Friday, February 25, 2005

Holding out for a hero


Barely three weeks after a stand-up tour brought Stewart Lee to the West Midlands, Richard Herring and his new show roll into town, offering me the chance of seeing both halves of the finest comedy partnership of the '90s in less than the space of a month.

Let's face it - it wasn't an opportunity I was about to pass up.

The partnership dissolved in the wake of their 'This Morning With Richard, Not Judy' show failing to get commissioned for another series. Since then, Lee has moved on to (amongst other things) 'Attention Scum!', a novel and, most recently and perhaps surprisingly, an opera, albeit one packed to the rafters with expletives. Herring indulges in some good-natured mockery of his former partner by briefly alluding to "opera director Stewart Lee". (A good deal of Herring's humour comes from his tabloid-like labelling of individuals - hence we get "liar Jonathan Aitken" and "evil John Leslie".)

For his part, Herring has written a play, 'Excavating Rita', and several successful touring shows (most recently, 'Talking Cock'). But he is still very recognisable as the same comic he was in 'Fist Of Fun', still making jokes at the expense of his West Country origins, still childish and cheeky but deceptively acidic at times, able to discuss writing on the face of a dead baby with an Argos biro without fear of causing offence.

'The Twelve Tasks Of Hercules Terrace' developed out of the realisation that even at the age of 37 he remained something of an irresponsible overgrown teenager, but one having a mid-life crisis in recognition of the fact. The concept - trying to achieve twelve feats comparable to those attempted by Hercules - was inspired by a bust of Hercules on the front of his new far-too-big-for-one-person house.

It's not particularly original, owing something to the Dave Gorman / Tony Hawkes school of daft drunken challenges, but it comes across as having developed into a very personal and at times painful struggle which nevertheless enabled Herring to forge much comic currency out of his own sad and nerdishly obsessive behavioural patterns and his flirtations with insanity.

The show itself is a slick, well-rehearsed and extremely amusing narrative of Herring's achievements interspersed with sparkling asides and culminating in some serious reflections on the nature of heroism. On the way we learn about his experiences of shovelling elephant dung, his fifty dates in fifty nights, his tempting of the Loch Ness Monster with a virgin, his attempts to avail himself of Germaine Greer's bra, his hitting a woman in the face with an oar and, of course, Consecutive Number Plate Spotting (CNPS), a game which would be Satan's own were it not for the fact that Herring himself invented it.

A superb evening's entertainment, not least for the horrible image of "having a turd in your sock ... and having to walk to Leicester ... and stay there for the rest of your life ... with your sock being refilled with fresh turd every single day".


Herring's thoughts on the show.

'The Twelve Tasks Of Hercules Terrace' website.

Herring's blog Warming Up, which he is in the process of turning into a Radio 4 series. Quick, someone sign Jonny B up to follow suit! (Incidentally, he's also adapting 'Excavating Rita' for ITV.)

A Guardian Q&A with Herring. Sample question: How often do you have sex? "This varies wildly depending on circumstances. But luckily I am always there for myself throughout the lean patches."

The official CNPS rules and the unofficial CNPS website - "Please do not play this game whilst driving. Be on the look out for pedestrians and other obstacles. CNPS is a game of boredom and tedium. No-one should die because of CNPS and if they do it should only be through frustration."

A warm welcome to Stylus staff writer Ian Mathers and his popcult blog Fractionals. (Actually it's more of a return after some unfortunate URL-related mishaps.)

Welcome also to Andrew and Cage Of Monkeys.

Congratulations to Jonny B, whose marvellous blog has kept me and countless others entertained for the past year.


The legendary Troubled Diva Which Year Is Top For Pops? feature is back! Click here for the #10s and then scroll upwards;

Kenny reviews Saturday's Low gig in Wolverhampton, as well as last Thursday's Departure / Cherubs / Apartment triple bill at the Academy;

Lord Marmite - an Englishman exiled in Austin, Texas - responds to the Observer article about exurban sprawl in the USA;

Skif waves a fond farewell to Dutch band Persil, and reviews their Liverpool show with The Wedding Present;

N takes issue with Tjinder Singh quote that appeared on SWSL the other day;

Nick puts his hatred for Kasabian into a few hundred well-chosen words;

and Jonathan gets in on the blog plugging act.

...And finally: best wishes to Phill, who leaves his native Birmingham for SWSL's beloved Nottingham tomorrow. (Incidentally, he's just been away for a week in Germany, enjoying snowball fights with lower league football teams and desperate searches for towels.)
Is it just me...

...or has Ricky Wilson (front man for Franz Ferdinand endorsed Leeds fivepiece The Kaiser Chiefs) stolen all his mannerisms from Eddie Izzard?

Heard them for the first time last night on BBC2's 'The Culture Show' - they sounded OK. I've, ahem, procured a copy of their debut LP Employment in advance of its March release - it'll be interesting to see what they're like on record.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

"Prophet, Messiah, Saviour"

As someone unfamiliar with Bob Dylan's life as well as with much of his musical output, the first hurdle I had to clear in reading 'Chronicles: Volume One' was to forget about any residual expectations of it being a standard autobiography.

The book is divided into five chapters each of which presents a vivid series of snapshots or scenes from a particular moment in Dylan's life. These chapters are arranged in chronological order, aside from the fifth which returns to the 1950s, a similar time period to that from which the first two are taken.

There is no attempt to construct a watertight linear narrative, and the chapters themselves whirl you around as Dylan goes off on tangents and asides that last for paragraphs or even pages at a time. Potentially confusing and frustrating for someone not already acquainted with his story, but it's actually this quality that lends the book so much of its appeal. Events are recounted just as they are remembered without a whiff of artifice, Dylan appearing scrupulously faithful to his memories which are naturally inconsistent and sketchy at times, extraordinarily sharp and intricately preserved at others.

The first, second and fifth chapters deal with the young man's experiences of finding his feet musically, immersing himself in the folk sub-culture of New York and taking the opportunities presented to him. There are, it has to be said, so many musicians' names that it all starts to blur, but then that just adds to the impression of Greenwich Village as a busy thriving hub of creativity and of Dylan's influences as innumerable and varied. He writes about, amongst others, Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie, whom he later met: "Woody's songs were having that big an effect on me, an influence on every move I made, what I ate and how I dressed, who I wanted to know, who I didn't".

For someone who was to become phenomenally successful in the 1960s, popular acclaim seemed a long way off: "I had no song in my repertoire for commercial radio anyway. Songs about debauched bootleggers, mothers that drowned their own children, Cadillacs that only got five miles to the gallon, floods, union hall fires, darkness and cadavers at the botom of rivers weren't for radiophiles". Even then, though, there is still a powerful sense of the tantalising possibilities that lay ahead: "The whole city was dangling in front of my nose. I had a vivid idea of where everything was. The future was nothing to worry about. It was awfully close".

Though the fourth chapter, detailing his creative rebirth in the late 1980s with the Daniel Lanois produced Oh Mercy, is superb, perhaps most gripping is the third chapter, in which Dylan recalls the bitter experience of the 1960s: "The folk music scene had been like a paradise that I had to leave, like Adam had to leave the garden. It was just too perfect. In a few years' time a shit storm would be unleashed. Things would begin to burn". As it turned out, the future WAS something to worry about.

Appointed a public spokesman for the burgeoning countercultural movement, Dylan found his life was made a misery: "Demonstrators found our house and paraded up and down in front of it chanting and shouting, demanding for me to come out and lead them somewhere - stop shirking my duties as the conscience of a generation". His home was constantly besieged by "gate-crashers, spooks, trespassers, demagogues", and the sheer force of his disgust and revulsion at being backed into a corner is staggering - he even confesses to being tempted to start shooting at them.

At his wits' end, he pondered leaving his music behind altogether. "Whatever the counterculture was, I'd seen enough of it. I was sick of the way my lyrics had been extrapolated, their meanings subverted into polemics and that I had been anointed as the Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent, the Duke of Disobedience, Leader of the Freeloaders, Kaiser of Apostasy, Archbishop of Anarchy, the Big Cheese".

What happened to Dylan was to happen to Kurt Cobain, albeit on a lesser scale, thirty years later. Unable to shoulder the burden, Cobain shot himself, but for Dylan things gradually quietened down until they were once again bearable: "Eventually different anachronisms were thrust upon me - anachronisms of lesser dilemma - though they might seem bigger. Legend, Icon, Enigma (Buddha in European Clothes was my favourite) - stuff like that, but that was all right. These titles were placid and harmless, threadbare, easy to get around with them. Prophet, Messiah, Saviour - those are tough ones".

