Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Lodger & Water Wolves, Mono, Glasgow, 20th April

Being by my reckoning the fifth of Brogues’ ‘Foolin’ Around’ gigs, and the first since this all-conquering Pastels / Tenniscoats show. The first, too, Chris noticed, not to be held on a Thursday. ‘How did you manage to forget which week one of them was in and still remember the day?’ I wondered, but he was too pleased with his new painting of Freddie Mercury from Mono’s Project Ability exhibition to mind much. Ooh, Project Ability have a Flickr page, I didn’t know that. We wondered, anyway, whether the day of the week was what had kept the audience numbers down: there was plenty of low key atmos, and those who were there were appreciative, but – you could’ve tried a bit harder, Glasgow.

Especially as what you missed was top notch. Having narrowly missed Water Wolves supporting Real Estate in January (seat... or support band?), it was good to have the opportunity to catch up. Brogues has compared their guitar lines to the Go-Betweens, and listening to their MySpace songs I do agree (do you know that early Robert song ‘Hope’?), but in the flesh they were far more on the wavelength of The Clean, with the fluidity of the sound, the reluctance to change chords, the easy-going frailty. The two guitars took turns at being the bright, trebly one, and the drummer in his tank top looked like an extra in a Philip Larkin documentary. Maybe this kind of thing works best live, but I wouldn’t discount the possibility of a magic all the Wolves’ own. A girl at the front shouted out something about ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend’, and I couldn’t work out if it was because the previous song used the same chords or because the following one stole some of the lyrics. But nothing could be further from the Ramones: this was un-regimented, de-regulated, ramshackle as a sparkler.

Not so The Lodger, who are a highly organised bunch. The second bearded singer of the evening looked much more like a morning person, with his Green Flash trainers and lightening fast guitar arm. He wouldn’t make a great substitute for Ivor Novello in the film from which (I presume) his band took their name – too open, too honest for that ambiguous character. To begin with, on stage as on record, The Lodger can come across as plain: a whirlwind of activity neatly tidied away into a teacup. But then you tune in. Their appeal is not in the surface of the sound but in its drive and urgency. Especially thrilling are the lurches into disco – particularly on set closer ‘The Good Old Days’, a great, great single which should come with umpteen extended 12” mixes. Other attempts to deepen their sound are in evidence: Ben introduced one song from the new LP by saying that really it is stuffed full of saxophones, but that the logistics of getting the extra musicians into the band’s Vauxhall Corsa all the way to Glasgow meant that we would have to imagine them. They are doing the full orchestrated version in Leeds soon. ‘Let Her Go’ was deployed at the set’s mid-point, a ball of energy oddly reminiscent of Subway Sect’s lethargic ‘Turn Your Back On Everyone’. ‘Many Thanks For Your Honest Opinion’ – ‘one of the first songs I ever wrote’ – was more fiery still. A. was even reminded of Passion Star, for the tender hearted self possession. That is a compliment indeed. The Lodger kicked up a storm.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Momus – ‘Solution 11-167: The Book of Scotlands’

