Rehouse Your Darlings

Saturday 17th January 2015. Today’s discovery: Michael Bond’s 2001 afterword to A Bear Called Paddington (as in the first Paddington book, from 1958) includes a reference to Gertrude Stein. And he didn’t mean to write a children’s book – the stories just came out that way.

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Sunday 18th January 2015. First draft of the essay on post-war fiction done. Only 650 words over the limit. ‘Kill your darlings’ goes the adage. I still prefer my own version: ‘Write rococo, edit baroque’. By which I mean, cut out the indulgent stuff – but not if it turns out to have a kind of imposing beauty.

When cutting down a piece to fit a word count, I’ve found it’s a good idea to write a quick summary of the piece in synopsis form. Just the bare bones of what each paragraph actually does. After that, you can usually see which paragraphs should be cut and which ones should be merged together. Particularly if two paragraphs are saying the same thing.

Another tip that’s worked for me over the years is to have a separate offcuts file for each piece. You can then cut and paste the deleted sections of your piece into this separate file, and save it. That lances the ‘darlings’ feeling. The beloved paragraphs are still alive, just gone to a different home. Like kittens. Rehouse your darlings.

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Monday 19th January 2015. Wrote the second draft of the essay. Had to cut out the bits about whether it’s fair that Lucky Jim has been accused of sexism (in the character of Margaret Peel) and homophobia (in the treatment of Michel Welch). I have the same view on Amis as I do on Evelyn Waugh: the writer has some objectionable views, but the work redeems him.

The Angry Young Men of the 1950s now seem more reactionary than revolutionary. Women and gay intellectuals came in for their sneering just as much as the privileged classes. Properly angry people want to change the system, whereas the hero of Lucky Jim’s entire philosophy is that ‘nice things are better than nasty ones’. He just wants a pretty wife and a decently paid job where he feels vaguely happy – the system itself is fine. A better description for Kingsley Amis’s gang would be Resentful Young Men.

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Tuesday 20th January 2015. Birkbeck class in Gordon Square: Apocalypse Now, as in the late 70s film on the Vietnam war. Although my overall degree is in English Literature, this Tuesday course on ‘The American Century’ has a wider humanities side to it. So there’s a few films and non-fiction texts to study, alongside lots of novels. Any course that can go from Henry James to the Batman film The Dark Knight is fine with me.

As it is, I’d not seen Apocalypse Now until, well, now. The sheer organic chaos of it stays with me. Saving Private Ryan, to give an example of another big war film, has a very strict three-act structure (opening battle, quest, final battle). Despite the carnage of the Omaha beach scenes, there’s still a sense that Spielberg’s film is carefully controlled. Not so with Apocalypse Now. Copolla’s film feels more like it’s running away with itself and can’t remember who’s in charge – much like the Vietnam war itself. All the usual rules about sympathetic heroes and moral cores are completely thrown away. I don’t think I like it much, but I admire it. At its heart is the old problem, still to be solved: men resorting to violence just because they can. The horror, indeed.

Wrote the third draft of the essay.

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Wednesday 21st January 2015. Birkbeck class: A Clockwork Orange, as in the 1962 novel by Anthony Burgess. Tutor: Roger Luckhurst. He says that Burgess’s reputation is currently in a sort of dip; something that often happens to authors in the twenty years or so immediately after their death. I remember his autobiography Little Wilson And Big God coming out in 1986, and its publication being hyped as an important literary event. Right now, A Clockwork Orange remains a classic, but his umpteen other works rarely get much of a look-in. This is despite Burgess spending most of the rest of his life grumbling about how he’d written much better books. The Kubrick film was partly to blame; no film of Earthly Powers any time soon.

Learned from reading A Clockwork Orange: the bowler hat and white boiler suit costume is not in the book; that’s entirely Kubrick. The use of the invented ‘nadsat’ slang is hard going at times, and not really convincing. Young people have always used new slang, but not to the point of it resembling a full language. Just the occasional word. But I think one phrase used by real teens today has the ring of Burgess about it: ‘oh my days’.

One student in the class is Russian. She confirms that much of Burgess’s invented words are based on the Russian language, but that it still doesn’t make the book any easier to read.

I’m slightly surprised to find that one of the favourite texts with the other students has been Brideshead Revisited. Despite its world of upper-class English privilege, and its author’s snobbery, it still makes new fans from all kinds of backgrounds – my class is fairly diverse, ethnically and nationally. I think I forget that it’s not the poshness that gives Waugh’s novel its appeal as much as the well-drawn characters and the air of an addictive and blissful world, hermetically sealed from the real one. In terms of escapism, Brideshead has much in common with Game of Thrones. 

Fourth draft done.

