Animals and Men
Saturday 19th April 2014. To the Hammersmith Eventim Apollo, as it’s currently known, for a concert by Adam Ant. My brother Tom is playing guitar in Mr Ant’s backing band, as he has done for the past couple of years. Â Mum comes along too, making it our first family reunion in London since Dad died. Young Ms Holly also joins us, from the extended family on Tom’s side.
The Apollo is one of the largest theatre-style venues in London, and I’ve somehow never been to it until tonight. Built in the 1930s, it has a stunning Art Deco interior that has been recently refurbished. The upstairs bar looks like something from Grand Hotel: you half expect to bump into Joan Crawford as a pushy stenographer.
We have a slight panic when we get there and realise that our tickets are standing only, but Mr Ant’s crew help us to exchange them for seats in the upstairs circle (with our grateful thanks to Roy from the merchandise stall). Mum is 70, and is unlikely to be tempted to join a mosh pit. I’m 42, but increasingly prefer a seat myself.
That said, musing on the requirements of getting olderÂ is moot. Mr Ant’s main output was in the late 70s and early 80s, and many are here because they bought those records when they first came out. So they aren’t exactly spring, or even summer chickens themselves. But I look around and see a healthy amount of all ages and genders, albeit with the lion’s share in their 40s and 50s. There is indeed a mosh pit down the front – even a few people crowd surfing.
Tonight is also about one particular album: Dirk Wears White Sox, the first Adam Ant long player, which was released in 1979. Mr Ant is on top form tonight, and not only performs every song from the album in order, but goes straight into a decent amount of selections from his whole oeuvre, my favourites of the night being ‘Whip in My Valise’, ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’, and ‘Wonderful’. He performs for a straight two hours. No encores, no stopping. He even has a costume change onstage, behind a vintage screen, singing as he dresses (much as I saw Grace Jones do).
Dirk Wears White Sox is by no means a catchy album: it’s more of a cult favourite from the period just before he became a pop star. Much of the material is more experimental Â than post-punk: Tom confirms to me afterwards that ‘Animals and Men’ is particularly difficult to learn. It’s full of shifting, jazzy time signatures and lots of jagged stop-start moments. The more typical post-punk songsÂ sound very Franz Ferdinand now, of course, with that familiar slurping disco beat under the spiky guitar riffs. (Or perhaps that should be ‘very 2004’, when Franz Ferdinand’s debut came out.)
The moment when ‘Cartrouble’ shifts from Part One into Part Two, and the guitars suddenly change from wiry to widescreen, is even more startling when it’s live and turned up a thousandfold, and you’re sharing the moment with a whole temple of acolytes. In the past, I’d been a little wary about the validity of ‘classic album’ run throughs like this. But tonight I realise such concerts can be a joyous celebration of music history and of being alive full stop – still being alive – for artist and audience alike. A celebration of art and life, no less.
We stick around afterwards and chat with Tom at the aftershow party (held in the circle bar). Some public faces there: Keith Lemon (who obligingly poses for a photo with Holly, who’s a fan), Bill Bailey, Mark Lamarr, Mark Moore, Kevin Rowland. Lots of dandyish, well-dressed men in suits and hats, and women in Vivienne Westwood-esque takes on punk cabaret: a few berets with little polka dot veils.
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Monday 21st April 2014. The dregs of the Easter weekend. I grumpily buy a Smarties chocolate egg from Muswell Hill Sainsbury’s, mainly because they’re left overs, bumped down to 40p.
Work this week:Â revising the essay on Late Victorian flÃ¢neuses, for the Fin De Siecle course. Also mopping up the last set texts of the academic year, such as Lara by Bernadine Evaristo. Glad to have finally read Jane Eyre. It didn’t quite become a personal favourite, but I can see how it’s pivotal to the general span of literature. My favourite book that the degree introduced me to this year is Vathek, closely followed by Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled.
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Tuesday 22nd April 2014. I see Daisies at the ICA. It’s a 1966 cult film from Czechoslovakia, as it was called then. The director died a month ago, so the ICA are showing it as a tribute. Very of its time, like The Knack mixed with Bunuel. The story is essentially this: two childlike young women muck about in various surreal settings. There’s some moments of beauty, some of silliness, and some unnerving ones too. It definitely has its own identity – sheer psychedelic abandon.
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Thursday 24th April 2004.Â This week’s new film is The Double, seen today at the Prince Charles Cinema. Jesse Eisenberg stars, last seen as a monotonous computer expert in The Social Network. It’s directed by Richard Ayoade, who was last seen as a monotonous computer expert in The It Crowd. So Mr Eisenberg’s character this time is, well, no surprises.
