Monday, January 20, 2014

Weekly round up 3

- My album of the week is the new Warpaint LP, which is really their first album as far as I’m concerned, as I never really listened to their first – just the odd song on a radio that sounded to me (possibly incorrectly) like they were trying to do a The Cure thing. I caught them live at End of the Road this summer, where they sounded a bit rusty, but listening to this now I can see what they were getting at; a big, spacious, deep, lazy pop vibe. It’s a lovely lovely album, I think – a bit like a lot of the stuff I used to listen to when I was a teenager.

- This week I overheard some kids on the train discussing which parties would be in the next coalition. It made me realise how quickly things change, or at least how little the young know. Already for a lot of people in the country, a coalition is a normal state of affairs, what one might expect from a government. Perhaps they’re right, now, but it wasn’t long ago that coalition politics was just ‘a foreign thing’.

- My eyebrows join up in the middle. I have heard this discussed as a major problem (although more as a general rule than in reference to my own). Sitting in a barbers this week, with a slightly distracted guy gutting my hair, I had to do that thing for a moment of staying completely still while he stared into my eyes, fixing my fringe. He trimmed it a bit, then rocked back on his heels, staring at me. He leant forward, hacked another clump of hair out of my eyes, and then, as if on an un-quashable impulse, lurched forward and neatly snipped a path through the small patch of forest which sits atop the bridge of my nose, separating my two brows for the first time in many years.

We both pretended nothing had happened.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Sunday round up pt 2

- I’m so happy that The Bridge is back. I tend to avoid these long running TV shows, because I feel that they are a time drain, but The Bridge is one I’ll make an exception for, because the location fascinates me and the characterisation is brilliant. The second series seems to have more heart than the first – a consequence of Martin’s bereavement – and it’s been wonderful so far, although it strikes me that they’ve overplayed Saga’s lack of social conditioning this time round. That makes her funnier, perhaps even more charming – but less realistic somehow. Anyway, it’s great that it’s back. (Now all I want them to do is tell me which scenes are in Malmö and which are in Copenhagen; not knowing drives me nuts for some reason)

- Internet things: This is the first web-tool I’ve discovered in an age which is actually as useful as I hoped it would be. Unroll me helps you to unsubscribe from awful email-circulars. Yay. It really works.

- Having read a lot of Updike over New Year, I turned my attention to Philip Roth this week, digging out his still-outrageous, even-funnier-than-I-remember-it ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’, which is just so wonderfully biting and furious. As usual, I’m juggling about six books at the moment, but this one is pure pleasure.

- Another I’m finally reading after meaning to for ages is Olivia Laing’s ‘The Trip to Echo Spring’ which is just superb; a personal travelogue which examines the lives of six great writers and aims to answer the question posed in the subtitle: ‘why writers drink’. It’s beautifully written, although it’s giving me two big problems.

1) I’m having a sober January and it’s really making me want a cocktail. 2) It’s adding more stuff to my to-be-read pile; I’ve read a lot of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Tenessee Williams, but far less John Berryman, Raymond Carver and John Cheever. Want to read much more by all six now.

- I find Steve Malkmus’s stuff totally impressive, but not always easy to love. Of his solo work, only ‘Pig Lib’ stayed with me in the way that his work with Pavement did, even though The Jicks are (technically and for Malkmus) a better band. Every new album is a bit of a puzzle for me – always rewarding, never immediate. I’m always a fan. His new one is loose by his standards and contains some great stuff – ‘Houston Hades’ is so good it could have been on Terror Twilight, one of my favourite Pavement albums.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Sunday round-up #1

- With Christmas finished, we finally took our tree down yesterday, and Alec helped us return it to whence it came. This year we bought our tree from Gill’s Home & Garden store on Western Road, Brighton, and we were pleased to plump for a living tree. We returned it to the shop and it will soon be taken back out to a forest and re-planted. Our tree was called Paeater, Tree of Courage. [Moment of respectful silence].

- Sad to read of the death of Elizabeth Jane Howard this week. At first it seemed that all the coverage was going to concentrate purely on her relationships with other people rather than her work, but this has been steadily redressed over the last few days – with several beautiful articles emerging in the press. She was a great writer and hugely underrated. The appreciation in the Guardian is particularly worth reading, as is Martin Amis’ eulogy in the Mail.

- I watched ‘American Hustle’ this week, which I thought was absolutely great. I’m horribly out of date when it comes to cinema, I’m afraid. I follow quite a few film buffs on Twitter and am permanently perplexed by references to famous actors who I had no idea existed (Ryan Gosling? Channing Tatum? I have no idea who these people are or what films they’ve been in). I’d never seen Jennifer Lawrence in anything either ’til I saw AH but I’m now a fully paid up fan – of Amy Adams too (who I’d likewise never heard of). They both act the men off the screen in a really involving, exciting, over the top film. Which is not to say the male leads don’t impress too.

- I also watched ‘Anchorman 2′, which was fun – but the only reason I mention it is that I watched it at The Big Scream, the baby-friendly screening at the Dukes at Komedia in Brighton’s North Laine. I was vaguely fearful that attempting to watch a film surrounded by yelling babies would be massively frustrating. It wasn’t at all – I barely noticed them except for the moments when Connie reached over and stole my glasses.

- If you live in Brighton, go and get a coffee in The Mad Hatter Café on Western Road. They’ll let you buy a suspended coffee while you place your order, and a hard-up coffee-fan can claim it at their leisure later. Ace.

- We spent the whole of the Christmas break in Brighton, and this week the last of our visiting friends departed, and a few who have been away returned. The most rewarding thing about 2013 was the contribution made by our excellent friends. The best days of the year have been those spent with Lynds, Anne-So, Rich, Vic, Alec, Connie, Sam, Laura, Ali, James, Anita, Jackie, Ollie, Dan, Alice, Ryan, Simon, Paul, Vanessa, Dan, Ant, Hedvig, Andrew, Sophie, Ruby, Harry, Claire, Gabs, Murray, Amy, Dan, Julie (and others). They’re a nice bunch.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Updike, ‘Ace In The Hole’ / New Year

Full of the enthusiasm of a New Year, I’m planning on working my way through Updike’s short stories this year. Updike has experienced a decline in reputation, it seems to me, and is seen as somewhat of a dinosaur now, and self-indulgent, too. I always loved him as a stylist, but only a few of his novels I loved without reservation – some I had to put down (Toward The End of Time, ugh). I think probably as a poet and an author of short stories (the latter in particular) he was at his very best.

