Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Summer in London – part 3: This is Hell and We are in it


There is maybe not too much more to say about our trip to London. We visited the new Gosh comics on Berwick Street. With the Soul Jazz shop round the corner and Sister Ray probably still hanging in, the Berwick Street area may become once more a gravitational centre for any trip to the big smoke. And we went to Shakespeare's Globe (TM) to see Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus.

I love visiting the Globe (a reconstruction of the theatre in which Shakespeare's works were originally performed). It has some winning features. Firstly, the plays are staged in something vaguely approximating to how they would have been in Elizabethan England, which is fascinating to someone like me who is interested in theatre history. Secondly, you can get in for a fiver if you are willing to stand for the performances' duration – not a problem if you are as used to standing at gigs as I am.

Doctor Faustus was a particular draw for me, as it is one of the classics of Elizabethan drama and so of theatre generally. As you know, it concerns this fellow Faustus (a doctor) who hits on the bright idea of selling his soul to the Devil. The Devil grants him an extended life in which he will have the demonic prince Mephistopheles as his servant. The play follows first Mephistopheles luring Faustus into the pact and then distracting him with fun stuff (like kicking the Pope or letting him shag Helen of Troy) to prevent him from renouncing the pact and throwing himself on God's mercy. For comic relief, the idiot servants of Dr Faustus also dabble in the black arts, with hilarious consequences.

I suppose what makes the play work so well is its sense of gothic doom and of the dreadful awfulness of the damnation to which Faustus has signed himself. You can tell that the demons are all miserable – there are lovely scenes where Mephistopheles and even the Devil himself wince whenever God is mentioned or respond in pained tones whenever they are asked to describe Hell ("This is Hell and we are in it", or some such replies Mephistopheles – when you no longer behold the Countenance Divine then everywhere is damnation). For all that Faustus is meant to be one of the great brains of his age, he is clearly not the sharpest knife in the drawer if he is willing to align himself with this bunch of malevolent losers. We know this will end very badly for him.

One amusing thing about this production was that Mephistopheles was played by Arthur Darville – a man probably better known for his portrayal of Rory From Doctor Who. Rory From Doctor Who has a certain gormless quality (albeit a loveable gormlessness that goes with a character a bit more fully rounded than might be expected from Gormless Boyfriend Of Doctor's Assistant) but Darville showed here that he is not just a one trick pony by being able to convey the melancholic and malevolent qualities of a Prince of Hell. Paul Hilton as Faustus was also excellent, though I don't think he has ever been in Doctor Who.

And that was almost that, though we did also find time to meet people in a pub and visit Highgate cemetery.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

NaNoWriMo 2011

NaNoWriMo is this world wide writing exercise where people try to write novels of at least 50,000 words in the month of November. Pure quantity is the only ground of success – if you write 50,000 words, you win, even if your so-called novel is complete nonsense. Some have criticised NaNoWriMo as adding to the world's mountain of bad writing, but I think they are missing the point. Sure, the novels finished on 30th November are all going to be pretty poor, but for the writer they are useful exercises in actually getting the words out, in forcing him- or herself to sit down and write day in, day out. Even writing something that is very bad is a useful exercise for would-be writers, so long as after the fact they are able to recognise what was so bad about what they spewed out.

I think also that the process of just banging out the text must be of some assistance in generating ideas. While there is nothing to stop NaNoWriMo writers from plotting novels in advance, the process of trying to reach 50,000 words in a month encourages a kind of breakneck writing that leads the author easily into tangents, some of which may prove promising for future development into proper works of fiction.

Another reason for trying NaNoWriMo was outlined to me by one Mr Dale Cozort. He said that many people think they would like to try creative writing sometime, but that right now is not a good time for it. However, it turns out that now is never a good time. With NaNoWriMo, you just accept that while now is not a good time to start writing, you are just going to do it anyway and see what happens.

If you are doing NaNoWriMo, you need to write an average of 1667 words a day through the month of November. That is quite a lot, but if you get onto a roll you can expect to produce a lot more than that on some days, so it is perhaps less daunting than it initially sounds.

