Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Papa was a rodeo

Someone on ILX pointed me to Diary of a Carny. Some of it is pretty bleak, while nevertheless being about the life the author chose and (kind of) loves.

Monday, April 24, 2006

General Pinochet, saviour of Chile

I've been reading a lot about General Pinochet lately, as I am writing an essay about his foreign policy for Spy School. I'd almost forgotten what a completely loathsome cockfarmer he is, and it's good to be reminded. It's also entertaining to read about how rubbish his regime's economic performance is... apologists for him talk about how impressive growth was under his regime, but basically count his regime as having come to power in 1987 rather than 1973 in order to skew the statistics.

Someone asked me the other day what I actually study in the old Spy School. An interesting question, and if the same thought has ever crossed your mind, now I will tell you what they have been teaching me there. In the first semester, I did compulsory courses in theory of international relations and international law. This semester I am doing elective courses in Latin American stuff (mainly about attempts by countries in the region to achieve an equitable "insertion" in the world economy) and stuff to do with Eastern Europe (a bit more political). I could have taken courses in Terrorism and something to do with comparing Northern Ireland to other divided societies.

Next semester it's more compulsory stuff - International Political Economy and something to do with Development. Some of my Spy Mates fear the IPE, but I say BRING IT ON. After that, I do one elective course, and then I have to write a thesis on something. If there is something you would like me to write a thesis on, drop me a line.

I'm not sure when they teach all the advanced surveillance techniques that I would have thought a career in espionage requires...maybe they come up in secret courses over the summer.

I had the great idea of starting a second blog to drone on boringly about what I've been learning in spy school, but sadly I became too busy learning stuff to update in properly. THIS IS LIFE.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

After Humanity


It's whatever number of years since the old Chernobyl accident. One of the most interesting features of all this has been the creation of a dead zone abandoned by humans but in which animal and plant life thrive. Maybe you have read the fascinating web piece by this Ukrainian woman who goes for motorbike rides through the forbidden zone? In our cynical age people have come forward to claim that her site is some kind of hoax. I think they miss the point, really, and fail to be moved by the evocative pictures and words on that site.

The BBC website has ran one of its picture pieces on Chernobyl, in particular on the abandoned town of Pripyat. There is something sad and ghostly about the place, where people evacuated so quickly they didn't have time to pack. The town takes on another significance now, as it is like a relic of Communism, reminiscent of that bit in "Lilja-4-Ever" where Lilja and the little boy look at pictures of servicemen in the abandoned Soviet era naval base.

It is also striking how quickly nature claims back its own. When the bird flu kills us all, there will be wild plants and rabbits living in your bedroom within a year. I suppose that runs counter to Pripyat's status as the USSR's Pompeii... in fifty to a hundred years the place will be indistinguishable from the surrounding forest.

(All pictures from the BBC website. But if you have not yet looked at the Ukrainian motorbike woman's website, go there now!)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Bloglinks Purge Completed

I notice that either Foneblog is down, or everyone I know with a Foneblog has had theirs deleted. Oh well. If they come back I may link to them.

If you are looking at this on stinky Livejournal, I urge you to take a look at the real Inuit Bikini Scarlet Carwash, where you can check out my links to the very greatest other blogs in the world.

If I have forgotten to link to your blog, let me know.

Monday, April 17, 2006

This great little nation

Military parades RoXoR. When the broadband fairy arrives, I will bore you with my own pictures. In the meantime, make do with this:

Links Purge

Comrades, I am shortly going to be purging my list of links to other blogs. I will update it to include new addresses for blogs which have moved and maybe add in some more blogs that link to me (if they meet my exacting standards).

More importantly I will be purging the list of dud blogs, an elastic category which includes mainly blogs which haven't been updated in an age, but also false blogs which do not link to me (unless I wuv them despite everything).

I was in a pub

Look! It is a picture of me, in a pub, taken by Idleberry.