The first story I read, in the magnificently presented new collected stories published by the Library of America, was also the first notable story he wrote. Ace In The Hole prefigures Rabbit somewhat; a short tale of a young man at odds with the world of work and not succeeding in his own efforts to raise a family. A man who’d rather be on the court, bouncing a basketball.

This bit really struck me. perhaps because I’ve spent a lot of time playing with, observing and marvelling at Vic’s baby daughter this year. But also because it’s in the acute observation of such vital and intimate details of life that Updike evolves beyond the accusations of dinosaur-hood, I think.

In two steps, Ace was at Bonnie’s crib, picking the rattle out of the mess of blocks and plastic rings and beanbags. He extended the rattle toward his daughter, shaking it delicately. Made wary by this burst of attention, Bonnie reached with both hands; like two separate animals they approached from opposite sides and touched the smooth rattle simultaneously. A smile worked up her face. Ace tugged weakly. She held on, and then tugged back.
Terrific. Looking forward to reading more.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

The Teleportation Accident, micro review

This entertaining book, by the young British novelist Ned Beauman, struck me as a v bold, energetic bit of writing, & the similes/descriptions are firework-esque. The story itself, which careers from Berlin to Paris to the Los Angeles of the 1930s is winningly free of constraints, which is fun but which makes it a somewhat messy read, a triumph of style over structure. That said, I ended up racing enthusiastically through it & laughing loads, as often as not at the sheer abandon of it. But the 1st half was much stronger for me than the second, where I started to feel that I was losing the central character’s voice – and, essentially, for all that at times it recalls the delightful barminess of Wodehouse or the mischief of early Martin Amis, it’s not quite my type of thing. Clever, witty, self-indulgent, free-wheeling, often a bit tiresome, but often sparking. Definitely worth a read, but insubstantial in the long run.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Learning to like Danny Baker

Read an interview with Danny Baker today. That’s something I do every now and again and, when I do, I always think, “oh yes, Danny Baker is a good guy, isn’t he?”, with some degree of surprise. I think this, in this surprised way, because for a time when I was a younger I had characterised Danny Baker as a bit of an arsehole – or at least someone who was friends with someone I considered an arsehole (Chris Evans) and who seemed to me to represent a very dreary 90s male stereotype.

I’ve heard lots over the years about how his radio shows are micro-masterpieces and I’ve read a few articles by him or about him which have backed up the notion that I was mistaken about him, but on the occasions when I’ve tried to engage with him as a result, I’ve not got very far. The zoo format and music bed on his radio show I find not only aggravating but quite stressful; over the years I’ve appreciated quiet and considered TV and radio more and more, and the constant noise and frequent interjections set my teeth on edge.

But having read today’s interview (here) I again decided to tune in, and downloaded a recent episode of his show to my mobile phone to listen to at lunch. Almost immediately, walking out through Chichester on a sunny afternoon, I felt the urge to snap the podcast off – those aforementioned characteristics of the show turning me right off. But I stuck with it and, to some extent, tuned out of the backing music and the matey patter, and began to rather enjoy it. It was more bucolic than I expected, with Baker absolutely delighted to hear a tale from a caller of an overgrown football pitch where the weeds stood as high as the goalposts. He shrieked with pleasure when the same caller described a moment’s pause at a nearby river, when a kingfisher landed on the end of his fishing rod. It’s hard to dislike someone who takes pleasure in such an event.

Might listen to a bit more of the show and see if I can become a fan.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Schroder & A Life’s Music

A day of finishing books today; recently started two short novels which are both pockmarked by European war, and which both begin with escapes. In Schroder, by Amity Gaige, the central character, who is both Eric and Erik, has escaped from East Berlin and remade himself in America, and in Andreï Makine’s excellent A Life’s Music, set nearly 50 years earlier, a young Russian pianist, Alexeï Berg, tries to flee the Soviet Union but succeeds only in getting to the Eastern front. Both novels are scarred by regret and longing, and both are exceptionally beautiful, in very different ways.

Schroder in particular is really wonderful; it’s the story of a man who absconds which his daughter – a love letter to the idea of love itself, and a mea-culpa of many decisive faults. “You liked the feeling of love”, Schroder tells himself, “but you weren’t interested in the work, so you let go of it”.

The obvious comparison is to Nabakov and Humbert Humbert, but most of all Gaige, who writes a male narrator as convincing, frightening & believable as any I can remember, summons up a tone which reminds me of the nervous, constant, intellectual intensity of Europa/Destiny era Tim Parks. Which is a very good thing.

Might be the best book I’ve read so far this year. And A Life’s Music contains some pretty lovely sentences, too – at one point two men dismount from a crowded train: “After days and nights of immobility our feet plant themselves in the snow with the suppleness of a dance”.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Back with Betty

Quite pleased to discover that I still think Betty Blue is a pretty great film. I watched it a lot as a teenager, partly because I fancied Beatrice Dalle and partly because I was in a phase of renting art-house films from the library (‘cos I fancied the actresses in them…) and Betty Blue was my favourite. Since then I’ve read a lot of quite scathing reviews of it, writing it off as either pseudo-intellectual soft porn or directionless melodrama. But decided today to give it another try and thought it a lot better than I’ve seen it described. It’s nowhere near as erotic as the easily-pleased teenage me found it – Betty’s actually a lot cuter and sexier when she’s dressed than when she’s not, thank to the cheerful petulance and charm which Beatrice Dalle brings to the role, and Zorg is a lot more appealing than I remember him – muscular, easygoing and devoted.