'Chronicles: Volume One' is a marvellous book, passionate and lyrical - in other words, well worth a read. One thing, though, Bob - what's all this about, eh? "Bono's got the soul of an ancient poet and you have to be careful around him. He can roar 'til the earth shakes. He's also a closet philosopher". That night you had him round at your place, you really HAD been at the Guinness, hadn't you?
Welcome to Nowheresville USA

A fascinating article from Sunday's Observer about the "exurban" sprawl of American cities.

The feature's author Tristram Hunt looks at this worrying trend from several perspectives: the soulless and identikit nature of these developments, the political bias of their residents ("exurbia represents the amorphous heartland of George W Bush's conservatism") and the absence of any form of community and social responsibility (in this latter respect they seem to be like some kind of Thatcherite vision of the future made real).

There's not the space in Britain for development and growth to take place on anything like the same scale, I don't think, but all the same Hunt is keen to stress that the American example should provide a valuable lesson: "Traditionally, British policymakers are all too easily drawn to American innovations. But my time in Phoenix has shown the United States pursuing a model we desperately need to avoid: depopulating downtowns, ravaged countryside, unsustainable energy consumption, social and racial segmentation and a sprawling exurbia that is retreating unrelentingly into the future."

Thankfully (and this is something Hunt doesn't mention) there seems to be a concern not to neglect city centres and inner-city areas when it comes to the development of either housing or, in the case of Birmingham most obviously, shops. The problem here is of a different nature - gentrification forcing existing residents out and pricing many first-time buyers well out of the market. It's not just good quality city centre housing that's needed - it needs to be affordable, too.

We've got it half right, though, and seemingly aren't pursuing an ill-conceived policy of letting the nucleus of our cities crumble whilst their boundaries expand ever further - for the moment, at least.
Quote of the day

"I like trying things and discovering how I hate them."

D H Lawrence. You've got to love the curmudgeonly old git, haven't you?

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Reasons To Be Cheerful #7

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

The Electric Cinema

You know the expression "It'll be in the last place you look"? Well, nothing could be truer of Birmingham.

You want a fantastic Victorian pub restored to its former grandeur and serving the finest real ales and superb Thai cuisine? Go to Newtown, where the sound of gunfire seems to ring out every day.

You want a smart modern theatre with a big reputation? Go to the end of Broad Street, the Brummie beer boys' Friday night catwalk.

You want a fabulous "luxury cinema" dedicated to showing the artier side of things? Go down an insalubrious stairwell that stinks of piss next to New Street Station and hey presto - the Electric Cinema.

The Electric reopened after refurbishment and under new management in December, and is another jewel in the city's crown. With its art-deco stylings and old-school plush red fold-down seats, it's a million miles from the bland McMultiplexes designed to shoehorn in as many punters to has many films as possible.

There's an assortment of snacks, handmade ice-creams and drinks, including a good range of wines starting at about £10 a bottle, all of which can be taken freely into the auditorium.

As can be imagined, it's not particularly cheap - £6 for a standard ticket, £4 for concessions and a hefty £10 for those who would prefer one of the sumptuous leather sofas at the back of the auditorium - but then the glitzy and decadent surroundings certainly merit it.

It won't be long before I'm back again - Monday, to be precise...


Phill of Danger! High Postage writes about the reopened venue for the local BBC website.
"America... FUCK YEAH!!!"

And the reason for my first visit to the luxurious and classy Electric? To see a phenomenally crude and offensive hour-and-a-half-long puppet show featuring extended sex and puking scenes that I contrived to miss first time around.

I doubt that anyone familiar with Trey Parker and Matt Stone's previous work (see, for instance, 'Cannibal: The Musical') went to see 'Team America: World Police' expecting subtlety, and for the most part the satire is thumpingly obvious - not necessarily in a bad way. There's no real message - it's a bit of a free-for-all with no-one and nothing escaping unscathed.

Well worth seeing for the grisly death scenes alone - Danny Glover and Sean Penn are eaten by cats, Hans Blix ends up as food for Kim Jong Il's shark, Helen Hunt is sliced in half and Samuel L Jackson has the top half of his head kicked off. That's one way to exact punishment for his appearance in the 'Star Wars' movies...

The dicks / pussies / assholes speech at the end is fantastic too - international relations explained in a language Cartman would understand.
Quotes of the day

A distinctly literary flavour today...

"Hailsham is like a physical manifestation of what we have to do to all children. It is a protected world. To some extent at least you have to shield children from what you know and drip-feed information to them. Sometimes that is kindly meant, and sometimes not. When you become a parent, or a teacher, you turn into a manager of this whole system. You become the person controlling the bubble of innocence around a child, regulating it. All children have to be deceived if they are to grow up without trauma."

Kazuo Ishiguro talks to the Observer about the private boarding school in his new novel Never Let Me Go.

"I've always considered writing the most hateful kind of work. I suspect it's a bit like fucking, which is only fun for amateurs. Old whores don't do much giggling."

Hunter S Thompson RIP.
Know Your Enemy #55

"Britpop didn't say anything to anyone who wasn't white."

Tjinder Singh of Cornershop.
"Nathan Barley visits a Covent Garden skate shop and pays £75 for a T-shirt with a vaguely subversive slogan"

For all those interested in following the exploits of that "worthless upper-middle-class cuntsack" Nathan Barley - a compendium of his appearances in the TV Go Home listings.

On reflection, maybe I was a little overcritical about the second episode of the TV series...

(Thanks to Vanessa for the link.)

Monday, February 21, 2005

Enjoy the silence Cum on feel the noize


Kid Dakota, who feature Low bassist Zak Sally on a couple of songs and whose album The West Is The Future was released on Low's Chairkickers Union label last year, are a really hard act to place.

The artwork for the album (which I subsequently purchase) is by Will Schaff who also did some of the drawings for Godspeed! You Black Emperor's Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, and there is a similar sense of a bleak and apocalyptic present about Kid Dakota's music, though their fusion of punk and country is much more accessible than the Canadians' musical output.

On stage in front of an audience almost completely unfamiliar with them, they look at ease, concentrating on louder songs like 'Pilgrim' and the excellent 'Winterkill' rather than on the more moody and ambient album tracks like 'Homesteader'.

Vocalist / guitarist Darren Jackson (not the former Newcastle and Hibernian striker, I might add) has a voice vaguely reminiscent of Brian Molko but far less irritating than that might imply, and looks like a thinner Jack Osbourne. But the real star, from a visual point-of-view, is the similarly besuited drummer, who adds to and dismantles his kit midsong.

From all the fuss that Low's new Dave Fridmann produced album The Great Destroyer has kicked up in indie circles, you'd be forgiven for thinking it's like Dylan gone electric all over again. Let's get one thing clear, though: they've betrayed no-one. If they felt the time was right to move on and leave their "slo-core" days in the past, then it's their prerogative.

In any case, the new material might be quicker, brighter and - most obviously - louder than before, but it's still unmistakeably Low. Whereas before you could see through to the bare bones, they're now fleshed out with a gorgeous guitar fuzz. For the most part, 'Monkey' and 'Pissing' excepted, the darkly sinister edge of 2002's Trust is gone - from that record, only '(That's How You Sing) Amazing Grace' appears tonight - and in its place a newfound warmth. It's entirely appropriate that 'Dinosaur Act', the song from Things We Lost In The Fire which signalled Alan Sparhawk's discovery of the distortion pedal, opens the encore.

They might be living up to the billing as a bona fide rock band these days, but that doesn't stop Sparhawk introducing new single 'California' as being about his mother. Although the band seem jovial on stage - they laugh about Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker's kid dancing around to the first Napalm Death record in the empty venue earlier in the evening - the reflective and heart-meltingly sad moments are still there, buried in the middle of singalong set-closer 'Broadway (So Many People)' in the enigmatic line "Where is the laughter?".

They also still have that uncanny knack of making the hairs on the back of your neck stand stiff to attention. Sparhawk's nakedly solo rendition of 'Death Of A Salesman' is something truly special, but Parker is not to be outdone and her astonishingly clear vocals make the hushed 'Laser Beam' one of the night's highlights, along with 'When I Go Deaf', which begins in near-silence before exploding into life with squalling guitar to die for.

So, no 'Canada', nothing from Secret Name, and not quite the Damascene experience of two years ago, but still a very strong early frontrunner for SWSL Gig Of The Year.

Setlist (as far as my alcohol-blurred memory and knowledge of Low's material will allow: ? / 'Monkey' / 'California' / '(That's How You Sing) Amazing Grace' / 'Death Of A Salesman' / ? / 'Walk Into The Sea' (acoustic) / 'Pissing' / 'Everybody's Song' / ? / 'Laser Beam' / 'Broadway (So Many People)' // 'Dinosaur Act' / 'Sunflower' / 'When I Go Deaf' /// 'Words'


Ian Mathers reviews The Great Destroyer for Stylus.