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Thursday 22nd January 2015. Wrote the fifth draft of the essay. Still not entirely happy, so I do a sixth. More or less happy with that. Uploaded it to the college website, and that’s that. From now till May it’s all about the 7000 word thesis, plus two final essays.

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After two days of articles celebrating the apparent end of The Sun‘s Page 3, the newspaper brings it back. The tone of this is: ‘fooled you!’ Like boys in the playground crossing their fingers when they make promises.

Even in the 1980s Page 3 seemed like a cheesy hangover from the 1970s. The problem is that the people behind The Sun think that Page 3 is like Carry On Nurse – cheeky, populist, and harmless. In fact it’s more like Carry On Emmanuelle – anachronistic, grim, and doing no favours to anyone involved. It’s still staggering how some people cry ‘free speech’ while ignoring such obvious qualifiers as context, power structures, role models, and the way some free speech gets to shout louder than others. Despite all the debates, The Sun still sees a serious issue about gender roles as an opportunity for goading female politicians and writers.

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Friday 23rd January 2015.  To the East Phoenix Finchley, to see Into The Woods, the new film version of the 1980s Sondheim musical. Starry cast: Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt (in unexpectedly fine voice), and Chris Pine off the new Star Trek films as a Mills & Boon prince. James Corden okay – but like many British comedians in American films there’s a feeling that he’s not fully allowed off the leash.

The stage show is not one of my favourite Sondheims, but I like some of the songs – ‘Agony’, ‘No One Is Alone’, ‘Children Will Listen’. I’ve also always admired the clever lyric about the cow, sung in the film by Tracey Ullman: ‘We’ve no time to sit and dither / While her withers wither with her’. The film feels a bit saggy after the first hour, but then this is often a problem with musicals that have been adapted from stage to screen. The Rocky Horror Picture Show for one. I wonder if it’s due to a lack of interval. After so much singing, even a film needs a chance to pause, get its breath back, and go to the bar.

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Write Rococo; Edit Baroque.

Saturday 6th November 2014. I’m thinking about Jeremy Thorpe, who died on Thursday 4th. If a film were to be made about the whole bizarre Norman Scott case, a good choice for director would be Wes Anderson. Both Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel have scenes in which beloved pets are killed, needlessly so. So it was in real life with Rinka, the dog of Norman Scott. Thorpe – or at least someone high up in the Liberal Party – allegedly tried to bump Scott off. But on the fateful day the hired assassin panicked, and Scott’s dog literally took the bullet. I’ll always associate the story with three things. Firstly, Quentin Crisp’s description of the bungling hitman (a former RAF pilot) as ‘a disused airman’. Secondly, the word ‘bunnies’ used by Thorpe in a letter to Scott to describe the two of them together. And thirdly, Peter Cook’s court judge sketch at The Secret Policeman’s Ball show, which spoofed the trial. The sketch contained a memorable piece of innuendo: ‘he is a self-confessed player of the pink oboe’. This turned out to be a suggestion from Billy Connolly, who was performing at the same revue. Now Thorpe has died, perhaps the full truth will finally out. Then the strange, surreal story of shot dogs, denied sexuality and hasty cover-ups might at last make sense.

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Sunday 7th November 2014. I’m reading about the popularity of Hemingway when an idle joke suggests itself: ‘For sale: Hemingway quote. Rather worn.’

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Another quote, often wrongly attributed to Hemingway, is a writing tip: ‘write drunk, edit sober’. Hemingway certainly drank, but he only did so after he’d clocked up the day’s quota of prose. But figuratively it’s good advice: one should write freely as if without inhibitions, then edit to impose form and intention. In fact, after reading about Firbank and Beardsley and the differences between rococo and baroque – where rococo is florid, playful and intimate, and baroque is extravagant, ornate, and imposing – I’ve come up with my own advice:

Write rococo; edit baroque.

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Tuesday 9th December 2014. Class at Birkbeck: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Tutor: Joe Brooker. Despite all my sarcastic jokes to myself –  ‘this’ll be a laugh’ – Plath’s novel does indeed have laugh-aloud moments. One is when the self-deluding boyfriend insists on undressing, to show the heroine ‘what a man looks like’:

Then he just stood there in front of me and I kept on staring at him. The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.

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Wednesday 10th December 2014. Final class of the autumn term: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. Tutor: Grace Halden. To prepare, I read some of Amis’s letters to Larkin. They’re full of smutty jokes about what he wants to do to his female students in Swansea, fantasies which make the fictional Jim Dixon look something of a saint. How much of it he really means isn’t clear, though. That’s the trouble with reading books of letters: as they’re written for private eyes, something of the real meaning is lost on the public.

