Thursday, May 12, 2016

the last book I read

The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting by Milan Kundera.

Before we go any further here, one should pause to ask: what exactly is a novel? Can it be a made-up story layered on top of and intertwined with actual historical events? Why certainly. Can it have spaceships and entire planets made out of a sort of sentient pink custard? Sure, why not. The entire story told by a dead person? Knock yourself out. A sort of semi-fictionalised travelogue featuring lots of grainy black-and-white photographs of random stuff? Yeah, OK, if you like.

So here is a novel, but it's not necessarily the sort of novel where you can start a summary by saying: there's this guy, Bernard, and he only has fourteen hours to save the Earth! There's only one problem: HE HASN'T GOT A HEAD.
Sometimes you have to start by saying a bit about the structure of the thing. So in this case that means saying: this is a novel made up of seven separate bits, a couple of which overlap and feature common characters, and most of which feature people who are from Kundera's native Czechoslovakia, back when that was a thing. There are some loose themes linking the bits, clues to which are given in the novel's title, but broadly speaking they all revolve around life in Czechoslovakia before and after the Prague Spring and how that made things very difficult for people and forced some of them (Kundera for one) into a life in exile. A potted summary of the seven parts would go something like this
  • I: Lost Letters - Mirek travels to the home of his former lover Zdena to retrieve some love letters he sent her more than 20 years previously. He is tailed everywhere in Kafka-esque fashion by the secret police, who eventually arrest him. 
  • II: Mother - Karel's mother comes to visit, which is a bit awkward as he's got plans for a threesome featuring him, his wife Marketa and their friend Eva. After a bit of Robin-Askwith-in-Confessions-Of-A-Communist-Dissident stuff featuring near-interruptions from Mum she eventually retires to bed, thus allowing some serious three-way boning to occur, leavened with a bit of existential angst lest anyone start enjoying themselves too much.
  • III: The Angels - some fragmented stuff involving two young women trying to make sense of Eugène Ionesco's play Rhinoceros, and also the author himself (or a fictionalised version thereof) in a previous incarnation as a writer of horoscopes.
  • IV: Lost Letters - Tamina, a Czech exile, wants to retrieve some old letters to her (now dead) husband that she left in Prague, and attempts to persuade a couple of her new friends (by sleeping with him in the case of the male friend) to travel to Prague to get them for her.
  • V: Litost - Krystina, a married woman in her thirties, is in the early stages of an affair with a younger student. Having agreed to come and stay with him (and presumably consummate their relationship at some point during the night), plans are derailed when the student is dragged along to a meeting of poets which runs on well into the night. For this and other reasons Krystina refuses to sleep with him when he eventually returns.
  • VI: The Angels - Tamina is mesmerised by a young man who appears one day in the cafe in which she works; she goes on a journey with him which concludes with a boat trip to a mysterious island populated entirely by children. Eventually she tries to escape and, finding herself unable to get back to land by boat, swims for it and drowns.
  • VII: The Border - Jan's main concerns are his relationship with his girlfriend Edwige, the occasional liaison with some other random woman, the sickness and imminent death of his friend Passer, and, y'know, the usual existential angst. After an unsatisfactory experience at an orgy run by his friend Barbara, the novel ends with Jan and Edwige wandering along a nudist beach somewhere.
So, as you'll gather from that, some of it is a very literal depiction of the problems caused by the oppressive Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, while some of it is much more allusive. You'll get no insight from me, for instance, on what the episode with Tamina and the children in part VI was meant to convey, other than that it features some slightly queasy sexual episodes that reminded me of similar episodes in Children Of Darkness And Light. And some of the philosophising reminded me of some similar passages in The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, the previous Kundera in this list.

My personal feeling is that TULOB is better, despite TBOLAF being hailed as a work of genius by some, John Updike among them - the more linear narrative makes it easier to grasp what's going on and care about the outcome a bit more. Some of the sexy sexy stuff here is a bit odd, too - there's quite a bit of sex, but much of it is fairly mechanical and joyless, and Kundera has, or appears to have, what you might call a slightly 1970s attitude to topics like male infidelity and rape. But perhaps this is meant to reflect the deadening of emotion associated with constant surveillance and the constant possibility of being dragged off to a show-trial somewhere and never seen again: who knows.