There are plenty of flaws; both Betty and Zorg are rather idealised, and the final third of the film descends dramatically (the drag scenes? hmmm). But the first 90 minutes are extremely winning – the months they spend drinking and dancing in the Paris hotel with Eddy and Lisa are exactly what I hoped for from my 20s, the pacing is delightful, and there’s a lot to be said for the way Zorg and Betty get (it) on. I liked the way that for all that Zorg is devoted to his unravelling girlfriend, he’s not paternal, macho or aggressive in the way he seeks to protect her – which is what the drag stuff is about, I guess. It’s full of mis-steps and a few shonky attempts at humour, but overall I really enjoyed re-visiting it. It looks, needless to say, absolutely beautiful, too.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Currently listening, Jan 13

1. Matthew E White – Big Inner LP
The Guardian haven’t stopped praising Matthew E White since his debut record came out, and tempting though it is to be dismissive of such hype, it’s a really brilliant LP – a soulful and immaculate record with incredible arrangements and a near uncategorisable spectrum of influnces, from country, jazz, folk, gospel and soul to glimpses (if I’m right) of acid house. A genuine marvel.

2. Sexy Fi – Nunca Te Vi De Boa
I shan’t try too hard to categorise Sexy Fi either; weird, tropical, funky, jangly, noisy pop music from Brazil. No idea who they are but really like this record! Here it is on Spotify.

3. Traams – Peggy
Easily the best new band I saw last year, their live sets are dominated by long, heavy, teutonic jams – like Big Black channeling Neu. This song proves they can do short songs with brilliant ‘ooh-ooh’ choruses, too.

4. Yo La Tengo – Fade LP
I’ve never listened to any Yo La Tengo records. I’ve no idea why or how I’ve managed this. This is their new one. It suggests I’ve rather missed out – beautifully realised, fuzzy indie rock.

5/6. Kimbra – Vows LP / Dawn Richard – Goldenheart LP
Two records I discovered, again, through positive Guardian album reviews. Kimbra specialises in joyful electronic pop and Dawn Richard in stylish but unshowy r’n'b. Both are great.

7. Masta Killah – All Natural
Like most Wu-afilliated records these days, Masta Killah’s latest is a mixed bag, but it boasts a couple of decent songs – the best by far is this, which finds the rapper deconstructing his vegetarianism. Brilliant.

8. Gerry Read – Jummy LP
I’m always looking for house music which endures across a full LP, and Gerry Read’s subtle, shifting, four-to-the-floor house music is the closest I’ve found to what I like in a long time.

9. Viv Albertine – The Vermilion Border LP
If I’d have listened to this a lot more in 2012 it would have featured quite highly in my records of the year list; it’s fucking brilliant – a smart, sassy, sexy LP from the former Slits guitarist. This should percolate far and wide, if there’s any justice.

10. Keel Her – You Would Be So Grossed Out If I Did That
Still not many official releases from the unbelievably prolific, and now Brighton-based, Keel Her (she releases new tracks online all the time); but her recent single ‘Riot Grrrl’ is her best release yet. A proper recording of this slightly wonky acoustic song is the (terrific) b-side.

11. Stealing Sheep – Into the Diamond Sun LP
I saw Stealing Sheep live loads in 2010 and 2011, and once last year, and while they were terrific every time, their sets seemed pretty similar, meaning that by the time their debut LP came out last year, I thought I had figured them out, and didn’t get round to buy a copy. Consequently, I didn’t spot how bloody great it is – much more joyful, tuneful and poppy than I remember them being live, and a really great summer record. Really glad I finally figured that out.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

An Error of Judgement

Last summer, when Dan came down from Reading for the weekend, the two of us set about doing some video work, as we often do when he visits. However, that day it was wet outside and we were short on inspiration, so we sat around for a bit trying to come up with a project.

Eventually, we came up with the following film. The title is taken from a (very good) Pamela Hansford Johnson novel, but the rest is really just a result of a bit of brainstorming and improvising. We needed to shoot the whole thing indoors, with only the two of us as actors, and we didn’t want to get caught up in dialogue as neither of us can act. Also, we didn’t want to spend ages doing lighting and sound and stuff like that, so the whole thing is pretty much shot run and gun, with just a little bit of extra lighting to help us in the hallway shots. Consequently the whole thing looks very scruffy, with plenty of bumps and whirrs caught on the camera’s in-built microphones, and a few nasty variations in light – but given that it took us about 2 hours to film, and then about the same time again for me to edit it together (this week, after the files had sat on my hard drive for six months) I think it looks pretty good.

I’m very interested in the idea of exploring what goes wrong after one person does something foolish; I’ve another idea for a film which I want to make this spring which concentrates on something similar. It’s easy, after all, to act without thinking.

Although not so easy to act.

An Error of Judgement from Jonathan Shipley on Vimeo.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Li Lanqing, British Museum

I called in at the box of delights which is the British Museum on my way to meet some friends in London last week. I like picking a theme when I go, as it’s otherwise impossible to choose where to go, and you end up stumbling from room to room in a kind of nostalgic daze, feeling progressively smaller and smaller as the treasures increase in scale. This time I decided to head to the Americas before anything else, and meandered through the Aztecs, the Arctic and the North American collections.

Before long I found myself predictably off-piste and gazing at a small temporary exhibition in the Far East rooms, 5 or 6 small cabinets containing a collection of of contemporary Chinese seals by Li Lanqing.

Li is an engigmatic figure in modern Chinese politics; he served as Vice Premier of the State Council of China from 1993 to 2003 and played a crucial role in both the opening up of the State economically and the development of national education. Since his retirement from politics he’s turned his energy to the promotion of his two passions – classical music and seal-carving. The latter, one of the four traditional chinese art-forms (along with calligraphy, painting and poetry) is a truly ancient art, and Li’s interest illustrates the dichotomy present in his personal politics; he is a deeply modern man who is simultaneously respectful of tradition. Consequently his seals, which look at first to be deeply conventional, display a great deal of depth – often international in outlook, often witty and wise, always imbued with his passion for life, and very much of the twentieth and twenty first centuries.

His passions shine through; there are stunningly beautifully wrought expressions and aphorisms (the tiny, contained ‘Eat like an ant’ and the wide, spare ‘My heart calm as the water’), and tributes to great figures like Dickens, Goethe and Cervantes. His ‘Opera Disc’ seal, with its use of the English language subverts the geographic specificity of his usual work.

