Monday, December 20, 2010

Monorail Poll 2010, part 2


The results of this year’s Monorail Music albums poll have now been added to the comments of this post, many thanks to SP for that. If you prefer there is also a pdf, to print out and put up on your wall. Or you could just go and look at the one in the shop, not forgetting to buy lots of records while you’re there.

Pictured above: Dep and David Quantick on BBC 2’s Review Show last Friday.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

‘Fallin’ ditch ain’t gonna get my bones’

The Yummy Fur played one of their reunion shows last week in Glasgow. It sounded great, even if the band are a whole different proposition now with the de-geeked, rockin’ out John / Jackie McKeown. Maybe I’m mis-remembering, but I’m sure he used to rock in. Before the show I played The Fire Engines’ ‘New Thing In Cartons’ to A., and watched the same bemusement I felt when I first heard it a year or two ago. ‘It’s the same!’ she exclaimed, meaning that as well as ‘New Thing In Cartons’ by The Fire Engines, it is also ‘Sexy World’ by The Yummy Fur. As far as I know, it isn’t also a Captain Beefheart song, but it is certainly true that without him The Fire Engines (and Big Flame) couldn’t have sounded like they did. That guitar sound, regimented to within an inch of its life but in directions which make no obvious sense, until they get inside your head and take it apart. I hated Trout Mask Replica when I first heard it. ‘China Pig’ was funny, but the rest... there was nothing to hold on to. Annoyed at having shelled out £15, I thought I may as well use the damn thing for samples, which you can hear at the end of Planet Sunflower’s ‘The Black Hole’ (drums from ‘Ant Man Bee’, saxophone from ‘Wild Life’). A few years later I fell for Doc at the Radar Station, still one of my favourite albums, and worked my way back.

An image for you: Chris and I on holiday in Salzburg, at the end of the ’90s. A. had been surprised that he would want to read Hitler’s Willing Executioners on such a trip (which also took in Munich), and was herself a little embarrassed to be seen with Slaughterhouse 5, which she was reading for Uni. Bladdered on weissbier served by an over-doing-it Scot in a kilt at the backpacker’s hostel (he stood on one leg to pour, and made a big deal of swilling the dregs), we staggered across the city, bellowing the words to ‘Dachau Blues’, he dressed in a Remembrance Day wreath acquired en route. What he was really after, though, was the Austrian flag which flew high up on the bridge over the river Salzach. He could just touch it with his fingertips if he stood on tip toe on the hand rail. And – he didn’t die! Or get the flag. We already miss you so much, Don.

Many fond tributes (including that ‘Fallin’ Ditch’ quote) here.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Barry Lopez – ‘Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape’

A recommendation from Jay Griffiths’ Wild, Arctic Dreams gives a more balanced account of somewhat similar ground: the profusion of life in what appears to be wilderness, and the conflict between cultures when west meets north. Lopez does look with regret at what industrialisation has done to the wildlife and people of the Arctic, but he is careful not to dismiss everything that white man has done. Some statistics:
The Canadian historian W. Gillies Ross cautiously suggests that as many as 38,000 Greenland right whales may have been killed in the Davis Strait fishery, largely by the British fleet. A sound estimation of that population today [1986] is 200. There are no similar figures for the number of native people in the region who fell to diphtheria, smallpox, tuberculosis, poliomyelitis, and other diseases – historians have suggested that 90 percent of the indigenous population of North America is not an unreasonable figure. (p. 10)
Confronted with this, Griffiths’ rage does seem entirely reasonable. But Lopez refuses to ignore the point of view of the perpetrators:
The desire to understand what is unknown is great. And the wish to create some human benefit out of new knowledge, however misconstrued, is one of the graces of Western civilisation. Few historians can say precisely where the special interest of a [John] Barrow or a Robert Peary ceased to serve society and served only the man; or where plans for industrialization cross a line and become of greater service to a nation’s economy than the wellbeing of its people. (p. 357)
It’s not a ringing endorsement, but it is an attempt to understand the motives of explorers and entrepreneurs, and even to allow that they may include (alongside fame and fortune) a kind of altruism.

This moral complexity gives Arctic Dreams a novelistic feel, though there is no plot. Like Wild, it is divided into long, themed chapters which take a single aspect of the subject (the seasons, musk oxen, polar bears, explorers), which cross-pollinate to some extent, and which build into an overview. Lopez moves through environment and wildlife before he gets to people, and as with Wild, western cultural references (Rockwell Kent, Frederic Edwin Church, the Irish imramha) are dotted throughout: personal and artistic responses are almost as important here as the geography. ‘To grasp the movement of the sun in the Arctic is no simple task’ (p. 21) he says, then undertakes it by suspending time at the summer solstice, and taking an imaginary walk south from the pole, where ‘the sun is making a flat 360° orbit exactly 23½° above the horizon’. As he proceeds down the 100th meridian, the sun’s orbit tilts, until it touches the horizon (at the edge of the Arctic Circle), and ‘You would say, now, that the sun seemed more to move across the sky than around in it.’ He takes us right down to the equator, then back again. ‘Virtually all of the earth’s biological systems are driven by solar radiation’ (p. 29), he says, contrasting rainforest and tundra.

The musk ox (pictured above) and the polar bear get a chapter each. I was delighted to find that ‘oomingmaq’ is the Eskimo word for a musk ox, and dug out the Cocteau Twins’ Victorialand to give ‘Oomingmak’ a spin. These were my favourite chapters: lively, detailed descriptions of behaviour and physical characteristics, taking in the odd bit of personal observation. Lopez describes the musk oxen’s layers of insulating hair, their horns, their ancestry, their behaviour when rutting or when protecting their young. As no other species do, they sometimes form a ‘rosette, rump to rump, with calves and yearlings wedged between the adults’ (p. 61), which was a problem when zoos became interested – ‘the only practical way to secure a calf was to kill all the adults in a defensive formation’ (p. 74). Lopez doesn’t hesitate to condemn this, his fairness is not neutrality. Female polar bears build maternity dens of snow, designed to allow good air flow with an ‘upward-sloping tunnel’ (p. 89) for an entrance and a ventilation hole in the chamber. They keep it warm (-ish – 32°F) by ‘radiating a small amount of heat, about as much as a 200-watt bulb’ (p. 90). When the cubs are three months old, they and their mother will emerge – she to hunt and eat for the first time since entering the den. And here they come, from a den way up on a slope:
They learn to imitate their mothers, who slide down rump first, looking over their shoulders and braking with their claws; or on their sides, leading with all four feet; or headfirst on their bellies. Mothers at the bottom catch cubs veering out of control. (p. 92)

Monday, December 06, 2010

Monorail Poll 2010

I don’t think it’s just me being lazy with my record buying. This year it seemed as though almost every once great band was great again. The Vaselines and the Television Personalities put out brilliant singles, Tender Trap were better than they’d ever been before, and Edwyn Collins was properly back. I’m still making my mind up about the guest vocals on Losing Sleep, it’ll be March before it hits, probably. I believe there were new bands too, but I didn’t really take to the Dum Dum Girls, and in general there seemed too many records with boring four four beats pushed to the fore, like a fringe and a pair of shades. This made Directorsound’s wonky Two Years Today all the more delightful, you could see the whites of their eyes and their flecked irises. Three four lurching is where it’s at in their world, and they have refined it beautifully in the years since Redemptive Strikes, there is no one quite like them. Crooked feels like the record Kristin Hersh has been building up to for a decade, and Grinderman 2 is everything Grinderman and Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! strove (too hard) to be but (therefore) weren’t. She & Him made a record Nancy & Lee would have been proud of, but they were never going to steal The Sexual Objects’ crown. ‘There’s ice cream on the tissues / Get your ponchos out’. Filth.

Thanks to Monorail for a) being Monorail and b) asking for our votes again. Here is my list:
  1. The Sexual Objects – Cucumber
  2. She & Him – Volume 2
  3. Vic Godard & Subway Sect – We Come As Aliens
  4. Directorsound – Two Years Today
  5. Spare Snare – Victor
  6. Grinderman – Grinderman 2
  7. Teenage Fanclub – Shadows
  8. Kristin Hersh – Crooked
  9. Bill Wells / Annie Whitehead / Stefan Schneider / Barbara Morgenstern – Paper of Pins
  10. Allo Darlin’ – Allo Darlin’
Single:

Jo Mango – The Moth and The Moon / The Black Sun

Reissue:

Charles Douglas – The Lives of Charles Douglas

____________________

And here is Chris S.’s list:
  1. The Sexual Objects – Cucumber
  2. Oneone – Aoooo *
  3. Real Estate – Reality
  4. Beach Fossils – Beach Fossils
  5. Teenage Fanclub – Shadows
  6. Nikasaya – One Summerheim *
  7. The Liminanes – The Liminanes
  8. Pantha du Prince – Black Noise
  9. Dum Dum Girls – I Will Be
  10. Directorsound – Two Years Today
* Two of these records were, strictly speaking, 2009 records, but I didn't get them until 2010... I'm not sure what the rules are or how tightly you're applying them... if Oneone / Nikasaya have to go, then please add in:

To Rococo Rot – Speculation
Moon Duo – Escape

Single:

Deerhoof / Oneone – Sealed With A Kiss / Oneone Theme

Reissue:

Spare Snare – Live at McGonagalls, Dundee, 28.10.95

Sunday, November 28, 2010

If I Had A Hi-Fi

It felt almost like a betrayal. Hi-fis were what adults had, to play their adult oriented rock and their opera. Kids had Walkmans in their ears, ghetto blasters in their bedrooms, and it was there that pop music belonged. A household’s secondary aesthetic, under the radar, secret but for the racket it made. Siblings meant opposing secondary aesthetics, related but independent sonic strands. In her first year at university, the elder of my two sisters went crazy for the Manic Street Preachers, and this caused tension with the younger when Nicky Wire said in an interview that he had ‘never seen the point of Nick Cave’. I loved both, of course, it was easier that way. And I would have listened to Murder Ballads and Everything Must Go on a Walkman, on tapes made from CDs, or on a pre-CD ghetto blaster with a portable CD player perched on top (it wasn’t very portable – movement made it skip). The tape A. made for me of Everything Must Go had ‘A Design for Life’ missing, because it had been on the radio so much and she thought the other songs should be given the chance to catch up. Any records which came my way were swiftly transferred to tape, too, for the actual listening part of the process. It wasn’t until the record player across the hall disappeared, along with the flatmate and student life, that I began to think that it might be good to own one.

