Monday, February 25, 2008

dajit nagra, look we have coming to dover review

I don't read very much poetry. When I do, I tend to either grind my teeth in concentration or whoop with pleasure; either is fine with me. Difficult poetry burns at my temple but gives me little head-spins of delight, semi-translated insights. When it's good, that is. Daljit Nagra's much praised collection Look We Have Coming to Dover! is certainly that – a rich and heady concoction of complex constructions and tangy, noun-heavy vocabulary.

I don't understand all of it, by any means, but I think I know what it's about and find it fascinating and funny; the drama of being Indian in England, good and bad, the contradictions, the triumphs and the shaming defeats, big or small. The language is plain exquisite (there's a contradiction), swelling with Nagra's "Punglish", which darts from evocation of sugary pomegranate to evocation of sugar-puff. There's lots of food. In 'Karela!' (lots of exclamation marks, too, this is not poetry for whispering), the narrator tries to cook a dish from his past and fails. "My body craves / taste of home but is scolded / by shame of blood-desertion".

In 'Parade's End' the narrator's Dad parks his newly-sprayed "Granada, champagne gold / by our superstore on Blackstock Road", and heads inside to find "council mums at our meat-display" decrying "darkies from down south" and their "flash caahs!". It's believable stuff. When the day is done they return to encounter the sight of "the car-skin pucker, bubbling smarts / of acid". Nagra writes:

In the unstoppable pub-roar
from the John O'Gaunt across the forecourt,
we returned to the shop, lifted a shutter,
queued at the sink, walked down again.
Three of us, each carrying pans of cold-water.
Then we swept away the bonnet-leaves
from gold to the brown of our former colour.
Nagra's writing is full of small humiliations suffered at the hands of the Daily Mail mentality. But his characters come out fighting, too, and then some. "Vy giv my boy dis freebie of a silky blue GCSE antology", one voice demands, with it's Part Two which consists of;

us as a bunch of Gunga Dins ju group, 'Poems
from Udder Cultures
and Traditions'. 'Udder'
is all
vee are to yoo, to dis country –
'Udder?’ To my son's kabbadi posseee, alll
yor poets are 'Udder'!
Before one thinks of pigeonholing Nagra's extraordinary voice, he takes the time to pull off a series of varied literary tricks. 'Sajid Naqvi' is a sober, clear-eyed description of a funeral which fails to sum up the man, and 'On the Birth of a Daughter' a beautiful description of just that. The haunting, Pinter-esque 'X', meanwhile, is just a series of furious, semi-articulate punches:

u hook my arms
u hood my head
u lose my legs

& still u say
I say u harm
There are several poems in Look We Have Coming to Dover which I can't decipher, and plenty more which I need to re-read. Despite the unfamiliar language, however, it's really vibrant, addictive stuff, and makes me swear I'll follow contemporary poetry a bit more closely, if this is the kind of thing I'll find. The closing 'Singh Song!' - which is romantic, lustful, hilarious - might just be the greatest thing I've read all year, a bawdy tale set "in di worst Indian shop / On di whole Indian road", where the narrator keeps locking the door and nipping upstairs:

cos up di stairs is my newly bride
vee share in chapatti
vee share in di chutney
after vee hav made luv
like vee rowing through Putney.
Look We Have Coming to Dover is bursting with life – a magnificent celebration of language, multiculturism, sex and humanity. Here are the final lines of that poem.

Late in di midnight hour
ven yoo shoppers are wrap up quiet
ven di precinct is concrete-cool
vee cum down whispering stairs
and sit on my silver stool,
from behind di chocolate bars
vee stare past di half price window signs
at di beaches ov di UK in di brightey moon –

from di stool each night she say,
How much do yoo charge for dat moon baby?

from di stool each night I say,
Is half di cost ov yoo baby,

from di stool each night she say,
How much does dat come to baby?

from di stool each night I say,
Is priceless baby –
Here's the whole poem.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

slow journey

On the train this morning, we got as far as Barnham when I observed the ticket inspector guiding three rather noisy women through the train.

