Friday, June 29, 2007

Forever breathes the lonely word

Alistair Fitchett has closed down Tangents after 10 years, and that makes me sad.

Tangents was an e-zine (how deliciously 90s that word feels on the tongue), above all a vehicle for the author's vision of all things 'Pop', which seemed to encompass detective fiction, cycling and Apple Macs, as well as the finest, tremulous, keening, fragile, life-affirming music-making from Stirling and Stockholm and Spokane. Alistair was also generous (foolhardy?) enough to accept outside submissions, and gave me a chance to flex my creative muscles at a point when I'd had a lot of confidence kicked out of me. If it weren't for him (and Everett True) saying nice things about my writing back in 2001/2002, I don't think I'd ever have had the nerve to write the OK Computer tome. Whether that turns out to be a good thing or not is another matter, of course.

Alistair's farewell is melancholy, but straightforward:

"I want to listen to music and not feel the need to explain it. I want to hear records and not have stories to tell other than those which stay inside and say simply that the records make me smile or cry. I don’t want to have to explain myself. Most of all I don’t want anyone to care what I think."

Which makes sense. If you lose the hunger to pontificate, you're better off out of the game. I'd rather have Tangents, but not a half-hearted Tangents. Fortunately, Alistair's still maintaining his blog, and Young and Foolish, his 1998 book about all that is quiversome in music, is still available.

Thanks, Alistair.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Hazy cosmic jive

If you watched the second instalment of the BBC's 7 Ages of Rock offering, you will have spotted my old university chum Nicholas Pegg, creator of the best Bowie book ever published, pontificating on all things Ziggy. Unlike 97% of Bowie retrospectives, the show didn't focus unduly on that TOTP performance of 'Starman', the one that apparently had half the male population of the British Isles questioning its collective sexuality, and encouraged burly, Millwall-supporting hod-carriers to wear glittery eye-shadow to away matches.

In this case it was a missed opportunity. Nick and I share a guilty obsession: the kid in the tank top, bopping lamely in the background as DB gets quasihomofamiliar with Mick Ronson. It was Nick who pointed out to me that the important thing about him is not his unsyncopated boogie, but that this extraordinary moment - one that inspired countless future stars of the 70s and 80s to pick up a guitar and/or a mascara wand - entirely passes him by, because he's too busy gawping at his own image on the monitor screen.

As Noel Coward put it, television is for appearing on, not for looking at; but this guy was determined to do both at once. 35 years on, and such single-minded narcissism would make him a shoo-in for Big Brother or the like. Where is he now, I wonder...

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Losing face

A few days ago, I received an e-mail from my old friend Swazi, asking me to be her Facebook friend. Now, when The Guardian and Patroclus agree that FB is the social networking site to be on for hip thirtysomethings, it makes for a persuasive argument. But I said no.

It's not because I don't love Swazi, of course. It's simply because my inbox still gets peppered with entreaties from FriendsReunited, Friendster, Tickle and Hi5 (no, me neither - never hit the 'yes' button when drunk), not to mention stuff relating to LibraryThing and Twitter, all giving the illusion of a thriving social life in the guise of ones and zeroes. And that's without considering this blog. Were I to plunge into Facebook, MySpace, Second Life and Bebo as well, I think I'd need to take on a secretary to organise all the exciting things that aren't really happening to me. Turns out that the virtual me is just as much of an anti-social curmudgeon as the flesh version.

But it's more than that. I've also got this strange feeling that every time I sign up to one of these things, I'm offering up a part of me that I'll never get back. Like those tribesmen in Papua New Guinea who think being photographed takes away a chunk of your soul.

Never mind, eh? Record Collector used words like "impressive", "intriguing" and "occasionally alarming" in its review of Welcome to the Machine. Which is nice.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A vindication of the writes of woman

I do love LibraryThing. For those of you unacquainted with its charms, it's essentially an online database, into which users enter details of the books they own. I suppose there's a practical purpose, in that it helps people keep track of their collections, spotting gaps and duplicates. But even better is the chance to peek at the bookshelves of strangers. Try as you might, it's impossible not to make assumptions about others based on what they read, and to compare their habits with your own. Moreover, there's all manner of fun and games, such as the Unsuggester, which allows you to enter the title of a book from your library, and in turn offers a title that you'll probably really dislike. (The headline pairing is Kant's Critique of Pure Reason versus Sophie Kinsella's Confessions of a Shopaholic.)

