but the first time I realised how different was when Mickey [Conway] had a hostess party’). She expresses her horror at how badly dressed the other mafia wives are, their heavy make-up and how ‘beat up’ they look (this could both mean how worn out they look but also that they bear signs of domestic violence), the casual violence they say they dole out to their children and how they complain about their domestic woes. Karen is physically separated from the other wives in this scene and chats with the beautician Rosie (Ileana Douglas) who like her is a young Jewish woman, sharing with her incredulous looks at what they are overhearing. The mafia wives in this scene are all middle aged with craggy faces and frumpy clothing. Scorsese shows them as slightly ridiculous hags with exaggerated facial expressions (note in particular the women who complains of being sexually harassed with her prominent facial mole). This is in sharp contrast to the manner that the male gangsters are portrayed earlier with their smart suits, bonhomie and self-possession. One woman even has her face half covered in a blue cosmetic emphasising that there is something ridiculous about her. We also do not get introduced to these women individually as we are with Henry’s associates with their colourful names- they are just a bunch of women (although one of them is Frankie Carbone’s wife). This indicates that Karen did not become close to any of these women bar Mickey (and even then this is a semi forced friendship). Mickey relates the misfortunes of a woman called Jeannie, who as well as having a husband in prison is dealing with her son being arrested for murder (which caused her mother to die of a heart attack). The other women lap up this tale of woe (while ostensibly sympathising with Jeannie) but it horrifies Karen. The soundtrack of this scene is the Shangri La’s ‘The leader of the pack’ which tells of a girl who falls in love with a ‘bad boy’ against parental approval only for it to end in tragedy. The words ‘Look out, look out look out!’ from the track are emphasised over a shot of Karen’s eyes expressing her concern at the world she has gotten herself involved in.

Karen discusses her concerns with Henry that night. He tries to laugh them off. Karen expresses particular concern over the possibility that Henry may go to prison like Jeannie’s husband. Henry jokes that Jeannie’s husband deliberately got caught so he could get away from her. He says that no gangster gets caught unless he wants to. These words are particularly interesting given later events when Henry does indeed get caught and imprisoned. Henry finally silences Karen’s concerns by initiating sex and we hear Karen justify Henry and his friends activities (‘ After a while It all got to be all normal- none of it seemed like crime’) over a love scene emphasising ,somewhat unsubtly, how seduced Karen has become by Henry’s words and life style.

It is interesting to compare how Karen justifies Henry and his associate’s criminal behaviour as just ‘cutting corners’ and ‘being enterprising’ against Henry’s justifications of his life style earlier in the film where he says to live any other way was ‘crazy’ and those who went out to work 9-5 were ‘dead’. There is more of a focus in Karen’s mind on the fact that Henry and his friends are domestic providers and that somehow as ‘blue collar guys’ they are only involved in crime as other avenues have been denied them. There is a certain amount of delusion about what activities (like protection rackets and loan sharkism) they are actually involved with rather like Henry only allows us to see him and his associates indulging in apparently harmless (and usually consensual) truck hijacking and a heist that did not even involve drawing a gun.

Karen continues her narration over a scene of Tommy performing a truck hijacking saying ‘We were all very close- there were never any outsiders around.’ emphasises the particular sort of social control the Mafia uses. People must be kept within the sphere of control and influence to ensure silence and cooperation. We see a couple of policemen turn up at Henry and Karen’s home to search it. We see from the look on Karen’s face this is not the first time this has happened and is something she is resigned to and her narration confirms this. She then discusses how herself and Henry would only usually socialise with other mobsters families like Jimmy and his wife Mickey. We then see a photo montage of Karen’s life with Henry and his friends. This could be argued to be a form of coercive control as Karen is expected to socialise almost exclusively with Henry’s associates.