I found an old Sony hi-fi in King Buyer on Albert Street (King Buyer sold all sorts of second hand household goods – fridges, sofas, TVs, and stereos. It’s gone now). It was one black block, almost a cube, designed to look like a stack of separates. It was £40, which was all I could afford and so, not wanting to make a rash purchase, I went to fetch N. from his flat nearby for a second opinion. A man in his late fifties or early sixties sat in an armchair amongst the bric-a-brac and gave us a demonstration. It took the three of us a while to work out that to get the turntable to spin you didn’t press a button, but moved the stylus arm towards the record. The record he had chosen was a 7" single by The Associates, Dundee’s only real claim to 1980s pop stardom (unless you’re going to count Ricky Ross, which I presume you’re not, or Edwyn Collins, who went to school here, and dreamed of adulation). We said how much we liked them, which was true – this was a few years after Billy Mackenzie’s terribly sad death, and there had been some recent re-issue activity, plus a biography, The Glamour Chase, which N. happened to be reading at the time. What happened next I can’t remember exactly – he didn’t come out and say, ‘I’m Billy Mackenzie’s dad, you know’, but he made a few quiet, proud comments which led us to this tentative conclusion. I mentioned a copy of the Perhaps album I’d picked up in Groucho’s, and this annoyed him a little – they were supposed to give him first refusal on any Associates records which came in, he said. He knocked a fiver off the price in exchange for Perhaps, which I dutifully handed in at the next opportunity. His daughter gave me a lift back into town with the stereo, and she said it was ‘always a pleasure to meet people who appreciate Billy’s music’. It was so touching, this brief impression of a family determinedly committed to his memory.

In truth, I was still a little ambivalent about The Associates at that stage. Sulk is a record which grew on me very slowly indeed, maybe a decade went by before it really clicked (the same thing happened with David Bowie’s Station to Station, thank goodness for regular re-issues). The first time around Billy’s voice was probably a bit much, and I only took to the more tuneful songs. But that is wrong-headed, it is a masterpiece for the taut yeowling miasma of side one, as much as for the energised hits which whip up an impossible peak on side two. These days I love every last note.

Sad to say, the stereo has been showing its age recently. Loose connections plague the panel at the back, half the time the turntable won’t turn and it takes a delicate massage of the electronics to get any sound out of the right hand speaker. It’s time to say goodbye.

____________________

Spare Snare – If I Had A Hi-Fi

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Jay Griffiths – ‘Wild: An Elemental Journey’

William Beebe ‘brought the underwater world right into the public
consciousness with his invention of the bathysphere’ (p. 188)
Appropriately I suppose, this book, an element-themed account* of arduous travels amongst the communities and landscapes of the world’s least western-civilised countries, was a struggle to get through. For several hundred pages in the middle I actively disliked its righteous / chummy style, which seemed needlessly egocentric. It felt a little like a bad Everett True book – just as his tendency to write about music only by writing about himself grates as often as it inspires (and it does inspire, of course), Griffiths’ highly personal take on what she calls ‘wildness’ relies heavily on having the reader onside as she combines sex, land, time, culture, language and religion into one tightly wound didactic ball. For instance:
While the untamed have ears for poetry – all kinds of poetic voices – the tame are trained only to hear the voice of the tamer, having ears only for command. The tamed know only the plumpness of convenienced asexuality: wild creatures smoulder in the groin, thighs slippery with juice, raw hormones, pheromones glowing in the dark. But the Christian god will never win, for still, still proudly anarchic, in thunder and cunt, cock and lightening, the raw core of our human spirit is still untamed, full of will, eloquent, kinetic and fleetly wild. (p. 376)
The good: wildness, poetry, exciting sex, exciting weather, spirit, polytheistic indigenous religion. The bad: tameness, the tamer, Christianity, complacency, dull sex. By implication, too, comes Griffiths’ central argument about the importance of a strong connection between a people and their land. How do you separate thunder and cunt, cock and lightening? You build walls and a ceiling, you put in double glazing and central heating. You move away from the land and you no longer understand the land, and then you exploit it in order to maintain your lifestyle. Alienation is a necessary result of western-style civilisation. The carrots in my fridge are there because I bought them from a supermarket, which I was able to do because I went and sat in an office all week. I could hardly be further from the carrots, and the land in which they grew. Or the land which somehow produced and continues to power the fridge.

Though couched in western terms, Wild is 100% anti western, or at least 100% anti western expansionism. There is no bright side to this, in its narrative. An Inuit elder may admit that life was harder before the arrival of capitalism, but this is in the context of the younger generation’s utter loss of knowledge, motivation, peace of mind, way to be, as a result of buildings, jobs, shops, schools. Modern home comforts may be OK if your character is already formed, is the implication, but if not, they will prevent it from developing. Western culture is male, linear, unbending and obsessed with conquest, which Griffiths explicitly links to the taking of virginity. It wants to measure, quantify, lock everything to the clock, the map and the calendar. Wildness is female, cyclical:
Women’s conversation ‘rambles’. We don’t get to ‘the point’. We don’t ‘think straight’. We make excursions off the subject, digress, think circuitously, and our free linguistic nomadism infuriates the overmasculine mind. (p. 306)
Perhaps this is the closest she comes to stating that in positive terms:
The purpose of indigenous law throughout the world is essentially to ensure that the natural world remains the same. (p. 276)
The first quote is from a section called ‘Nomads All’, in which nomadism is identified as the pet hate of European men, ‘heterosexual, Christian and adult’ (p. 305) – you can almost hear her spit here. Surprisingly, given many of the literary reference points (e.g. Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew – you can probably guess the uses they’re put to) and the frequent excursions into etymology, Griffiths is also anti-literacy, because it ‘profoundly alters people’s relationship with the wild world’ (p. 334) (and because the west ‘refuses to recognize indigenous wisdom even as it steals it’ (p. 98) – so, introducing literacy in no way complements the knowledge that is already there). This is a book to which it isn’t really possible to have a calm reaction. It is not new to disparage colonialism, but it is hard to imagine a book throwing its ongoing negative consequences in your face to quite the extent that Wild does. It is not subtle, but it is coherent and heartfelt and it gets under your skin. I’m glad I read it.

* Not real elements. Section titles are, ‘Wild Earth’, ‘Wild Ice’, ‘Wild Water’, ‘Wild Fire’, ‘Wild Air’ and ‘Wild Mind’.
____________________

Update: post edited 23/12/10 after a comment left and then deleted, by, so it said (and I have no reason to doubt it) the author of the book. She made several objections, and I have removed a paragraph and a quotation because I agree with most of them. One point puzzled me – the rebuttal of the charge of anti-literacy on the basis of oral traditions. I should clarify that by ‘literacy’ I meant reading and writing, not literature. Apologies for any misrepresentation – these are the impressions I picked up from the book, and are not based on any other background knowledge or reading.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Meursault at Dexter’s, Dundee, 4th November

        ‘So are you coming?’
        ‘Who are they again?’
        ‘You keep making me say it! I don’t know, Meuuuurseoooo. Merso. M-E-U-R-S-A-U-L-T. They’re really good, or at least their first album was. I’m not so sure about their second, it’s a bit buried in reverb. But they’ll still be good live.’
        [S. continues to play smartphone sudoku]
        ‘The first one was all punchy drum machines and sharp acoustic guitars. They’re quite anguished.’
        [Giggles]
        ‘What’s so funny about anguish?’
        [Assumes straight face] ‘Poor things.’

S. has a point there: anguish is the easiest route to a certain type of credibility, and as such is automatically suspect. Singing about trauma is like standing on a window ledge and threatening to jump: a demand for attention, cutting through inattention and apathy, but not, ultimately, endearing yourself. Maybe when you’re 16, the most important thing music can do is to say ‘I’m so, I’m so dissatisfied’, but pretty soon this can start to seem like a limited outlook. It’s also a trick increasingly difficult to pull as time passes. Are you really going to jump? You didn’t last time. Couldn’t you do something that would cheer yourself up more than singing about being miserable? After a Faith and a Pornography, you need a ‘Lovecats’.