It also gives you a chance to cast a critical eye at your own collection. Foolish impulse buys, often the detritus of three-for-two, give off a whiff of imprudence and gullibility. Big fat tomes, that you know you'll never read, glare their disapproval. Unwanted presents squat dumbly.

And then there are the gaps. I can't help but notice how few female writers there are in my collection, and feel a pang of lefty guilt (which goes back to my student days, when I used to carry around a copy of The Second Sex in the vain hope that I might get to shag a cute feminist). But should I feel guilty about this? Does it expose me as an unreconstructed bloke, one of the dreaded Dead White European Males who haunted my undergraduate years? Or is it just one of those things that happens in the unplanned acquisition of books? I mean, I've got far more Japanese books than the average LibraryThing member; does that mean the others are racists? I've tried to come up with a list of my 10 favourite books by female authors and, to be honest, two or three of them are fairly desperate reaches out to the more distant backwaters of my reading memory:

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter
Passing On, by Penelope Lively
Fear and Trembling, by Amélie Nothomb
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, by Elizabeth Smart
Collected Poems, by Stevie Smith
White Teeth, by Zadie Smith
Sexing the Cherry, by Jeanette Winterson
Orlando, by Virginia Woolf

So, if I'm prepared to risk accusations of tokenism, which books by women should I have read? To give you further guidelines, I don't like George Eliot, and Jane Austen I can take or leave. I loathe chick lit, but I think it's probably designed to be loathed by the likes of me. I'm not that enthused by the fantasy genre either, although the appearance of Carter and Winterston above suggests that I'm OK when it's dressed up as magic realism (in the same way that a ceilidh is line-dancing for the Guardian-reading middle classes).

Over to you. Any suggestions?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Midnight movie

After Dark, by Haruki Murakami (Harvill Secker, 2007)

You know, sometimes I think it's almost pointless to write about Haruki Murakami. You either get him or you don't, but it's just as laudable not to get him. From the blogroll, I know that Dr Hocking has tried to love him, but remains unconvinced; Scott Pack is pretty much a Haruki groupie. Amylola is even planning to teach his stuff next semester, which I suspect is just asking for trouble. Me? Well, I did borrow the title of this blog from one of his books. (I understand that Thom Yorke's a fanboy as well, but he doesn't return my calls.)

You see, Murakami bypasses normal critical criteria. For a start, there's the problem with any translated text. How can you address a writer's style when what you're really looking at is the craft of some intermediary (in this case, Jay Rubin)? Instead, everything's about the world he creates. Murakami (or his stooge) offers an engaging mix of deadpan humour, meandering description that seems to follow an almost musical logic (he's a big jazz fan) and occasional flashes of tender sadness and/or excruciating violence. He writes about loners, but loners who are at worst disgruntled, rather than tortured souls. He also seems to have a thing for pretty, damaged girls who won't go all the way, but don't mind giving you a hand.

However, there's no manual relief this time round. Indeed, After Dark seems to offer a few new departures for Murakami. It's written in the present tense; there's no one main protagonist; the action all takes place within the space of a few hours. It's by far the most filmable of his books, controlled cuts between scenes replacing the improvisational detours of his longer works. There are references to Godard, specifically Alphaville, and much of J-LG's loping cool is present, but I also thought of Wenders's Wings of Desire. We join Murakami in his role as observer of the city, and we can almost feel his feathers brush against our face, but we're not asked to join in.

But alongside these new departures, he offers up some of the familiar riffs, like a musician who wants to plug his new album, but knows the punters have come for the familiar lollipops. There's Takahashi, a gawky young man, a lover of jazz and toast, who makes a hamfisted attempt at wooing Mari, a self-contained young woman bearing a mysterious sadness. His name suggests an earlier story of trombones and outsiders, 'Tony Takitani', in last year's Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman and also, interestingly, the first of Murakami's works to be filmed. But would Murakami ever be that obvious?