We then do not see Karen again until the storyline about Henry’s relationship with Janice Rossi. Henry’s fellow gangsters all have mistresses (‘Saturday night was for wives but Friday night at the Copa was always for the girlfriends’) and their model of hypermasculinity dictates that they be sexually active outside of marriage. Indeed there is the practice in the Mafia of the ‘Goomah’ or mistress which the series ‘The Sopranos’ explored. As someone born outside the Italian/Sicilian American community, Karen was both not familiar with this practice and not willing to accept it. She first confronts Henry leading to him throwing a lamp at her along with some gaslighting (‘It’s all in your mind’). She angrily confronts Janice over the intercom to Janice’s building. She then threatens Henry with a gun while he is sleeping. This is the second scene where a gun plays a significant role in their relationship. We see Karen tremble and that she cannot bring herself to harm him (‘I was still very attracted to him’). Karen is not ‘masculine’ enough to fire the gun. When Henry eventually cajoles Karen into giving him the gun he angrily pins her down and points the gun at her in retaliation. Again this is one of the few times Henry is physically violent in the film and this time it is toward Karen. He walks out on her almost leading to the end of their marriage

However Henry’s fellow gangsters are not keen on Henry ending his marriage. In a later scene Paulie and Jimmy tell Henry he has go back to Karen and woo her again while affirming he can do what he likes outside the marriage. No doubt Karen has had a word with them both about the situation to persuade them to get Henry to return. But Paulie and Jimmy’s main concern is that if Henry abandons Karen, she will take her revenge by telling the authorities about his and his associates activities. Once within Mafia circles no one can be permitted to leave for fear of what they may reveal to the authorities. So Henry and Jimmy get sent on the fateful trip to Florida which leads to Henry being imprisoned for several years. We see a tearful Karen bid Henry an affectionate goodbye before he gets taken to prison. This is interesting given Henry’s earlier words to Karen that no mafia member goes to prison unless they truly want to. Does Henry subconsciously bring about his imprisonment to have time to sort his domestic life out?

When Karen visits Henry in prison she seems more outraged to find out Janice has recently visited him than that she has put herself at risk bringing contraband and drugs into the prison. She still is not over Henry’s affair (this scene is at least a couple of years after Henry was imprisoned) . She also expresses concern that Henry’s associates, even Paulie do not want to see her and are unwilling to offer financial support. Henry explains why they cannot help her because they need to lay low due to being on probation (again Karen does not understand the rules of mafia life) and urges her to help him continue his drug business. Karen is dealing with the hard reality that being a mafia wife does not guarantee a steady income and comfortable lifestyle. She wears a long heavy coat to conceal the contraband which could symbolise the weight of what she is dealing with. She also tells Henry she constantly writes to the parole board to try and get him released. Karen shows that she is willing to assist Henry in his criminal activities, and not just be a passive party in the relationship.

When Henry is released after several years, Karen is waiting for him on release. Her light clothes and short hair almost indicate her relief at Henry’s release and that this will be a new start or them as a couple. We get an indication of how difficult things have been for Karen when we see living conditions she and her children have been reduced to. Henry finds them a new home and sets about establishing his drug business to support them. When Henry starts a relationship with Janice’s friend Sandy, Karen probably accepts it as she sees that as far as Henry is concerned it is just a relationship of convenience as she is assisting him in cutting drugs. There is none of the emotional involvement he had with Janice. When Jimmy passes Henry his share of the Lufthansa robbery, Henry happily (but carefully) gets gifts for his family and shares the money with Karen.

Henry asks Karen to accompany him on the ‘final day’ drug deal when he meets with the Pittsburgh Connection. Tellingly Henry persuades Karen to hide the guns for the Pittsburgh connection at her parents home, not his (he has a pattern of using her parents as we will see). We see Karen ask for a drug hit (showing she also has issues with substance abuse) and get sexually harassed by the Pittsburgh connection, showing she has her own issues to deal with in Henry's drug dealing. Karen may not look as physically worn out as Henry but she shows signs of the the toll the lifestyle she is living is having on her.

When Henry is finally arrested we see Karen’s panic as she gets rid of the cocaine down the toilet. At the end of this scene she places a small gun down in her underwear (the fact she is also only dressed in underwear and dressing gown shows her vulnerability). Symbolically Karen has had to take on a male role (symbolised by the gun)

Tellingly Henry gets Karen’s parents to put up his bail, not his parents. When Karen tells him she has gotten rid of the cocaine he yells at her although this was probably the best course of action. However at the end of this scene, we see Henry and Karen lying together in a mutually supportive manner with Henry brandishing a gun in a protective manner. The order of male as protector has been re-established.

Karen begins to understand the threat to her family when she visits Jimmy to discuss Henry’s case. He tells her to help herself to some designer clothes from a warehouse but she gets spooked and leaves. While this is not the event that finally persuades Henry to go into the witness protection program it certainly contributes to his decision.