Film (DVD): “Together”

If you are foreign or refer to films by their foreign titles then you may know this as "Tilsammans". I have seen this on many occasions and now I have seen it again. I often think this would be a great film to show on Christmas Day afternoons, except that i) it is in foreign and ii) features both men and women naked from the waist down. So my mother wouldn’t like it (she hates films with subtitles). As you know, this is the film about people living in a commune in 1970s Stockholm, and it deals with the importance of human contact and togetherness, and has the greatest unreleased soundtrack of any film ever made. In Sweden, more people saw it than saw "Titanic".

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

"I'm off to oil my gun"

I went to see a student production of "The Real Inspector Hound", this being a short play by Tom Stoppard in which two theatre reviewers go to see an English country house murder mystery style play. The last time I saw this was, eh, 18 years ago, and my old friend and quaffing partner Dominic Murphy played one of the reviewers. Anyway, yeah, the play was a lot of fun, if you like that kind of thing.

I was also amused to read on the BBC news website how there is this crater on Mars with a smiley face.

Monday, April 10, 2006

RTÉ Living Music Festival 2006: episode two

Part Three had music performed by the RTE Concert Orchestra. Reich’s own ‘Duet’ from 1993 was like a redux version of nicey classic music. For some reason this called to mind some TV documentary I saw once about the Voyager probes, where they played back the random electromagnetic signals a probe was picking up as it sailed by Saturn’s rings. The sound was oddly like that of an orchestra tuning up, which maybe was what this sounded like too.

Arvo Pärt’s ‘Fratres’ for string orchestra and percussion (1977 “& 1991) provided us with an attractive piece of string-heavy music backed by unobtrusive percussion. That was followed by Igor Stravinsky’s 1938 ‘Concerto in E Flat (‘Dumbarton Oaks’)’, the ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)’ of the classical world. It was maybe a bit dull compared to all the other top stuff the day had seen, but much enjoyment was to be had from the conductor’s interpretative dance. John Adams’ 1979 piece ‘Common Tones In Simple Time’ boasted the kind of hypnotic quality I typically hope for from the classical music.

Going away to dinner meant we had to skip the live interview with Steve Reich by John Kelly of “The Mystery Train”. We also missed the concert in the Chapel wherein the RTE Vanburgh Quartet together with some Hugh Tinney guy on piano were going to play music by Keith Volans and Morton Feldman. But we were back in place for Part Five, which featured the Crash Ensemble doing a couple of Reich pieces. First up, though, Reich took the stage himself, and together with one of the Crashers performed ‘Clapping Music’ (1972). This features two people clapping, with the claps going in and out of phase with each other. It would be a great party trick to learn off, and hearing it performed by the man himself took me right back to the early days of the APA and what might have been the very first TOAD I ever received (the one from Robin apCynan). It was good fun, therefore, when some elements of the crowd gave the clap straight back to Reich when he had finished. I think it was around this point that we spotted the aforementioned John Kelly, a surprisingly handsome man in real life. I was going to go and give him an earful about something but thought better of it.

Anyway, next up was ‘Cello Counterpoint’ (2003), in which a cello was played over a recording of a cello playing, to make counterpoints and stuff. It certainly sounded very nice, but I was not quite sure what was accomplished by having a recording rather than a second cellist. Finishing the day was ‘City Life’ (1995), which saw the whole of the Crashers playing over street samples collected by Reich himself – car noises, sirens, the general aural backcloth of city life. It was a great piece of music, but sadly by now I was a bit puppy tired and neglecting my notes, meaning that I can tell you little about it bar it having noises in it. I gather some complained that it featured both violins and too many musicians, but I certainly liked it, and judge that it made for an excellent end to a day of most fine music.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

RTÉ Living Music Festival 2006: episode one

This is the first Living Music festival that I (or indeed most people) have ever been to, as its concerts were located in the city centre and they had a superstar guest as the focus for the event’s proceedings. Yes, reader, this music festival was centred on the music of Steve Reich, a man the programme described as an icon of American music. Because I am a very busy man, I could not go to all the concerts, but I made it to many of the ones taking place on the Saturday in the theatre of my old school, where numerous pieces by Steve Reich and others were being performed, some with the assistance of contemporary outfit the Crash Ensemble. I was particularly interested in seeing some of their stuff as I had met one of them over the summer at a wedding and wanted to see if the whole outfit was as kewl as she was.