A collection not of stories but of Scotlands. Numbered, but not in order. None of them are entirely real, none entirely false. ‘Every lie creates a parallel world: the world in which it is true’, states the cover in bold capitals over a flag which is Scotland’s in shape, England’s in colour. Some of the Scotlands are more Germany than Scotland; quite a few are 90% Japan. The majority are high concept one-liners (Scotland 37: ‘The Scotland in which every citizen is pale, malevolent and glaikit’ (p. 131)), but many also run to several pages. A few are obscene, a few might count as magic realism, myths or fairy stories. The influence of Momus’ holiday to Orkney in 2008 is clearly felt. Edinburgh, where he is from, is the most vividly realised city; Glasgow hardly features; and Dundee is, unaccountably, completely absent. Primal Scream are in there: rebranded Sonic Flower Groove, you’d have to be a pretty odd Momus fan not to pick up on that. Norman McLaren is there too, under the name McBean, and I wondered what the point was in telling people about Norman McLaren if you aren’t going to reveal his name? Like you did here. Maybe he is more famous than I’m giving him credit for. Click Opera runs through this book’s veins: its recurring themes are here too, most emphatically the one about the UK’s boorishness, its intolerance of nonconformity, which is the target of Momus’ satire whenever he switches Japan for Scotland. There is never any ‘reveal’ as such, the details build up until you realise you’ve been had:
Some adorably cute kids, a boy and a girl, are slithering by on steel rollbars, pointing at the rain flecking the airport window. Their mother indulges them for a while, then calls them to her kindly. They respond with a loud ‘Aye!’, an obedience which is at once utter compliance and delight. (pp. 35-6)
An unexpected effect of the book was that it made the things it led me to look up seem fake. It is heavily referential throughout, nearly every page sent me to Google, and what I found on the internet was often written in the same factual style as the book itself. A mention of McCaig’s Folly, a fake Roman amphitheatre in Oban, led me to this website, and the first sentence there, ‘Oban stands unchallenged as the capital of the western seaboard of Scotland’, could easily be the start of another of Momus’ Scotlands. The fact that I knew about McCaig’s Folly, and have seen it many times (though I didn’t know its name before), wasn’t enough to make the real website ring true. But I believed in Momus’ fakery (as fakery), because it was on paper.

Googling the word ‘superlegitimacy’, from the same story as the quotation above (Scotland 101, natch) led me right back to Click Opera. That entry is reworked, in fact, and included as Scotland 124. In it, the Tokyo train driver of the blog post becomes an Edinburgh tram driver (like there are ever going to be any of those...), but, place names aside, it is not Edinburgh which is being described. The story is a simple one: the narrator takes a tram, from Pilton to Restalrig, and happens to stand close to the driver’s glass partition. He soon notices ‘a series of odd cries’ coming from the driver, and begins to closely observe his behaviour, which appears to be highly eccentric:
I watched – and filmed – the lunatic. He did seem exceptionally focussed. At each station he made a series of florid manual curlicues, approximating the gestures of an orchestral conductor. He pointed vigorously at the TV screens in his console displaying the doors, then pulled the tram away from the station with both gloved hands on the accelerator lever, uttering as if by compulsion the ecstatic, falling cry: ‘Kkkkyyyyyoooooooooo!’ (p. 106)
It turns out that within the driver’s own culture, this behaviour is perfectly normal – it only appears remarkable to the narrator as an outsider. Perhaps for this reason he is also better placed to see its virtue: the man has ‘the very soul of a tram driver’, and is the opposite of an employee within an individualistic society, who would never identify himself with such menial work in this way. The flaw with this attitude is that
Individualistic societies cover their hierarchical verticality with the ideology of ‘equality of opportunity’ (which of course entails its less benign cousin, inequality of result). (p. 107)
If an individualistic society is vertically structured, with everyone chasing the same goals, ‘Scottish society is superflat, diffuse’. Your job gives you a place within it. In the book version, the narrator actually becomes the driver, and gets to feel his pride. It seems very much like a happy ending, but there is a problem with it: the narrator has swapped curiosity for a contentment which never looks beyond itself. And Momus would not be Momus if he did that.


Update: Chris points out, ‘the perpendicular St Andrew’s cross on the front cover isn’t in the colours of the English flag – it’s Pantone 1655 (ref. Scotland 23)’. I dunno though, it looks red and white to me.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H. Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos & Annie di Donna – ‘Logicomix: an Epic Search for Truth’

This popped up on Dad’s Amazon recommendations, as a result, he can only imagine, of buying comics for me, demographically shazam’d together with the kind of philosophy / maths things he tends to be interested in. It only goes to show – if you can imagine it, it probably exists. Left to my own devices, I think the awkwardness of the first part of the title together with the haughtiness of the second would have been enough to put me off. Not to mention the central conceit – to tell the story of Bertrand Russell’s attempt to establish a logical foundation for mathematics, through a comic. Is this really the best medium? Regarding the philosophy side of things, I am not remotely qualified to say, but in terms of creating drama out of academic crises, it succeeds, and spectacularly. A niggle remains that it must surely leave out most of the arguments upon which its own drama is based, but it’s not like I was ever going to read Principia Mathematica, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, or indeed anything without characters and a story. This is the compromise Logicomix makes: just because the stuff in which it deals is very complicated indeed, doesn’t mean it isn’t important; and if it’s important, its story deserves to be told.