The final scene we see Karen in is when Henry agrees to go into the witness protection program Both Henry and the FBI man place emotional pressure on Karen to accept his decision to enter the witness protection programme and to accompany him. The FBI man reminds Karen that they have tapes of her helping arrange drug deals and that he has no concern about her fate, and that she is only useful as far as she makes Henry a good witness. Henry cajoles Karen to accompany him even though it means leaving her elderly parents. Karen wears a black and white polka dot dress which may indicate her lost innocence.

The closing credits tell us that Henry and Karen finally separated after 25 years of marriage they year before the film was released– they managed to stay together through infidelity, imprisonment and the witness protection program but eventually the toll of Henry’s lifestyle proved too much for Karen (the couple would only formally divorce in 2002). Karen and Henry’s children Greg and Gina would release a book ‘On the run – a mafia childhood’ in 2004 about their experiences on the witness protection program that would show that this was an incredibly difficult period of their lives (mainly because of Henry’s actions) that belies the ending of the film (there was at one point talk of a possible sequel to ‘Goodfellas’ based on Greg and Gina Hill’s book)

Lorraine Bracco gives a great performance in this film and she allows Karen to be a rounded character. We warm to her both because of an in spite of her flaws. Bracco did not get to meet Karen Hill but she clearly has sympathy with her and she remains proud of her involvement with the film (I greatly enjoyed hearing her discuss the film at the BFI a few years ago). She would earn an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress for the role along with several other award nominations. It is worth noting Lorraine does bear an incredibly close physical resemblance to the real Karen Hill

Oh Mickey

I just want to take a quick look at the character of Mickey Conway who was played by Julie Garfield. She is Jimmy Conway’s wife and almost an opposite to Karen. She is based on Mickey Burke who was married to Jimmy Burke (the inspiration for Jimmy Conway). Jimmy and Mickey only married a couple of years before Karen and Henry but we get the impression she has been part of the mafia life for considerably longer in the film. Julie Garfield is also several years older than Lorraine Bracco which adds to this impression. Unlike Karen, Mickey’s hairstyle and fashion sense do not change over the seventeen or so years she is involved in the story, showing her to be a more conservative and settled woman in her role as a mafia wife. Karen and Mickey will spend a lot of time together over the years because of Henry and Jimmy’s friendship but as noted before it seems to be more a friendship by default. Karen discusses Mickey’s reaction to having the police constantly search her home (spitting on the floor) saying she cannot understand it and how it makes no sense to her which illustrates they have very different ways of dealing with the issues that come with being a mafia wife. The real Mickey Burke did go through some similar experiences to Karen in the film. Jimmy Burke had a mistress (actually Tommy DeSimones sister) and Mickey’s ex boyfriend who had been harassing her was found murdered around the time of her marriage to Jimmy. She had her own troubles (after all Jimmy was also in prison for several years at the same time as Henry). We see a close up on Mickey in a distressed state dressed in black and holding a handkerchief (obviously to wipe away her tears) as we hear Henry testify against Jimmy at the end. Jimmy Burke would die in prison in 1996 and one of his and Mickey’s sons would get killed in a drug deal in 1987 so the real Mickey’s woes would continue beyond the end of the film

The Sopranos factor

Of course Lorraine Bracco would go on to play Dr. Jennifer Melfi in ‘The Sopranos’. In many ways Dr. Jennifer Melfi is the opposite of Karen Hill. She is a middle-class Italian American who suddenly finds the mafia in her life in the form of Tony Soprano. Across the series she has to negotiate her feelings about Tony and his activities and keep him at a distance while trying to be his psychiatrist. Bracco was originally offered the role of Carmela Soprano but turned it down as she did not want to get typecast as playing mafia wives (Edie Falco would play Carmela). Bracco would win regular award nominations for her role as Melfi. Carmela Soprano is in herself an interesting and complex character and in all probability Bracco’s performance as Karen Hill helped path the way for the creation of the character.( Also worth noting that amusingly in one episode Melfi and her son discuss ‘Goodfellas’)

’And a lot of other things’

Now we come to where what may have actually happened and Goodfellas diverges and what light it casts on the real Karen Hill. There are a number of significant differences between ‘Goodfellas’ and actual events and the people portrayed in the film. For example Tommy DeSimone (who Tommy DeVito is based on) was several younger than Henry Hill and was married (also his body has never been found). Jimmy Burke (whom Jimmy Conway is based on) had at least one son who was also involved in the mafia and they were involved with the Lufthansa heist.