The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting also features a cover image that might be a bit on the vicar-frightening side; previous examples have included G. and The Anatomist

Thursday, May 05, 2016

that's survey to do it

Nice to see that in addition to the Daily Mail the list of people monitoring this blog for ideas includes BBC Four, who evidently decided to tailor a programme to my exact specifications in a (successful, as it happens) bid to lure me in to watching it.

That programme was A Very British Map: The Ordnance Survey Story, which, as the name suggests, was largely about maps, and as an added bonus contained a short section about triangulation points, and mentioned in passing that some people bag them as a hobby.

A couple of mild criticisms: firstly for perpetuating the idea that paper maps are some sort of quaint anachronism that will eventually be consigned to the dustbin of history - while it's no doubt true that paper map sales have fallen, people will still want and need them for all sorts of good, practical reasons even while they're drooling over their wrist-mounted GPS podules at the same time.

Also, rather bizarrely, the woman doing the narration insisted on pronouncing the name of the organisation as "Ordinance Survey" throughout. Now the respective definitions of "ordnance" and "ordinance" do swim about a bit in my head, if I'm honest, but I do remember pretty reliably that the map guys make use of the word without the "i" in it.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

incidental music spot of the day

Your very own Won't Get Fooled Again in the early stages of Channel 5's The Best of Bad TV: The 70s. You can pretty much imagine what featured here, I expect: various dwarves in rubber suits running around bumping into the scenery in old science fiction series, various crappy game shows with hilariously awful prizes, and some sphincter-tightening sexism and racism from comedy classics like The Comedians and The Wheeltappers And Shunters Social Club.

There was also a spot for the public information film Dark Water: pretty creepy, but not a patch on The Finishing Line. A quick scan of this compilation suggests it's not in the list (it was not a Public Information Film in the strict sense) but there is nonetheless some excellent nightmare fuel in there. Here's The Finishing Line, if for some reason you don't fancy sleeping tonight.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

and on the third day he blogged again

A couple of religion-related stories in the news around Easter (so a few weeks ago now, but y'know, sue me, I've been busy), occupying spots somewhere near the tragic and comic ends of the spectrum, respectively.

Firstly, David Cameron's at it again with his Easter message: farting all sorts of meaningless soundbites out of his potato-ey face-hole. The co-opting of things that are clearly universal human things, or at least things that most societies that have progressed beyond making crudely-fashioned drinking vessels out of each other's skulls and crudely-fashioned flutes out of each other's femurs have adopted as the best ways to behave, as somehow quintessentially Christian values, is a pretty common one, even while being a) patently ridiculous and b) implicitly making the claim that any other religions that claim them as foundational values are WRONG and have STOLEN THEM from Christianity.

Some of the things that Cameron is claiming LITERALLY DID NOT EXIST until some bunch of ill-educated goat-herds threw the Bible together some time during the first couple of centuries AD are such hilariously anodyne concepts as:
Values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion and pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities.
Needless to say things like "hard work" are things that pre-Christian societies like the ancient Egyptians and Greeks knew nothing of, while they were building the pyramids and the Parthenon and that. Interestingly the paragraph above appears to be an almost word-for-word retread of part of a speech he gave in Oxford back in late 2011. I guess once you've got your shtick down there's no point trying to re-work it. Zoe Williams in the Guardian picks all the bullshit apart far better than I've done here.

The other obvious riposte, made more pithily by Stephen Fry here, is that what Christianity considers its foundational values have changed over time - not much "compassion" on show during the crusades, for instance. If you want a modern example, look at attitudes to things like women's rights and homosexuality - things the various churches would have been implacably opposed to back in the day, and would have found wider society broadly in agreement, but since societal attitudes have moved on and become generally more groovy and inclusive those same churches are increasingly desperately hanging onto its coat-tails to try to retain some relevance.