Meursault use banjos, samplers, gentle acoustic and overdriven electric guitars, a cello (though sometimes not), harmonies, and a mixture of live and synthesised drums to give their anguish the urgency it needs, and it is not in danger of becoming stale just yet. Live, the distance that the production gives to this year’s All Creatures Will Make Merry album is instantly quashed, and you’re there on a bed of nails with them, uncomfortable but alive. Neil Pennycook’s howl of hurt is sometimes barely audible above the slabs of anachronistic noise, and sometimes it sinks to a caress above the simplest of banjo accompaniments. Before Meursault came along I’d forgotten how effective music which takes itself this seriously can sometimes be.

Monday, October 25, 2010

H. P. Lovecraft – ‘At the Mountains of Madness’

        ‘It’s no good, I can’t carry on.’
        ‘Then don’t – I wasn’t going to read it either.’
        ‘It just keeps repeating itself, without ever coming to the point. Or at least... Do you think there are psychological insights in store, or...?’
        ‘No, it’ll just turn out to be something horrible.’
        ‘There’s all this shitty mythology, this made-up book, what’s it called? The Necronomicon.’
        ‘I’ve heard of that. Terry Pratchett’s Necrotelicomnicon refers to it.’
        ‘Why would you refer to it? Why not just completely ignore it?’
        ‘He’s taking the piss.’
        ‘Well, that’s better than nothing. Or, it isn’t better than nothing, but it is better than taking it seriously.’

S. and I may have our differences about Terry Pratchett, but it seems we do agree about H. P. Lovecraft. For thirty pages I was relatively intrigued, having decided to overlook the fact that the opening sentence doesn’t make sense (‘I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why’*). Mostly this was because the story is set in Antarctica and it reminded me of a biography of Shackleton I quite liked. The place names – the McMurdo Sound, Mount Erebus, the Ross Sea – were enough on their own to impress, I was up for an Antarctica story. What I was not up for was a story that belittles Antarctica by pretending that it is actually the back of a gigantic stegosaurus from space**. After sixty pages I couldn’t take the plodding build up any more. Why is there a Vaselines song about this man? Awful, awful.

* Oh, hang on, maybe it does. But it’s still a horrible way of putting it.
** This is a guess, and, so I am told, wrong. But still, it is a story without any interest in character.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Tove Jansson – ‘A Winter Book’ and ‘Fair Play’

It wasn’t until quite late on in Fair Play that I realised I had the characters the wrong way around. Coming to it after the childhood reminiscences of A Winter Book, it was easy to interpret as lightly amended autobiography, with the names changed. Instead of Tove and Tooti, they are Jonna and Mari, living in a pair of nearby apartments in autumn and winter, on a small, isolated island in spring and summer, and travelling Europe and America between times. They spend the daytime apart, working (on printmaking, illustration, painting, writing), and the evenings together watching films (‘Truffaut, Bergman, Visconti, Renoir, Wilder’ (p. 28), though they also run to Chaplin and westerns). Jonna’s is the more forceful personality, the more acute judgement. So intent is she on a discussion about the superiority of watching films to socialising, that she barely registers the phone call she answers from a distressed friend whose cat has jumped out of a window in pursuit of a pigeon. Avoiding any attempt at sympathy, she gives out the number of a vet, and leaves it at that. Mari is soft hearted enough to be a little shocked at this, but Jonna’s argument applies to so much of Tove’s own work that it didn’t click that she is the Tooti character:
make no mistake: great directors know all about the irrational. You talk about things that don’t fit – they use such things, with a purpose, as an essential part of the whole. Do you know what I mean? Apparent quirkiness but with a point. They know exactly what they’re doing. (p. 31)
There are biographical clues later on which confirm this: Mari’s father was a sculptor called Viktor, and her mother founded the Swedish branch of the Girl Guides; she also receives fan mail.

[And here, I want to dart off into A Winter Book because of the wonderful ‘Messages’ chapter, which consists of short extracts from letters received by Tove from fans. My favourite is this:
Insufficient address
Father Christmas Moomin Valley.
Please give current address and surname (p. 167)
Also good is:
Dear Miss Jansson,
I have produced Moomin pictures for my home and also for profit and pleasure and placed them for sale in art galleries and kiosks bordering busy traffic routes. Now, one of my friends is saying one ought to ask permission, can this be true? If I don’t hear from you before week 5 shall go on as usual (p. 166)
 A Winter Book is largely made up of chapters from The Sculptor’s Daughter, an account of Jansson’s childhood, split up, like The Summer Book and Fair Play, into short stories or episodes which are not obviously part of a single narrative, but which add up to a sense of place(s), and of character. It is rather unfair of Sort Of Books to have included the majority but not all of The Sculptor’s Daughter’s chapters, and to have re-ordered them into winter stories (set in the city) and summer stories (on – guess what? – an island). I don’t know what order they were in originally, but if Fair Play is anything to go by, they should probably be mixed in together, with an apparent quirkiness which nonetheless has a point.]

Fair Play is playful with its clues, though. During one chapter, Jonna and Mari’s precious boat Viktoria, moored near their house, is in danger of being dashed on the rocks by a storm. They no longer have the strength to drag it up on to the shore out of harm’s way. It is the late 1980s – soon they will be too old to keep up the island house. Storms in Jansson’s fiction are brilliant because they are exciting (there are some strangers in A Winter Book’s ‘High Water’ who don’t understand how much fun storms are), and the ebbing of this pleasure is a subtly drawn tragedy. The two women talk about their fathers for comfort, and they are both called Viktor. Each talks about her own father as though they were both talking about the same man, and there is a curious blurring of their personalities.

Even in the midst of this storm, less fun than its predecessors, Jonna is able to remind Mari of what use she should put it to. Mari remarks the storm’s ‘long, humming tone’, and Jonna steps out of the moment to say:
You can use that acoustical stuff. […] You seem to work a storm into almost everything you write. Did you check the stern lines? (p. 112)
And although these two books feel utterly familiar, absolutely of a piece with The Summer Book and any Moomin story you could name, there is a difference. Art looms large in the background of both – for Tove’s parents in A Winter Book, and for Jonna and Mari in Fair Play. You have the same insistence on a certain attitude to life – non-judgemental yet critically alive, with that ‘mysterious blend of perfectionism and nonchalance’ (Fair Play, p. 22), compassionate and capricious, interested and fun. In the other books, these qualities are ends in themselves, but here they have a reason to be: work. All that matters is work.

____________________

Bits and bobs:
  • A Guardian interview with Sophia Jansson, star of The Summer Book.
  • Convolvulus (1931) by Viktor Jansson, modelled on Tove (from this page).
  • Tuulikki Pietilä / Tooti’s Super 8 films of most of the above are available on two DVDs.
  • I’m half convinced this is a practical joke, but apparently the UK premiere of Moomins and the Comet Chase is in Dundee next Saturday. Be there if you can.
Update: Moomins and the Comet Chase kept a cinema full of young folk reasonably quiet, so I think they enjoyed it, but it ditched much of the characterisation which makes the Moomin books enjoyable for adults. It wasn’t bad, by any means, but I can see why they wanted to let it tour the provinces before its west end run.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Claire Tomalin – ‘The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens’

This paperback edition has a ‘new postscript’, after the final ‘Myths and Morals’ chapter, called ‘The Death of Dickens’. He has already died once, 76 pages previously, as the result of a stroke suffered at his home, Gad’s Hill, over dinner with his sister-in-law Georgina in June 1870. The remainder of the book deals with Nelly’s fortunes afterwards, and the afterlife of the story of her association with Dickens, which continues into the 1930s and beyond, having an especially unfortunate effect on her son Geoffrey. Three months after the book’s publication, the postscript tells us, its author received a letter from the grandson of a Nonconformist minister, who had worked at a church in Peckham from 1872, and had heard from the caretaker that
Charles Dickens did not die at Gad’s Hill, as was generally supposed, but at another house ‘in compromising circumstances’. (p. 271)
Although the minister would not have known this, his church was ‘almost opposite’ Windsor Lodge, the house in which Nelly Ternan lived in 1870. From this interesting but unverifiable claim, Tomalin imagines an itinerary for Dickens’ penultimate day alive (he didn’t die until the evening of the day after the stroke), following him from breakfast at his home, via Higham station to New Cross, catching a cab from there, and spending time with Nelly, ‘perhaps [giving] her the Windsor Lodge housekeeping allowance’ (p. 277), before falling ill between one and two in the afternoon. After he had collapsed, Nelly, it is suggested, colluded with Georgina to get him secretly back to Gad’s Hill, with the help of the caretaker from the nearby church, to prevent scandal.