Here we come to the story of Karen Hill. She did not actually co-write ‘Wiseguys’ with Henry and Nicholas Pileggi. So the entire narration is a creation of Nicolas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese who wrote the script. Karen apparently did not actually want to be involved with the film, obviously trying to get her life back on track after the end of her marriage to Henry and several years on the witness protection program. This poses a number of issues about the ethics of the filmmakers speaking on Karen’s behalf. While it is appreciated Scorsese did go through the effort of creating a rounded female character and showing her inner life, he and Pileggi used the story of an actual woman at a vulnerable part of her life. I would hope that they at least spoke with Karen and got feedback from her when writing the script.

This is the point where we need to consider the story of Karen Hill that is in the public domain that is not in the film. Henry Hill claimed in his 2004 ook ‘Gangsters and Goodfellas’ claimed that Karen was having an affair with Paul Vario ( Paulie Cicero in Goodfellas). While Henry and Paul were imprisoned apparently Tommy DeSimone made advances toward Karen which she rejected and he attempted to rape her. She revealed this to Paul Vario and this was apparently one of the reasons he allowed Tommy’s ‘execution’ (as the film puts it ‘It was payback for Billy Batts and a lot of other things’)

Firstly to note – the ethics of someone revealing the sexual assault of another person without their consent in this way is a whole topic in itself, particularly given the relationship between Henry and Karen. We only have it on Henry’s word that Karen and Paul Vario were involved and it may be a way of detracting from his affairs. Even if true, there was large power imbalance between Henry and Paul that Karen may not have been in a position to refuse Paul or she may have gotten into the affair in order to help Henry. But if this attempted rape story is true it must have been a truly terrifying experience for Karen. It also has to be asked that if Paul Vario gave permission for the murder of Tommy DeSimone because of his behaviour toward Karen it has to be asked if it was out of affection toward her or that Tommy had ‘interfered’ with his property. I personally wonder if Henry's pistol whipping of Bruce in revenge for his attack on Karen early in the film is a subtle allusion to these events.

Henry Hill would enjoy a certain celebrity status, despite ongoing issues with drink and drugs (and continued criminal activities) appearing in several documentaries and television programmes up to his death (from natural causes) in 2012. Karen Hill has remained silent for the thirty years since ‘Goodfellas’ release. I hope wherever she is, she has managed to rebuild her life.

Monday, 20 July 2020

Ten years on this blog!

Just realised that I have been running this blog for ten years - I have not really worked on it for almost five years but certainly glad to have it as an archive of me writing my experiences with Turner Syndrome and other things. I have begun posting links to some of my early posts on twitter with the hope they are useful. I was not aware of how early I was writing about and picking on certain issues. I hope it can be useful for people.

It was certainly a difficult time in my life when I began this. I also went through a lot in the following four years. I am grateful for all I have learnt through the period. I am in a lot better place and glad my life has moved on.

Thank you to anyone who follows me or who has enjoyed or commented on my posts

Thursday, 9 July 2020

The Journey

Between one country and another. Between one history and another. Between one life and another.

You set out early this morning. It will be a long but good day. Every part of this day matters. After all this is as much a pilgrimage as a journey. Every part of this journey excites you from the bus to the train station, to the train, to the plane. Every bit of distance covered brings you closer to the place you love. Every part does not take long but every part makes you anxious not to be late. But every time you arrive on time. Earl Van Dyke strikes up the band as you board the train.


You move through the airport. The scents of perfumes as JJ Barnes sings Stevie Wonder. You grab a coffee at the usual place. You wait for the flight to be called up. Look at all the people on different journeys.

You got to the gate. So many other people also travelling. Some are going home. You wish it was you doing so to. Different passports tell their stories. Board the plane. This is the worst bit- the takeoff. Your stomach lunges and you feel regret at how confined you are suddenly. But this must be accepted. Airborne finally

You try to concentrate on your book. If it is a sunny day you look out at the clouds. There is a light you only see on this journey.

You see the land. Look down at the coast line. The houses become closer. The toy cars suddenly become real. The sound of The Dells signing Terry Callier.


The sudden speeding dance as the wheels gradually touch the ground. The speeding run as you land. Reaching under the chair. The crowded aisle. So many people. Try and get your bag. You must learn patience for this part.

Decompression as you finally exit the plane. You cannot leave the plane quickly enough. Sweet air. Feet on the ground finally.