One seal, Baiting Roast Duck Restaurant (Bad Officials are Examined by an Illiterate Person), provides a great example of Li’s playfulness. Featuring some strokes carved to print in red and some in white, the seal mimics a malfunctioning neon sign with half it’s lights out. Moreover, each colour’s message reads differently; the white a traditional advertisement for a famous Beijing restaurant, the white a critique of hapless officials.

It’s a lovely small exhibition, and a little, light-filled window into a big, powerful, slow-changing, subtle China.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

On meths

Daft link time. Amazon sell, amongst their usual wares, bottles of Barrettine Methylated Spirits. There are some rather wonderfu­l reviews up:

From the moment you remove the cap you realise you’re in for a treat. Fresh, bright, smoky, with a mineral edge and rounded, fruity nose. Midweight and bold, possessing some edge and no little bite, yet remaining smooth, balanced and satisfying. This is a drink to enjoy with friends in a park. Highly recommended.

Ever since the HSE removed B&Q essentials paint thinners from the market, there’s been something missing in the world of the al fresco drinker – now Barretine have answered our prayers. The nose is similar to a fine Algerian vodka; on the palette fragrant hydrocarbon appear first, followed by a searing alcoholic kick; the finish is brief and flammable. Half way through the first bottle, I was merrily releving my salad days on the road, by the end of the third I was screaming incoherently at the traffic in a soiled tracksuit. Top stuff.

There’s lots more. Enjoy.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Dream geography

I’ve been warned before that there’s nothing very interesting in talking about one’s dreams. People who analyse them are deluded and people who describe them are dullards. That’s probably true – but one’s own dreams always seem interesting to oneself, particularly if you wake like I did this morning, thinking, “bloody hell, that was vivid”.

A couple of fragments that I remember, to amuse myself.

I was walking through an altered Brighton – I assume I’m not unusual and that everyone distorts geographical reality when they dream. The Brighton of my dreams is pretty close to the one I inhabit when awake, except that some roads are louder, quieter, nearer, further away, blended or bent out of shape. My home is often different, although weirdly it’s rarely an amalgam of real places I’ve lived and rather somewhere quite distinct, a figment of my imagination. But when I dream it up – or at least, on the occasions when I remember it – I find I’ve done a good job of designing something really complete. I could knock on the walls.

I was walking through an altered Brighton – and it was a bit hotter and swingier; something of Lisbon transplanted to St James Street. People drank on doorsteps or cross legged on the pavement, people drifted diagonally from bar to bar. I walked to a camera shop (Jessops, I suppose, which has just closed down in real life, although there isn’t one in Kemp Town), and got invited to a party while I stared in the window. I crossed the road, and watched two men run at each other outside the Thai restaurant. One man was bent low, like a bull. The other man pulled a gun from his pocket and shot him. Then he pointed the gun at me, and I grabbed at a bit of loose wooden boarding which was nearby – quite calmly – and held it like a shield. He shot me through the board. I was carried away.

I woke up in a garden just around the corner, here in Seven Dials. It was New Year’s Eve and I had decided to sleep outdoors. It was a warm and balmy night. When I think about it, it often is in my dreams. I tossed and turned – in my dream – unable to sleep. So eventually I got up and walked through another part of Brighton (which is down by the seafront) back to my flat in Kemp Town. I slept there. After a while I rose and went back out onto St James Street and to an L-shaped bar which has never existed, but of which I dream, oddly, often. Downstairs they do cocktails and there is a small, tropical garden where you can stand. I think I dream about this bar twice a year.

I know what my dreams mean – they mean nothing. But I am intrigued by the geography of them. I often wake wishing for a map.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Max Richter recomposing Vivaldi

A quick music recommendation for you.

It’s a symptom of getting older that you begin becoming more and more interested in the ‘adult’ musical genres that appalled you in your youth, I think. I got my head around world music first, then classical, and then eventually jazz, and now genuinely love aspects of all three, although they’re far too huge in terms of depth for me to boast any expert knowledge.

Of the three, I know the least about classical music – or rather pre-20th century classical music. I used to work on the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians with some clever and very likeable musos, who convinced me of the merits of Glass, Part, Terry Riley, Messiaen etc, but I have utterly failed to dig deeper into the vast canon of classics represented by the likes of Beethoven, Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart, none of whom were played in the house when I grew up or anything like that. I’m aware that I should know their work more, respect it more, understand it better.

If you feel the same – inspired by the minimal textures of modern and contemporary classical music but intimidated by the old masters, you might want to check out this LP – a re-composing of Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’ by the German-born English musician Max Richter. It’s really incredible – a classical piece which takes Vivaldi as its starting point but strips back the orchestration and the familiar tropes to create something a bit more contemporary sounding. In a couple of places I’ve seen it compared rather sniffily to a film-score, or encountered dull curmudgeons who imagine something sacrilegious about Richter adopting this playful approach to Vivaldi’s score. But that’s probably to be expected.

Anyway, I absolutely love it. There are bits of ‘The Four Seasons’ that even I can recognise, and other bits which I couldn’t tell you who wrote them, Vivaldi or Richter. The latter has claimed that around 75% of the work is his – but the debt is huge. Either way, it’s a synthesis that works beautifully and a really lovely record.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Ali Smith's 'Artful'

Just finished reading Ali Smith’s lovely, confusing, inspiring ‘Artful’, which I’m clearly going to have to re-read if I want to boast to people that I really ‘got it’; it’s a dense, fast-moving combination of intriguing fiction and literary criticism, and I read it as the former, not worrying too much about wringing every ounce of meaning from the many poems and quotations which pepper the text. I did pick out a few lovely things though;

“When human beings love they try to get something. They also try to give something, and this double aim makes love more complicated than food or sleep. It is selfish and altruistic at the same time, and no amount of specialization in one direction quite atrophies the other”.
EM Forster
There’s lots of Katherine Mansfield in the book, and lots of trees. I never enjoyed reading DH Lawrence, but I like Mansfield’s description of his ‘Aaron’s Rod’ as a tree, “firmly planted, deep thrusting, outspread, growing grandly, alive in every twig”.