My own experience of NaNoWriMo is mixed. I have attempted it twice, in 2008 and 2010. In 2008 I succeeded in producing the required number of words, hitting a groove early on with a basic plot that kept suggesting new episodes. It did of course get increasingly incoherent and outlandish, with early hooks never being resolved and strange leaps of logic being required to bring things to a conclusion, but that is the kind of thing you tidy up in subsequent drafts. As the writer of that piece, what I found most interesting about the process was being able to write 50,000 words of a novel for which I only had the vague premise "detective story about missing wife" before sitting down to start writing it; an inquiry from my beloved as to whether it would feature pandas before I started writing pushed into a whole other direction.

In 2010, on the other hand, everything went wrong. I had the beginnings of a plot worked out beforehand, but the writing process proved much more difficult. I was slow off the mark for a variety of reasons and then I found that the words were not flowing for me. One problem was that I started losing confidence in the outline plot I had come up with in advance, and another was that the economic situation at the time was depressing me. And my perhaps unwise decision to attempt to pastiche 19th century novels made the words far less easy to spew out. Eventually I gave up when it was clearly no longer even remotely possible to write the required number of words by month end.

I am not sure what this indicates. Maybe I just got lucky first time round, but I think the lesson really is that to complete NaNoWriMo you need to get in there and start writing from the word go, and to write sufficiently quickly that you do not have time to start doubting the quality of what you are producing. In any case, what you are producing will probably just be rubbish anyway, so get on with it.

I posted my 2008 NaNoWriMo book on my blog for a limited period and then never got round to deleting it. You can see part one here. Or ask me for a PDF copy. I never posted my 2010 attempt anywhere, because I hate it.

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Summer in London – part 2: a concert… by Oneida


We went to one concert while we where in London – the ever-popular Oneida, who were playing in the Lexington up in riot-torn Islington. And we met two of our pals there, scoffing some burritos beforehand in a charming local eatery. The support band at the concert were called Mugstar, and they are apparently from Birmingham. They played a kind of largely instrumental experimental rock music most notable to me for its ear-splitting volume (which may have resulted from their playing early, when the venue had not yet filled up that much). I thought they were interesting enough, but would maybe have liked them more if I had remembered to bring earplugs.

And so to the main event. For the benefit of readers who are unfamiliar with the O, I will briefly outline their modus operandi. They play largely instrumental music that maybe tends towards the stoner rock end of the musical spectrum but is perhaps a bit more interesting than that sounds*. They do use a fair amount of guitars, but the music is maybe a bit more led by drums and keyboards than would be usual. Before coming over to London, I was trying to describe the band to a PFW. I said something about how they tended to rock out. "Oh, like AC-DC?" he inquired. "Well, no, it's more like they rock out in a kind of nerdy indie way". Maybe that helps.

The other thing Oneida are famous for is appearing in an Onion article about some guy who ruins a concert for everybody else by enjoying himself**. The article satirises the unexcited nature of concert audiences for indie rock bands by referring to people standing around with their arms folded, having a great time. Well, there was a surprising amount of that carry on in the Lexington – maybe from London event people who wanted to check out the O or people who do not like surrendering to the rock. Whatever. Unfortunately I found myself stuck behind some really tall arms-folded guy, which was really harshing my buzz, so I had to push past him up to where people were getting down. Live the rock.

Oneida recently brought out Absolute II the third album in their linked triptych of releases collectively entitled Thank Your Parents. I think the current tour is partly to celebrate the triptych's completion, and they have done some shows where they played Thank Your Parents in its entirety (which takes a while – the middle album is a triple). They did not have time for that this time round, but they did open with the first of the three albums, Preteen Weaponry, played in its entirety. It is a brooding continuous work whose tracks flow into each other, and unlike a lot of other records it actually gains from the consecutive treatment. After that they played a succession of tunes, old and new. But, rather heroically, they did not play what I think of as the hit – 'Sheets of Easter' from Each One Teach One, the one with just two chords that runs over you like a train.