You walk across to the building. You see the signs you are in the place you love. The signs in other languages.

The glass building allows you to look out on the land. You feel elation. Move through the airport as quickly as you can. The wonder carries you on. You don’t mind the long walk. You take in everything you are seeing

You show your passport that announces that you belong to this land to. Even the guards here are capable of kindness and humour.

All the things that are different. You check your messages. you exit the airport to get your bus.

Roy Hamilton ‘The Panic is on’ blasting out. On the top of the bus. Moving off. moving on The green green grass of another home.


Thursday, 18 June 2020

Not going quietly into the Twilight

Jeepster Magazine November 2019

Not going quietly into the Twilight’

By Alice Burton

Gerri Ashton and Hester Grant aka Harmonium have been part of the music industry for almost thirty five years. They had their first hit with the legendary ‘Complex’ in 1985, enjoying three number one singles, issuing eleven acclaimed albums and enjoying numerous sell out tours. Their ethereal electronica has proved influential over three decades and remains fresh and astounding .

In an era dominated by male electro duos such as Soft Cell and Pet Shop Boys, Harmonium were unusual in being female (although they have nothing but praise for their male peers). Ashton became known both for her ironically smooth vocals that were influenced by the likes of Dusty Springfield and French 60’s singers like Francoise Hardy and her playful androgyny. Grant’s synthesiser tracks were every bit as innovative as her male peers. They became known for songs exploring the loneliness of urban life, the transitory nature of modern love and feminism. Their 1989 single ‘Parlour games’ was recently voted one of the top five songs of the last thirty years here at Jeepster magazine

Harmonium have recently released their twelfth studio ‘Twilight stories’ (which garnered five stars here) which discussed issues around aging (Ashton had a hip replacement eighteen points ago just before the album was completed) and social media. Ashton is known for her wry and occasionally sharp pronouncements on twitter whereas Grant is legendary for her deliberately low key public profile. But in honour of the album’s release Ashton and Grant are meeting me today at their North London studio

In person Ashton is more shy than her extrovert stage persona suggests but still charming and welcoming. Wearing a Paul Smith trouser suit she still retains her Audrey Hebpurnesque looks at 60. Grant, wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and baseball cap, is affable and keen to discuss the thinking behind the duo’s music.

Grant was studying music and Ashton French when they met in London in 1981. They would form Harmonium in 1983, signing to the independent Parlet label the following year, who they remain with to this day. Ashton’s love of literature is evident in their song lyrics. Who else would get a hit song about Hildegarde of Bingen and write songs about Christine de Pizan and Colette? Harmonium also have referenced poets Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde.

Grant is a classically trained pianist who played jazz clubs as a teenager to pay her way through college. There is a strong influence of Jazz to the pair’s music, bringing textures that were absent in their peers. Grant met Ashton when she was asked to accompany her performing some Julie London songs. In honour of how they met they released a cover of ‘Cry me a river’ in 1993.

Ashton and Grant are noted for their androgynous imagery and not conforming to the standard image of femininity. ‘We were hardly alone in that in the early 1980s, if anything it was almost de rigeur’ says Ashton ‘You saw women like Annie Lennox, Siouxsie Sioux and our dear friend Alison Moyet on Top of the Pops and just feel like you could go for it. In some ways it feels like we have gone backward’ she sighs.

The pair are famously private about their personal lives. Ashton has never denied her sexuality and discussed it in the press on a couple of occasions and they have long been icons for the LGBT (particularly lesbian) community. However was only in 2012 that the pair confirmed they have been a couple since 1983. Ashton discussed aspects of their life together in her acclaimed 2014 autobiography ‘Born under a different star’ (a Sunday Times best seller which was acclaimed for its wit and insight into the music industry). The song ‘Golden flame’ on Harmonium’s 2002 ‘Carnival’ album is widely interpreted as being about their relationship. They genuinely seem happy together and they exchange several affectionate looks during our interview

I want to ask them about what it is like to work with your life partner but don’t feel entirely comfortable raising the question. When I do and they both seem more than happy to discuss. ‘Well if anything for me it makes things easier as you understand the other person and know how to read their mood and what they want to achieve ’ says Grant ‘You have an ability to be in synch with them’

‘Mind you it means I can’t get away from her!’ laughs Ashton

While the pair may have a happy relationship, they record the complexities of the love lives of their friends and peers in their music. Songs such as ‘Morning in Paris’ tell wry tales of infidelity and broken relationships. Grants synthesiser parts meld with Ashton’s vocals to bring a considerable amount of emotion and sweetness to these story songs.