But here the computers are very different, as is the whole setting: a kind of nocturnal Orwellian world where technology seems stuck at an early 1970s level, all primitive screens and chunky beige keyboards. The architecture meanwhile evokes 1960s Eastern Europe: lifts that never work, brutal underground trains, tower blocks and wastelands. The aesthetic may owe a lot to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and indeed his short Python spin-off film, The Crimson Permanent Assurance (most of the office workers are elderly men), but it has its own original stamp. Sadly the world of the film doesn’t seem to gel with the story about doppelgangers. The aesthetic upstages the plot, while the plot doesn’t know which rules it’s meant to be following. The ending is baffling, but whether it’s meant to be baffling or has just made a mess of its own logicÂ it’s hard to tell. It’s very nearly a great film, just not quite.
* * *
I fume at an article in the Guardian about ‘Britpop casualties’. It’s based on interviews with members of UK bands from the 1990s, whose careers were not quite as successful as Blur and Oasis. The article seems less interested in music and more interested in the failure of those who dare to make it.
I’ve seen schadenfreude-laced features like this before, the gist of which is ‘don’t ever be in a band, be a music critic, that’s better’. In this latest article, there’s a sickening sense of crowing over the misfortune of the singer from Marion (drugs, near-death) and the one from Menswear (mental illness). As Wilde said, it’s the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Well, such journalists will never, ever know what it’s like to play a gig or hear their record on the radio or see the sheer bliss on the faces of people at the front row of a concert, and know that they made those people feel that happy, for that day. I saw Menswear play the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in the 1990s. They were absolute stars, and were loved as stars. They were on bedroom walls all over the world. I knew people who were absolutely, giddily besotted with Menswear. If such fans and even former band members now look back and think it was all rubbish, or that it now sounds impossibly dated, that changes nothing. Those bands added to the amount of joy in the lives of strangers. That’s as valid a life achievement as any, and should be celebrated as such.
Rock journalists who forget this have forgotten what it’s like to be a fan. To focus instead onÂ narratives ofÂ hubris and failure does them no favours. Music writing should be more about pop, and less about tall poppy syndrome.
Tags: adam ant
, the double
Limbo Is Neither Here Nor There
Saturday 12th April 2014.
This week’s work: finishing off the research and writing the first draft of the latest essay, the last one for the Fin De SiÃ¨cle course. I set myself a goal of 350 words a day. That sounds fairly meagre, but it takes a much longer time to do than other types of writing. Every paragraph has to be carefully researched, with footnotes and references and bibliographies, all of which must be checked against a style guide. Then every paragraph must haveÂ its own topic sentence, backed up by quotes from primary texts (novels and stories), and then honed further through ‘engagements’ with secondary texts, as in worksÂ by scholars about the primary text in question. ‘Architecture and Gender inÂ Meg and Mog Go On Holiday’, that sort of thing.
When I started the degree, I thought ‘engaging’ with secondary texts meant drawing on a kind of arrogance. I thought it meant writing about how some professor with dozens of books to their name is wrong, and you, an unpublished undergraduate, are right. But a couple of years on I’ve found out how to respectfully disagree with an academic work, in order to define your own position on the subject. It takes a while to build up the confidence to do this, but then it starts to present itself as an option. YouÂ notice connections that seem obvious to you, which areÂ perhaps not obvious to anyone else. And then you feel useful.
This week’s example isÂ when I study Charlotte Mew’s short story about walking in London ghettos, ‘Passed’ (1894, from The Yellow Book). There’s a mention of Marylebone that has led one critic to assume it is the location for the whole story. An image in a shop window is said to ‘rival, does wax-work attempt such beauties, any similar attraction of Marylebone’s extensive show’. This is surely not meant to be a comment on Marylebone as a district, but a reference to Madame Tussaud’s. Tussaud’s was Marylebone Road’s ‘extensive show’ of waxworks in the 1890s, and is still going strong there today. None of the writing about the Mew story seems to have realised this, though admittedly it’s not a very well known story.
It’s moments like this which change my attitude from just some student regurgitating the work of others and ticking the boxes to get a good mark, to someone that can politely Make A Contribution, as one tutor’s catchphrase has it. The great thing about literature (and all art) is that there’s an infinite space for criticism as it is. Originality is just a matter of practice and perseverance, as with so many things. Eventually, after feeling intimidated by all the writing that’s ever existed, you find out there was room for you after all.
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Monday 14th April 2014.
Much celebration of Britpop in the media, marking the twentieth anniversary of Blur’s Parklife, along withÂ the first Oasis album. Kurt Cobain’s death is being reheated too.