"B27", they were yelling. Or "B26", or 8. "Is this coach B, or coach A?"

"Coach B", the inspector reassured them, obviously used to this. Then he cleared his throat.

"Excuse me, Madam", he said, "but I'm afraid you're sitting in this lady's seat". He looked down at a seated woman and then gestured towards one of the three women behind him.

"I've got a seat booked too", the woman cried, immediately affronted. "B48. But I couldn't find it. So I took this one".

"All the same", the inspector ruled, "you'll have to move, I'm afraid. Your seat is back there".

The lady's face hardened, yet her tone turned pleading. "I'm disabled. So if I move it'll take me some time. You'll have to hold the train for me".

"Very well".

She paused, weighing up making a further fuss. And then, suddenly, addressing the women, turned all sweetness and light, muttering and sighing sympathetically.

I wonder why the sudden change of tone. Craning my neck round, I realise that it'll take some time before the other women are settled happily in their seats. I watch them as the disabled woman slowly edges out and - she's more observant than me - carefully helps them into their seats. All three women are blind. There's a dog, too, which must be accommodated, and several large rucksacks.

We're not going to be moving for a while. The driver clearly won't pull away 'til the inspector has worked the doors, and for the moment he's fully occupied. Eventually, perhaps fifteen minutes after the initial confrontation, all four women are seated. The inspector, the slightest smile playing on his lips, begins walking back to the door.

"Oh, hang on", cries one of the blind woman.

He turns back.

"I think one of my apples has rolled off under someone's seat".

street clutter

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Asia’s Time Wasters

Last year this blog published an article called Africa’s Time Wasters. It was an attempt to draw attention to the excesses and abuses of the current worst leaders on the continent of Africa and show how their mismagement and brutality were hindering the development of their respective countries. This article attempts do the same for Asia.

This not-too-serious article, in no particular order, attempts to draw attention to and rate out of 5 three of Asia’s present day worst leaders and highlight their policies, legacies and crimes, all of which add up to their inclusion, with Africa's worst leaders, in the list - the ‘Time Wasters of Development’.

Burma - Senior General Than Shwe

As head of the Burmese armed forces and effectively head of state in Burma since 1992, and as the head of several puzzlingly titled councils (including the ‘State Peace and Development Council’ and the ominous sounding ‘State law and Order Restoration Council’) Than Shwe has consolidated power in Burma to a degree not achieved by his predecessors.

This army man has overseen the addition of many ignoble suffixes to Burma’s recent history, including the continued detention of Noble Prize winning Democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, the relocation of the nation’s capital from Rangoon to the centre of the country (a decision Than Shwe made after consulting ‘expert astrologers’) and the overseeing of the suppression that followed the Monks' protest of 2007.

Than Shwe was central in introducing a law whereby any head of state of Burma cannot have a foreign-born spouse. This seemed an unlikely law to enforce, until it was pointed out in the foreign media that Aung San Suu Kyi had married a British man and - although he had died several years ago - she would still thus be considered forever unable to become head of state. Ms Suu Kyi remains under house arrest in Yangon (Rangoon) where she has been for most of the last 18 years - separated from her family.

Foreign media is virtually all banned from Burma and the penalties for any Burmese seen talking to, or worse assisting foreigners are harsh. The organisation Reporters Without Borders ranked Burma as 164th out of 168 nations in its 2006 Press Freedom index. Outside news equally is hard to obtain, with CNN and the BBC World Service frequently jammed and made unavailable within the country.

Though coverage of the recent Monks' protests and subsequent crack-down was hard to obtain, one glimpse into the world that Than Shwe has created did leak out from Burma and can in fact be found in 24 parts on YouTube. It is a film made at his daughters wedding to one of his most senior Burmese ministers. The cost of the wedding, largely covered by the state, came to over three times the amount of Burma’s entire healthcare budget. The video of bride, groom and guests surrounded by lavish food and gifts has been widely distributed in Burma and has not surprisingly caused considerable anger. It is thought that, soon after, Than Shwe’s wife and children fled to Laos fearing a possible backlash.