Tomalin makes it clear that this story is mostly supposition, but it is simultaneously, deliciously convincing. It is typical of the way the book as a whole works: facts are scarce, and gaps can be equally important. For nearly a whole year, 1867, there exists a pocket diary which Dickens kept of his day-to-day movements, and this is used to show how he divided his time into equal thirds, spending it with Nelly (using the alias Charles Tringham), with his public (he performed many readings that year), and with Georgina at Gad’s Hill, keeping up appearances. Rather odd appearances, one might think, Georgina being the sister of his estranged wife, but still, this is the version of himself he wished to project. At an earlier period, Nelly disappeared from the record for four years, during 1862-5. Tomalin’s explanation is that she was abroad, somewhere near Paris, and that she gave birth to a child who died in infancy. Michael Slater’s biography steers clear of this interpretation, and he points out that it is not known for certain whether Dickens’ relationship with Nelly was ever consummated. He’s right, but what does he expect – witnesses? (there are witnesses who confirm the existence of a child, including Dickens’ son Henry). Tomalin puts the affair in an interesting context: several of Dickens’ friends also kept mistresses, but far more openly than he was willing to do. Wilkie Collins, for instance, gave his two mistresses ‘simultaneous seaside holidays in adjacent resorts’ (p. 169). George Cruikshank and William Frith are also given as examples, not of men who indulged in dalliances, but who maintained long term relationships (and had children) with more than one woman at once. We hear about Dickens’ ‘dandy’s streak’ with a moustache and beard of which
there was nothing patrician […], rather a hint of the raffish and piratical; he didn’t look or seem old. (p. 83)
But his behaviour belied this easy going appearance. When he fell in love with Nelly, he had ‘the door between his dressing room and what had been the marital bedroom’ blocked, and we are offered this conclusion:
This is the action of a romantic, not a worldly man, who would see no harm in continuing to sleep alongside his wife, however many mistresses he might pursue or take. (p. 108)
And what of Nelly? She came into her own, briefly, in the years after Dickens’ death. Knocking 12 years off her age, she started a family and ran a school with George Robinson, a history student at Oxford ‘destined for the church’ (p. 205) until Nelly persuaded him otherwise. Here she was able to put her theatrical background to good use, for school plays and prizegivings, and for a few years she seemed to have found her niche at last. It is in the chapter ‘The Schoolmaster’s Wife and the Foreign Correspondent’ that she is happiest, and in which she comes across most vividly. For the rest of the time, there is not really enough of Nelly to justify a biography, and even here her story is bolstered by that of her sister Maria,
the merry and gentle sister, [who] emerges as the most unorthodox, both by leaving her husband and by becoming a successful career woman as a foreign correspondent. (p. 224)
The other Ternan sister, Fanny, married Anthony Trollope’s brother Tom (twenty-five years older than she was), and wrote novels. The book’s focus flits between the three of them, giving a family history more than an individual one. An earlier, pre-Dickens chapter gives the history of their theatrical careers, which never quite rose to the first rank (Nelly’s was nowhere near, but Fanny came close), and were consequently a struggle. So they didn’t object as much as they might have done to the benefactor who enabled them to become less dependent on, and eventually to leave the stage.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Jo Mango – ‘The Moth & The Moon / The Black Sun’

One song stood out from Sunday’s BandStAnd gig at St Andrews’ diminutive (and cosy) Barron Theatre. It was about books, and the most striking line was this:
imagining touching was reading and reading was knowing and knowing was possible
Half sung, half whispered, dead simple. It made me want to get back to some kind of reverence for the physical form, the tactility of books, which was originally something I wanted to explore with this blog, though I don’t think I have, much (the post on Saint Joan is an exception). Allen Ruppersberg’s 2006 show One of Many had a lot of this idea in it, too. Impressed by the song, and always a sucker for packaging, I couldn’t resist buying the record afterwards. Which comprised: two etched 10" singles, one black, one white, a large two-sided poster, and a sleeve. The etchings and the poster illustrations were of moths, for ‘The Moth & The Moon’ (the books song) and, more impressively, a circular ball of airborne starlings for ‘The Black Sun’. These were the only songs included, meaning that, at £15 for the set, they averaged £7.50 each. I haven’t quite worked out whether they are worth such an outrageous outlay (it’s possible – both are slow, delicate, trance-like), but I prefer them to the album I downloaded afterwards for about £1.50, which seemed on first listen a bit over-tasteful. Maybe I am becoming a capitalist, at last.

____________________

Update: the songs definitely are worth it, and you can hear or buy them here:

<a href="http://jomango.bandcamp.com/album/the-moth-and-the-moon-the-black-sun">The Moth and The Moon / The Black Sun by Jo Mango</a>

Saturday, September 18, 2010

George Herriman – ‘Love in a Kestle or Love in a Hut: Krazy & Ignatz, 1916 – 1918’

And so Fantagraphics’ Krazy Kat reprint series, having picked up a previous, stalled attempt with the 1925-6 Sunday strips in 2002, finally loops back to the beginning. Now, there is no period of Krazy Kat which is not worthy of attention and love, but I’ve been looking forward to this for ages, because of the larger cast of characters who populate the earlier strips. Here are some of the regulars in a grocery store:


The Krazy of these years is so gallant, forever dashing hither and thither to help out some creature in distress (Mexican jumping beans which have bounced illegally over the border, a hen’s unguarded eggs, orphan kittens hungry for ice cream), but the help itself is often more the result of luck than judgement. In the above strip, the potatoes are saved from a hungry Ignatz because Krazy has nephews and nieces staying over in the cellar, and their luminous eyes in the dark (‘the eyes of the potatoes?’, you are supposed to think) scare him off. Between gallantries, Krazy is curious and whimsical, refusing to operate at anyone’s pace but his own.


(The middle panel there makes more sense once you know the phrase ‘rush the growler’ – it means ‘to take a container to the local bar to buy beer’.)

In Bill Blackbeard’s brief epilogue to this volume, he compares Herriman to Dickens, amongst others (Lewis Carroll, W. C. Fields, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce – I love the extravagance of these claims), which I suppose is true in the way he uses great dollops of colloquial language as texture, but there is no overbearing moralising. Krazy is tender hearted, lovable and off his head (just as Ignatz is sensible, devious, avaricious and somehow lovable too), and readers are free to do with these examples what they will.

One more thing – did you ever wonder how birds and fish take their offspring out for an afternoon stroll?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Tiger Hook of a Tender Trap

When I woke on Monday, I was too happy to see
By and large, I don’t get obsessed with individual songs all that often. There have been a few this year – Spare Snare’s ‘And Now It Is Over’, The Nectarine No. 9’s ‘Susan Identifier’ – but it still feels like An Event when it happens.
And then on Tuesday there were doves flying round me
Which is exactly as it should be, of course. A song which is not also An Event is not really a song at all.
On the Wednesday, chapter third
It was bad timing, perhaps, that when I belatedly caught up with the amazing back catalogue of Amelia Fletcher a few years ago, her current record was Tender Trap’s 6 Billion People, as unmemorable a piece of plastic as she has put her name to.
On the Thursday, all alone
This time though, it’s different. In ‘Counting the Hours’, she is amazing once more, gloriously teetering on the brink of love or more likely heartbreak, because the highs of wishing are worth any comedown, the not knowing an infinite warmth inevitably and quickly cooled by dread and then disappointment. The melody spirals upwards on rails, following its own logic, underpinned by two chords so ordinary you wouldn’t have thought they could support its urgent luminosity. And unlike, say, Tracyanne Cambell on similar territory, with Amelia it is the happiness which lingers. How does she do it?
On the Friday I just sat, counting the hours
____________________

Tender Trap’s Dansette Dansette, which has plenty of other delights besides ‘Counting the Hours’, is out on Fortuna Pop!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Michael Slater – ‘Charles Dickens’

Michaelmas term lately begun (and the school I went to was pretentious enough to have a Michaelmas term), my A-level English class was presented with Penguin paperback copies of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. It was explained that we would read one of its twenty monthly parts each week, that this would not be done during class time, but that we would be discussing the novel as we progressed (sample discussion: ‘Now that we have finally encountered the house, did you notice anything about it? No? Well, it’s not very bleak, is it?’). This being the era of Neighbours (early ’90s) it was suggested that we might like to think of it as a soap opera. That didn’t wash, of course. We were horrified at the thought of being made to read such a large novel: English was supposed to be easy, and this had an uncomfortable ring of work to it. Had it been a bad, or a more difficult book, or less to my taste, I’m sure I would have remained horrified and joined in the chorus of protest which was the undercurrent to those twenty weeks (including holidays, mind). But it didn’t turn out that way: Bleak House probably remains the book which has done the most to enlarge my conception of what a novel can be, with its massive, squalid, impenetrable version of London and its host of unapologetically good and brazenly bad characters trying to make their way through it.

Since then, my estimation of Dickens has soared, dipped, fallen through the floor and finally – or at least currently – stabilised at around 30,000 feet. The reasons are standard issue stuff: he’s too sentimental, and all his characters are caricatures. Both charges could be laid against Bleak House, whose narrator Esther even our Dickens superfan teacher admitted was ‘a drip’, and many of whose characters revolve around a single idea (Mr Smallweed, Mrs Jellyby, Mr Turveydrop, Miss Flite). But the accompanying third person narrative, which imperiously delivers the non-news regarding the intractable Jarndyce & Jarndyce court case, and the stasis at the weary country seat of Chesney Wold, is as tactile as language can be, and it holds the novel’s characters suspended in its miasma, making them add up to something after all. Characters from other novels are genuinely endearing – a mention of Wemmick on the radio the other day made me smile, though it is years since I read Great Expectations. Once you’re caught, it is impossible not to engage with Dickens’ fictional world through feelings rather than thoughts, and the great strength of Michael Slater’s biography is that it is dispassionate enough to lay out the facts as we have them, without getting bogged down in emotional reactions to the writing itself.