The line-up for this set saw Drummer Guy, Guitar Guy, and Keyboard Guy (whom I think of as the three core members of Oneida, whose names may be Kid Millions, Hanoi Jane, and Bobby Matador, though I am still a bit vague as to which is which) joined by a second guitarist and a second keyboardist (perhaps to fill in for Keyboard Guy if he were to get a bit too *relaxed*). I am a bit unsure as to whether the other two are permanent members or not. They did not seem as excitable as the main three, but the second guitarist in particular had an air of quiet confidence that made me think he might still be in the band after the tour ends. In terms of chops, it was the drummer that particularly impressed this time round. I don’t think I have paid him enough attention on previous outings, but here I was stunned by his amazing ability.

So, all in all a truly awesome gig. I was only disappointed that as this was the last date on their European tour they had no t-shirts left to sell me. Also saddening was that neither of our burrito buddies were able to stay to the concert's end. One had been blasted out of it by the volume and had another indiepop club night to go to nearby, while Oneida proved to not be the other's thing, leading to his slinking off home. But on the plus side, we bumped into an old Frank's APA pal, who had come down from Oxford for the gig. Woaaaaah!

*Reader's Voice: "But dude, what could be more interesting than stoner rock?"

** Reader's Voice: "Given that you mention that article every time Oneida come up, I kind of get the idea now".

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Friday, October 21, 2011

Special Needs Puppy Seeks Special Home


Bailey is a little puppy who seems to be a cross between a dachshund and a cocker spaniel. The staff of the SPCA's Aberdeenshire Animal Rescue and Rehoming Centre at Drumoak, near Banchory, are trying to find a home for Bailey, but it is proving difficult, because the loveable puppy has special needs. Little Bailey has an enlarged oesophagus, which makes it hard for him to swallow. He needs to stand upright to eat and drink from his special bowl, and then after eating he has to be held upright for 15 minutes or so to make sure the food all goes down the right way.

Apart from this condition, Bailey is capable of leading a fully normal puppy life. The SPCA are hoping that an appreciative owner can be found for him.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Summer in London – part 1: Museums

Join me, gentle reader, as I take you with me on my recent trip to London, capital city of the British Empire. Eschewing the variable charms of the Bloomsbury guesthouses, my beloved and I planted ourselves in Kensington, where Imperial College lets out student accommodation over the summer to holidaymakers like ourselves. The facilities here proved most agreeable, and I would recommend any readers from outside London looking for a more cost-effective accommodation in the big city during the summer months to seek out this place.

RIOT
We were in London the week after the city was torn apart by rioting. I had been a bit worried that feral youth would once more rise up against The Man while we were in the city, but this was not to be. In any case, we would have been able to sleep soundly in our beds, as it seemed like half of South Yorkshire's police force were billeted in Imperial College.

We were not in London just to hang out with men in uniform. A variety of cultural activities were on our agenda. Using our membership, we visited the British Museum to look at the exhibition there on mediaeval reliquaries (objects used to store relics of saints, said relics being anything from bits of their clothes to chips of their skull). Compared to some of the other British Museum things I have been to, it was surprisingly quiet – maybe people are more interested in exotic foreign religion and stuff than in the Christian heritage of Europe's past.

The reliquaries exhibition more or less ended with the Reformation, when the emerging Protestants took against relics big time and shamed the Catholics away from the more lurid excesses of reliquary reverence*. You can see the point of the Protestants, but they did come across like a load of kill-joys – religion may have become a bit less crazy but it also seemed to have had a lot of the fun kicked out of it.

We also made two visits to the exhibition on science fiction in the British Library – more or less a journey through the form's history using book covers as a means to throw out discussion points. It also had some fascinating audiovisual input, of which my favourites would be the snippet from Orson Welles' radio drama of The War of the Worlds, a clip from the recent silent and faux expressionist film of 'The Call of Cthulhu', and a short clip from the 1950s TV version of 1984. That last one seemed to have been a hoedown of British talent of the time – Nigel Kneale wrote the script, Winston Smith was played by Peter Cushing, and Syme (the guy who shites on about newspeak to Smith) was played by Donald Pleasance. No wonder Prince Phillip liked it so much. It is a great pity that the holders of copyright on this work have deliberately kept it from public view.


*unless they are living in Naples.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Important Animal News

The Guardian Newspaper has found a picture of a mother Tortoise carrying a baby Tortoise on her head.