And there was more nature in the following, which made me think of the ‘We are the clay that grew tall’ line in Melissa Harrison’s terrific book ‘Clay’, which I talked about the other day.
“Decay is the beginning of all birth … it transforms shape and essence, the forces and virtues of nature. Just as the decay of all foods in the stomach transforms them and makes them into a pulp, so it happens outside the stomach … Decay is the midwife of very great things!”
Paracelsus
and here’s Ali Smith herself, talking about something I’ve already mentioned:
“We do treat books surprisingly lightly in contemporary culture. We’d never expect to understand a piece of music on one listen, but we tend to believe that we’ve read a book after reading it just once. Books and music share more in terms of resonance than just a present tense correlation of heard note to read word. Books need time to dawn on us, it takes time to understand what makes them, structurally, in thematic resonance, in afterthought, and always in correspondence with the books which came before them, because books are produced by books more than by writers; they’re a result of all the books that went before them.”
That one’s pertinent.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Where are we now?

I’m a massive Bowie fan, so, transparently, today has been a ridiculously good day for me.

If you missed it – ten years after his last record and seven years after he last performed in public – this morning, entirely without fanfare or forewarning, David Bowie released a brand new song and announced a forthcoming LP. This is, in the world of pop, massive news, and judging by the fact that I heard about it on the Today programme on Radio 4, it’s presumably big news elsewhere too. The Guardian practically devoted their entire Arts team to covering it today (yielding good pieces from Michael Hann and Alexis Petridis), and my twitter feed was a pretty relentless stream of enthusiasm.

I’ve been in a good mood all day.

And amidst all the excitement, there’s a song, and you should listen to it.

It’s far too early for me to pass any real critical judgement, to declare it better than his 90s work or worse than the stuff on ‘Heathen’, and I’m too biased to be truly objective regardless – but the song matters to me because I find it thrilling to think that Bowie still digs making music (I thought he’d retired) and the song itself, regardless of its place in his canon, makes me happy – by chance it recalls much of Bowie’s music that I like best; the sombre, elegiac Bowie of the late ’70s, whose years in Berlin still seem to speak to him more powerfully than any others. To hear him singing in his own distinct, somewhat tremulous voice is, for all that it is aged, a great privilege.

He’s written so many wonderful wonderful songs, but there’s a category that I hold particularly close to my heart, and that’s the smallish number of songs where it sounds like Bowie is singing from deep within his true self – not channeling Anthony Newley, or Lou, or Iggy, or Dylan, or even James Brown (I love it when he channels James Brown). The best example is, I think, ‘Wild Is The Wind‘, which Bowie himself has described as his finest vocal performance. There are shades of that song here – or shades of the truthfulness it evinces. And something very vulnerable too.

What a joy it is to hear, and to have him back.

If you like it too – or, failing that, like David generally – then we can be friends.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Review, Dredd (Pete Travis, 2012)

When I was a kid I chanced upon 2000AD and, for a short period, I bought it every week. If you’ve not read 2000AD, you might think it’s a nerdy, ultraviolent science fiction comic (and you’d be right) and as such it’s regularly dismissed as an adolescent concern; as a teenager keenly aware of wanting to be cool, I swiftly stopped buying it when I learned this, and began looking for more serious literature to fill the gap (and do a better job of impressing others/girls).

I’ve never been a huge comic reader, but 2000AD was my gateway drug to a world of fine, artistically challenging, serious “graphic novels”, which I read throughout my 20s, in an attempt to marry my affection for comic books with my pretentiously high-brow attitude towards literature. Consequently, a shelf in my flat groans with expensive, sincere comic books, few of which I ever actually finished.

Later, it occurred to me that the comic I wanted to read wasn’t a hip independent quarterly at all – it was 2000AD, and when I went back to it I immediately recalled that actually, despite it being nerdy and ultraviolent, it was always bloody smart and often highly political and satirical. More importantly, it was great fun, and for all the dazzlingly inventive stuff that would feature in it, by far the best was generally the staple, Judge Dredd, which was and is a work of complete genius. Having spent pretending otherwise, It’s probably fashionable to say this, now, which makes this mea culpa somewhat redundant, but there it is.

Anyway, I watched the recent adaptation of this fine comic strip, the Brit-made ‘Dredd’, starring Karl Urban and Olivia Thirlby this weekend, and I thought it was completely marvellous. Possibly not quite as darkly comic as the strip, nor quite as gruesomely inventive (hard on a very low budget), but it was an absolutely fantastic, lean, aggressive, compulsive bit of action cinema, propelled by all the things that make the comic strip great – a complete lack of misogyny, a vivid and colourful concept and best of all, a central character who is complete in every sense.

Dredd isn’t, if you trace him through the comic, a lot of things he’s described as being (a fascist, an unlearning automaton), but he is consistent, coherent and always convincing, as cleanly defined an action hero as you could wish for. He’s also devilishly hard to play, so I was completely certain that neither Karl Urban nor any actor could convincingly portray Dredd on screen, but after fifteen minutes I was absolutely sold on his performance.

Similarly, my heart sank when I saw that a young and very beautiful actress had been picked to play Anderson, fearing that meant a descent into predictable roles, but her performance (and more important, her characterisation) is almost note perfect. Never once is she shown to be weaker than any male character nor is her meeting with the (also female) villain contextualised in light of their sex. She’s just a brilliant, character, as is Dredd.

And this is a brilliant film. Not flawless, obviously, and some way from being a masterpiece of cinema – but it is a masterpiece of bringing Dredd to life, which is all we could have asked for. There’s some really exciting slo-mo filming in there, too, enough to suggest that given a bigger budget a sequel could go some way to visualising the extraordinary colour and madness of the comic.

In the meantime, your Saturday night needs Dredd.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Coffee with Eva

When Sam was over for Xmas we met up with our dear friend Eva in Brighton’s nice Marwood cafe. I am ashamed to say I hardly ever get round to seeing Eva, which is absolutely stupid, and something I must remedy in 2013.