The great rumour I heard about the festival, incidentally, was that Reich agreed to show up on condition that nothing by Philip Glass appeared on the programme. Whether the proximity of several lapdancing clubs (including String-Fell-Ow’s) to the venue influenced his decision is unknown. There were unconfirmed rumours of a baseball-capped man appearing in several of these places during the day, asking if the dancers could perform to some music he’d brought with him.

Anyway, the music. I couldn’t make it to Part One, so my first was Part Two: some pieces by Reich preceded by other musics from when he kicked off and a new piece by a local composer. All of these were performed by the Crash Ensemble. The first piece was called ‘Workers Union’, and written by Louis Andriessen in 1975. It was very rhythmic – in fact there was almost nothing to it but rhythm, with every musician playing the same staccato notes on their instruments simultanaeously, producing a very odd effect. It did seem to feature a lot of false climaxes, but I wonder was that more in the way of being like an ocean’s series of breaking waves than the teasing annoyance that false endings typically present. I also found myself thinking that what the piece really needed was a guy in a tracksuit doing interpretative dance at the front of the stage.

Next up was James Tenney’s 1971 piece. ‘Never Having Written A Note For Percussion’. There was an element of When Gamelan Attacks to this piece, with the trio of musicians on stage playing instruments reminiscent of that crazy music. However, the piece’s style was rather different and most unusual. Whereas the previous piece featured separate, discrete punches of noise, this featured a continuous wall of music with no punctuation whatsoever. All that happened was the music went from being very quiet to very loud and then back to very quiet, with the sound being so seamless that it was like something you would get from a tone generator. This has to be one of the most extreme pieces of music I’ve ever heard, lacking almost everything one would associate with the form (no melody, no rhythm, almost no variation). The symphony of coughs emanating from the audience suggested that maybe the majority opinion was indeed that this was not music, but noise.

Simon O’Connor of The Jimmy Cake wrote the next piece, ‘The Paradise – Part III’, being premiered on this occasion. It was a plinky plinky piece for one pianist, far more obviously musical than anything that had gone before. It was definitely easy on the ear, but lacking the extreme features of what had gone before it is hard for a talentless bozo like me to write about. Also, it is the third part of a series. I hate sequels, especially when I have missed previous episodes.

And then two pieces by Steve Reich. ‘Vermont Counterpoint’ (1983) saw a flautist play over samples of herself playing. It was nice enough, which sounds like damning with faint praise. Maybe I am saying that that whole people sampling themselves endlessly has been done to death now, or that Fursaxa does it better. But of course, back in 1983 this would all have seemed relatively exciting. And then there was ‘Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ’ (1973), whose title largely describes it, unless like me you found yourself imagining something like that Monty Python sketch where the deranged musician batters trained mice with a mallet. It was not like that, but rather like Western music reverse engineering Gamelan. So you know, lots of people hitting xylophones and drums and stuff (with mallets) in a manner that both looked and sounded great. There might have been some electronic stuff in among all this. Top buzz, whatever it was.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Film (Cinema): “The Grizzly Man”

You may have read in the paper a couple of years back about this guy and his girlfriend who were eaten by a bear in the wilds of Alaska. As it happened, the guy had been spending summers with the bears for the previous eleven years and reckoned he had got the hang of interacting with them. The other bizarre feature of his death was that it was recorded on audio – in the confusion of the attack a camcorder (with the lens cap still on) was activated, recording for posterity the guy struggling for his life and advising the girlfriend to run for it in a futile attempt to save her life.

Tim Treadwell was the bear guy’s name. It turned out that in his many years hanging out with the bears he had compiled a lot of video-footage, both of bears doing bear stuff and of himself talking to camera. He had also become relatively famous, spreading the word of how kewl bears are to schoolchildren everywhere and appearing on Lenoman a couple of times (being asked once whether he would one day be eaten by a bear).