As a precocious young man, Russell comes up with his paradox, which attacks set theory:
‘Does the set of all sets which do not contain themselves contain itself?’ To which the answer is ‘If it does, then it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, then it does!’ It sounds like a parlour witticism. But it subverts the notion of ‘set’ as a collection defined by a common property. (p. 168)
This is his moment of triumph, but it proves so problematical that it is easy to forget the Russell who arrived at it during the pages which follow. He grinds to a halt in his attempt, despite the paradox, to stick with logic: Principia Mathematica is written with the mathematician Alfred Whitehead over the following decade, and published between 1910-13. During the same period, Russell becomes estranged from his own wife and falls for Whitehead’s. The book sours at this point, losing the charm of a fierce young intelligence taking on stuffy old mathematics with a fond new wife in tow. Russell appears to consider Principia Mathematica a failure, and is reluctant to publish – which hardly anyone wants him to do anyway. It is redeemed much later in the story by Kurt Gödel, who uses its methods to prove the conclusion it is apparently desperate to avoid, that there are mathematical truths which not only haven’t been discovered, but which are also undiscoverable.

Then there is Wittgenstein. As presented here, through Russell’s tired perception, he comes across as a lunatic. Now, I remember from reading Ray Monk’s biography of him years ago that he was not a conventionally charming man – not even in the absent minded academic line. But still, one warmed to him for his integrity, and just sort of took for granted that his ideas were tremendously important*. Here, that importance – though not the integrity – is in doubt. He has two things to say: that logic is not divisible from language, and that ‘the things that cannot be talked about logically... are the only ones which are truly important!!!’ (p. 288). On the first point:
Russell: The ‘Picture’ theory is clear enough. But it gives us truth only because of the underlying higher language of logic.
Wittgenstein: There you go again! There’s no such thing as a ‘higher language’! Truth comes in only one variety! A ‘Picture Language’ is all you need to describe the world, i.e. all the facts!
Russell: …and logic?
Wittgenstein: Logic is the form of language, it’s embedded in it, like the iron structure that supports a building. But try living in that structure! (p. 258)
The italics and exclamation marks do look better in speech balloons, by the way. The end of that passage encapsulates the moral of the book. The whole thing is told from within two frames – firstly, the team who wrote and drew it appear as characters, allowing a built-in commentary on the flow of the narrative; and secondly, Russell gives a lecture to an American audience in 1939, which provides the narrative impetus and voice for his own reminiscences. His facial expressions during this talk, and the contrast between ‘now’ and his gradually ageing younger self are probably the best thing about the artwork, it is remarkable to watch him grow into himself. The lecture is picketed by protesters who don’t want the US to enter World War II – they want Russell’s support, reminding him of his pacifism during World War I. Nazism is an example of a rigid logical structure imposed on real life – the ultimate example, in fact, of why this is a bad idea. Frege, one of the men behind set theory, is shown late on as a crazed Nazi sympathiser.

So if the main achievement of Russell’s life was the fleeting moment in which he established that mathematical logic must be flawed, and if he tired himself out failing to disprove this over many years, what exactly is this book celebrating? The author-character Christos stands up for Principia Mathematica as the basis for Gödel’s breakthrough, and claims that with the holy grail of a perfectly logical mathematics gone, the way was clear for people such as John von Neumann (who was present at Gödel’s lecture, and reacted by saying ‘It’s all over’) to concentrate on what maths could actually be made to do, and – voilà! – you get the utopia of the internet. Without exactly knowing why, that seems suspect to me (the internet as a paragon of how not to waste time down esoteric blind alleys? And why did the practical have to wait until the impractical had been proved impossible?). All the same, a beautifully drawn, entertaining read, and an illuminating juxtaposition of politics and science during the first half of the twentieth century.