Since the New Year the United States has announced that it has stepped up sanctions against Than Shwe and his junta, but existing sanctions have had little impact other than to make the life of ordinary Burmese virtually intolerable. Meanwhile the military are able to consolidate their power and prolong the wait for free elections. The educated people of Burma, who have known freedom and democracy in the past will, for the time being, it seems, have to wait for a return to a more enlightened leadership.

Time Wasting Score: (3)

Uzbekistan - President Islam Karimov

Like many other autocratic Central Asian leaders President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan rules his people with an iron fist. Head of the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan at the time of the collapse of the USSR, Karimov inherited leadership of the strategically placed Uzbekistan, its geography proving very useful to the United States for the establishment of airbases in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th, 2001, and the invasion of Afghanistan.

Karimov’s grasp of democracy is only nominal, however. He ‘won’ the first election (of sorts) held in Uzbekistan after independence - his political opponents, for some reason, chose to flee. Then in 1995 Karimov held a referendum to extend his term until the year 2000. This he won with ease. Then when 2000 arrived he announced that presidential terms of office would be extended from 5 years to 7. This he had backdated, so that his term would last until 2007. In 2007 and presumably running out of ways to manipulate the law in order to remain in power, Karimov simply broke it and announced that he would run for another term in office. His would-be opponents denounced this as an illegal move but their words were blunted by the fact that through fear every speech they gave started with praise for the incumbent President. Unsurprisingly Karimov won with a convincing-sounding 88.1% of the vote.

Islam Karimov’s terms in power have been characterised by corruption, and by detention and torture of political opponents, but his most notorious moment came in May 2005 when troops loyal to him opened fire on demonstrators in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan. According to human rights groups several hundred people were killed in the massacre and in the subsequent ‘clean up’ operation. International criticism followed with the EU barring Uzbek leaders from visiting and banning the sales of weapons to the country. Belated US criticism of the shootings led to America closing its airbases in the country and withdrawing its military.

Karimov looks as unlikely as ever to relinquish power. His forces frequently torture opponents including boiling them alive. He is amassing a vast personal wealth, as is his family. His daughter, despite having a US warrant out for her arrest, has first dibs on many state contracts and has grown extremely rich and powerful within the country as a result. In the meantime, it is difficult to see how ordinary Uzbeks have benefited at all from the rule of their ‘elected’ dictator.

Time Wasting Score: (4)

North Korea - Kim Jong-il

Kim Jong-il, the ‘Dear Leader’ of the locked-in people of North Korea, its armed forces (ranked as the fourth largest in the World though far from fourth best equipped) and of its rudimentary nuclear-weapons, assumed power upon the death of his father Kim il-Sung in 1994.

Kim Jong-il is an obvious candidate for one of Asia’s worst leaders. He has for a long while been much parodied around the world as a ‘Bond villain-esque’ leader, at home in his underground headquarters. This might not be so far from the truth as amongst his many palaces is a retreat reportedly equipped with bunkers, anti aircraft missiles and surrounded by multiple fences.

The news agency Reuters once reported that he keeps a 10,000 bottle wine cellar and that he spends an annually $700,000 on importing Cognac, whilst a report from the BBC suggested that in China, aboard his armoured train (he is terrified of flying), he ate with silver chopsticks as a precaution against being poisoned. The fact that he was eating lobster that had been flown in especially was also mentioned. His ex head-chef has recounted to the international media how he was sent on a mission to Beijing to go to McDonald's and to buy a beef burger for his boss.