Pitchfork and Splendid review Kid Dakota's The West Is The Future.
'Barley' whine

Oh dear. After Friday's enthusiastic comments on 'Nathan Barley', the second episode turned out to be a real disappointment after the very promising signs of the first.

Though there was plenty of camera trickery this time around (all no doubt justifiable for the party scene), the plot was paper-thin to say the very least. Worse still, it just wasn't very funny, and the satire seemed rather dull and blunt.

Morris has a habit of confounding expectations, but not in this way. Hopefully that episode was a temporary aberration.

(Incidentally, on Friday I mentioned the similarities to 'The Office' and wondered whether Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais had seen it. Well, as it turns out, Merchant is one of the show's script editors (I think), along with Peter Baynham.)
Quote of the day

"The blogosphere will become a force in Britain, and it could ignite many new forces of conservatism. The internet's automatic level playing field gives conservatives opportunities that mainstream media have often denied them."

Iain Duncan Smith predicts the American-style hijacking of the blogosphere by the right here in Britain. God forbid.

I was wondering just the other day why it is that American blogs tend to have a right-wing bias, whereas the majority of British bloggers are, at least as far as I can tell, left-leaning. Anyone got any ideas?

And what is it with conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic believing the conspiracy theory that the mainstream media is controlled by a shadowy liberal elite? I'm frequently appalled by the level of narrow-minded right-wing propaganda we get fed. To say that conservatives are "denied opportunities" to present their case is ludicrous.

(Thanks to Vaughan for the link.)
A secret shared

PostSecret is a blog with a difference, one where people are encouraged to confess their innermost secrets anonymously. It makes for fascinating reading.

(Thanks to London Calling for the link.)

Friday, February 18, 2005

A "self-facilitating media node"

The second episode of 'Nathan Barley' airs on C4 tonight, so it's perhaps about time I got round to saying something about the first.

Last week I was waiting in eager anticipation, and having read several perspectives on the series, I reserved the right to make up my own mind. One half-hour episode is insufficient evidence on which to base judgement of an entire series, but, nevertheless...

Whilst on the one hand Morris had left his fingerprints on it in several ways (most notably the footage of Barley's techie gimp being electrocuted by a truck battery), there was none of the disorientating visual trickery that we've perhaps come to associate with him since 'Jam'. Instead, it's shot very simply and without any obvious stylistic flourishes.

If that sounds like 'The Office', then there was a definite debt owed for the scene in which the disillusioned Dan Ashcroft (Julian Barrett) went for the job interview at the Sunday supplement, pitching himself as potentially writing the wine column but unable to list his five favourite supermarket wines. The awkward silences, the quizzical looks, the cringeworthiness, the feeling you're going to have to turn away - all present and correct, as I'm sure Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais will have smugly noted if they've seen it.

The real surprise was that the eponymous anti-hero isn't the central character. It's a good thing, too, as if Barley was allowed much more screen time his meaningless yoof culcha babble would wear a little thin and he'd become something of a crude caricature. As it is, he's odious but not too odious to watch - a perfectly ridiculous arsehole spouting off about himself, his website and how Freddie Starr is "sort of like the original Bill Hicks".

The world he and Dan inhabit (one happily, the other not so) is one in which irony has eaten itself, one populated by "cultural shitblisters" (creator Charlie Brooker's term from TV Go Home) cocooned in their own little Shoreditch world who set themselves up against The Man but whose lingo is every bit as puffed up and wanky as that of the sphere of business. Given the obvious relish with which Morris has warped and twisted language in the past, it's not hard to imagine him having a great time behind the scenes.

Neil of Morris fan site Cookd And Bombd might have implied that 'Nathan Barley' is "childish bollocks" on a par with 'Bo Selecta', but that's misses the point entirely. The characters' grotesque infantilism and puerile sense of humour is an important part of what is being satirised. The satire may not be as savage and pointed as, say, in the 'Brass Eye' paedophilia special, but it's the prime mover behind it all.

How the rest of the series will pan out only time will tell. Unusually for Morris's work, there is a narrative connecting the different installments - a tiny part of wanting to tune in tonight is to find out whether Dan can escape the idiots or whether he can bring Sugarape down from the inside.

PS To those people who have arrived at SWSL looking for "cock muff bumhole rules". YOU'RE ALL IDIOTS. FUCK OFF.

Related links:, Nathan Barley's website.

Mark Lawson on 'Nathan Barley' in the Guardian - "The moralists who attack Morris fail to realise the extent to which he is a moralist himself.".

Andrew Billen on the series in New Statesman. According to him, Morris is nothing less than "our greatest living Englishman" - amen to that.

Another blogger's view.
Reasons To Be Cheerful #6

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

The Sunflower Lounge

Situated on Smallbrook Queensway a short distance from New Street Station and the Bullring, Sunflower Lounge is a cosy and modest little late bar which fulfils all my requirements - no dress code, no entry fee, friendly staff, DJs who know their onions and, most importantly, good lager on tap (in this case, Nastro Azzuro).

Yesterday was only the third time I've been, and my first visit to the monthly night known as Down At The Sugarfoot Stomp, which is held down in the basement bar and attracts a fairly arty / studenty crowd. A small team of DJs take it in turns to spin a selection of tunes from the 1920s up to the 1960s which, though often obscure, are nearly always danceable. Revellers togged up in suits and fancy vintage dresses groove the night away against a projected backdrop of classic films, footage of a bygone Birmingham and, later in the evening, eye-popping burlesque routines.

Last night we were treated to Johnny Cash's 'A Boy Named Sue', and of the other records to get a whirl the one that really caught my attention was a bluegrass number with the cheery chorus "Atomic power, sent by the mighty hand of God"...

An invigoratingly different "club" night in a very fine little venue.
On the campaign trail for the Bloc Party

Like all the best glowing album reviews, Nick Southall's assessment of Bloc Party's Silent Alarm on Stylus makes me feel like I desperately need to own it (of course, the fact that I love the singles 'So Here We Are' and 'Helicopter' helps).

"Lyrically Bloc Party are intriguing, mysterious and emotive; sonically they are intricate and explosive in equal measure. They’re rhythmically taut, aesthetically pleasing, ideologically sound and probably contain no harmful CFC gases either. Silent Alarm is an astonishing debut album and I love it. Bloc Party are the first band in eight years that I feel I can care about. The sky is wide open for them."

Nick is, however, somewhat less enamoured with Athlete's latest full-length offering: "Tourist is dull but worthy. Life is short; I have no time for dull but worthy."

Lots of other music-related titbits that I'll lazily shoehorn in here, if I may...

Long-time SWSL pals Lovemat had the pleasure of gigging with Towers Of London at The Cluny in Newcastle on Wednesday night. By this point in their tour the Towers' frontman Donny Tourette had already caused £500 worth of damage at the Joiners in Southampton and been arrested following another destructive spree during a gig in Cambridge. In the event, the Newcastle gig barely registered on the Richter scale, the closest they came to wanton destruction being a mic stand flung out into the crowd halfway through the first song. An onlooker's considered opinion: "The sound was a very retro Sex Pistols / Motley Crue / Guns 'N' Roses one - all bands I like by the way - but the songs just weren't there. Had the tunes been there you could forgive them for being such arrogant annoying crusty bits of fanny batter - but they weren't, and so they are." Ahem...

Skif's offered to help out in accommodating Dutch band Persil when they visit Liverpool as the support act for the reformed Wedding Present: "Perhaps this will set a precedent and the VP villa will become the flophouse for all the rock n' roll waifs and strays coming to Merseyside. Perhaps Babyshambles will play a gig in our front room (actually, I'd rather they didn't)."

More Dears reviews! Kenny caught their Birmingham gig, and Pete saw them in Oxford (and The Bravery a day later).

Kenny has pointed me in the direction of It's A Wonderful Life, a new blog set up by former NME scribe Stevie Chick to showcase some of his favourite music features. In this piece from 2002, originally for Everett True's now-defunct Careless Talk Costs Lives, he goes a long way to explaining what it is that makes The Icarus Line so special: "At times, they feel like the only punk-rock band left." Last year's splendidly schizophrenic Penance Soiree LP is a grossly underrated record.
Quote of the day

"Now I don't know about you, but of all the qualities I expect from a margarine, a propensity for being pro-active (or, if you insist, Pro-activ) does not figure highly. Proactivity I might look for in a team of management consultants. But a tub of margarine? If anything I want it to passive - pliant, even. I want it to bend to my will, to submit meekly to its fate of being spread out thinly across a slab of white sliced, and then covered with a chunk of beef, a dollop of marmite, or whatever takes my fancy. I certainly don't want margarine that has been on an assertiveness course chipping in with snack-improvement suggestions:

'How about sticking another slice of ham in here, mate?'