As a writer, the key thing about Dickens is his commanding authorial voice. Slater makes the point that he was equally capable of using this satirically and sincerely. His 1842 trip to America brought out his devious side: every speech he gave was at least partly about the lack of an international copyright agreement, which meant that he didn’t earn any money from sales of his books there. It is easy to understand his frustration, but what is underhand is the way he distanced himself from his own argument. Walter Scott’s financial collapse was his chief example of why such an agreement was necessary (Scott was eight years dead at the time he was speaking), and he also organised a petition amongst literary Brits – including his friend and biographer John Forster – which he presented in the States as though he had nothing to do with it. What makes this especially interesting is that it directly preceded the creation of arch-hypocrite Seth Pecksniff, in Martin Chuzzlewit. The way Slater charts events, Pecksniff may not have been simply a reaction against hypocrisy, he may also have embodied Dickens’ recent experience of that condition.

Much later, Dostoyevsky (!) reports:
He told me that all the good simple people in his novels […] are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. (p. 502)
This ‘causeless enmity’ is most apparent in the treatment of his wife Catherine, whom he gradually excluded from his life during 1857-8, after having fallen in love with Ellen Ternan, an actress 27 years his junior. There is something deeply unpleasant in Dickens’ withdrawl from his responsibilities as a husband. One could forgive him for admitting to his changed feelings and moving on to a new relationship, but instead he constructed a revisionist narrative in which he never cared for Catherine at all. He could have mitigated an unfortunate situation by treating her as an adult, explaining things, according her some dignity. Instead he undercut her whole existence, using his great rhetorical skill as a weapon. Completely out of his league in conversation, she was also a mother without affection, who had somehow borne him ten children before he noticed anything was wrong. Catherine doesn’t emerge as a strong personality, but equally there is no indication that she deserved this treatment. Friends of the couple (including Forster) seem to have been fond of her, and the saddest moment in the book, appropriately in parentheses, is this:
During the two weeks that he and [Wilkie] Collins were away his only letters home were to Georgina (we can infer this from the fact that Catherine seems to have kept every letter he ever wrote to her and when dying asked her youngest daughter to deposit them in the British Museum ‘that the world may know he loved me once’). (p. 436)
Dickens fell out with his publishers over their refusal to print a statement about his marriage in Punch, and moved swiftly to put an end to Household Words, the weekly journal he edited for them. His first idea for the title of a succeeding publication (eventually All The Year Round) was ‘Household Harmony’, which beggars belief somewhat.

Duplicity is something of a theme, though: his whole life long, Dickens kept his early history secret. His father’s imprisonment for debt, and his own time spent working in a blacking (shoe polish) factory as a child labourer, only became widely known with the publication of Forster’s posthumous biography. He played a game with his public, telling and not telling them of these experiences, which appear, slightly fictionalised, in Little Dorrit and David Copperfield. Many times Slater makes the point that the most important relationship of Dickens’ life was not with Nelly Ternan, or Maria Beadnell (an early, unrequited love), but with his reading public. Towards the end of his life, his wildly popular public readings build to a crescendo as his health fails, and his introduction of a ‘Sikes and Nancy’ reading late on (which causes audience members to faint, in Dickens’ own account) leads to a deepening of his obsession with murder, and eventually to his last, unfinished novel.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Daniel Defoe – ‘Robinson Crusoe’

Just imagine, what if you were to be cast away on a desert island? Could you cope? Would you thrive? Would you discover things about yourself that you never would in civilisation? Which eight records would you take? Why didn’t you die in the plane crash? It’s a persistent myth, Robinson Crusoe. Maybe its allure is obvious: it strips things down, removes all the excuses you might have for failing to live up to your ideals (just as long as your ideals don’t involve other people). On the island, there is nothing and no-one in the way. There are goats, wild cats and parrots; there are streams, beaches, hills and caves; there is fertile soil, grapes, and all the trees you can cut down; there is the equatorial sun, and there is the rainy season. On one of the beaches, near where the storm that engulfed your lifeboat spat you out, the wrecked ship your shipmates abandoned sits, almost in tact. You have until the next storm blows to equip yourself with guns, ammunition, food, drink, clothes, shoes and tools to last the next twenty eight years. An umbrella? No, you’ll have to make one. A spade? Why would a ship have one of those? But you can have a pipe... oh, you forgot the pipe. Never mind. There’s a bible in one of those trunks you saved, try reading that if you’re feeling low.

After a nightmare brought on by fever, Crusoe reflects on the eight seafaring years which preceded his arrival on the island:
a certain stupidity of soul, without desire of good, or conscience of evil, had entirely overwhelm’d me, and I was all that the most hardned, unthinking, wicked creature among our common sailors can be suppos’d to be, not having the least sense, either of the fear of God in danger, or of thankfulness to God in deliverances. (p. 71)
This is an early indication of the shape the novel is going to take. During the account of his time at sea, Crusoe is constantly berating himself for the stupidity of his actions, which always tend to the adventurous over the sensible. His father commends to him ‘the middle state, or what might be called the upper station of low life’ because it is
not exposed to the miseries and hardships, the labour and sufferings of the mechanick part of mankind, and not embarrass’d with the pride, luxury, ambition and envy of the upper part of mankind. (p. 6)
Crusoe always remembers this advice, but never acts upon it – at most, it leads to interludes of self loathing like the one above. It is noticeable, however, that the self loathing wears off after some time spent on his island. Between page 38 and page 122 in my edition (Penguin Classics, 2001), he is entirely alone, and devotes his time to learning how to live from scratch. He builds a habitation by encircling a shallow cave with stakes; he learns first how to hunt goats (they don’t look up, apparently), then how to farm them; by chance a few grains of barley from a sack fall to the ground and begin to grow, which is the beginning of his arable farming. He builds a boat from a massive tree by hollowing it out, then can’t move it to get it into the water; he makes a smaller one and sails around the island until a current takes him too far out. This sort of life suits him very well, and it suits the novel very well: early fiction often appears too event-packed to the modern reader, and here we have an enforced stasis, where although plenty gets done around the island, and years pass, no interaction occurs between characters for 84 pages and more (page 122 is when he finds the footprint; he won’t meet Friday for another 30 or so pages). During this time, he grows more competent and more content, and that, really, is the beauty of the book.

Seeing the footprint – an isolated footprint – on the beach at the far end of the island from his home, is the turning point, at which action begins to be possible again. Crusoe ‘tremble[s] at the very apprehension of seeing a man’ (p. 124) after so long in isolation. It is the first indication he gets of the cannibals that periodically come to use his island to cook and eat their prey, who are men they have conquered in battle. They use the side of the island he never visits, which the current prevented his boat from reaching. The action that follows is slow and involves a lot of waiting (the defences he builds take several years to grow from stakes into closely-knit trees), but Crusoe realises that he must leave, and that he will need help to do it. He dreams of saving a captive from being eaten, and thus earning his loyalty, and this is exactly how he meets Friday, who becomes his slave. The similarity of the dream to the event made me wonder if Crusoe had gone crazy by this point, but there is little else to support this idea. His assumption of power during the rescue (which involves winning back a ship on which there has been a mutiny – the mutineers plan to leave the captain on Crusoe’s island until he and Friday intervene) has quite a regal ring to it, but this is justified by the high spirits he must feel at being on the verge of deliverance, and also the importance of fooling the mutineers that he has more men under his command than is actually the case. By this stage, we are back in the realm of the adventure story, and it is a good one, but it can’t touch the isolated Crusoe, working his way single handed from shipwreck to smallholding. Can you imagine?

____________________

Thanks to Mum for the illustration, which is from a children’s edition she has.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Calvin Johnson & Muscles of Joy, Hyndland Community Hall, Glasgow, 3rd August

An unplanned early morning train ride home. Too early. I keep expecting to catch the 11 o’clock bus back, which sometimes happens, but more often the band are still on at decision time, round about half ten, and the bus almost never wins. Certainly it stood no chance against Calvin Johnson, while he had songs left to sing. With his pink shirt, his eyes that looked round and his gesticulations which had their campness sonic boomed out of them by a voice as low as blood and smooth as sleep, unamplified except by the acoustics of the church hall. Though actually, leaving would have been inconspicuous given the number of people who disappeared to the toilet after every song and returned at the start of the next (‘Can’t you hold on?’ I wondered. ‘Has Calvin found your resonant frequency?’) He even suggested pausing the set for a comfort break but thought better of it, moving on to musings about a Belfast open-topped tour bus and its guide’s well rehearsed tales of civic woe, and this sentence if I remember: ‘So you’ve got this island called Ireland, and this place which is part of the island of Ireland but not the country of Ireland – too complicated,’ between songs which slipped sweetly by, mostly accompanied by finger pickin’ and one a capella about going to the cinema on your own and looking around to see the couples doing what they are doing, laden with a tension that only pretended to reprove. The expressions and gyrations, the looking rounds and the strokings of his own thighs that he managed to get into that song! I feel bad for not remembering more about the less theatrical songs in the set, but at time they slipped down easy, and anyway it was the atmosphere that mattered. Afterwards I asked Stephen Pastel if he remembered selling me – many years after it came out – the first Beat Happening album in the record section of John Smith’s, but it seems it wasn’t such a pivotal moment in his life as it was in mine (‘Maybe if you’d bought it AND there had been a bolt of lightning…’). Then I bought some compilation tapes from Calvin at his table of K stuff: ‘Everybody Hustle’, ‘West Coast Country’, ‘Natty Chariot’ and ‘Baby Be Mine’. I don’t doubt that he will cherish the memory.