The cult of personality attributed to Kim Jong-il began under the rule of his father. School textbooks recount how the ‘Dear Leader’ was born in a military camp in North Korea, his birth foretold by a swallow, a double rainbow and a new star appearing in the sky. Kim Jong-il was in fact born in a village in Russia and only moved to North Korea following World War 2. Many in the North know this and are almost certainly privately insulted by their children being taught about 'the appearance of a new star', but still they are forced to attend a pilgrimage to Jong-il’s supposed birthplace, which now resembles a theme park built in his honour.

The International Herald Tribune noted in 2004 that "if the North had competitive elections, Kim would have a tough record to campaign on. During his decade in power, fuel consumption has dropped by one-third, per capita income has dwindled to 8 percent of South Korea's, and during the famine years almost 10 percent of the population is believed to have starved to death".

That we have in South Korea a modern Asian liberal democracy exemplifies the ruinous path that Kim Jong-il and his father have taken the north. Their mixture of Marxist ideology mixed with Confucianism has done little for the impoverished masses and has only served to isolate the north in a world that has moved on. The fact that Kim Jong-il is breathtakingly corrupt, that he squanders vast sums on luxuries whilst portraying an image to the people of a comrade-in-arms and of the common struggle against capitalism (which he shamelessly indulges in) would be an utter betrayal to the people - were they ever to find out.

Time Wasting Score: (5)

Like the previous article the scores must not be taken seriously and this list of timewasters leaves several Asian leaders absent. The three leaders above were chosen largely on the basis of the helplessness of their people at being able to end their rule. China, Iran and Indonesia should probably also be listed here, though all three do have varying degrees of accountability and their leaders (generally) do not employ any cult of personality.

As was the case with Africa, it should be a cause of grave concern to the World that these leaders remain in power, although the way the world chooses to deal with them (as in the case of North Korea) can risk solidifying their grip on rule. However, they, like their African colleagues, are indisputedly ‘Time Wasters’ in the way of their countries' development.

Links & Resources:

The World's Top 20 Dictators -'s annual look at the World's worst misusers of power

The Burma Campaign - Homepage of a British based NGO which promotes Human Rights and Democracy in Burma - Article examining the mixed messages the US is giving to Uzbekistan

World Movement for Democracy
- Report from inside North Korea

Korean Central News Agency - Bizarre site of 'official news' from North Korea

Blogging by Dan

Sunday, February 17, 2008

currently listening...

1. The Field : The Sound of Light EP - four fifteen minute tracks of slow-burning genius
2. Les Amazones De Guinée : Wamato LP - glorious; see my review here
3. Foals : 'The French Open' (from the Antidotes LP) - it feels desperately calculated, but those afrobeat rhythms, I can't resist 'em.
4. Astroid Power-Up : 'Kanveh' - from the ace Twisted Nerve compilation A Kind of Awe and Reverence and Wonder
5. Hercules & Love Affair : 'Classique No. 2' - squelchy detroit techno with a pure pop heart - unbelievable
6. LCD Soundsytem : 'Freak Out / Starry Eyes' - lovely LCD newbie; get it here, quick
7. David Bowie : 'Ashes to Ashes' - blame Gene Hunt
8. Grupo Oba Ilu : Santeria LP - tremendous Soul Jazz collection of Afro-tinged Cuban music.
9. John Fahey : 'On the Sunny Side of the Ocean' - from his The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death LP
10. Shocking Pinks - 'Dressed To Please' (Deepchord Remix) - sorry for all the DFA stuff this week. I'm chasing cool, not cool.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

the grand, brighton

My girlfriend's parents are down visiting in Brighton this weekend, and took us out for dinner last night. They're staying in a big hotel on the beachfront (there'll be no product placement on this site), but not the Grand, the city's most historic hotel. That said, we all walked past it last night and although Brighton folk generally much prefer cooler, down-at-heel but achingly tasteful boutique hotels, it's hard not to be impressed by the building, not least because it so successfully survived the IRA bomb which sought to kill Maggie Thatcher in the 80s.