Now Werner Herzog has got his paws on the Treadwell’s footage, and has produced a film from it and his own interviews with people who knew Treadwell or were associated with his death (such as the coroner who presided over the inquest). A lot of it is about how disturbed Treadwell is, with Herzog doing a lot of grappling with the question of what kind of lunatic would spend their time camped out in the middle of nowhere with monstrous animals for companions. He also marvels at Treadwell’s skills with the camera and ability to approach filming in a methodical manner considerably divorced from the idea you would otherwise have of him as some kind of naively disorganised nut-job. Treadwell’s footage is very striking, both in terms of the beauty of nature and the majesty of the bears on the one hand, and of his ability to interact with bears. There are a lot of scenes in this film where a bear starts growling at him very aggressively indeed and he manages to just face them down and save his life. I suppose it helped that he had got to know these animals over a number of years, and they had developed some sense of him as that weird thing which does not act in a normal manner and is hence best avoided. It is telling that Treadwell was eaten by a bear who had wandered into the area and which he had not developed this kind of rudimentary rapport.

Grizzly bears are very impressive and very fierce animals. They are huge, for one thing, and this is something you maybe only grasp when you have something human sized beside them. They also do great strange stuff like eating their young in times of food shortages. One thing I do wish the film had done was focus a little bit more on the bears, as it ended without very much being communicated about what they do and how they interact with each other.

The other fascinating thing about all this was the strangeness of many of the other people whose lives crossed Treadwell’s. One great strange character is a woman who was his lover at one stage but remained his friend and worked with him in whatever Bear Love Foundation he had founded. And there is the coroner, already mentioned, who seems to have approached Herzog’s interviewing as his opportunity to ham it up big-time. Herzog himself is a calm and measured character by contrast, but he does seem to inhabit a world of existential bleakness, commenting at one stage that all Treadwell’s ideas on the harmony of nature and his rapport with the bears are entirely illusory, with chaos and disorder being the real principles that govern the universe (leading Mark S on ILX to suggest that it is a shame he did not provide the narration for “MARCH OF THE PENGUINS”). And there is an amusing bit where he plays some footage of Treadwell ranting to camera like a lunatic, denouncing the Alaskan park services in the most deranged fashion. “I have seen this kind of madness from actors before” the frequent director of Klaus Kinski laconically comments.

So, Treadwell, mad guy who thought he had a rapport with bears, bear then eats him – a cautionary tale about how humans and nature are profoundly different and the boundaries between them should never be breached. Perhaps, but one very striking thing from Treadwell’s footage is that he seems to have struck up a genuine rapport with this arctic fox, with the animal displaying the kind of relaxed demeanour in his company that suggests the easy familiarity of actual friendship. Maybe if Treadwell had stuck to animals too small to eat him we would be hailing him as someone who had breached the boundary between humanity and nature, and lived to tell the tale.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Chick Purchase

So here's what I bought in Nottingham:

Kate Bush "Aerial"
The Fall "50,000 Fall Fans Can't Be Wrong"
Cornershop "Hold On, It Hurts"
Joy Division "Substance"
Ramones [first album]
v/a "Keeping The Faith: a Creation Records Dance compilation"

AND: a double DVD set of public information films.

Look forward to the usual boring reviews.

Film (cinema): “Old Boy”

I think everyone in the world has already seen this one… you know the score: Korean businessman is kidnapped, held in solitary confinement in an apartment block for years and years during which time he is framed for his wife’s murder and his daughter taken into care. Then he is inexplicably released, and he resolves to track down those responsible and exact bloody vengeance upon them. Of course, there is a twist, and without giving it away, it does involve the jailor posing the obvious conundrum: “The question you should be asking is not why did I lock you up, but why did I let you out”.

So yeah, great film, beautifully looking, well plotted, great acting, etc. etc.. I love it and am looking forward to tracking down the director’s other two films in his trilogy of revenge films: “SYMPATHY FOR MISTER VENGEANCE” and “Lady Vengeance”.

One thing, though – a lot of people have said that while they thought this was an excellent film, they found it a bit extreme and would never like to see it again. I respectfully suggest that such people need to get out more, and in particular suggest that they check out the Japanese film “Audition”. That film has raised the bar on cinematic extremeness so high that with “Old Boy” I was continuously waiting for the incredibly extreme bit that never came.

I'm back from a weekend in Nottingham, by the way.