Muscles of Joy put in a great support slot. More polished than when I last saw them (at Le Weekend 2009), they dealt this time in a more controlled and more effective chaos, with a twin emphasis on rhythm and harmony, the former delivered by mini marching machine and – you know those small paper bangers you can get from joke shops? Katy (I think) threw those at the floor every so often, making a gunpowder bang where a snare hit might otherwise have gone. Harmonies came from the whole band, though more for texture than melody. Chris, fresh from capturing the most surprising politician / indie pop juxtaposition since, um, Monday, remained unimpressed, but pointed out that we do disagree about The Ex. He also spotted a reference to ‘Death Valley 69’ that passed me by. ‘This next one’s a bit bananas’ vied with Calvin’s ‘sitting down ain’t rock ’n’ roll’ patter for best song intro of the evening. Set closer ‘Water Break Its Neck’, with its crisp maracas and insistent high pitched refrain (‘The way I am made’) was my favourite song of theirs. It may have been the only song they repeated from the Le Weekend gig, which was intended as music to accompany Norman McLaren’s animations. Asking around a bit before they played this time, I got the impression that McLaren isn’t as well known as he might be, may I direct you again to the Click Opera post about him by way of introduction. He is fab.

Calvin’s mixtapes – all 28 of ’em! – are available here.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Oliver Goldsmith – ‘The Vicar of Wakefield’

Robert L. Mack, in his introduction to this edition (Oxford World’s Classics, 2006), puts the case for the prosecution of The Vicar of Wakefield’s various strands:
The narratives of seduction drew in almost every detail from novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740-1) and Clarissa (1747-8); the prison scenes had already been ‘done’ – and to far better effect – by Henry Fielding in his Amelia (1751), and the picaresque adventures of Dr Primrose and his son owed more than a little of their colour to those of that same author’s Joseph Andrews (1742); in tone, Goldsmith had failed in his obvious attempts to imitate the successful ‘sensibility’ of which Sterne continued to demonstrate himself a master, to capture the epigrammatic brilliance that Johnson had displayed to such fine effect in his Rasselas, or even to reproduce some of the anecdotal appeal of which he had demonstrated himself capable in his own ‘Chinese Letters’. (p. xxiv)
He argues back out from this position too, but with nothing stronger than an admiring acknowledgement of the book’s charm. It is the story of a homely man who ‘unites in himself the three greatest characters upon earth; he is a priest, an husbandman, and the father of a family’ (p. 3). A vicar with a wife and six children, he takes great pleasure in maintaining a cheerful household into which guests are welcomed and offered home-made gooseberry wine. He even has an easy-going approach to undesirables:
However, when any one of our relations was found to be a person of very bad character, a troublesome guest, or one we desired to get rid of, upon his leaving my house, I ever took care to lend him a riding coat, or a pair of boots, or sometimes an horse of small value, and I always had the satisfaction of finding he never came back to return them. (p. 10)
Dr Primrose doesn’t quite achieve this (‘an horse of small value’?) or his other, more genuinely charitable acts, on his vicar’s salary of £35 per annum, but relies on ‘a sufficient fortune of my own’ (p. 12). In chapter 2, this fortune is lost due to the unscrupulous merchant in whose care it is placed, and the Primrose family move 70 miles from Wakefield for the vicar to take up a curacy worth £15 a year. In financial terms, this obviously makes no sense, but nevertheless it is the primary reason given. There is a second reason, which is the vicar’s unpopular opinion, vented in pamphlets and in person at the drop of a hat, that lifelong monogamy is the only moral course (in chapter 14 he complains of ‘the deuterogamy of the age’ (p. 61)). Whilst still in Wakefield, he hotly debates this topic with his son George’s prospective father-in-law, Mr Wilmot, on the eve of the wedding. The father-in-law being ‘at that time actually courting a fourth wife’ (p. 14), is unsympathetic, but the debate is not allowed to come to a head, being interrupted by the news of Primrose’s supposed ruin. He isn’t quite ruined, in fact, still having £35 a year plus £400 of the original £14,000 fortune, at least until he gives up the salary for a lower one. The only way the relocation could possibly make sense would be if Mr Wilmot had the living of Wakefield in his gift, and withdrew it from Primrose after the argument. If this is the case, it is never stated.

Another odd moment comes with the introduction of the novel’s villain, Mr Thornhill. He is much in the vein of the anonymous ‘my lord’ from Fielding’s Amelia, and is described by Mr Burchell, at the outset:
He observed that no virtue was able to resist his arts and assiduity, and that scarce a farmer’s daughter within ten miles round but what had found him successful and faithless. (p. 17)
The warning is completely ignored by Mrs Primrose, and given only lip service by the vicar, when Thornhill begins to make advances to their daughter Olivia. This is the second and more serious step in the decline of the family’s fortunes: Thornhill will drag them all into poverty and disgrace. Single minded and devious, he has designs on Olivia’s younger sister Sophia, and in loaning Dr Primrose the money to buy George an army commission, he coerces the latter into leaving the country, giving him the chance to seduce his fiancĂ©e, and allowing the imprisonment of the vicar for debt. The vicar lacks the worldliness and tactical intelligence he would need to deal with this onslaught, and sinks under the burden. Indeed, his triple role as ‘priest, an husbandman, and the father of a family’ confuses his reaction to it. Here he is after Olivia’s elopement with Thornhill:
‘Now then,’ cried I, ‘my children, go and be miserable; for we shall never enjoy one hour more. And O may heaven’s everlasting fury light upon him and his! Thus to rob me of my child! And sure it will, for taking back my sweet innocent that I was leading up to heaven. Such sincerity as my child was possest of. But all our earthly happiness is now over! Go, my children, go, and be miserable and infamous; for my heart is broken within me!’ – ‘Father,’ cried my son, ‘is this your fortitude?’ – ‘Fortitude, child! Yes, he shall see I have fortitude! Bring me my pistols. I’ll pursue the traitor.’ (p. 79)
Though he will later have the strength of character to subdue and to organise his fellow inmates in prison, here he is unable to find consolation in his own faith. He takes an inappropriately vengeful tone, and almost immediately forgets he has done so (‘I did not curse him, child, did I?’). He finally arrives at the correct decision – to pursue Olivia and Thornhill without the pistols – more by luck than judgement. The pursuit itself is likewise ineffectual and full of distractions, and resolution comes only via coincidence. All of this is tremendous fun to read, but difficult – as Mack suggests – to make much sense of in retrospect. The vicar has an absolute loyalty to his family, and a genuine, practical faith which can be put to good use in a community. It is unfortunate that he is unable to take seriously any authority (or any threat) between the ranks of wife and God. Perhaps the key to the man lies in his wonderful but useless take on politics:
some are born to command, and others to obey, [and] the question is, as there must be tyrants, whether it is better to have them in the same house with us, or in the same village, or still further off, in the metropolis. Now, Sir, for my own part, as I naturally hate the face of a tyrant, the farther off he is removed from me, the better pleased I am. (p. 86)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Spare Snare – ‘Victor’

No matter what I did it never seemed enough
He said I was lazy, I said I was young
He said, how many songs did you write
I'd written zero, I’d lied and said, ten

You won’t be young forever
You should have written fifteen
It’s work

(Lou Reed & John Cale, ‘Work’)
It would be wrong to read too much into this, but Spare Snare have just put out their second album in two years. That hasn’t happened since their first two, Live at Home (1995) and Westfield Lane (1996), after which a further three took them all the way to 2004’s Learn to Play. Which is a great name for an album by a decade-old band, and not unjustified by the subtle sound of its contents. I love Learn to Play to bits, but everything they have done since has been a process of unlearning, from the fumbling-acoustic Garden Leave (2006), through the noisier but still sentient I Love You, I Hate You (2009), which actually sounded pretty radically messy when it came out last year, its drums hard-panned like Krautrock, Barry’s bass back from politeness, metallic and super slinky. It was a lot like the thrillingly scuzzy live band who transformed Garden Leave’s quiet contemplation into out and out pop glory when they played in support of it at the end of 2006 and blew it out of the water. Helped a little by a revisited ‘Bugs’ which segued into New Order’s ‘Temptation’ so you couldn’t even tell which was the better song.

Victor ups the momentum and accelerates the decay. Now, Spare Snare never gave a fuck, ever, but this is unbelievable. To ease the listener in gently they begin, at least, with a song which sounds like it was written. ‘And Now It Is Over’ is a fight between Jan’s two-string guitar and Barry’s bass to see who can make the most noise, but it is a fight with rounds and a referee. Beginning: ‘What have we done? / How do you [something]? / How do you [cease? seize?] / You’ve got all that I see / And now it is over / And now it is over’, and though you can’t hear half the words this is solid stuff. Too solid, too sullied. This is a sound you have to climb inside, an agony you want to share. All the tunes of all the parts are such basic units but they mesh and they tighten and they explode. Three quarters of the way through is the sweetest prettiest reverb guitar solo. And then it is over. Except in your head (that solo can echo for days), and you’re drawn back to another play, and the sound, which drives it further home. Very possibly the Snare’s greatest three minutes, right there.