My girlfriend is out with her parents tonight too, and will have walked past the hotel a second time. When she walks her parents back she'll find a quite different sight. Apparently the Grand, which has weathered all sorts of storms thus far, is on fire. Ten fire-engines are fighting the blaze. I hope they succeed.

one pub and its dog

Standing at the bar at my local the other day, I stopped to pat the head of Archie, the pub dog, who reacted, as usual, by going a bit mad and panting enthusiastically. Part of the reason I was paying him so much occasion, on that instance, is that I was aware that the woman standing to my left, drinking her umpteenth drink of the evening, was really sloshed, and putting them away with grim determination. By playing with Archie, perhaps I would avoid a conversation while I awaited my drinks.

Not so.

"He's a nice dog", my bar companion said.

I nodded. "He is".

"Is he yours?"


Something about the way she received this information made me understand her to have taken my clearly enunciated 'no' as a 'yes'.

She mulled it over. "How old is he?"

"I don't know", I said, as firmly and clearly as I could.

She looked surprised. She looked at me, and at the dog, then back at me again.

"Ten!?", she said, clearly perplexed that he did not look it.

les amazones de guinee, wamato review

A lot of the press for the outstanding new album by Les Amazones de Guinée has centred, perhaps understandably, on two facts; that the record, Wamato, is only the group's second in 46 years, and that the band are entirely made up of female members of the Guinean army. Those are rather extraordinary facts and too exciting to leave out of any review, but far more important is the exhilarating quality of Wamato.

The album, recorded in Mali 25 years after the band's last release, is a mesmerising demonstration of all the things that make West African dance music so pleasurable to listen to. The two guitars, first off, are wonderful, sounding as if they are perpertually engaged in a teasing dance, dipping in and out, spinning complimentary riffs and occasionally locking into a delightful, hypnotic groove. When one or the other breaks from the simple licks to revel in an impeccably-played flourish, my heart duly leaps.

The percussion is equally wonderful; crisp, driving Mande rhythms, awash with twinkling cymbals. The vocals, handled by at least three different singers, seem to touch all bases, sometimes light and mellifluous, sometimes deep, twinged with regret. But the overall mood is overpoweringly positive, and both the harmonies and the call and response lines resonate with the band's self-evident joy in music.

Perhaps most impressively, the music is punctuated by gloriously powerful brass arrangements, the two saxophones delivering jazzy runs and powerful soul riffs by turn. Their gleaming presence lifts an already wonderful music several notches closer to perfection. The record only falters when the band switch to the French language on the disappointing 'Meilleurs Voeux'. Even there, however, they only get through two minutes of a faintly grisly, mournful ballad before the horns arrive and switch the song's emphasis so successfully that one immediately forgets what came before.

This slip-up aside, the whole concoction is deeply hypnotic and extraordinarily warm; an engaging pop record with a thudding, affirming heart-beat. What a fantastic album.

Friday, February 15, 2008

nepotism is hilarious

"Hello. I'm Max Gogarty. I'm 19 and live on top of a hill in north London.

At the minute, I'm working in a restaurant with a bunch of lovely, funny people; writing a play; writing bits for Skins; spending any sort of money I earn on food and skinny jeans, and drinking my way to a financially blighted two-month trip to India and Thailand. Clichéd I know, but clichés are there for a reason."
Hello Max. Boy, you're gonna get a lot of stick in months to come. Oh dear.

Read the comments, you'll see what I mean.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

I've read a bunch of really interesting reviews recently, so here are links to a few of them:

A downright mugging of Cat Power on the part of The Guardian's Maddy Costa makes for fascinating reading. Chan Marshall's live shows have been criticised (and celebrated) for many reasons, but this analysis is new to me. If it's right, it's very sad.