* You may notice a pattern forming here.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Anne Brontë – ‘Agnes Grey’

Actually, it would be a shame not to say a little more about this, despite the kind of intermittent, protracted reading which would usually wipe most of the coherence from a book. It doesn’t seem to have affected Agnes Grey much, though. If Charlotte’s Shirley pulled out all the stops to get away from governesses, dependence, plainness and the straitened perspective of a single central character, this book does the opposite – in fact, it could be the archetype. The Professor’s gender-reversal, and the grand standing which accompanies this, make it a far more awkward appropriation of the materials to hand. It is more ambitious, it has a louder voice, but it fails to charm. Wuthering Heights’ brutality acts as the muddying factor in a genteel age. Agnes Grey, alone of the three Brontë novels offered for publication to Thomas Newby in 1847, is very obviously, unapologetically, the work of a woman; and one with distinctly homely instincts. Though there is wanderlust as well as utility in Agnes’ desire to leave home and work as a governess, and though her principles are strongly expressed throughout, there is no egotism in her character. Towards the end of the book when Mr Weston, the man she loves, finally meets her mother, she sits quietly, seeing no need to intrude on their easy conversation:
though I occasionally regretted my own deficiencies for his sake, it gave me very great pleasure to sit and hear the two beings I loved and honoured above everyone else in the world, discoursing together so amicably, so wisely, and so well. (p. 248)
Is Jane Eyre ever happy unless she has carried her point over Rochester? Agnes does not value argument as Jane does, she does not need to say something to appreciate it.

Which gives us a slim volume, often rather bald in the way it presents its events. The plot early on is episodic (doubtless the life of a governess would have been). It begins at her home, the Parsonage in an un-named seaside village, but quickly moves to the house of Agnes’ first employers, the Bloomfields. The children are spoilt and out of control, the parents give Agnes no support, the grandmother is devious. After a while, having made no headway, she gets the sack – and a quarter of the book has gone, before she has reached the scene of the book’s main action, in the employ of the shallow, stuck up Murray family. The Bloomfields are never referred to again. The Murray children are older and not quite as bad as their predecessors – they become manageable, at least, after the son has been sent away to school. For a while the story sticks with the conditions of the tuition, and with Agnes’ treatment by her employers and their circle (they are uniformly condescending, when they notice her at all). She is present in her own narrative only as a resisting force, until about half way through the novel, when she begins to have feelings for Mr Weston, a curate. What precedes this is probably the longest stretch of romance-free plotting in a Brontë novel – and it does very well without that focus. By the end of the book, these feelings have come to dominate, but never quite in the obsessive way that you find with other Brontë heroines. The strength of Agnes’ feelings is not in doubt, but she doesn’t expect her hopes to be fulfilled, and rarely becomes bitter (her self-denying nature and understated Christian faith are at play here). The quietly lyrical chapter ‘The Sands’ is correspondingly touching: it’s just a walk, just a chance meeting. But if it wasn’t meant to be, God would have had a reason for that too: Agnes’ language can be archaic and prim, her moralising often lacks nuance. But I didn’t mind any of that: I liked her.

Some more quotations:
I observed that while Mrs Murray was so extremely solicitous for the comfort and happiness of her children, and continually talking about it, she never once mentioned mine, and I an alien among strangers; and I did not yet know enough of the world, not to be considerably surprised at this anomaly. (p. 121)

‘The best of happiness,’ replied he, ‘is mine already... the power and the will to be useful.’ (p. 165, Mr Weston’s philosophy)

Love! I detest the word! as applied to one of our sex, I think it a perfect insult! a preference I might acknowledge; but never for one like poor Mr Hatfield, who has not seven hundred a year to bless himself with. (p. 172, Rosalie Murray is the speaker)

our wishes are like tinder: the flint and steel of circumstances are continually striking out sparks, which vanish immediately, unless they chance to fall upon the tinder of our wishes; then, they instantly ignite, and the flame of hope is kindled in a moment. (p. 210)

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