For me, 1994 was the year I moved from Bristol to London, aided by Clare Wadd from Sarah Records who let meÂ use her car as a removals van. So as of February I’ve clocked up twenty years in the same rented bedsit. Still some way to go to beat Quentin Crisp, who managed twice that. I’ve not managed to matchÂ his complete lack of cleaning surfaces either: I’ve just wiped the surface of my fridge.
Even back then I remained amazed at anyone living in London who could afford anything bigger than a bedsitting room, at least if they were by themselves. Though with today’s prices, the idea of buying a house in London now seems to be beyond normal people, let alone the likes of me. ‘A house is a machine for living in’ wasÂ Le Corbusier’s great ideal for architecture. Now, a house is a machine for making money.
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Tuesday 15th April 2014.
To the ICA cinema for the film Her, written and directed by Spike Jonze. It won this year’sÂ Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, though it’s really a new take on quite an old sci-fi concept – a man falls in love with his computer. If you see it as a version of The Sexy Robot, there are countless examples in cinema which go back to Metropolis in the 1920s. The Sexy Robot is also a close relation of The Sexy Alien, so it’s not surprising that the mechanical mistressÂ in Her is voiced by Ms Scarlett Johansson. I last saw her in Under The Skin, arriving from outer space and helping herself to a series of unfettered Scotsmen.
In HerÂ it is her, as an advance type of operating system, who is picked up. We see her being bought from an Apple Store-type showroom in a slightly more futuristic Los Angeles, by the lonely Joaquin Phoenix. We even get a glimpse of her instruction booklet. It’s a thin piece of paper folded up too many times, like the ones that come with prescriptions. This must be intentional: Mr Phoenix is not so much looking for a new version of Windows 95 as he is a cure for a broken heart.
TheÂ Johansson character is therefore a vocal version of the Microsoft Word Paperclip, except less irritating. Curiously, she doesn’t have an animated graphic of her own. The world of the film is one where the voice is everything. Typing appears to be obsolete, and computers are controlled by speaking, via the use of wireless earpieces (which also act as microphones, somehow). Ms Johansson can ‘see’, thanks to those tiny cameras that are already inÂ computers now, and she draws pictures on Mr Phoenix’s iPhone-like screen. She also chooses her own name – Samantha – yet she never selectsÂ an image to represent herself. Not even a photo from one of those Buzzfeed quizzes, like ‘Which Kitten Are You Today’?
I suppose one reason is that Samantha is meant to be an upgrade of Siri, the popular virtual assistant for the iPhone. As I understand it, Siri has no visual avatar either, just a symbol of a microphone. So Mr Jonze prefers Ms Johansson to exist purely as a voice in the mind of the audience, to the point where a sex scene between the leads is represented by a completely black screen. It’s a version of phone sex without any phones, where their voices narrate their own imagined intimacy. This is an unusual yet cheering moment: if that form of coitusÂ really is the future, then that’s the end of unwanted pregnancy and sexual diseases right there.
The irony for me is that last week when I saw a film, also at the ICA, there was a blank screen moment which turned out to beÂ a fault with the projector. This time it happens again, but nowÂ it really is intentional.
This is both the triumph and the frustration of Her: it comments on the way things seem to be heading, but does so via a medium – cinema – that can’t adequately represent the move towards relationships that only exist in cyberspace. The trouble with limbo is that it is neither here nor there.
I wonder how the film will age. It might be as prescient as Orwell’s 1984, or it might look as dated as those 1960s films which expected us toÂ allÂ have flying cars by 1998. I was so looking forward to those flying cars.
, charlotte mew
, fin de siecle
, quentin crisp
, spike jonze
Friday 24 January 2014. The day after much of the Victoria Line was closed due to ‘flooding’, it turns out what really happened was somewhat surreal. The place being flooded was an automated signal control room at Victoria station, which seems reasonable enough. Less reasonably, though, the liquid in question was not the rainwater that has dominated January (the wettest ‘since records began’, as ever) but a knee-deep tide of fast-setting concrete. Intended to seal voids created in the endless construction work, the concrete had somehow been pumped into the wrong hole. When they realised what had happened, engineers were sent to nearby supermarkets to buy bags of sugar, which, it transpires, slows down the setting process. What pleases is the unlikely image of frantic, hard-hatted men rushing into a Sainsbury’s Local and asking directions to the Silver Spoon section. Whether it had to be just white granulated, or whether Demerara, cubes, Canderel and Sweetex worked just as well, we are not told.
For the first time since I was at school, I’m reminded of the entirely unacceptable term for the type of brown sugar which isn’t Demerara: ‘moist’.