'Have you considered a bit of piccalilli at all? Or some radishes? I think this sandwich could definitely use a couple of radishes.'

'Hey, you're spreading me a bit thick there, pal. No need to overdo it - remember I'm packed with fourteen extra vitamins here!'

Jonathan writes the best blog post about margarine that I've ever read. Jonny B, he's gunning for ya...
Know Your Enemy #54

"They were a punk band. He used to scream so much the blood vessels in his throat burst and the PA guys would beat him up for covering the microphones with blood. They were wild, but since then he's become the biggest cunt on earth."

Peter Hook, in conversation with Kele and Gordon of Bloc Party in the Guardian, on Mick Hucknall and his band The Frantic Elevators.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Can't buy me laughs


It's not the most auspicious of openings to a comedy gig.

For a comic like Jason Byrne, who evidently creates most of his material on the spot with what his audience feeds him, tonight's crowd looks like being a bit of a nightmare. The first few things he tosses out are met with stony silence. No-one is forthcoming with a response.

And THEN he winds up asking someone in the front row how they got in for free.

"Well, it's a bit embarrassing...", comes the reply.

Byrne's eyes light up. He rubs his hands together and chuckles, in anticipation of an amusing confession he can torment the poor lad with all evening. "Come on then, let's hear it."

"Well, I'm on the venue's mailing list and I got an email saying they hadn't sold many tickets and offering them for free if you replied quickly..."

If Byrne's taken aback by the discovery that nearly everyone present (including myself) is there gratis - and he must be - he does a good job of hiding it, hardly missing his stride. Slowly but surely, he turns things around.

Any lingering suspicions that he's trading too heavily on the fact that an Irishman wildly shouting "You fuckin' eejit" and "You little bollocks" is just inherently funny are dispelled in the second half.

Of course it helps that the audience has thawed out and relaxed - one even going so far as to vomit on another. A bloke who designs concrete slabs for a living and a couple who Byrne mishears say they were married by a farmer are meat and drink, and, if he doesn't quite have the surrealism or cleverness of a Ross Noble, Byrne is quick-witted enough to riff entertainingly on whatever comes his way, ridiculing individuals without ever doing so aggressively.

When he inserts segments of prepared material, then, it can't help but feel a bit more contrived than it would ordinarily, but that's simply a testimony to his ability to freestyle for long periods without coming unstuck. His gags range over well-trodden comic territory - men and women, marriage, the English - but still raise more than a few laughs, and he leaves everyone more than satisfied.

So, first it was a free gig, now free comedy - it's like I've regressed back to the days of consummate blaggerdom on the student magazine... Anyone want to send me any free CDs?

An aside: It's a bad sign that an established comedy venue like the Glee Club - with acts like Ed Byrne, Daniel Kitson and Dara O'Briain appearing in the next couple of months - can sell so few tickets for a gig that it has to give them away. Byrne might not be in the popular consciousness just yet - something destined to change when he makes the leap to TV with his BBC series 'Jason Byrne Hates...' due to be screened in the autumn - but he's certainly of no little repute on the national comedy circuit. In my endeavours to accommodate myself to Birmingham, I try to compare it to Nottingham as little as possible - but, let's face it, Darryl would never let this happen at Just The Tonic.
Everything's just vine

The fact that 'Sideways' is a film about, amongst other things, that splendid elixir wine is something I'd forgotten. So it was more serendipity (note: must use that word more) than good planning that we smuggled two bottles of plonk into the cinema on Monday to accompany our viewing of the film.

To be honest, though, being able to sip from tumblers of Ernest & Julio Gallo Sauvignon Blanc (2003 vintage, purchased from that well-respected vintners Sainsburys) was merely an added bonus - there's not much that could enhance the pleasure that this movie serves up.

Paul Giamatti plays Miles, a paunchy, sensible-trousered and recently divorced English teacher who is trying and failing to find a publisher for his first novel. Throw in his enormous gusto for wine and it was like looking into a horrible kind of future for me.

Thomas Haden Church is Miles's friend Jack (this is a strange kind of buddy / road movie), a washed-up actor who trades on his fading good looks and charm, talks and dresses like an embarrassingly overgrown and overaged "surfer dude", and follows his cock around like a dowsing rod.

Jack is due to get married in a week's time, so Miles arranges for them to head up into northern California to visit vineyards and sample the local produce. Jack takes that to mean women as well as wine.

It's a film about mid-life crisis of the exclusively male variety, and as such might give impressionable forty-somethings the idea that all they need to reinvent themselves as sex machines is a few lurid Hawaiian shirts or an extensive knowledge of classy booze. However, the ridiculousness of Jack's behaviour and manner (in particular) is always apparent.

In 'About Schmidt', director Alexander Payne has already done something like this before, though that featured an older if equally directionless male protagonist. 'Sideways' is an adaptation of a Rex Pickett novel, and Payne had a big hand in writing the screenplay. Having not read the novel, I'm not sure how much has been changed, but certainly similarities to 'About Schmidt' are in evidence, not least the way the narrative edges towards a bleak conclusion only for a sudden brilliant ray of light to shine down at the last moment. Zach Braff and those involved with 'Garden State' take note: THAT's how to bring an offbeat romantic comedy to a stylish close.

So, engaging plot, excellent directing, vintage performances (sorry), memorable dialogue, affecting, beautifully observed, funny...
Last night a DJ spoiled my night

(Well, not last night - that was the Jason Byrne gig. Tuesday night.)

A trip to the Jug Of Ale to see Maximo Park had proved futile, the gig having already sold out and no tickets being available on the door.

Cursing ourselves for making the mistake of underestimating the appeal of devilishly tuneful Geordie art-punk, and all those - including half of Editors - who did not, we opted to stay around for a few cheap pints. Amidst much talk of Birmingham's highs and lows, as well as of the flagrant disregard bishops seem to hold for the considerable effort involved in the preparation of a trifle (it's a long story), an enjoyable evening was salvaged from the wreckage.

Until, that is, the DJ - who in sartorial terms appears to worship at the altar of Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi - decided to round the night off with ver Park's 'The Coast Is Always Changing', just to remind us of what we've been missing. Yes, cheers for that.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Right To Reply #4: Part Two

(For Part One, scroll down to the post below.)

The subject: Poetry - present and future

The participants:
Martin - a professional poet from Nottingham and author of Exultations & Difficulties
Joe - an amateur performance poet
Pete - a voracious reader and the man behind The Whole Wide World Of Fat Buddha
Olav - a fellow bookworm
Ben - your host

With the apparent popularity of poetry readings and poetry evenings, is poetry returning to the oral tradition?

Joe: It looks like there is a move from the page to the stage – great! Once you go to a poetry performance, you realise how much is gained by hearing the poem read, especially if rhythmic. If I read the same poem later, it falls flat - I would just scan the words on the page. It's a good excuse for a social occasion – participants reading their own work is certainly an icebreaker.

Martin: The oral tradition is fine, but if you’ve been to an open mic poetry event recently you’ll know it’s in pretty lousy shape and in truth we’re a long way away from it. And forgive this sweeping generalisation but I don’t think most of those open mic people read poetry, otherwise they’d have more than one metre in their head, and not crave applause so much. What they do (in general) has nothing to do with anything I’m interested in, to be frank. I didn’t know poetry readings were popular. I’ve been involved in them, both as a reader and as a promoter, for some twenty years, and if thirty people turn up to a gig it’s figured a success. If that’s popular then OK.

Joe: I've seen live poetry for the last two Tuesdays. It's good to see there the kind of interest that warrants regular events around London, even though you tend to see the same old people!

Olav: I don't see any change in the popularity of such events.

Has there been a change in the way poetry is consumed?

Pete: I hardly ever buy poetry (Hegley excepted) and when I do it will be from a second hand book stall in Abergavenny market. I get most of my fixes from the web.

Martin: I suspect, in fact I know, poetry is now reaching lots of people via the internet. A couple of years ago I’d not have said this, because even that recently the notion of sitting down at the computer and finding an online poetry magazine was kind of strange – but now, I almost live by it, and even run my own website. It’s not replacing books – as I write this, my desk is literally awash with review copies of poetry books that have arrived in the mail this week. But the internet is immediate and accessible, and I’m sure it’s opened things up.

Ben: On the internet, poetry is everywhere. The stereotypical image of the blogger is someone who chronicles what they had for breakfast whilst also posting photos of their cat and reams of cringingly turgid doggerel verse – and, as with most stereotypes, there’s an element of truth in there. The web has given people a licence to foist their amateurish poetic skills and efforts onto others. At least this indicates that the urge for self-expression, of which writing poetry is a significant manifestation, is alive and well. Of course, there are also numerous decent and reputable sites devoted to poetry, and it’s these that offer real hope and promise.