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Thursday 11th December 2014. At about 7pm I pass Waterstones Gower Street and notice they’re having some sort of Christmas event. There’s free wine and nibbles, authors are dotted around the shop signing their latest books, and carol singers are belting away on the stairs, in full Dickensian costume. I wander in, gratefully accept a glass of white wine, and mooch about. Then I realise that it’s a bit rude to approach authors at book events if one isn’t going to buy anything. I’m even poorer than usual at the moment, and non-college books have to be struck from my budget until I’m more flush. But when I spot Viv Albertine perched among the Moleskines I can’t resist telling her how much I enjoyed her film Exhibition.

‘I write about it in the book,’ she says, indicating the fresh piles of her memoir, with the excellent title of Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys. I blurt out something about looking forward to read it (translation: I can’t buy it right now- sorry! ), and I stumble away sheepishly, embarrassed at my lack of a purchase. Then I spot Robin Ince and Stewart Lee and avoid them too, for the same reason (they’re signing an anthology of comic horror stories, Dead Funny). I find Travis Elborough in the basement and chat to him, knowing he won’t mind.

Still, Viv Albertine knows what it’s like to be poor. The first line of her book says so, as quoted by all the reviews: ‘Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a bit of both.’

(Which reminds me… Rare Advert Break! If you enjoy this diary, which comes with a guaranteed lack of Kevin Bacon pop-up adverts, please make a donation to keep it, and the author, going:

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Thank you.)

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I get home and watch Question Time. Russell Brand and Nigel Farage are on the panel. Mr Brand accuses Mr Farage of being a ‘Pound Shop Enoch Powell’. This remark is given so much attention that within twenty-four hours there are whole articles dwelling on this single phrase, explaining just who Mr Powell was, and how he may or may not relate to UKIP. There is a sense now of single seeds of comment put about, which then flower into great forests of discussion, argument, and counter-argument, and back again. Never before in the field of human discourse were so many words triggered by so few.

Another example is the case of the Cereal Killer Café, in East London. This is a new emporium selling only bowls of cereal from around the world, much like the Cyber Candy shops with their imported sweets. A tidal wave of scorn erupted when a video emerged, featuring a Channel 4 reporter interviewing one of the shop owners. He asks why such novelty shops exist in areas like Shoreditch where there’s also extreme poverty. The young owner gets flustered and says ‘I’m stopping the interview – I don’t like your questions’.

This clip is then presented on the internet as an example of ‘hipsters’ ruining the world, blind to real life problems. Yet London has always had its novelty shops. I remember my joy as a teenager at discovering there was a place in Covent Garden which only sold Tintin-related merchandise. A whole Tintin shop! What’s far more depressing is bland franchise shops and cafes taking over London. Quirky and colourful little independent businesses are what London is for.  It’s property developers, closing down unique venues like the Buffalo Bar and Madame JoJos, who really should be hauled over the coals.

Disproportionate hatred has become a game any number can play.

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Friday 12th December 2014. First essay mark of the final year: 74. This is for the short-ish one on Waugh. It’s a First, but for me it’s the lowest mark in about ten essays. Given education is a competition with oneself, this is a smack in my smug complacency. Mustn’t slacken off now.

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Afternoon: I’m in the British Library when the softly-spoken, floppy-haired man at the desk next to me asks if I used to live in Bristol. ‘It’s Dickon, isn’t it?’ He turns out to be James, one of the regulars at various Bristol indie gigs and club nights, back in what must now be termed My Bristol Years (1990-4). He can’t have seen me for over twenty years.

I do remember him, and have one particularly vivid memory from a mainstream indie disco night (the Candy Club, we think). James asked the DJ to play Felt, knowing full well the answer would be no. This completely ordinary moment, ten seconds of my history, has nevertheless stuck with me down the decades. I think it’s because it was the first time I’d heard of a band called Felt, and the name intrigued me. Years later I would get to know Lawrence the Felt singer, for a brief time. I still have a letter from him praising the Orlando album.

James and I have lunch in the BL café and compare the last two decades of our lives. We two ageing indie boys. He moved into the vintage Mod scenes in London and in Europe, and missed Britpop altogether (quite a feat, really). Fearing the ‘memory test’ aspect of such meetings (which is what I imagine school reunions must be like), I am consoled when he can’t remember the same things I can’t remember either. Like the name of a windowless record shop in Clifton, where the owner would unleash lengthy anecdotes about seeing Scritti Politti in 1980, or The Specials on their first tour. Today James does literary translation work (he’s editing an anthology of literature in a rare Spanish-related tongue), and I tell him about Birkbeck. Neither of us owns the old records any more, the ones that brought us together. But we talk about them all the same.

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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 Siècle 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 have 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 works by scholars about the primary text in question. ‘Architecture and Gender in 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. You notice connections that seem obvious to you, which are perhaps not obvious to anyone else. And then you feel useful.