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Saturday 25 January 2014. Reading Ms Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for this week’s college classes. I also watch the 1995 film version, the one with Emma Thompson. The film particularly focuses on how poor the Dashwood women have to live, once they move to the Devonshire cottage. There’s scenes where Ms Thompson is going through their shopping budget and cutting down on food, while in another one, the sisters have to huddle together in the same bed to keep warm. Like the impoverished family in The Railway Children, what baffles (and fascinates) is the one item of middle class expenditure retained above all else, including food: their servants. I suppose the equivalent now would be hanging onto mobile phones or computers. Essential servants of a kind.
Sunday 26 January 2014. A video is doing the rounds of extracts from Noel Gallagher’s audio commentary on an Oasis greatest hits DVD. Always good value in interviews, Mr Gallagher regales the purchaser with his candid dislike of the pop video form. ‘I f—ing hate videosâ€¦ I hate the fact they cost a fortune. I hate the fact you’ve got to be there at 8 in the morning. I don’t like the fact that the people who’re making them think they’re making Apocalypse Nowâ€¦ ‘ But as the songs move onto the later albums, he attacks his own music too: ‘Is this video meant to be all backwards? Pity the song isn’t too – it might sound more interestingâ€¦ Maybe the motorbike is rushing to the radio station to say, ‘Stop! This is shit!’â€¦ Can we listen to this with the sound down? We shouldn’t have really made this album, if I’m being honest.’
The album in question at this point is Standing on the Shoulder of Giants (2000), which despite its creator’s misgivings still went to Number 1 and sold in double platinum amounts.Â Some regrets are the dreams of others. Though I’m hardly their sort of target market, I rather liked the first two Oasis albums, and admired the Gallaghers as public characters, bickering like a music hall act.
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Monday 27 January 2014. Peter Capaldi’s new costume as Doctor Who is unveiled. It includes a red-lined Crombie coat, which is exactly what I’m wearing when I find this information out. I’ve worn them for at least 20 years. I suppose this means that even a stopped clock keeps the right Time Lord twice a day.
I had thought Crombies were mainly associated with the British Mod subculture (characters in This Is England wear them), but I’m told they were also popular with the less trumpeted Suedehead look of the 1970s. The youth on the cover of Richard Allen’sÂ Suedehead has a Crombie:
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Tuesday 28 January 2014. Reading about the Theatre of the Absurd, I realise how so many umbrella terms for art and literature are often the invention of critics with theories to throw at the world, rather than arising from the art itself. Martin Esslin is at pains to point this out himself in a later edition of his 1960s book The Theatre of the Absurd, but lurking behind this is still the sense of pride at immortality by proxy. In lieu of creating lasting art himself, a critic creates a lasting term to describe art.
Thinking about Oasis, there is, of course, the 90s umbrella term Britpop, which the music critics Stuart Maconie and John Robb have both laid claim to coining.Â There was also a BBC programme of 1995 called Britpop Now which had live performances by various bands thought to illustrate the word: Blur, Pulp, Menswear, Gene, Echobelly. Oddly, the very un-Britpop PJ Harvey was on it, while Oasis were left out. No critic would call PJ Harvey a Britpop artist now – and not then, either.
Terms don’t always last, though. Despite Esslin’s decision to include Harold Pinter in his 1960s book, Michael Billington’s 1990s biography of Pinter ignores the phrase ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ entirely.
Wednesday 29 January 2014. A recent New Yorker cover has a new illustration by Chris Ware. It’s of an audience at a school play, all of whom are holding up their various smartphones and tablets and are viewing the performance entirely through their respective screens. His comment on the cover is just as striking:
‘Sometimes, I’ve noticed with horror that the memories I have of things like my daughter’s birthday parties or the trips we’ve taken together are actually memories of the photographs I took, not of the events themselves.’
I’m writing an essay on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home. There’s one large panel Â – a double page spread – which recreates a clandestine photograph taken by her father. It’s of the family babysitter, Roy, posing in his underwear. The babysitter was one of the young men her father, now deceased, had been having affairs with.
The panel takes on added significance as the book gets older, though, as the action of physically picking up a material, printed photograph from a storage box is itself becoming a thing of the past. Ms Bechdel draws her own hands holding the photograph at either side, with all the symbolism that implies: touching the past, touching the hidden, trying to connect and understand across the years. Had the events of Fun Home taken place now, the father’s secret snap would have to be lurking on his computer hard drive, and the resonance of the discovery would be quite different.
Tags: alison bechdel
, chris ware
, doctor who
, peter capaldi
, theatre of the absurd