The rest of the album doesn’t even try to live up to ‘And Now It Is Over’. Not in terms of tunes, anyway. ‘Zappa is Sound’ is a sort-of instrumental, a muscular bass riff, textured, whacked out drums and synth blips and splurges, and Jan contributes deadpan ‘Na na na’ backing vocals and close-mic’d vocal sketches for places where words and tunes might have gone, given a bit of honing. ‘Gold in her Hands’ has impressively manic rhythm guitar clanging away stage left, a dead-ringer for Low Life era New Order. ‘All The Little Things’ has more not-quite-finished singing, but in more of a yowling register. The record lurches through these rough sketches which reveal snatches of song only fleetingly, but which build up into a big black storm cloud. ‘Didn’t Know Much’ – which is still really moody – pricks the tension bubble with some ukelele, and paves the way for two songs which share a childhood theme. ‘In A State’, anxious and paranoid, casts its eye on a sleeping child ‘clutching your soft toy, it doesn’t disappoint’, and broadens out to observe ‘people come and go / quiet is not wrong’. ‘My Mister Men’ is one of those split-stereo vocal affairs, with Jan listing Mr Men book titles in one channel, and someone I mistook at first for Paul Daniels talking in the other about how such apparently simple books can provide a challenge to a child’s imagination, though they are limited by their reliance on magic.

‘Excuse My French’ rounds things off nicely, in a purposeful monotone. The cloud has lightened to grey, and the Snare ride off in sou’westers. I don’t exactly know what it is they have done here, and it doesn’t work all the time (which might be part of the point), but I know that it is something which no-one else would even think to attempt. Most unfairly ignored Scottish band of the nineties / noughties? It’s not unfair, they encourage it. Clap your hands. Shake your fists.

Victor is a bit of a bargain at £5, from here. None of it is on their MySpace page.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Tchotchke Table

Last year, as a kickback against all the digital-only music I was accumulating, I began to lay out purchases with a more tangible physical form on a desk. It is so easy now to find music one day, chuck it into iTunes, and forget that it was ever there (note to self: this almost certainly deserves better). The table was a way of creating a visual context. This week I found a name for it that doesn’t refer to coffee, via an article of Simon Reynolds’. Bottom left are postcards from this year’s Duncan of Jordanstone degree show, where the design departments once again had most of the best stuff. If you’re talking chart places, Interactive Media Design were a high new entry, Interior and Environmental Design slipped ever so slightly from the top, and Jewellery and Metal Design were a non-mover at number two. Illustration fell 30 places due to wanting to be Fine Art, and Graphic Design failed to chart through slavishly following uninspired briefs as per usual (the pink postcard is from the exception to this). Against the wall and to the right are, y’know, records. I won’t list them except for Rachel Grimes’ Book of Leaves, bottom right, which is obscured by the only ray of sun we have had all weekend. To the right of that the negative crescent moon is a Peter Parker button badge.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Commercial Alternative, Mono, Glasgow, 4th July

Returning after Girls Names’ set to the corner where S. sat knitting on a sofa, I found her friend D. incredulous: ‘I hate things that inept. Did you find anything musical about it at all?’ he asked, from somewhere up his rock mountain. From the third buttercup on the left in my pop pasture, I conceded, ‘It was a bit things-added-together.’ With a Jaguar guitar hitched high and trouser legs rolled in what could conceivably have been a homage to J. Alfred Prufrock (except Prufrock would presumably have noticed the missing apostrophe in the band’s name), the singer looked as deliberately weedy as Pants Yell!’s Andrew Churchman. He didn’t sound like him though, with a lower voice, channelled through a wind tunnel of reverb, which had the peculiar effect of making him sound like Morrissey. The undercarriage to this mumbled wail was made mostly of Shop Assistants, fast and raucous. Which is why I don’t think the ineptitude charge is fair: they played very well. I think what D. really objected to was the projected, celebrated introversion. And this is the kind of tension which threaded its way through the bill of Mono’s summertime mini-festival, made up of bands skirting the Crystal Stilts / Vivian / Dum Dum Girls axis, and bands with a more traditional / less insular outlook.

Openers Golden Grrrls were on a blissout variant of the pop trail. There were three of them: two grrrls, on mini-keyboard / guitar / vox and drums / vox, and one boy, on another Jaguar. He went reverb crazy with that whilst the other two took turns singing, the other guitarist playing simple, bass-line parts for much of the time. I really enjoyed them. Peter Parker were less talkative than last time (maybe because it was daylight), but I can report that Ros’s bob has become a perm, and that she hasn’t dyed her roots, giving a rich brown / blonde / cherry palette. Jane wore tights that looked like they’d been ripped from the walls of the Alhambra. My favourite of theirs is still the set-closing ‘Once In A Lifetime’. Up next, Astral Planes rocked, and had a high posturing-to-tunes ratio. ‘Mid-period Primal Scream?’ I queried. ‘Suzi Quattro,’ confirmed S. I’m going to lump Remember Remember in with the rock camp too, because they were definitely not going for any kind of honed minimal perfection. Brogues reckoned they were reminiscent of Steve Reich and John Adams, but to me their rhythms sounded lumpy and their loops / repeated phrases lacked any interesting variation or tone, going instead for alterations in volume. Music with drums in it should never swell, how about we make that a rule? 1990s were a million times more fun, and I even liked that song by the drummer which annoyed me when it was on YouTube. Most of the set had a harder edge than that, and Mr McKeown’s soloing on yet another Jaguar (‘How many of them are there here today?’ he wondered, annoyed. ‘Fuck’s sake’) was sharp, effective, and defiantly un-indie.

Things I love about Comet Gain: Realistes!, Casino Classics, Jon Slade when he used to do the Plan B radio show, sounding like he was permanently in his pyjamas. Things I know about Comet Gain apart from that: zip. What are they even called? MySpace offers: ‘D.C. FECK; M.J.TAYLOR; J.W.SLADE; K.ISHIKAWA; R.EVANS; OTHERS’. ‘Feck’? Wow. Is ‘R’ for ‘Rachel’ as in ‘What’s your favourite Hitchcock? / Determines a friend’s real feelings / Strangers on a Train’s mine / But Rachel says that Rope’s got its moments’? Apparently it is. They are so referential and so seemingly hidden that they can be a mysterious bunch. Of course that makes it more exciting to see them. Maybe they are missing a guitarist because they are joined onstage by ‘Jackie McKeown’s twin brother John’, i.e. the chap from The Yummy Fur rather than the very same one from 1990s, i.e. do not dare trying to be defiantly un-indie under our watch, son. A song or two in D. C. (Detective Constable? Comics?) Feck warns, ‘don’t try any of that rock ’n’ roll whammy bar stuff or I’ll kick you in the... dick’, he concludes, tailing off. Looking at the pairing of him and Rachel I can’t shift the impression I’m watching a band fronted by Bill Oddie and Janet Ellis. Jon with his wraparound sideburns doesn’t quite fit, but seems oblivious. Obviously all this is great, I love the fact that they’re visually so ramshackle, so unconcerned, so beige. Rachel is dressed to give a performance review, but is behaving like a shadow boxer. Unconfined by an instrument, she’s jumping and punching and grabbing at the air and she invests the performance with so much energy. D. C. Feck draws on this, as he leans into the mic, his impassioned and cultural words take on urgency through the presence of the dervish to his right. And the songs? There are plenty I don’t know, but a few from Realistes!, most importantly ‘I Close My Eyes to Think of God’, because I love that song, and the implication that a life from which a partner has departed is worse than one without God, because at least the partner was real. They fluff the start of ‘Why I Try To Look So Bad’, which Feck has apparently forgotten all about, but once they are in, the water is lovely if indistinct (the Farfisa organ stage left looks great, but you can’t hear it), but that doesn’t matter at all, and Comet Gain are Comet Gain, there is no arguing, there is no anything except for blind trust.