Martin: If a poetry novice stumbled across my site and followed all the links, for example, they discover loads of poets and publishers and books that quite simply would have stayed hidden from them…. it’s an explorer’s heaven. I think that’s really exciting.

Pete: The web might just be the future of poetry. Most poets complain that they cannot make a living at it anyway and most poetry is published by small publishers. The web really opens up the potential readership, though it might not do the same for sales – although I have noticed that some of the contributors to Football Poets advertise their readings on there, so you never know.

Do you feel poetry is (rightly or wrongly) squeezed out of the school
syllabus by prose and drama? How much of an influence does education play in shaping attitudes towards poetry?

Martin: Of course it’s squeezed out, but I don’t know if it’s by prose and drama. More likely it’s by something else. League tables, vocational courses, and similar things. I don’t know.

Olav: I think it has some parity with prose and drama. It doesn't seem to be squeezed, at least from what I can remember.

Joe: I don't know about the poetry : prose ratio in the syllabus, as long as both are explored. If a variety of poetry is demonstrated, hopefully pupils will be inspired to give it a try.

Martin: Did you enjoy poetry at school? Did you even read any? I don’t know.

Olav: Education is our only contact. I think my first contact was with Roger McGough who I still read and whose work really does appeal across the ages (see his stuff about having kids when he's so old). Apart from such wondrous experiences, we are told to tease apart the classics from a very straight point of view in a very unexciting way, all of course allied to the syllabus. I liked Keats for a bit, then it was rammed so far down my throat that even now I have an adverse reaction to it.

Ben: The classroom environment shouldn’t be allowed to stifle any pleasure that a child might derive from a particular poem (or novel or play, for that matter). The key, I think, is to allow room for the discussion and exploration of personal responses to something. If children are encouraged and made to feel comfortable discussing their own thoughts, then they are more likely to enjoy a poem than if they are simply told from ‘on high’ what they should be feeling about it.

Joe: [There’s the] performance aspect. Reading poems can help lead into drama by developing the confidence to perform.

Olav: If they actually brought modern poets into schools and tried to breath some life into the subject at hand then there could be some hope for the future, but they can't be arsed. I'm sure, as well, that they could do with the money. It's a win win situation.

Ben: There has, I think, been a general shift in the way poetry, amongst other things, is taught in schools since I was a kid – it’s now more hands-on, and literature, including poetry, is experienced not only as something lying flat on a page but also as something brought to life.

Martin: I’ve worked a lot in schools as a visiting writer and my experience has varied. I guess I wouldn’t be in the school if there wasn’t an enthusiasm there in the first place, and when I was at school I thought all poets were dead. If poetry is alive in a school, then living poets are nearby to support it.

Ben: Perhaps contact with poetry is not enough to inspire enthusiasm, interest and passion amongst children any more – maybe it’s this level of personal contact that’s needed if poetry is to remain vital. Moreover, Olav argues that a school education gives most people their only real contact with poetry – well, it shouldn’t. It’s also the responsibility of parents to introduce their children to books and to poetry at home, and help foster an appreciation from an early age. A lack of enthusiasm for language and literature can be hereditary – and so can a passion for it.

Pete: One of the best books I have ever bought is a children's anthology featuring the likes of Zephaniah, Spike Milligan, Roger McGough, Brian Patten and others. It has some great stuff in, some serious, some funny, some wacky. Each of my kids love it. I don't know if it will give them a love of poetry, but I hope it will give them a love of words, instil in them the notion that language is important and that you can have fun just playing around with it.

How do you see the future of poetry? Is it healthy? Or in terminal decline?

Martin: I don’t think about things like this. Do carpenters worry about the future of carpentry, even though there’s an IKEA down the road? Poetry is art, and art is always there. Always has been, always will be. It’s a basic human activity. As long as people have imaginations, poetry and music and painting and all of that will be there.

Olav: Poetry will go on. It's just one of those things.

Martin: As a poet and publisher and promoter I’ve been busy to the point of exhaustion for nearly half my life thinking about how to find one more reader, how to get a few more people along to a poetry reading, how to find some more money to support a project…. Now I don’t give a damn, because I realise that for me poetry is as natural as breathing and if I treat it the same way as I do breathing – that is, as something natural and right and a part of the day – then I’m doing as much as I ever did by attending networking meetings with arts administrators, or writing letters to newspapers, or making plans to change the way the world regards poets and poetry. Poetry won’t die. It may never have a mass audience within our culture, but so what? I’d rather spend the next half hour writing a good poem than worrying about how many people are going to read it. Mind you, having said that, I’m aware I’m in a kind of privileged position because I know that most of what I write and deem good enough to send outside the house gets to be read by an audience out there somewhere in the world. But since I’ve worked hard for a long time to get to this point, I’m not sure ‘privilege’ is the right word.

Pete: I don't think poetry has much to worry about, it will develop and change as necessary. We will always have the classics, the highbrow will always communicate with the highbrow in their strange lingo, an elite will always talk to one another. Then we have the fantastic children's poets, of whom there seems to be a never-ending supply and mavericks like Cooper Clarke are always likely to spring up. We have slam poets and we have hip hop, a never-ending source of innovation, a never-ending supply of witty and wise wordsmiths. A worldwide coterie of people who can do nothing but use their language to find ways of expressing themselves and sharing it with the rest of us. Rather than poets being in crisis, I think the question should be: how the hell do we shut them up?

Ben: We live in an age when attention deficit disorder is rife amongst adults and children alike and brevity is a prized quality. In such conditions it’s hard to see how poetry can fail to flourish. The Guardian’s text message poem competition is a measure of how developments in technology can give rise to new forms of poetry. Like sonnets and haikus, text poems have to obey formal constraints – namely, they must be less than 160 characters.

Joe: What's with the doom and gloom? I think it's on the up. Concise writing is the way forwards. News stories will soon be presented as haikus. The future is poetry.

Thanks to Martin, Joe, Pete and Olav for their contributions.

A final thought, taken from Martin’s website:

"If poems can't slug it out with kids and mayhem and shopping life, overdrafts and broken cars and jobs, they're not worth shit."

Monday, February 14, 2005

Right To Reply #4: Part One

Yes, the long-overdue return of Right To Reply, the feature for which I gather together the views of an assortment of bloggers and friends on a particular issue.

The subject: Poetry - present and future

The participants:
Martin - a professional poet from Nottingham and author of Exultations & Difficulties
Joe - an amateur performance poet
Pete - a voracious reader and the man behind The Whole Wide World Of Fat Buddha
Olav - a fellow bookworm
Ben - your host

Today, the first half of the feature.

What is poetry, for you?

Martin: It’s impossible for me to say what poetry is. And if you set yourself a little project and gather together as many definitions of poetry as you can lay your hands on, you’ll soon find you have several sheets of paper full of contradictions. Poetry takes different shapes and forms, not least because in the last hundred and fifty years it’s gone through so many changes and innovations, and that’s not to mention what went before. And then, of course, somebody will come along and say "This isn’t a poem" or "That isn’t a poem". As if there is some kind of rule.

Olav: [Poetry is] something that shines much-needed light upon some rare instance of emotion. A moment of recognition in the mirror of words. Blah blah. Fancy shit you can quote that makes you look good and other people feel silly. The best words in the best order as someone far more talented, but twattier, than I once wrote. All of the above.

Joe: Poetry expresses what we think and feel, and I think we ought to remember to focus some attention on this apart from robotic daily life. Poetry clarifies our own and other's thoughts. It encourages the sharing of observations – we may take more of an interest or feel we have more in common with others.

What makes a good poem? What should a poem do?

Pete: For me, poetry should speak directly to me, not in simplistic terms, but in ways which I not only understand, but empathise with. I want it to say things better than I can, more astutely, more profoundly. I want it to get to the heart of the matter and open that heart up. For me, poetry represents an emotional, rather than an academic experience.

Martin: I’m as stunned and moved and excited by Ezra Pound as I am by Samuel Daniel as I am by Paul Violi as I am by Samuel Taylor Coleridge as I am by Frank O’Hara. When I say stunned and excited, I’m approaching what I want a poem to do because poems by these people have one thing (if not more) in common – they satisfy the following: I’m not particularly interested in a poem that tells me something I already know. But that goes for my relation to all art, I think. I also look for wit, intelligence, elegance and something that doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks. If the poet and the poem are looking over the shoulder for approbation, then forget it. The artist has only himself or herself to answer to. Now, somebody, ask me about communication … (use the phone).

Olav: [A poem should] make you feel happy, sad, melancholy, brave etc. It should be capable of making you feel anything the poet desires.