And here are two Lovebirds who wuv each other. Lovebirds are a class of parrots who form very strong pair bonds and are highly affectionate (though they can reputedly be aggressive to birds and other animals with whom they are not pair-bonded).

Monday, October 10, 2011

Short Notes On Records I Really Should Review Properly Some Time But Probably Won't

Magnet
The Wicker Man OST

Faux folk music from the film adaptation of The Golden Bough. 'Gently Johnny', 'Maypole', 'The Landlord's Daughter' – the gang's all here, together with some pieces of incidental music and some quite unnerving sections of dialogue from the film.


Richard Thompson
1000 Years of Popular Music

This is the live double CD version of Richard Thompson's trek through a millennium of music. The two standout tracks for me are 'Bonnie St. Johnstone' (a grim song about child infanticide and damnation that does not appear on the studio version) and the celebrated cover of 'Ooops!... I Did It Again' which manages to sound like so cynical a love song that it amazing to think that he did not write it himself.

The opening track on this is 'Summer is icumen in', which also features on the Wicker Man soundtrack. Richard Thompson seems not to have concluded his version with an onstage human sacrifice.

Franco et le TPOK Jazz
Francophonic Vol.2

Franco: the late guitar-playing sensation from what was then Zaire. He comes from the jangly guitar school of Congolese guitar players and likes playing very long tunes. It is impossible not to feel like dancing with a big stupid smile on your face while listening to this music.


v/a
Psych Funk Sa-Re-Ga

What can I add to accounts of this already much reviewed album of funk music from Bollywood films? Maybe it would be best if I didn't bother.


v/a
Indietracks Compilation 2011

I don't expect it to be very good and indeed have not even listened to it yet. I bought it to give money to the Midlands Railway Centre, your honour.


Vangelis
Antarctica

Liking Mr Gelis' soundtrack to Missing I thought buying this would be a good idea. Big mistake. A cursory first listen suggests that it is cheesy rather than ominous.

v/a
Freedom Rhythm and Sound: Revolutionary Jazz & The Civil Rights Movement 1963-82

A great many people already have this Soul Jazz compilation of jazz music relating to the struggle for Black Freedom in the United States of America.

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Sunday, October 09, 2011

Puppy Saves Drowning Man

Wilson the puppy was walking on a beach in Wales when he noticed that a swimmer had got into difficulties. The clever puppy, who is himself somewhat afraid of the water, ran to the sea shore and started barking, alerting his owner to the swimmer’s plight. Somewhat fortuitously, Wilson’s owner is a volunteer with the local lifeboat station, so he was able to run over there, launch the boat and rescue the swimmer.

This is not the first time that the swimmer’s life was saved by a dog. Some years previously he got lost in the Black Mountains when a sudden mist descended. “A sheep dog came out of nowhere I followed him down the mountain,” he reports.

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Thursday, October 06, 2011

BEAR UP BISON!

Do you know Shonen Knife? Do you like Shonen Knife? They are this Japanese all women three piece who play punky pop music and have been going forever. I think they sprung onto the Western world musical scene in the early 1990s, at a time when they had already been going for a while in their home country. Artists like Nirvana and Sonic Youth championed them and their nice dresses and good looks meant that they were always going to get some attention. They had songs with titles like 'Twist Barbie', 'Cycling Is Fun', 'My Favourite Town – Osaka*' and 'Bear Up Bison**', all sung in heavily accented English as a second language, which meant that to some they were easily fileable in the novelty to idiot-savant continuum. Some even saw them as a typically rubbish J-Pop act who had lucked out by attracting some undeserved international attention.

And then we stopped hearing about Shonen Knife. Maybe the novelty wore off, maybe they stopped touring outside Japan for the various reasons that lead to bands taking it a bit easy, or maybe the demise of grunge and the rise of Britpop (dread word) meant that there was less interest in a na├»ve pop-punk act that had been championed by Americans. But now – they're back! Shonen Knife (or The Knife as people sometimes call them, particularly if they want to mix them up with the popular Swedish electronic act) played an ATP a year or two back (or earlier this year, or something), and then a concert in Dublin (part of a long European tour) was announced. After some humming and hawing, I decided to go along to the concert, in Whelans, accompanying my old friend and quaffing partner Paul W---- who is a massive Shonen Knife fan***.