Then there are odd interludes somewhere on the border between dream sequence and magic realism, with reader and subject (a beautiful girl in a deep, deep sleep) and a faceless attendant, moving from one side of a TV screen to another. There's violence (although nothing to match the horrific torture sequence in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle); there's lots of jazz in the background; there's the exquisite lostness of Tokyo after the last train has left.

And best of all, there's no user-friendly resolution. Loose ends remain defiantly loose. We know who perpetrates the violence, but not why; nor why the beautiful girl sleeps. Retribution is threatened, but we don't know if it's carried out. Takahashi promises to write to Mari, but we never find out if he does. A cellphone lies in the chiller cabinet of a 7-11. It rings a few times, to be answered by the wrong person. But nobody takes it out of the fridge.

If you like Murakami, you'll like After Dark. If you don't, you won't. If you don't know, you may never find out. But if you don't read a book, is it, like the cellphone, still there?

Friday, June 15, 2007

Plugging in the computer

Never try to write an advertorial for your own product. The instinct to avoid blowing one's own trumpet results in a muffled buzz from a broken Stylophone inside a lead box three miles away. During a thunderstorm.

But anyway, happy birthday tomorrow, to OK Computer. And, even more importantly, to my mum.

P.S. I'm quite proud of "the band it's OK for politicians to pretend to like".

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Great Scott

"READ THE ENTIRE LITERARY WORK. THESE NOTES ARE NOT INTENDED AND HAVE NOT BEEN PREPARED TO SERVE AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR THE TEXT ITSELF OR FOR THE CLASSROOM DISCUSSION OF THE TEXT. STUDENTS WHO ATTEMPT TO USE THE NOTES AS SUCH ARE DENYING THEMSELVES THE VERY EDUCATION THEY ARE PRESUMABLY GIVING THEIR MOST VITAL YEARS TO ACHIEVE." Thus reads the standard disclaimer that prefaces every volume of Cliff's Notes, or "CliffsNotes", as we are encouraged to identify these erstwhile cribs, and let punctuation be damned. And several generations of students say: "yeah, whatever..."

Either my memory's crumbling, or reality is becoming a negotiable concept. Have I been there? Did I see that, read this? Did I try to bullshit someone that I did? It's like living a fantasy existence, but instead of pretending to be an international diamond smuggler, I let people marvel at how many Bergman films I've seen. And like all fantasists, the danger comes when you let both feet off the ground at once.

But it's not just about adopting an unearned mantle of learning; quite the opposite, in fact. For some reason, I'd convinced myself that I'd never actually read The Great Gatsby. So I picked up a second-hand copy and, of course, the point at which I realised that I had actually read it was the sentence that made me think "wow" the first time round. It's the narrator's description of Tom and Daisy Buchanan:

"They had spent a year in France for no particular reason, and they drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together."

Monday, June 11, 2007

The air is free!*

Oh dear, I think I'm probably going to hell.

*I would explain this, but my dad tells the joke so well, I wouldn't be able to do it justice.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

A word from our sponsors

If any of you still have the need or desire to purchase a copy of that succulent tome Welcome to the Machine: OK Computer and the Death of the Classic Album ("enjoyable and witty" - The Guardian; "highly readable" - Q), you may be interested to learn that amazon.co.uk is bundling it with Radiohead's recently re-released Airbag/How Am I Driving EP (mainly a collection of B-sides recorded during the album sessions, but none the worse for that, as discussed in Chapter 18). Indeed, if you purchase the two items together, you make an additional saving of... uh... approximately bugger-all, as far as I can deduce.

Never understood this marketing lark.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Repressed memory of toe-curling humiliation for the day

A few years ago, encouraged by my GP to lose a bit of flab, I entered a charity 10K race. Having, in the distant past, worked for a major running magazine, I had access to training plans for events of all distances, and sedulously applied myself to the mix of speed days, endurance days and rest days prescribed by the experts.