Ben: A poem should be more than the sum of its parts, and say much more than simply the words on the page. And a poem should move me – the direction of that movement isn’t important.

Olav: Don Paterson recently commented on amateurs cutting in on his action and he is right. A good poem is the work of an artisan, skilfully combining a number of talents I couldn't possibly understand. Meters, for instance – I don't even know if that's spelt right. Also naive Grandma Moses types who write poetry and think they're fucking Rimbauds. They can twat off and read lots and lots of old poetry. People need educating.

Ben: The best poetry is often stunningly simplistic and thus may appear to have been a spontaneous artistic creation, but this simplicity is often deceptive and conceals a great deal of craft and sweat.

Pete: John Hegley might seem a bit simplistic, but I would challenge anyone to do what he does and I reckon he is successful not because he is easy, but because he speaks to us all – well some of us – and he does it with wit, insight and warmth.

Are you an avid or regular reader of poetry?

Martin: Of course I read poetry all the time. I write poetry professionally (a word which in this connection always seems a little odd, but it’s the correct word) and so my expectation when I get up in the morning is that at some point in the day I will encounter poems. I read poems in new magazines, in new books, and poems in old magazines and old books. I review poetry books, and publish poets on my website. And I write poems, and even if I’m not actually writing, part of my head is always engaged with work in progress or work not yet started. It’s a constant flow of poems, and it’s not all good, far from it. Sometimes it drives me round the bend, but one good poem brings me back to why it all matters so much to me.

Pete: I wouldn't exactly say that I am an avid reader of poetry, but I do read it, irregularly. It's funny, but I never consider poetry. I spend just about every waking minute thinking about football, I devour novels and I love music, will talk about it all day and all night, but poetry, no thanks. Then again, I visit the Football Poets’ website, have even sent a poem in. I buy all John Hegley’s books and see him if he ever appears in these parts. I think the kids’ poems of Benjamin Zephaniah are genius. I became aware of Linton Kwesi Johnson as a poet rather than a musician. I love Bukowski; Simon Armitage gets to the heart of the matter as well as anyone. I will happily read Whitman and there are others, loads of them, people I come across by chance on the web, in the New Yorker or the Barcelona Review or dozens of other places. So I do consider poetry, in fact I love poetry, and, now and again, I write it.

Ben: My bookshelves contain many of the poets who form the staple diet of the English undergraduate – Larkin, Plath, Hughes, Lawrence, Auden and Eliot, as well as slim volumes by Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney, Simon Armitage and Wendy Cope. There’s a book of Elizabethan verse, alongside the ‘Penguin Book Of The Sonnet’. Without a doubt my favourite, though, is a collection entitled ‘Scanning The Century’, which introduced me to numerous previously unfamiliar voices and which illustrates that poetry, like art in general, is often a revealing reflection of the times in which it is created. And yet I’m ashamed to say I very rarely read poetry, or expose myself to it in any form. I rarely have the inclination. Fiction and non-fictional prose have a primary claim upon my bedside table. Why that is, I’m not sure. My predilection for prose over poetry isn’t something I can readily explain or excuse.

Olav: I tend to read it most in quiz questions. That's how I started on William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg and Hart Crane.

Is there interest in poetry amongst the general public? Do people still buy it?

Joe: I think people still buy poetry, but maybe I'm just aware of more books / anthologies.

Olav: According to sales, the general public does not buy and read it. Except in the rare instance of a ‘Birthday Letters’ where the soap opera aspects are too hard to resist. I think most Londoners have consumed poetry on the Tube in nice bitesize portions, but the concept of buying a book of poetry seems anathema to normal people. All that money for so few words?

Martin: I don’t know the general public as a whole, but the members of it I do know are a mix of people who have a variety of responses when one mentions poetry to them – as if one ever does!! Seriously, the notion of "the general public" really pisses me off. The fact is, poetry is pretty much hidden away, and most of it doesn’t want the general public anywhere near it. I don’t care much. I give poems to people I know who otherwise never go near poetry books – people know what I do, and sometimes a transaction occurs. They’re happy, I’m happy. I don’t worry these days about the audience for poetry. The general public doesn’t visit private art galleries in great numbers either, and it’s way easier to wander into an art gallery and get out of the rain than it is to find good contemporary poetry in Waterstones.

Olav: Poets were pop stars, now they're weird up-their-own-arse beardies in bondage to an ancient craft that nobody deigns to understand. Poetry is impenetrable, and when it gets on TV it’s some old crap from ‘Opportunity Knocks’ winner Pam Ayres or some twit in ‘Countdown’'s Dictionary Corner - Richard Digance, you're amusing, but not THAT amusing. We look to anthologies that are put together by Daisy bloody Goodwin. We don't have the old avenues that would for example bring films via Film 2005 to us. Television thinks poetry’s dead, and print thinks it’s esoteric, unless it's election time at Oxford University.

Pete: I know, from the few readings I attend, admittedly by the more populist poets that there is a big market and a big base of poetry lovers. All the events I go to sell out and sell out quickly, and there will always be long queues at the bookstall. I hardly visit a website that doesn't have a poetry page of its own and there are loads of really good poetry sites on the web. Someone must be visiting them.

Has poetry suffered as the novel has risen in popularity and status over the last three centuries? Might it be said to have suffered in any other way?

Pete: I don't know if poetry has suffered against the novel – I'm not sure how popular it has ever been – but I think quality literature has suffered in comparison with popular fiction, chick lit and stuff cobbled together by some celebrity or their ghost writer, so poetry probably comes a poor third. In any case, you are not comparing like with like; they are two different specialist art forms each with their own genres and sub genres.

Joe: I don't see the two in competition, unless you devote all your time to literature. There is still plenty of time for both.

Martin: I don’t think the novel is actually a runaway success these days, either, except for the few that get given the celebrity treatment and are made into a movie. And when that happens you don’t have to read the book. They don’t make movies out of poems, although ‘The Ancient Mariner’ is out there and still waiting.

Ben: Poems, on the whole, aren’t long enough for the kind of TV or film adaptation that sells novels these days. It’s just a natural consequence of the brevity of the genre. There are exceptions, though – from the earliest poem written in English vernacular, ‘Beowulf’, to Tony Harrison’s meditation on language and class in 1980s Britain, ‘V’.

Martin: Poetry "suffered" because it was taken over by academia at the beginning of the twentieth century or thereabouts. At least, that’s the received knowledge, and it’s pretty much true. So, in other words, it was taken away from ordinary people (whoever ordinary people are) and made into some rarified form accessible only to the privileged few who had the code to crack an otherwise obscure text.

Pete: It's [not poetry as a whole but] an idea of poetry that I don't consider: the classics, or modern, classical types. I suppose it is middle class poetry that I don't consider, written by the over-educated for the over-educated. I read reviews of poets and will think that I like the sound of it and will seek stuff out, then I find that it is completely incomprehensible and I retreat, bewildered and frightened. I don't say that poetry, or any art, should be easy, but I find life is too short to bother with stuff that requires constant flicking through a dictionary to understand it, or assumes a cerebral knowledge of the most archaic of references.

Ben: The issue, I guess, is whether poetry has genuinely become more difficult in response to its appropriation by academia, or whether this is simply a popular misconception, and people only think it’s become inaccessible to them. Perhaps people have been made to think this way – perhaps academics have exaggerated the difficulty of understanding poetry as a means of setting themselves up as part of an elite who "get it" (as opposed to the "masses" who don’t), and of justifying and legitimating what it is that they do. As an academic myself, though, I can’t subscribe to this view wholeheartedly, though there is some truth in it. Academia isn’t quite so cynically self-serving and self-preserving as that.

Martin: Personally, I think [the argument that poetry has suffered at the hands of academia] is only part of the story. You have to throw into the mix the growth of other mediums, like radio and TV, and now of course all the technologies we have…. I mean, sitting down and reading something is probably not as common an activity as it once was, and to sit down and read something slowly, like perhaps you have to do with a poem…. I don’t want to sound precious, but a good poem is something to spend time with, to read and re-read; the time and space and quiet that requires doesn’t actually describe our lives very accurately these days, I think.

The second half of the feature follows tomorrow.

Related links:

Martin's homepage.

Pete provides a whole host of poetry-related links.

On Box Social Skif reviews poetry readings by John Hegley and Simon Armitage.

Friday, February 11, 2005

"Lord, what a runner after good things, servant of love, embarker on schemes, recruit of sublime ideas, and good-time Charlie!"

When Saul Bellow named his 1953 novel 'The Adventures Of Augie March', it could have been regarded as rather uninspiring and unimaginative. As it is, though, "adventures" is exactly the right word.