Cameron knows what he's doing, of course: no public statement of this sort will be issued without there being some point to it in terms of keeping the core Conservative voting bloc onside. Cameron's Machiavellian strategist Lynton Crosby will no doubt have run the figures and calculated that there's more value in issuing some vaguely comforting platitudes to the ageing spinsters and apoplectic retired colonels who vote Tory habitually than in saying anything vaguely meaningful to people who care about statements actually making sense, since the stuff-making-sense demographic won't be voting Tory in large numbers anyway.

Secondly, there's this rather bizarre story about the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby wanting to standardise the date of Easter. Now I actually quite like the rather haphazard appearance of Easter in the calendar, for a number of reasons, one of which is: since I'm exceptionally averse to advance planning I rarely know when Easter is more than a couple of weeks in advance, so the four-day weekend is always a pleasant surprise. But, says the Archbish, people find it confusing, so we should try and have it on the same date every year. As always it's interesting to try and put yourself in the head of someone who, while seemingly able to do normal things like drive a car, operate a bank account and make it to the toilet in time, also believes some hair-raisingly irrational shit, and try to work out what makes them tick.

The obvious criticism of Easter as it stands is: look, this is meant to be the most significant thing in the Christian calendar, and the whole significance of it rests on its being the commemoration of some actual events that actually happened, as ridiculous as they might sound. So surely that would necessitate the festival being on the same day every year? Christmas is on the same day every year, after all. And the current arrangement with the whole business of it being linked to the cycle of the moon is a bit of a DEAD GIVEAWAY of its pagan beginning-of-spring nature-worshipping origins (although it should be said that the whole thing about the conveniently-named pagan goddess Ēostre is fairly thinly-evidenced).

Amusingly, though, the Telegraph article demonstrates that either the Telegraph's reporter or the church authorities themselves haven't grasped the actual nature of the problem, since there's talk of keeping Easter to a Sunday:

Now you can see the point of this, since there's a well-established tradition of having the Good Friday and Easter Monday bank holidays bookending the Easter weekend, and if Easter suddenly starts happening on a Wednesday then there's the whole question of what happens to them. As much as I don't care about imaginary Jewish zombies, I don't want to lose my four-day weekend. And those Lindt bunnies are pretty awesome as well.

The trouble is, of course, if you keep it to a Sunday you aren't fixing the date of Easter at all, you're just introducing a slightly simplified arbitrary rule for calculating the Sunday on which it occurs: the first Sunday in April, say, rather than the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox as it currently is. To which the obvious riposte is: why would you bother? And I suppose the obvious answer is: because it keeps the church in the news, and provides at least the illusion of the people in charge being open to change, responding to criticism, moving with the times and all that horseshit.

My advice to the Christian churches is this: either leave things as they are, thereby implicitly acknowledging that your absurd Bronze Age voodoo belief system survives mainly by virtue of how deeply culturally embedded it is, and that actually the last thing you want to do is to make people think too much about what any of it means, or fold up your tents, sneak away into the night, and stop bothering everyone. Or, I suppose, thirdly, produce some proper evidence for the resurrection (and, moreover, that the guy who was resurrected was the Son of God, and, even moreover, that there's this guy called God who totally exists) that ties it to some specific date which we can all then agree hereafter to call Easter. Job done.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

meet the new song, same as the old song

As a further tribute to Prince, here's a two-item music list for you: songs which start, do the basic tune for a bit, then have a sort of break-down section where things go a bit wibbly-wobbly for a while about two-thirds of the way through, before cranking back up to the original riff/chorus/whatever for a brief finale, then almost immediately signing off.
  • Won't Get Fooled Again by The Who. A song only a year younger than me and still one of the top two or three most viscerally thrilling rock songs ever recorded, this smashes out one last colossal powerchord before a section featuring just the pulsing synth line that runs through the whole song, then gradually winds up Keith Moon to a frenzied drum tattoo that precedes Roger Daltrey's throat-stripping YEEEEAAAHHHH (as featured regularly on CSI:Miami), the brief bit about "meet the new boss, same as the old boss", a few more powerchords, and then thank you and goodnight.
  • I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man by Prince. This has a longer break-down section featuring some nice jazzy guitar-playing which eventually winds back  up to a "one, two, three, four" (well, on repeat listening it's actually "one, two, one, WOOOO") and a quick blast through the song's main riff, and then before you know it it's gone, with just a wisp of guitar feedback hanging on the air.
Both songs were also issued as singles with the break-down section edited out (plus quite a bit more stuff in the case of Won't Get Fooled Again) to bring them both down to about 3½ minutes. In both cases it's the longer version you want.