"In the past, Marshall has been diffident on stage, and she has been incompetent. She has been moving and exasperating. The keynote of this gig is an unpleasant aggression, a belligerence that taints even her repeated demands of the audience to "forgive me". She seems no less nervous than in her depressed, chaotic past, but in stamping out the weak parts of herself, Marshall has also destroyed everything that was aching and haunting and beautiful in her voice. The transformation is horribly disillusioning to witness."
Elsewhere, the boys (they're always boys) over at Pitchfork deliver a horrifically unfair verdict on British Sea Power's excellent 'Do You Like Rock Music'. Saying it's "an album that will either thrill or repel listeners depending on their taste for bombastic arena rock", the review makes a series of fatuous references to U2 and refuses to give the record a mark out of ten. Pathetic. Here's an extract:

"Curiously, these stadium-sized songs channel less passion, anger, or awe than their earlier work. Granted, emotion has never been the band's strong suit, but here, British Sea Power speak the language of big feelings with little to back it up. Do You Like Rock Music? sounds empty at its core, with a rock where its heart should be."
Rubbish, it's a really good record.

A happier review, now. I watched the Wave Pictures at the End of The Road festival last year and was blown away by their tuneful, well-honed Hefner-pop, and in particular by singer/guitarist David Tattersal's unbelievable playing. In Plan B this month they get several good notices, but this is the one that comes closest to summing up my thoughts. Courtesy of Meryl Trussler,

"and then the singer looks up at us....

He looks up, sways forward, and a sound begins to pour out of the guitar that is one of the least tedious solos I have ever heard. It is warm and unforced and earnest. It's like listening to a thoroughly drunk but beloved friend insisting over and over their love for you - No, honestly, really, no, no, I mean this."
Excellent stuff - you can read the review here.

Got a feeling there were more reviews yet I wanted to comment on, so there may be more to follow.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

premier league goes global

This is extraordinary, and I'm almost disinclined to believe it - but then it's not April Fool's Day, is it? Hmm. Well, this is straight off the Guardian site:

"Guardian Unlimited understands there are serious reservations in the government about the Premier League's plan to take matches overseas for the first time from the 2011-12 season. Ministers will not at this stage oppose the audacious proposals to extend the season from 38 games to 39 to allow every club to play one extra match abroad, but they are not yet convinced that the move is in football's best interests and there are concerns around supporters, sporting integrity and the impact upon other national leagues and competitions.

The deal has not been agreed yet, but the league and the chairmen of its 20 clubs are known to be enthusiastic about the idea having agreed to explore the proposal in London today. If the deal goes ahead, the 10 overseas games are expected to take place in January providing there is space in the calendar, with points awarded for the extra match in the normal way. The top five sides are likely to be seeded so that they do not meet each other, but otherwise the fixtures will be drawn out of a hat and played in cities around the world.

New York, Beijing and Tokyo are among potential venues, and they will have to compete with other cities for the right to stage the games. Five cities would be chosen each year, with each venue hosting matches on consecutive days. A certain number of games are likely to be played in third world nations, with the Premier League keen to use football as a development tool."
What a bizarre, and terrible, idea.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

africa express

Oh god, I really want to go to this...

It's hard to work out exactly who's playing, but I gather that some or all of the following will be collaborating:

Damon Albarn, Tony Allen, Reverend and the Makers, Amadou et Mariam, The Aliens, Rachid Taha, Souad Massi, Scratch from The Roots, Turin Brakes.

Wow. Wow wow wow.

life in cold blood

Richard Attenborough's 'Life In Cold Blood' started on BBC1 last night; exquisitely filmed and presented with extraordinary deftness, it was typically lovely.

Happily, it was Nancy Banks Smith's turn to do the TV write up in the paper today; her writing was typically lovely too.

"The most touching moment was at the very end when, after half a century in the job, Attenborough saw his first pygmy leaf chameleon. As the young presenter of Zoo Quest, shinning up trees like a schoolboy bird-nesting, he had filmed Madagascan chameleons before - entertainingly in black and white - but the pygmy leaf had always eluded him. Being elusive is the chameleon's speciality. It has medals for elusiveness (which it never wears as they make it feel conspicuous)."
All is well in the world.