Eva is terrific; we wished her well for the holiday season and she politely assured us that she had absolutely no intention of seeing us on Christmas Day, because she had an essay to write and also had ‘an onion and a pepper’ in the fridge that needed eating. If we did met up, she insisted, she would be unable to join in the festivities or pretend to like her presents. She also talked briefly about her new obsession with crime, her time in Turkey (when she was frequently mistaken for a spy) and her hatred of communism.

Eva is now in Greece where she is spending the next two weeks picking olives. I think perhaps she, rather than me or Sam, is the one with it all sorted out.

Review; Clay by Melissa Harrison

Just finished reading Melissa Harrison’s lovely first novel, ‘Clay’, and wanted to pen a few thoughts while it’s still fresh in my mind. ‘Clay’ is a terrifically beautiful book, a quiet, sensitive portrayal of the lives of a small cast of slightly lonely, slightly constrained protagonists, and their development over the course of a half year in a South London which is by turns familiar and gloriously unfamiliar.

Familiar because Harrison has a good grasp of the plain-sight city – “nail bars, chicken parlours, newsagents, mobile phone unlocking, cheap calls to Africa”, and exotic because she populates the city with a bewildering cast of living things which our eyes are either untrained to see or disposed to miss; dog foxes, bats, sticky goosegrass and evergreen choisya, butterflies, greenflies and stag beetles, swifts, starlings, and plane trees shedding flakes of polluted bark. Harrison’s prose is poetic but hyper-observant, always sensing new movement in the nearby undergrowth, or a pair of eyes watching high in a tree. South London which is by turns familiar and gloriously unfamiliar.

All five of the novel’s main characters see more of this hidden city than I (regrettably) do, and are to a smaller or greater extent drawn towards the area’s liminal places – the parts of London in which pockets of extraordinary life are concealed, yet continue to thrive – and in particular to a small park near Tooting Common, which becomes the space in which they meet and interact. At the centre is TC, whose story of neglect is painfully sad but whose resourcefulness and passion for nature is a rebuke to his coddled, careless peers. Around him Harrison conjures a story quite free of sensationalism or sentimentality, but which is quietly gripping and somewhat inspiring. South London which is by turns familiar and gloriously unfamiliar.

The clay of the title refers to a phrase recalled from childhood – ‘we are the clay that grew tall’, which resonates through the novel; TC is a child ‘on intimate terms with the earth’. Jozef, an exile from Poland, mourns the physical properties of the farm he grew up on. Sophia, growing old on a council estate her family have left, does her best to disrupt the order which the council wish to impose upon the wedge-shaped park she has watched over for decades, her pockets bulging with papery bulbs. South London which is by turns familiar and gloriously unfamiliar.

‘Clay’ is a very satisfying read; a serious book which evokes important topics like innocence, companionship and trust, but which is driven forward by the author’s obvious, intimate connection with nature. South London which is by turns familiar and gloriously unfamiliar.

Very pleased that it’s the first thing I read in 2013; it’s a short, brilliant novel that makes me want to rush out into the woods.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Flooded rivers

My parents have been flooded in for a few weeks up in Cambridge, meaning that when I spoke to my mum the other day she sounded a bit stressed.

“It’s been awful”, she told me. “We’ve not been out of the house. We’re both desperate to get out, we can’t wait for the flooding to go down! We feel rather trapped”.

“Oh dear. Is Dad OK? Put him on”.

There’s a rustling as my mum puts down the phone and seeks out my father. I hope that being stranded is not upsetting him too much.

“HELLO!” He booms. “Have you heard about the flooding?”.

“Mum told me”, I explain. “Are you OK?”.

“Oh yes!”, he replies, enthusiastically. “It’s very exciting!”.

Sometimes I’m more like my mum, sometimes more like my dad.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Albums of the year 2012

Here we go!

10. Foxes – Foxes
The indie-pop contingent in this year’s list gets the nod courtesy of being fractionally more fun than the other bands who might have made the list (Allo Darlin’, The Twerps, Exlovers), and their debut LP is bursting with offbeat, tongue-in-cheek moments, combined with moments of piercing fragility. A really lovely record full of winning melodies, lines and ideas.

9. Matthew Dear – Beams
Matthew Dear’s ‘Black City’ was one of my favourite records of 2010 so it’s not really a surprise that I loved this too – if anything it’s a more organic, coherent work, a lovely, Bowie/Eno/Byrne indebted collage of techno and art-pop. ‘Beams’ is the first record that Dear has recorded since he moved to the countryside, but it still resonates with the sounds of the big, sinister city. Great stuff.

8. Soko – I Wish I Was An Alien
Listened to this a lot this year, puzzling over Soko’s fragile lack of self-esteem and her storytelling ability. I’m not quite sure if she’s really as unhappy as she makes out on this record, but it leads to some great, underworked, bruised French pop-folk. It’s become a bit of a joke in our house; ‘how’s Soko feeling today?’. ‘It’s not good, I’m afraid’.

7. Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill
Far far better than it has the right to be after a few years of interesting but not exactly vital records; this new effort – a double LP of straight, Crazy Horse riffing – genuinely sounds like Neil is back to his best. Only the first song, which finds him whinging about mp3s, disappoints, with the rest a wonderful, winding celebration of rock and roll.

6. Darren Hayman & The Long Parliament – The Violence
The best record of Darren’s career by some distance, this marvellous LP feels somehow like his most heartfelt despite it being a meditation on the seventeenth century Essex witch trials. Magnificently arranged and full of lovely, if sometimes disturbing imagery, this is a display of artistic ambition realised.

5. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
The music of Leonard Cohen is very important to me, as his records were played constantly at home when I was a child, and I actually went some time ignoring this new record, fearing that I’d be let down by what I assumed was inevitable disappointment. It wasn’t until I saw Cohen play in Berlin in the late summer that I realised how superb his songwriting continues to be, leaving me doing some rather shame-faced catching up. This may arrive very late in Leonard’s career, but it’s a hugely important part of his body of work. And hopefully not his last LP.

4. Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves Of Destiny – Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose
Delighted by this one, not least because I watched Beth do a series of gigs throughout 2009, 10 and 11 where she somehow seemed to be enjoying each show less and less and sounding more and more tired of the songs she’d been playing for a few years. In fact, much of ‘Yours Truly…’ had been long recorded by that stage, but somehow its release galvanised the band and they’ve been better and better every time I’ve seen them since. And this record is far far better than any debut LP has the right to be – confident, intelligent, daring and gloriously canorous. Beth’s recording the follow up in LA at the moment and I think it’ll be even better.

3. First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
This one, from early 2012, feels like it came out aaages ago, but it still sounds incredibly fresh when I put it on; a lovely slice of warm Americana by two Swedes who allowed their obsession with Emmylou, June, Gram and Johnny to shine through on every song. A lovely listen every time.

2. Tim Burgess – Oh No I Love You
Easily the biggest surprise of the year for me was the depth and quality of Tim Burgess’s second solo LP. The words were written by Kurt Wagner of Lambchop and the record produced in his Nashville studio (meaning the luxuriant country-soul sound of Wagner’s band is present throughout), but much of the joy is found in Burgess’s clean, pretty songwriting (he penned the tunes) and in his delightful voice, which is often as boyish as ever it was and yet sometimes a cracked, deep whisper. His switch to falsetto in ‘The Economy’ is one of my favourite musical moments of 2012.

1. Field Music – Plumb
I couldn’t quite get my head around Field Music’s 2009 double LP ‘Measure’, which was a real surprise after having often claimed that their ‘Tones of Town’, from four years earlier, is my favourite record of the 21st Century so far. ‘Plumb’, happily, fixes all of the problems I had with its predecessor, coming in at a gloriously concise 35 minutes but crammed with more twists, turns and segues than you could shake a stick at. Like much of Field Music’s best work, there’s a kind of symphonic consistency and coherence to the album which makes me think of it in terms of movements rather than the songs. Allowing me that, the final movement, comprising the last five songs, is the sound of 2012 for me.

Honorable mentions:
Allo Darlin’, Oddisee, The Wave Pictures, Kimbra, Viv Albertine, The Twerps, Damon Albarn, Brother Ali, Cabaret Scene, Actress, Moritz Von Oswald, Blu & Exile, Taylor Swift, Mac Demarco, Friends, La Sera, Parquet Courts, Josephine Foster, Quakers, John Cale, Ab-Soul, Brian Eno, Milk Music.

Last year’s Top 10.
1. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo
2. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
3. Destroyer – Kaputt
4. Stricken City – Losing Colour
5. Veronica Falls – s/t
6. Nick Lowe – The Old Magic
7. Gorillaz – The Fall
8. Real Estate – Days
9. Little Dragon – Ritual Union
10. The Fall – Ersatz GB

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

New Year's Day

When we finally made it out of Brighton on the first day of 2013, it was much colder than we expected and the light, which had been thrillingly rich all day, was already beginning to dip. So we only walked around Devil’s Dyke for half an hour or so, mindful not to slip in the mud and binding our coats tight around us, as if we might conjure an extra layer by wrapping them round twice. Of course I had a hangover and new (year) promises to keep, so the cold wind did its unwelcome job of battering last night’s boozy breath out of my lungs until I felt like this was the start of something new, not just a painful bit left over from yesterday. I felt less than re-born, but glad to be alive and idling into another year.

Monday, March 08, 2010

This Blog Has Moved

This blog has been sleeping while its contents moved elsewhere to a new website. Now that website is dead and I remembered this one.

Friday, February 26, 2010

notice of future changes

Right, so I have started, very tentatively, exploring the possibility of - and preparing for - the big shift from Blogger to Wordpress. That means a change of URL, a change of look, and the mothballing of this side of the site. Terrible idea? Possibly. I've not decided definitely, but think I'm going to do it.

Any endorsements, objections, suggestions, encouragment much appreciated. Am I doing the right thing?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

priorities

Monday, February 22, 2010

nick winterton

Over at Skuds' blog, he's made a couple of very good points about Nick Winterton MP, the Tory who blundered into a political crisis this week when he revealed that he objects to being made to travel in standard class, because they're occupied by "a totally different type of people".

Your constituents, perhaps? Anyway, this was all predictable stuff, and my immediate reaction was that it's ironic that these crass, condescending comments attracted so much ire, rather than the blunt fact that Winterton (and his awful wife, who is also a Tory MP) has been spouting objectionable, backward, bigoted crap for years. As Marina Hyde commented:

"I think quite seriously that the couple should be scientifically preserved in some way to remind people what it was like until, well, about eight months ago. A husband and wife team of such luminous repugnance, the most reasonable assumption is that the Wintertons were hatched in an al-Qaida-underwritten research facility, created with the sole aim of destroying all ­British trust in authority from within".
People, however, are preoccupied with a personal - rather than a political - vendetta against politicians. In the eyes of the Daily Mail reading public, for example, a fine public servant is considered a corrupt charlatan if he or she has an inaccurate expenses claim. A self-serving, arrogant and morally bankrupt MP like George Galloway, meanwhile, can boast of moral superiority by virtue of his having not submitted any expenses at all - regardless of his other (more important) transgressions.

Anyway. Winterton is clearly a vile throwback; he's voted against equalising the age of consent, in favour of Section 28 (which prohibited teachers from discussing homosexuality in their classrooms), for the reintroduction of capital punishment. All this I noted, but Skuds noticed something else, which I think is extremely insightful when considering how the average Conservative thinks.

Winterton complains:
"The people who increasingly dominate this House are people who are intelligent, but they go from school to university, university to researcher, researcher to adviser, then to candidate. They have no experience of life outside. Have they ever paid wages at the end of the week? Have they ever been through negotiations over a business deal? Have they been in the law? No."
Skuds notes:

"Very telling. Note that real-life experience is not being paid wages at the end of the week but paying somebody else. How many people do actually pay somebody else and negotiate business deals? A very small proportion I am guessing. It is another way of saying that you need to be from management to be in parliament – forget about being an ex-teacher or something like that."

A very very good point - this kind of patrician thinking has less and less to do with how modern Britain works. If you've even the slightest interest in a meritocratic society, a Tory government would be a disaster.

friends in other places

Laura, over on her lovely Make Do And Mend blog (which always makes me feel bad for never sending her any post) has some good news; after what seemed like the end of the road for the traditional polaroid camera, the re-invigorated company are now preparing to launch a new range of cameras and a return of the classic Colour 600 film. As Laura says, here's hoping that the film is less expensive than it was last time round.