But Harmonium have also explored issues such as domestic violence in the song ‘Drifting cloud’ and sexual harassment in ‘Coffee for one’. They have discretely played benefits for and donated to various women’s and LGBT rights charities over the years.

As previously mentioned one of the themes of ‘Twilight stories’ is social media and particularly the trolling that prominent women have to deal with. One song in particular ‘Mute button’ deals with how Ashton had to deal with a number of trolls on twitter after her #metoo revelations. ‘Well it was hardly a pleasant period ‘ she notes ‘But I knew that there were other women who were getting worse abuse. The point of the song is that trolls want attention and to think they get to you. Better to not give them that power. You have to put things in perspective’.

In 2016, with the rise of the #metoo movement, Ashton revealed she had been groped by a prominent figure in the music industry and subjected to sexual harassment by another prominent figure. It had not been the first occasion she has made comments about the treatment of women in the music industry (she covered the topic extensively in her autobiography) but it was the first time she revealed the extent of what she had been subjected to.

’Well, I didn’t want to be seen as jumping on a bandwagon but felt it was important for the sake of young women coming up in the industry ‘ Ashton says. ‘It hopefully will make a difference, but there are no easy answers’.

’We have managed to get to a point where we are able to speak about these issues and not impact on how we get treated’ adds Grant ‘I mean they can’t exactly undo our record sales and earned royalities at this point!’

So do the duo think it is easier for women in the music industry today?

‘Well we are seeing more women making inroads to management and the more senior roles in the industry’ Grant says. She also makes the point women need to be in roles such as producers and engineers and involved with all aspects of the industry ‘I mean, we were lucky to have a lot of very creative female friends we could work with, it was a completely conscious decision.’

The pair are well known for working with other female creatives. They have worked with stylist Cara Rey for fifteen years (she created their looks for their last five albums and helped design their recent live shows) and acclaimed director Anna Greene has been responsible for several of their iconic videos (Grant met Greene through a mutual friend).

I ask the pair ‘So what is it like to be iconic female artists and role models?’

’Hard to say! We keep thinking about our influences. You know we were as influenced by people like Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Judee Sill as we were by acts like Kraftwerk and the Human League. We also want to acknowledge that people like Labelle, Patrice Rushen and Alice Coltrane also informed our music’ says Grant. ‘There should be as many different ways of being a woman artist as a male artist’

Grant has a successful and respected career as a producer, notably helping the band Viola with their last album. Ashton has released two well received albums of her own compositions which pay tribute to the torch songs she loves. However they always feel happiest when working together ‘It is just a very natural and intuitive relationship and we realise that we bring out the best in each other’ says Ashton.

The other theme of ‘Twilight songs’ is ageing. Ashton is 60 and Grant 61. Ashton makes a joke about her recent hip replacement. However both show no signs of slowing down ‘Well I suppose we are at an age where others are thinking of retirement!’ Grant jokes ‘I suppose we will keep going as long as we feel we have something to offer and aren’t getting completely out of touch which is a risk with two old fogies like us!’.

It looks like it is not the twilight of Harmonium’s career quite yet.

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Lock down

They were locked down yet again. Third time this week. Not that they got much time out of the cell anyway.

Jim guessed that Alex had been put in the same cell as him because they were around the same age. They did not reckon on how much Alex would wind him up, how much he wanted to yell at him.

Jim had to regrets about punching that man’s lights out, even if it meant landing up here. It was one thing he could do for Gina as a father, goodness knows he had not much good for much else in the last few years. Nobody was going to knock his girl about while he was around. He could at least take pride that whatever was going on with him had never lead him to hurt Miranda, Sandra and Gina. He may have been moody and had to distance himself from them to protect them but he had not hurt them. They had all been there when he was sentenced and had visited him a couple of times. Sandra wanted him to move in with him and Colin and the kids when he got out. He appreciated the offer but no way was he going to burden her with his issues.

After all what sort of a life did he have outside anyway? At least he knew where he would be for the next few month , knew what was expected of him. He also didn’t mind the privations or even the bad food – he was used it (and at least he knew he would get a meal). And much as he hated being locked in a cell it gave him a bit of time to think. He had never had that- he had always been having to react to situations. He was certainly better equipped than Alex for prison life. Jim would like to see him deal with some of the conditions he had to deal with in the army. He could laugh at the look of disgust on Alex’s face most meal times.