This week’s example is 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 with 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 me 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 match 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’ was 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’s 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 mistress 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 Her 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.

The 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 in computers now, and she draws pictures on Mr Phoenix’s iPhone-like screen. She also chooses her own name – Samantha – yet she never selects 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 coitus 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 be a fault with the projector. This time it happens again, but now 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 to all have flying cars by 1998. I was so looking forward to those flying cars.

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Maundy Mopping-Up

I’m spending Easter writing essays for college and hoping a rather painful stomach ache goes away. Think it’s a return of the dreaded IBS, made worse by stress over the essays. Am hitting the peppermint capsules and hoping for the best.

Recent outings…

Saturday 31 March was another stint of DJ-ing for the Last Tuesday Society, at the Adam Street club off the Strand. After I’d finished I stuck around and caught a performance by an excellent African band, Kasai Masai. Their giddy, hypnotic music  fitted the atmosphere perfectly.

Sunday: tea in Highgate with Ella Lucas, then we both wandered into town, taking in the National Portrait Gallery and South Bank. I’d been reading Virginia Woolf – Icon by Brenda Silver (1999), which claimed Ms Woolf’s photo (this one) was the best selling postcard in the NPG shop. I ask the NPG staff whose postcard sells the most today. They’re not sure, but reckon it to be between Kate Moss, Prince William & Prince Harry, the Queen by Warhol, Lily Cole, and Darcey Bussell. Ms Woolf’s face still does well though – a Woolf-branded notebook has sold out.

Monday last was the launch of Richard King’s book about the story of British indie labels, How Soon Is Now. I was kindly invited by Richard himself, and I asked my old bandmate Simon Kehoe along (from the first Orlando line-up), seeing as he’d just moved to London and was looking for things to go to. Turns out Simon had been invited too –  he and Richard were once in the Bristol band Teenagers In Trouble during the 90s. Simon also brought another bandmate along, Kevin from The Foaming Beauties, whom I met for the first time. So at some point Simon managed to assemble representatives of all his past bands in the same room – and got a photo of all of us too.

Simon, Kevin and myself started the evening in Soho with drinks at the French House and dinner at the Stockpot (a deliberate attempt to have an Old Soho evening), before going on to the launch event at the Social in Fitzrovia. The launch included Bob Stanley DJ-ing, a chat about the nature of indie music between Messrs King and Stanley with Owen Hatherley, and a short but utterly fantastic acoustic set by Edwyn Collins, backed by James Walbourne and Andy Hackett. They performed dazzling versions of ‘Falling And Laughing’, ‘Rip It Up’, ‘A Girl Like You’ and ‘Blueboy’.

Chatted to Grace Maxwell (Edwyn Collins’s partner, whom I’ve met before when my brother Tom was playing for Edwyn) and Jeanette Lee (from Rough Trade, who signed Orlando to Warners, and was once in PiL). Bought a copy of the book from a lady who later turned out to be Louise Brealey, the actress who plays Molly From The Morgue on Sherlock. Just as well I didn’t realise this at the time, as I’d downed rather a lot of wine by this point and had reached that stage of solipsistic drunkenness which is just about acceptable for friends, but deeply tiresome for strangers. I realise now I must have annoyed Lee Brackstone from Faber Books too, which I’m rather shamefaced about (sorry, Mr B). Still, it was a rare event; a class reunion of a kind, and a celebration of past lives and passions.

Tom is currently playing guitar for Adam Ant in Australia (photo of him onstage in Perth here). So proud of him.


Some new works by other people worthy of greater exposure:

New albums:

CN Lester – Ashes (available here).
Stunning debut collection of haunting, late-night torch songs. I first saw the androgynous CN play at a Transgender Day Of Remembrance service, and am so pleased they’ve released  an album. Here’s to many more.

The Monochrome Set – Platinum Coils. (available here)
An unexpected, wonderful surprise; a brand new CD by the MS, their first since the mid 90s. Arch, crooning, twangy guitar pop, sounding just as fresh as their late 70s and early 80s records.

New books:

Richard King – How Soon is Now? The Madmen and Mavericks Who Made Independent Music 1975-2005. (Richard has a blog here)
As bought at the above launch. Satisfyingly doorstop-sized, engrossing account of the history of labels like Mute, Factory, Creation and Rough Trade. Focuses on tales of music and money (the lack of it, the making of it, the wasting of it) and the way indie labels and artists took on the mainstream, not always certain of what they were doing. The notorious appearance of the KLF at the Brit Awards being a case in point.

Jen Campbell – Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops (Jen’s blog is here). Jen C works at Ripping Yarns, the used and antiquarian bookshop down the road from me in Highgate. The book collects some of the strange requests and utterations that she’s heard, illustrated with line drawings which are also rather weird, in a sweet sort of way.

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