In the meantime, here's a glimpse at one of the new models. More here.

Meanwhile, I was pleased to see that I'm not the only one who looks forward to seeing Siobhan's lovely drawings - here she is being written about on a German website, in some incomprehensible foreign language. Yay. And here's one of her drawings, which I like.

Lastly, I'm really starting to miss Anne-Sophie and Rich now that they've moved out of the country. Although I like the fact that my friends are a pretty egalitarian, European lot, it's sad that this sometimes means they move away. London, Melbourne, Barcelona, Paris and Alsace have all robbed me of loved friends and drinking buddies, for which I am most resentful.

However. I am delighted that AS and Rich are blogging regularly from their new home, and recommend you bookmark their blog - I envy them having a whole new life to write about. Mine trundles on, punctuated with occasional flurries of sneezing.

Later on, as we had stopped to enjoy the quietness and the sun glaring on the snow, we heard noises coming from the bushes. A deer emerged from nowhere, only about 5 meters from us, quickly to disappear into the forest. A few seconds later, its foal passed even closer, looking absolutely terrorised: we could not believe our eyes! Suddenly a dog that had been chasing them through the trees appeared, stopped, stared at us (I got really scared it might attack us for a moment!) and finally, luckily, realised that it had lost the track of the deers and went away in the opposite direction. What a magical moment!

field music at resident records

For my money, Sunderland's amazing Field Music remain the best band in Britain at the moment. I can't think of a better LP released in the 2000s than their 'Tones of Town' (closest competitors; PJ Harvey's 'Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea', Gorillaz' 'Demon Days') and their new record, 'Measure', is terrific too. The other day I wrote a preview for a local show over at the Bored of Brighton blog, where I described them thus:

Their sound is intensely musical; gorgeous North Eastern harmonies, abrupt tempo-changes and unusual time signatures, with orchestration which varies from lush and pastoral to aggressive and loose.
Not at all surprisingly, their set - they played an instore at Brighton's Resident Records - was every bit as brilliant as I thought it would be. I didn't exactly have the best position in the world, for the shop was crowded, but the following video does I hope do justice to their wonderful sound, if not their stage presence.



Here's the entire set in mp3 form. Hope no-one minds me posting these.

Field Music
live at Resident Records, Brighton
Friday 19th February, 2010
(right click and 'save target as' to download)

1. Measure
2. Them That Do Nothing
3. Pieces
4. Rockist
5. Clear Water
6. Tones of Town
7. If Only The Moon Were Up
8. Effortlessly
9. Tell Me Keep Me

If anyone from Resident, or anyone associated with Field Music, minds me sharing this, let me know.

[edited for geographical accuracy; see comments]

Sunday, February 21, 2010

precious, a film by lee daniels

I watched Precious, today, the second feature by Lee Daniels, and was very impressed, if upset, by its grim, unflinching portrayal of domestic abuse in 1980s Harlem. It’s only Daniels second film, although he is an established name in Hollywood, having produced both the excellent ‘The Woodsman’ – a hard, affecting film about a convicted paedophile – and the execrable ‘Monster’s Ball’, a condescending, unpleasant film about ‘black America’. Here, aided by some excellent casting and several terrific performances, he has crafted a film which is alternately painful to watch, surprisingly heart-warming, and very funny.

It’s the severity of the circumstances his young lead must face that resonate most strongly. Precious, an impassive, obese 16 year old who is pregnant for the second time by her own father, is played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe with real depth and significant restraint, and entirely fulfils her role in a film where appalling events are threaded routinely into the plot. The comedian Mo’Nique, who plays her mother, is even more impressive, bringing a nightmarish intensity to her portrayal of one of the most unsympathetic characters I’ve ever seen in celluloid. In addition, there is good work by a (slightly too-good-to-be-true) Paula Patten and Mariah Carey, whose hard, ambiguous social worker is central to the film’s (ultimately hopeful, despite everything) climax.

At times, particularly when Mo’Nique is inflicting shocking abuse on her screen daughter, it’s terribly hard to watch. To leaven the horror, Daniels provides a hopeful subplot which lauds the role of the state in protecting its most put-upon citizens, and it’s for the best that he does, else the film might be unwatchable. At times the contrast between these two strands seems a little unbelievable, but it is a necessary plot device. As in both Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman, however, there are some ambiguous moral lessons. In The Woodsman, vigilantism is presented in a strangely uncritical light, and in Precious it’s hard not to notice that every character who lines up to help Precious (and thankfully there are several) seem to have progressively lighter skin.

Her relationship with Patten – who plays her teacher and mentor – is touching and convincing; but at times it feels that Patten is a little too good to be true; an impeccably groomed, comfortable liberal – she seems remarkably unfrazzled for an inner city teacher. Indeed, her class – supposedly made up of Harlem’s most troubled teenagers – seems at times to resemble the kids from Fame.

This is nitpicking – there are great performances here, and it’s very difficult not to be upset, moved, and exhausted by the film. It’s a great success and Mo’Nique, for one, might feel unfairly cast aside if she doesn’t pick up an Oscar for her role. I hope that the intolerable life young Precious is handed in 80s Harlem is a historical observation, and that things are better for America’s poor today.

Friday, February 19, 2010

spoon plaudits

According to the Guardian, today, Metacritic have trawled through all of their data (they collate reviews of music, films, games etc) and have identified Spoon as the most critically acclaimed band of the 2000s. I'm not really surprised by that - it was always going to be them, Wilco or Radiohead; consistent, worthy bands who are all loved by critics, who take adventurous steps without alienating their fanbase. And, y'know, you can't argue they're a good band. There must be songwriters, though - like Lambchop's Kurt Wagner, or Mark Everett of Eels - who look on at Britt Daniel and think, um, yeah, but I'm better. Still.

What this does mean, of course, is we have an opportunity to appreciate once again the brilliance that is Adam Buxton's video to Spoon's 'Don't Make Me a Target'. Wonderful.