They slowed things down for the last song, and at first the line ‘Where you been’ didn’t mean much, it could have been anything. ‘Ain’t seen you for weeks’. Oh God, what’s that? On the tip of my tongue... ‘You’ve been hanging out with’ (Of course you have!) ‘All those Jesus freaks.’ Bloody hell. The perfect compliment to the recent Felt celebration fanzine, we got a drawn out ‘Ballad of the Band’, and at the end some delicate slide guitar from John / Jackie, with maybe a little snuck-in whammy bar action.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Nick Cave, Dundee Literary Festival, 25th June

Nick Cave was in Dundee on Friday, reading from The Death of Bunny Munro (out now in paperback – and look, Canongate have finally arrived at a good cover), and being interviewed by his publisher, Jamie Byng. The readings were excellent, as you’d expect – the cruising in the Brighton sun soaking up the sex one seems to have become a set piece, and is absolutely prime Cave, as in-your-face hilarious / horrific as ‘Stagger Lee’ or ‘Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry’. Then there was an extract introducing Bunny Junior, and his habit of collecting things – which gave me a start, because I’d forgotten he did that, but it chimes with And the Ass Saw the Angel’s ‘Mah Sanctum’ bit (Euchrid in his bird’s nest of a hideout, stacked with shoeboxes filled with his disgusting accumulations), and also Cave’s collection of unusual words for the earlier novel. Not to mention ‘Nick Cave: The Exhibition’, which I was kindly directed to a while ago by a chap called Rafiq who said that it contained:
a copy of a hand written dictionary that Cave kept for the years he was in Berlin (where he wrote his first book). A whole note book of words that he had read or heard and liked enough to write down and define.
If I’d asked a question after the readings it would have been about this: collecting and cataloguing mundane objects. The questions which were actually asked were about writing practices (‘No, I don’t keep a checklist!’), the theme of redemption (‘I’m not sure that comes into it...’), and the humdrum ‘when you get an idea, how do you know if it is going to be a song, a screenplay or a book?’ To which the answer was, ‘The idea doesn’t come first, that’s the thing.’ The questions were all so damn awestruck. And you couldn’t blame the questioners, confronted after all with Nick Cave. You could maybe blame Jamie Byng for his uniformly bland, overly verbose non-interrogation, but then he wants to keep his author onside for a follow up book, which is fair enough. But what they were all getting wrong, I thought, was to see Cave as this untouchable rock ’n’ roll deity, spilling over in all directions, across boundaries and genres, cool because he is transgressive, larger than life and impossible to pin down, even as a seer with a hotline to God. Some of this may be true, but it is also pretty unhelpful. Cave himself always tries to turn the conversation around to practicalities, to his 9-to-5 approach to writing, and to the inspiration he takes from collected objects and observations (see the ‘Stories’ section of the exhibition site). I like the idea that at some level he is a train spotter, a bug collecter.

Actually there was a great question, right at the end. On the subject of abusive and / or neglectful fathers (i.e. Bunny and his own, even more grotesque father), someone asked, ‘Is there anyone by whom you feel demonised? And are you grateful?’ Nick Cave was in Dundee on Friday. How on earth did that happen?

There is a similar reading / interview available on iTunes’ ‘Meet the Author’ podcast.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Foxtrot Echo Lima Tango: a fanzine about Felt &c. 1980 – 2010

Listen to this. No, say this out loud:
Food, yeah. That’s a weird one. Because, like, the thing about food is – everybody’s a vegetarian in the music business. I can’t believe it! I’ve never ate a vegetable in my life! I think I was forced to eat a sprout once when I was two, you know – that’s the limit of it really.
Are you feeling the lilt of it? Try some more:
It’s up to them. It’s their choice. It’s perfectly OK. But I get some stick. I wish people wouldn’t give me any stick. ‘You need vegetables...,’ all this kind of rubbish. Maybe you do, but I’m not hurting anybody. It’s up to me if I don’t want to. I can’t eat vegetables. I mean, my mum took me to the doctors when I was about four – after the sprout – and she said, ‘This baby won’t eat – he just won’t eat.’
Chances are you are now talking Brummie. At least, I was by the time I’d got that far. I miss that accent sometimes, it is prosaic but it can be so warm. If you were down but not yet out, that’s the voice that would do you most good. If you were engaged in producing a run of the most austere, literate, self-consciously precious records to grace the 1980s, though, it mightn’t be what you’d choose. The Lawrence which emerges in this fine new Felt fanzine is isolated from the rest of Birmingham: he lives that line from ‘Crystal Ball’, ‘we might as well just stay in our rooms until we die’, with his meticulously clean, air-freshened flat, the kitchen cupboards filled with nothing but his collection of Kerouac paperbacks. He walks a line you get the impression that only he can see: between fame and self-sabotage, between trashy concept and fine feeling, between work and non-work. He is as finicky as Kraftwerk, but without the accompanying wealth or acclaim. Not that there hasn’t been acclaim, of course, but it must be hard to remember it or feel its worth when you end up, after all that, not famous, on the dole. This fanzine is beautiful because it shows the breadth and depth of reactions to Felt, it shows that plenty did see the line, it is full of love and obsessional responses to Lawrence’s obsessional detail.

A few highlights:
  • Benjamin Knight’s ‘Sunlight Strings the Golden Glow: The Guitar of Lawrence’, which introduces the word ‘felty’ to the language, to describe the softness of a band’s sound, and is insanely detailed without ever losing its awestruck tone. For example: ‘At 1:40, some double notes spike between Lawrence’s words accentuating them before he stops singing long enough to let the guitars lead us down the shortest lonely path back to the song’ (on ‘Hours of Darkness Have Changed My Mind’).
  • ‘Felt on the Tyne’, an idiotic radio interview with a DJ who’d never heard of them. ‘YOU’RE VERY LAID BACK HERE AND EVERYTHING BUT ARE YOU GONNA SOCK IT TO THEM. ARE YOU LIKE A NOISE BAND? OR ARE YOU TOTALLY MOODY?’
  • The two long interviews with Lawrence, by Chris Heath (from 1987) and Alistair Fitchett (from 2005), particularly the sprouts line from the former and his fierce defence of not selling out in the latter. ‘For the kids, for the people who really love music like me. There must be somebody like me.’
  • Alasdair MacLean’s line about the way Felt made him and his school friends feel ‘estrangement from the details of our lives’.
  • Maurice Deebank’s anonymous third-person grumbling about history’s focus on Lawrence, and his spectacularly un-Pop missing of the point: ‘If you have something worthwhile offering, then let it speak for itself.’
  • Alex Deck’s home-made ‘Felt Box’, made of felt with felt lettering, the inside a trove of clippings and photos surrounding a series of TDK cassettes.
It’s really pretty special. Get one from here.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

E. M. Forster – ‘The Eternal Moment and Other Stories’

The second of Forster’s two short story collections, published in 1928 but written before 1914 and, taken together with The Celestial Omnibus, it represents ‘all that I am likely to accomplish in a particular line’. It is a pretty squiggly line, veering from the home turf of anguished rich travellers (‘The Eternal Moment’), to more fantastical, metaphysical territory. ‘Co-ordination’ imagines Napoleon and Beethoven in heaven, measuring their glory in terms of how often people still perform the works of one and mention the achievements of the other; quality and interest are ignored, and they get excited unnecessarily about the activities of a school with a Napoleon themed term during which child after child plays parts of the Eroica symphony badly on piano. ‘The Story of the Siren’ has men and women driven mad by beholding an underwater siren, or at least driven to a state of mind in which they can only relate to other people who have experienced the same thing. ‘Mr Andrews’ considers the ascent of a Christian and a Moslem to heaven. ‘The Point of It’ is an exercise in snobbery directed towards the middlebrow, or else a robust defence of taste in the face of ageing, and contains this bleak but halfway convincing prognosis:
By different paths they had come to Hell and Micky now saw that what the bustle of life conceals: that the years are bound either to liquefy a man or to stiffen him, and that Love and Truth, who seem to contend for our souls like angels, hold each the seeds of our decay. (p. 52)
But the real interest in this book is in the first story, which is particularly far even from the line established in The Celestial Omnibus. ‘The Machine Stops’ is science fiction. The earlier book satirises modernity’s obsession with advancement and activity, which feels like an internet theme to a modern reader. ‘The Machine Stops’ goes much further, predicting the rot of the attention span down to about ten minutes (the maximum length of a YouTube clip), the total loss of primary sources from the education system, the loss of geography as a meaningful concept (hello broadband), and the fractured discourse of instant messaging / tweeting / texting. People live in stacked hexagonal boxes beneath the earth’s surface, and all of their physical and conversational wants are supplied in situ. The messaging system is based on tubes and doesn’t seem to be electronic, but its functionality is identical to much of today’s communication technology: many conversations are held at once, there is a constant scramble to be first with a new idea (with the emphasis on ‘first’ rather than ‘idea’), and lectures are no longer something to be attended and absorbed, rather they are delivered to the home and last, as I say, a mere ten minutes. People leave their hexagonal boxes so rarely that they can’t remember how to interact with others when they encounter them face to face. Vashti, the central character, has a ‘horror of direct experience’ (p. 11). The whole of this civilisation is controlled by the machine of the story’s title, and the machine’s manual is the only book left over ‘from the age of litter’ (p. 7). Artefacts are a thing of the past – so digital copies, too, are anticipated. There is no indication that any force more evil than a drive towards economical performance is at work behind this, but the results are deadly:
Man must be adapted to his surroundings, must he not? In the dawn of the world our weakly must be exposed on Mount Taygetus, in its twilight our strong will suffer euthanasia, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress eternally. (p. 17)
Because of the confined living circumstances, physical strength is now a disadvantage, and in childhood, ‘all who promised undue strength were destroyed’. It’s an anti-target message, and an anti-technology message. If things become too easy, they cease to be worth doing at all.

A few more quotes:
And of course she had studied the civilisation that had immediately preceded her own – the civilisation that had mistaken the functions of the system, and had used it for bringing people to things, instead of for bringing things to people. (p. 9)

Night and day, wind and storm, tide and earthquake, impeded man no longer. He had harnessed Leviathan. All the old literature, with its praise of Nature, and its fear of Nature, rang false as the prattle of a child. (p. 10-11)

Blog Archive

Labels