He had tried to be a good man. He went into the army at age seventeen because he genuinely wanted to do something positive rather than sit around on his arse on the dole. He enjoyed the discipline and structure. Prison was very like those early days in the Army in some ways. He married Miranda after he got back from Iraq in 1992. Sandra arrived a year later and Gina three years later. Jim knew he got lucky with Miranda. Miranda had settled into life as an army wife easily enough, never minded the moving around or long absences. Jim was always grateful for that. It was life after he had left the army that proved more difficult.

He got wound up every morning by Alex going through his routine. What a vain man with his moisturizers and hair products (when he could get them). Alex would come out with some line about keeping up standards. Jim could laugh at the ridiculousness. He wanted to scoff every time he saw Alex brushing his (greying) blonde locks. This was not the type of place where you wanted to appear soft. But soft was exactly what Alex was.

Not that Jim necessarily disapproved of taking care of your appearance. He had done so for years – neat and ordered appearance had been vital. He had tried to keep up appearances (in more ways than one) since leaving the army but now sported a beard and clumsy ponytail. Funny how he now resembled the type of person he used to scoff at. There was something in that.

Outside the storm rages. Voices raised. Too many people in here. Each one carrying their own issues. All clashing, all in pain.

Jim had served in both the Gulf Wars. Neither had exactly been exactly a picnic. Still he got through both. Managed to rise through the ranks and become someone who could be depended on. Almost twenty five years service. He had left the army with an honourable discharge. He always though was a strange phrase.

Alex had been safe at university while Jim had been in the middle of a conflict zone. Had established himself as a GP in a nice suburban practice. He had been a successful man. Had a nice big house, nice car, nice wife and family. Obviously that was all over, all gone in one fell swoop. Struck off as a Doctor, nice wife had requested separation and sold nice car so no returning to nice house. No wonder he couldn’t stop whimpering. Jim had seen Alex’s wife when she came to visit that one time. Quite a looker but not really his sort. Came to ask Alex for a formal separation. Jim was grateful he had gotten the whole business of divorce sorted years ago. Good to at least be able to be friends with Miranda. Her freedom had been the only thing he had that he could give her by that point. She was happy enough with her new man. Fair enough.

Jim knew the term for what was wrong with him. Four letters. He knew all the statistics. He wasn’t a fool. He had seen where he had been heading the last ten years. The flashbacks, the panic attacks, the sudden anger.

Jim also knew what Alex was the minute he saw him. He recognised the signs. He had seen enough people with drug problems while he was in hostels to know to recognise a drug addict. For all his neat and tidy appearance Alex bore the marks of addiction- addiction that had lead him here. He had been helping himself to prescription drugs for years. It was a surprise he could function at all with what his intake eventually became. He was receiving treatment while in prison. Fair play to him. Didn’t make his withdrawal symptoms any less easy to be around

But what was Alex’s excuse? What had happened to him? Jim had once asked him directly (on an occasion when Alex had been more than usually annoying). Well Alex told him and Jim wished he had never asked. Don’t ask someone to tell you their deepest secret if you are not prepared to hear.

Alex was trying to read up and researching his options for when he was released. Typical swot. Jim couldn’t even begin to think what he would do. He had quite liked gardening. Possibly that was something he would pursue. Yes, that would be nice.

Jim had tried a bit of security work after leaving the army. But his mind was too fractured by this point. He couldn’t provide a home or keep a job. Strange how everything fell apart. It had almost been a relief. Suppose it was time to turn things around

The disturbance outside is getting worse. The angry winds of too little space, too little freedom whirl round.

Alex began moaning and crying in his sleep. Oh God, not again. Jim longed to yell out too but somehow he didn’t. He wanted to punch that door down, throw something against the wall. Suddenly the inner scream within him filled the room.

Alex climbed out of his bunk and lay on Jim’s. He placed his arms around Jim. He did not have to say anything. He held him firm and tight letting him know that he was secure and safe. Jim placed his arms around Alex and stroked his head. Jim had never realised that reaching out to another person in pain answered and helped heal his own. That compassion and gentleness could well inside of him instead of anger. The storm may rage outside but in here there was a strange peace. Jim knew Alex would hold him close until those winds abated.