Firmly part of the tradition of picaresque tradition, the novel follows the malleable Augie through countless romantic entanglements, mishaps and sticky situations as he flits and tumbles from job to job, continually falling under the influence of women and characters like his friends Frazer and Clem Tambow, Einhorn his first employer and his brother Simon who "persistently arise before me with life counsels and illumination throughout my entire earthly pilgrimage".

Published four years before Jack Kerouac's 'On The Road', 'The Adventures Of Augie March' conveys the same sense of restlessness and rootlessness - as Augie comments in a narrative aside, "since I have never had any place of rest, it should follow that I have trouble being still". Though this is not manifested in the same literal compulsion to travel that grips Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, Augie is, like them, someone who is always moving on to something new, as his friend Kayo Obermark points out by quoting from a French poem: "Les vrais voyageurs sont ceux-la seuls qui partent / Pour partir; coeurs legers, semblable aux ballons, / De leur fatalite jamais ils ne s’ecartent, / Et, sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!"

The sense that Augie's life is built upon continually shifting sands contributes to an unpredictability of plot that keeps the reader engrossed, the narrative incorporating everything from book stealing and union politics to dog-washing and a cowardly eagle called Caligula. Our hero might marry, and happily so, but this is no standard comedy and the story does not come to an end - there's still time for husband and wife to be parted, and for Augie to survive for days at sea in a lifeboat in the company of a crackpot pseudo-scientist called Basteshaw after their naval vessel is torpedoed.

Bellow's writing is extraordinarily thick with detail and populated by a colourful array of grotesques and incidents which seem far too richly drawn to be passed over with such speed and then left behind.

Life is a series of trials for Augie - "If I could have come back and started to lead a happy, peaceful life I think very few people would have the right to complain that I wasn’t ready yet or hadn’t paid the admission price that’s set by whoever sets prices", he observes towards the end of the book - but the novel itself is by contrast a pleasure.
Blogwatch: a bumper edition

SO much good stuff of late, much of it music-related...

The most written-about band in the blogosphere this week? "Quebecois sextet" The Dears. As Mike has pointed out, their Nottingham gig is the subject of posts on Exultations & Difficulties, Swiss Toni's Place and The Bargain Basement, whilst I'm expecting a review of Wednesday's gig in Birmingham to appear on Parallax View sometime soon. Mind you, they're not flavour of the month with everyone - Jon caught up with the tour in Manchester but only to see support act Ambulance Ltd - he'd left by the time The Dears appeared.

The other band getting people stirred up at the moment are Bloc Party - on Pent Up Digitalfury there's a salivating preview of their debut album Silent Alarm, out on Monday, and Jonathan, like me, is a recent convert.


On No Matter What You Heard Kevin reviews two new albums currently in heavy rotation on the SWSL stereo, Low's The Great Destroyer and ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead's Worlds Apart;

LMT of Between The City And The Deep Blue Sea looks back at Sunday's Asian Tsunami Benefit Gig at the Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms, where he enjoyed another appearance on guitar with new band Autons;

Welcome to Bedsit Bomber, an electronic musician from Brighton and acquaintance of Jonathan;

David, like Martin, mourns the closure of Nottingham indie venue The Maze;

On No Rock & Roll Fun Simon presents a comprehensive review of the Brit Awards and has great fun at Fred Durst's expense - "He's been quiet on his Xanga site for a while now - we'd assumed that maybe he'd been getting more tattoos or something, or perhaps the Feds had arrested him to ask him why he's a bloke nearing forty pretending to be a teenager online; which does look kind of bad";

Sashinka reveals she once had that young raggamuffin Pete Doherty in her employ once upon a time;

Tom runs through the lessons learnt from DJing at an office party - "Even rockists like "Love Machine" (when they've drunk their way through a five-figure bar tab)".

And now stepping away from the subject of music...

Sarah encounters homophobia at every turn in Edinburgh;

Coincidence sees Mish back in the house her gran lived in eight years ago just weeks after she passed away;

Paul's been to see 'The Play What I Wrote', based on Morecambe and Wise;

Jaymaster indulges in some serious earwigging;

Mike gushes about the delights of the TV schedules over recent weeks and encourages us all to adopt a new acronym, CBATG;

Diamond Geezer invites you to be present at Charles and Camilla's nuptials;

Del, a hoarder, is finding it hard to have to say goodbye to his magazine collection;

Inspector Sands reports on the scrum which ensued at the 3am opening of a new IKEA store - "There should be something witty and pithy in this, but all I can do is shake my head and mutter 'fucking idiots'. These are the sorts of people who probably expect the staff to wipe their arse for them after they've had a dump";

and lastly but not leastly, Jonny B has issues with feminism - "Do not get me wrong, as I was very in favour of the emergence of 'feminism' in the seventies, even though I was only about five at the time. I was a bit young to understand Ms Germaine Greer and all that, but I was certainly impressed by the day-to-day achievements of people like Ms. Bonnie Tyler, who proved that ladies could do just as well in previously male-dominated professions such as soft rock".

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

People in glass houses

I was intrigued by this post on Hobo Tread in which Skif says he was pleased to see that Daily Mail columnist Peter Hitchens stuck the boot into Robert Kilroy-Silk, labelling him "ludicrous".

Slight problem with your argument there, Pete, old chap - it's your paper and its thinly veiled racist agenda that gives Kilroy-Silk the scant credibility he has.

What's more, you're a fine one to be calling someone else "ludicrous", you with your Middle Englander siege mentality, you who takes every opportunity to spout your the-end-of-the-world-is-nigh, we're-all-going-to-be-eaten-alive-by-gay-asylum-seeking-single-mums schtick.

Or perhaps my viewpoint is coloured by the run-in my good friend He Who Cannot Be Named had with a bunch of foaming-at-the-mouth bigots from the messageboard of Hitchens's website...
Daddy cool

I paid one of my rare visits to Bob Mould's Boblog today, which reminded me that not only should I go there more often but also that he might be of the Old School but he's still digging the hip young cats.

Full of praise for Swedes The Radio Dept and Low's new LP The Great Destroyer, he also reveals he's been working on a remix of Interpol's 'Length Of Love' with the band's drummer Sam Fogarino. The result could be worth looking out for.
Feel good hits of the 8th February

1. 'So Here We Are' - Bloc Party
2. 'When I Go Deaf' - Low
3. 'Ziggy Stardust' - David Bowie
4. 'The Lyre Of Orpheus' - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
5. 'I Fought The Angels' - The Delgados
6. 'Bullets' - Editors
7. 'Galvanise' - Chemical Brothers
8. 'The Rest Will Follow' - ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead
9. 'Chameleon' - Herbie Hancock
10. 'I Like Birds' - Eels

Having missed out on last year's singles, the 'So Here We Are' / 'Positive Tension' double A-side is my first exposure to Bloc Party on record - and how good it is too, thoroughly deserving of Kenny's Parallax View Single Of The Week award.

Monday, February 07, 2005

It's not a shame about 'Ray'

Not that Oscars mean anything at all except for an acknowledgement of the amount of money lavished upon a film, but there will be two weighty biopics battling it out at this year’s ceremony, Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Aviator’ and Taylor Hackford's ‘Ray’.

The life of Ray Charles has all the typically requisite raw materials for a film of this sort – a pioneer in his field, brilliantly if controversially combining gospel and r ‘n’ b styles, Charles was beset by a whole host of personal problems including womanising, a smack habit and fighting to overturn prejudices relating to his blindness and skin colour.

This public / private tension is the real point of interest, a fact underlined by the way that, after a powerful depiction of Charles’s horrific experiences of going cold turkey in rehab, the film comes to a swift conclusion, sweeping almost dismissively over the last few decades of the cleaned-up star’s life. (By this point, though, this may also be cause for a sigh of relief, as, at two and a half hours, it starts to feel rather long.)

Inevitably in a film which focuses on a particularly dynamic individual, other characters are little more than marionettes who move around in Charles’s orbit, and the understandable tendency for reverence and respect to creep in means that the undoubted damage he inflicted unknowingly and knowingly upon his family and those whose lives he touched is underplayed.

It is less clear, however, why the scene dealing with Charles being banned from the state of Georgia for refusing to play a segregated venue occupies so little space relatively in the overall narrative, when the significance of this refusal in the struggle for racial equality is so trumpeted at the end.

These are, however, minor gripes about a movie in which the leading actor, Jamie Foxx, is excellent and the music scenes convey vitality, freshness and exuberance. A feast for any fan of Charles’s music, but also an engaging and enjoyable film for those relatively unacquainted with it.
Quotes of the day

"Where's a shark when you need one?"

David Quantick on Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon falling off a boat in the video for 'Rio'.

"He makes a really convincing monkey."

Andrew Collins on Felix from Basement Jaxx and his transformation for the 'Where's Your Head At?' video.