First we had a support act. They are from Tuam, and are called Slow Cow, or something like that. Paul W---- had said that they were some kind of indiepop act, and I think this might have coloured my perception. I started imagining them playing one of the stages at Indietracks. Musically they would fit right in, but they lacked a certain something in the visual department. Indiepop is one of those forms that likes to think itself as being above the fickle dictates of fashion and uniform appearance (witness the railing against the NME's support of bands who look flash in indiepop stalwart Pete Greens' classic tune 'The Best British Band Supported By Shockwaves'), but there is very much an indiepop look, and Slow Cow did not have it. Still, I reckon that if they were scrubbed up and fitted out with some new threads they could be the new Just Handshakes Please, We're British. That really does sound like damning with faint praise, so I should add that I thought Slow Cow were definitely good at what they do and displayed genuine talent at playing their instruments, particularly in the rhythm department area. However this is not really my kind of music.

And then Shonen Knife themselves. Time has dictated some line-up changes. Of the original members, only guitarist Naoko is still in the band. The other women on drums and bass are far younger and, it seems, far better musicians, though all the recent songs are written by Naoko. They start by standing together at the front of the stage, holding up sweatbands bearing cryptic Japanese characters. Then they launched into their music. The first track or two sounded distinctly ropey, making me think that this was going to be much more idiot-savant than actually good, but they picked up – maybe the Whelan's sound munter was on the case or maybe they just had some weak tunes to start off with.

And yes, this was a bag of fun – amiable poppy punky tunes like momma used to make. As well as the old classics they also had a song about everyone's favourite giant rodent, the capybara, perhaps inspired by the one in Osaka zoo who has taken to giving lifts around to squirrel monkeys. They also had some songs about the current world economic crisis and they encored with tracks songs from their Osaka Ramones album of Ramones covers. What was most striking about them, though, was their boundless enthusiasm. In Naoko's case, she has been doing this kind of thing for over twenty years, playing not particularly enormous venues. Yet she still seems to love playing and connecting with the audience, and the younger players also come across like they are having a blast (unlike the kind of session muso wankers you get padding out line-ups in Western bands). It was noticeable, indeed, that it took forever to buy anything at the merchandise stand, because the band were selling their stuff themselves and insisting on signing (and drawing pictures of cats and dogs) on everything people were buying. It is basically great to see a band playing who are so obviously in love with what they do.

If you were cynical you could wonder how calculated this all is, whether the Knife are creating a front of naivety as a ploy to sell records. I prefer to think that they actually do love capybaras and cute things generally. I know I do.

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Capybara Monkeys

Capybara Shonen Knife

* Somewhat conveniently, Shonen Knife are from their favourite town.

** A song about visiting a zoo, seeing a bison who looked a bit sad and then trying to cheer him up.

***Paul W-----'s musical tastes are endlessly fascinating and entirely unpredictable.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Leonard Cohen "Greatest Hits"

What can I say about this that has not already been said? As you know, this is a compilation of relatively early tunes by Laughing Len, from the late 1960s and early to mid 1970s – basically from before he went electronic.

A couple of things strike me here. Firstly, from reading the sleevenotes about how the songs came to be written, one thing is clear – Leonard Cohen will get up on a slow dog. Secondly, for all that people go on about what a great songwriter Cohen is, what really impresses me about this record is the production and sound engineering – there is a real quality to the way the voice and acoustic guitar have been recorded that creates an enveloping musical atmosphere. It may not be for nothing that my favourite tune here is 'The Partisan', a cover of a French resistance tune from the Second World War (and already known to me in the storming version by Electrelane) – it is more evocative of real situations and terrible emotions than the various accounts of the notches on Mr Cohen's bedpost.

What does this all mean? Well, it makes it unlikely that I will ever throw away my money trying to see Mr Cohen live – the local enormodome is hardly going to reproduce the dainty sound of these recordings. I also doubt that I will ever want to explore any of his dreadful electronic records; hearing some of them once in a taxi made me wonder how Cohen managed to retain a recording career. In fact, I probably will not bother with any of his actual albums at all – this really is all the Leonard Cohen I will ever want.

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