Dawn was breaking outside. A kind of order was being restored by the prison authorities. Soon both his and Alex’s sentences would be served. What would happen afterwards? All Jim knew is that Alex and him had a pact they would rent a flat together (Alex had a bit of money to do this). They would support each other as they each tried to make a new life. No Jim did not regret landing up in prison at this point. He had found the truest friend he ever would.

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

The Bells

Of course she would meet him in a Library. There was something about the scent of age and knowledge of that particular library she found appealing. She would always think of him when she got that scent, when she felt the crispness of an autumn evening.

It had been a strangely happy time in her life- she was successfully in a post she enjoyed, she like the home she had been in for a year. She filled her life with music. It seemed the hard years were behind her.

The first sight of him beguiled her. Of course he was a Piscean, of course. She somehow had this very specific type- handsome moody Piscean with dark eyes and dark hair. He even had a connection to Abbey Road!

She would make her weekly pilgrimage to share his Sunday morning with him. Sometimes she made the same journey mid-week (she recalled the train broke down once- that had been a long journey home). It made it seem like something even more sacred and worthwhile to be with him to have to make that journey, to travel to a place she never knew before so often. She heard the bells calling her

He had visited her once at her home, just before Valentines Day. She would never forget seeing him at the bottom of the stairs at her work on Valentines day itself. He never looked more like a puppy. How she hugged him. Did her hear the bells too? Did they call him to her?

She never thought she would find so many things about herself answered in him. How much he echoed her experiences. She had found it so hard to relate to men. She was often scared of them but he had been such an exception. He seemed so gentle and thoughtful.

She remembered the blossoms were all out that Good Friday. He was like Spring. He was a gentle warmth in her heart, a blooming of sleeping flowers. Those particular spring blossoms would die forever never to bloom again after him.

An Easter kiss turned so cold by Pentecost. 49 days . Not long. Of course things began to go wrong in May. It had always been a strangely painful month the last few years. It always took something when it left. This time it would take him.

That Pentecost something died in her, never to be reborn. She would never forget how she felt when he uttered those words. It is was like she had physically been switched off.

How she regretted how angry her pain and loneliness had made her toward him, the angry words she told him. But what she felt was like an energy that needed to turn itself somewhere. She did not like how bitter she had been. She learnt the danger of making another human the focus of her happiness.

If she learnt one thing, it was that she understood what it meant to actually be in love. It had not been the childish crush she mistook for real feelings before. It had not been some immature bedazzling. She had learnt that she did have the ability to love and give another person that way. She may never feel that way again but she had at least felt that way once.

In the year after him, she made some effort to try and see if she could date other men. She even went on a couple of dates that came to nothing. But he was the true image. It only reminded her that no other man could ever occupy that part in her heart. He had been a rare exception, her one in a million. She realised that men held no real attraction for her. It had taken one that she had felt exceptional to even call her out of her solitude. She was not prepared to settle. The severance from him had almost killed her. But she did not regret anything about what she had learnt by the experience.

Perhaps she directed what she had felt for him into her love for the city she had spent part of her childhood in. The spring blossoms never stopped blooming there.

In the years after him, she learnt a lot about standing up as her own women. She would never be able to believe the things she believed when she was with him. If anything, his behaviour proved the points of the feminists she would follow. There would be no more Easter blossoms. No more worship of dead times and dead men. Her reborn life would have to affirm life, to affirm the beautiful now. She would learn to be a proud spinster. A wise hag helped her see the beauty of that term .

She thought about that song she used to listen to when travelling home from visiting him on Sunday – ‘I’ll never hear the bells again’ . Well she never would. But she would hear the call of solidarity with other women


Monday, 15 June 2020

Where have I been?

I had not used this blog for over five years up until a couple of weeks ago. I tended to use Tumblr until around 2017 then twitter. However I wanted to use this blog for the Hannah Gadsby post then realised I had other things I wanted to write about

I left the job I had been for over thirteen years at the end of 2017. I have been in a variety of jobs since. This is a decision I have no regrets about. I left on good terms but have no regrets about moving on. However because of some of the traumatic events in that job and other issues I decided I would prefer not to stay in contact with my ex colleagues. I have also not really heard from them either. But things are what they are. I feel a lot better for moving on. I never thought I would. I was not in a good place for the last few years in the role

I have had some very positive experiences since such as one of my jobs. This is a very uncertain time. But I have hope.

Try and do some feministing on twitter and upholding women with Turner Syndrome too.