Yes, I spent the entirety of yesterday evening watching C4's '100 Greatest Pop Videos As Voted For By You The Public'.

Cynical complaints about it being cheap TV aside, the programme did offer fascinating if fleeting insights into the stories behind the videos for such songs as 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', 'Ashes To Ashes', 'No Surprises', 'Nothing Compares 2 U', 'Bohemian Rhapsody', 'Common People' and Johnny Cash's version of 'Hurt'.

At a time when most videos seem to lazily feature either semi-naked rump-shaking ladeeez or middle class white boys playing Serious Music, it's good to be reminded that the pop video is a space which allows a great scope for creativity and imagination, and can actually be an art form in its own right.

It also struck me how many #1s were represented in the countdown - it's perhaps a measure of how inseparable certain songs become from their visual companionpiece that I counted no fewer than 12 of the songs with videos in C4's 100 amongst my own Top 100 #1s.

There were cons, mind: the undeserved inclusion of 'True Faith', 'Get Ur Freak On' and 'Fit But You Know It'; the omission of The Avalanches' 'Frontier Psychiatrist', Beck's 'Deadweight' and Frankie Goes To Hollywood's 'Relax' (the latter much more convincingly filthy than Xtina's 'Dirrty'); and having to listen to Dave Stewart of Eurythmics earnestly claiming that the cow which appears in the video for 'Sweet Dreams' was a homage to surrealism...

One last thing: Jimmy Carr might be quite amusing, but he really is a whore, isn't he? Well, Channel 4's bitch, at least. Anyone see any of 'The Friday Night Project'? Wincingly bad stuff.

At last! After pressure from myself and Skif, our good friend Leon has capitulated and entered the blogging fray with Between The City And The Deep Blue Sea. Hurrah!

Skif, meanwhile, has been a very busy chap, not only posting regularly and at length about his passions - everything from non-league football to Woody Guthrie - on his regular blog Hobo Tread, but also setting up Box Social, an offshoot of his music fanzine Vanity Project designed to carry reviews of comedy and occasionally the other arts. (You'll find it in the Comedy section of the SWSL sidebar.) There are already pieces on Daniel Kitson, Phil Nichol and poet Simon Armitage up online.


After more than a month's worth of superb posts, Mike's heroic countdown of his favourite tracks of 2004 comes to a conclusion;

and Kenny belatedly gets with the programme and gives us his own take on the Editors gig and the blogmeet (there, I said it...) of the next day;

Paul expresses his horror that Robert Kilroy-Silk could become his new MP;

and Phill shamelessly plagiarises SWSL but is immediately forgiven for choosing legendary local fast food establishment Mr Egg as the first in his Why Birmingham Is Great series.
Fact times importance equals news

The fact is that 'Nathan Barley' begins on C4 on Friday night at 10pm.

The importance is that it's produced by Chris Morris, stars Julian Barrett of 'The Mighty Boosh' and is the TV adaptation of Charlie Brooker's 'Cunt' from TV Go Home.

Thus it is news.

To be honest, the noises being made about it aren't too encouraging. This chap's criticism could be dismissed as jealousy, given that his own project along similar lines failed to take off, but the folk at Morris fan site Cookd And Bombd are none too impressed either, lambasting it as lacking imagination and subtlety and continuing the downturn in quality of Morris's output: "If you find the idea of a perverted rock/scissors/paper game called cock/muff/bumhole hilarious you may find something in this show to like, if not love. On the other hand, if you're not 12 and think Bo Selecta is childish bollocks you'll almost certainly be woefully disappointed."

As someone who didn't think 'Jam' represented a "downturn", I'll make up my own mind, thank you very much. In the meantime, here's a profile of the man himself from the Observer.

(Thanks to Pete for the link.)

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The delivery man


Stewart Lee is a talented bastard.

Co-writer of genius 90s series 'Fist Of Fun' and 'This Morning With Richard, Not Judy' with Richard Herring.

Contributor to Chris Morris's infamous 'On The Hour' and, as such, co-creator of Alan Partridge.

Co-writer of 'Jerry Springer - The Opera' with Richard Thomas.

Collaborator with Armando Ianucci, Kevin Eldon and Simon Munnery, amongst others.

Novelist - well, he's written one, at least.

Astute music critic for the Sunday Times.

Occasional DJ.

And yet here he is, perched on a tiny stage in the cramped upstairs room of The Station pub in Sutton Coldfield. Something somewhere has gone wrong, hasn't it? How did he end up here?

The answer is simple: because he wanted to. He's no egotistical careerist. He doesn't see the stand-up circuit simply as the first step towards national prominence. Both Graham Norton and Ben Elton are used as punchbags in his set, the latter distinguished from Osama Bin Laden because "At least Osama Bin Laden's lived by a consistent set of moral principles".

Ricky Gervais may have called him "cliche-free", but Lee doesn't dispense entirely with the unwritten rules of stand-up comedy. The first of these, for instance, states that you need a distinctive hairstyle or item of clothing that unmistakeably marks you out as a "funnyman". Tonight he's plumped for the latter, a bright orange Midwest-style shirt that makes him look like a gay cowboy.

He's got us in the palm of his hand already, deviating from a joke to simply commentate on the level of audience response which itself perpetuates the ripples of laughter - and yet he's only introducing his support act, the highly rated Josie Long, who in a short set flits from the surreal to the twisted bravely delivering a succession of clever non-punchlines.

That timing is the key to great comedy is something of a truism, but it's most glaringly obvious with Stewart Lee.

One of the badges he's selling tonight is emblazoned with the comments of a critic from the Independent: "surly, arrogant, laboured". The fact that being described in such terms is a matter of pride for Lee says a lot in itself, but "laboured" is not the right word for what he does.

It's a very careful and deliberate momentum, new facets of a joke gradually revealed with each clause or part-sentence, new ideas slowly implanted in the audience's minds, almost to the point that the joke itself doesn't matter and the art is all in the delivery. Unlike many comics he's not afraid of silence, of significant gaps between the laughter - his pauses are always pregnant.

Of course, that's not to say his material isn't hilarious.

With his trademark dryness, cleverness and sarcasm, Lee tackles everything from September 11th (or November 9th, as he insists on referring to it) to the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, from his Scottish roots to Ron Atkinson's racist outburst.

He argues that if Al-Qaeda wanted to cause some real damage and confusion in America they should have carpet-bombed the country with "geography exam papers, bad dentistry and the concept of shame".

At one point he implies that Gary Lineker may have a sexual predilection for watching obese young boys die. At this suggestion, some of our number are a bit taken aback.

There's only the briefest of allusions to the brouhaha surrounding Channel 4's screening of 'Jerry Springer - The Opera': "I know you're thinking, 'Oh, he's mentioned Jesus, what's he going to say now?' Believe me, it's really not worth it..."

This hardly does the show justice, but in the interest of not COMPLETELY spoiling the fun for those like Skif who are awaiting his arrival in their neck of the woods, I'll leave it there.

Afterwards, my mind and vision wine-fogged, I stumble over to the back of the room. He is stood chuffing nonchalently on a cigarette, telling the compere he felt the last fifteen minutes tailed off a bit. I gormlessly thrust under his nose my newly-purchased copy of his novel, 'The Perfect Fool', and, after a brief search for a biro, he scrawls "Thanks for coming" on the title page, and signs it.

No, thank YOU for coming.

You talented bastard.
Quote of the day

"I've talked to a lot of people that are afraid to learn about theory because they're afraid it's going to hinder their composition. Well, I think it's an idiotic thing to say - it can only enhance it. Anybody who's listened to Mozart knows his music is full of passion and feeling, and it was not hindered by the fact that he knew about harmony. People are just afraid, and it's a stupid thing - it's an old tradition that came out of punk rock and the anti-intellectualism of rock 'n' roll itself. I hope that we get over it, because there is so much to learn about music. Emotion and feeling are essential parts of it, but understanding the depth of composition goes far beyond just playing three chords".

...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead's Conrad Keely is full of surprises, isn't he?

He was speaking in an interview with The Fly, but unfortunately it's one of those self-indulgent pieces stuffed full of whining complaints from the author that the band were surly and uncommunicative. BORING BORING BORING.

For what it's worth, myself and He Who Cannot Be Named found them a bit awkward when we interviewed them for the Nottingham Trent newspaper Platform back in 2000, but Keely and Jason Reece had plenty to say for themselves then. They certainly caused us less consternation than Six By Seven, whose frontman Chris Olley took a dislike to my companion's line of questioning, and Arab Strap duo Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton, who were pished beyond belief and wildly unpredictable.

My copy of the new ...Trail Of Dead LP Worlds Apart should be dropping through my letterbox any day now, along with Low's The Great Destroyer and last year's Six By Seven album - can't wait.