It was deviating from the plan that brought about my abject humiliation. One day I was scheduled to go for a bit of endurance, which usually involved walk/jogging to a grassy expanse round the back of the Purley Way, almost under the shadow of the mighty IKEA chimneys. Once there, I would do two circuits of the common at medium pace, then jog back slowly to warm down.

Possessed by an excess of enthusiasm, I decided to do three circuits, and then run back at the same pace. I realised something was wrong as I was crossing a road halfway home, when I became afflicted with stitches on both sides. I made it to the pavement, and did the most dangerous thing possible - I stopped. It was only then that I realised I hadn't really been breathing for the last couple of minutes. I stood, gasping for air, feeling the veins in my head and neck throbbing as if they wanted to escape. My legs started shaking and hurting. I felt sick, but nothing wanted to come up. I bent over, just in case.

"I must look a bloody mess," I thought. Having occasionally caught sight of myself in the mirror during my rare excursions to the gym, I knew that excessive activity usually turned my face a vibrant shade of raspberry. Sweat splashed onto the pavement as I retched saliva and tried to acquire some oxygen from somewhere, anywhere. And then I heard the tapping sound.

I'd pulled up by the left-hand fork of a T-junction, and a minibus had stopped there, waiting for a gap in the traffic. With some difficulty I got myself into a vaguely upright position and turned to look at the vehicle, to see whether it was the source of the noise. And then I realised it wasn't just any old minibus.

It was the blue bus.

It was the blue bus that belonged to the school for children with learning difficulties.

The special school.

And they were in the blue bus, tapping on the window and pointing. And they were laughing hysterically. They were pointing and laughing. At me.


And as I stood there, damp, hot, bedraggled, aching, gasping, I felt that maybe this was some sort of karmic payback for all the times I'd thoughtlessly mocked someone with words like "spaz" or "mong" or "flid" or "joey". And I was suddenly thankful that my face had already gone red.

"Did you have a good run?" asked Small Boo when I got home. I told her what had happened, hoping for a little sympathy.

Three hours later, she'd almost stopped laughing.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Food for thoughtless

Small Boo bought a cookbook the other day. It's called The Packed Lunch, and she's left it in the kitchen, possibly as a suggestion that I should extend the remit of my culinary skills, from the preparation of her morning decaf and Shredded Wheat, to the planning of her midday repast.

It's a big ask. Here's a sample concoction, for a hummus and cucumber sandwich (page 19).

"2 slices country loaf bread

1 tablespoon hummus

1/4 Lebanese cucumber, sliced thinly

Spread 1 slice of bread with hummus; top with cucumber and remaining bread.

Makes one sandwich."

Friday, June 01, 2007

Art full of soul


A few weeks ago, I was a wee bit snotty about a selection made by Very Short List, so I'm delighted to announce that they've more than made up with it by highlighting the oeuvre of Mingering Mike.

Mike had dreams of musical success while he was a teenager in Washington, DC, in the 60s and 70s but, like so many, the dice never quite rolled right for him. So he took matters into his own hands, creating album sleeves on squares of cardboard, depicting a parallel universe of music, featuring himself alongside the likes of Audio Andre, Joseph War and Miss Linda Landtree - all of them products of his imagination. His fanaticism for detail was such that as well as the sleeves, he designed and made the discs himself, drawing the labels and even the grooves onto card circles.

I sometimes feel uneasy about what's called 'outsider art'. All too often, enthusiasm becomes voyeurism, as onlookers develop a voyeuristic fascination with the creative lives of people who are often deeply psychologically damaged. It's like a modern Bedlam, with connoisseurs taking a quick detour to laugh at the crazies, before coming back to the comfort zone of 'real' art.

But Mike's art expresses a longing with which so many of us can empathise, whatever our relationship with mental health services. I wrote back in January about the joy of being in a band that never quite exists. All Mike is doing is to give expression to his frustrated dreams in another form. In his own head, he's a star, and by committing that mental picture to scraps of cardboard, he makes it a reality in our heads as well. Minger on!