Here's the raw data, complete with WAV file profiles for both songs: the break-down section in Won't Get Fooled Again runs from about 6:35 to about 7:45, while the longer one in I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man runs from about 3:45 to about 6:00.

Friday, April 29, 2016

funk off and die

As I said at the time of the deaths of David Bowie and Glenn Frey earlier in 2016 (a year which statistically is exceptionally celebrity-death-heavy so far, so it's OK for you to say that), which celebrity's death you feel personally affected by will reflect your past life, upbringing and what sort of cultural stuff you were exposed to or chose to expose yourself to.

So, anyway, what I'm building up to is that Prince's death this week is a much more significant event to me than either of the other two, largely because Prince formed a part of my formative music listening habits in a way that Bowie and the Eagles didn't.

I don't know what's a typical age to start buying records (this of course was back in the days when vinyl "records" were the primary medium of music delivery), but I suspect 13 is probably a bit later than most. I think I may technically have "bought" this John Denver album in Korea back when I was about six, in that I was invited to make the final decision and it was paid for with money that was nominally "mine", but I deem my first "proper" single purchase to be Every Breath You Take by The Police in 1983, swiftly followed by I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues by Elton John and Gimme All Your Lovin' by ZZ Top. All good songs, and choices which I stand by 30-odd years later, but all very white, very male - very gay in Elton's case, as it happens, but he wasn't quite as up-front about it at the time.

So when Prince really became a big thing in the UK around the time of When Doves Cry there was a fair bit of paradigm-smashing going on - black guy, not really conforming to traditional notions of masculinity but still clearly beating off the ladies with a shitty stick in his offstage life, making music with a funky dance-y edge while still being a brilliant rock guitarist, all that sort of thing.

It's interesting to consider how one's musical tastes evolve - everyone likes to think that they just like what they like, as the end result of a completely objective process of listening to stuff and working out what's good and what isn't, but of course this is nonsense, and every single choice you make is influenced to some extent by prior experiences, who you knew, what they liked, where you first heard things and stuff like that. In the case of Prince, my recollection is that my friend Tom had a copy of the 7" single of Let's Go Crazy, and its organ-backed spoken intro, lyrics suggesting transgressive sexy sexy times and squealy rock guitar finale all seemed pungently exotic and exciting to me at the time. But I should apply a bit of self-awareness and add that Tom was a lot cooler than me, so maybe there was an inclination to give this more of a favourable first listen just because it was him who'd introduced me to it? Who knows. In my defence he was also into The Cult in a big way and (She Sells Sanctuary, which is a cracking tune, aside) I always thought they were a bit shit. I suppose the key thing to say is that this marked a move away from being musically influenced by my parents' record collection to being musically influenced by my contemporaries, sometimes moving into the realms of stuff my parents wouldn't necessarily "get".

So I went and bought the Purple Rain album and played it to death for a year or so, with further transgressive thrills provided by Darling Nikki with its references to female masturbation, something my 14/15-year-old self may very possibly not have even been previously aware was a thing. I had copies of the next two albums, Around The World In A Day and Parade, through the magic of home taping (which turned out not to be killing music after all) before buying the double album Sign O'The Times in 1987. We parted company a bit after that, and I don't think I've purchased a non-compilation Prince album since, but there was, in hindsight, lots of good stuff after that, just spread a bit more thinly. Sign O'The Times is the one if you must have only one; if you also had Purple Rain and a comprehensive singles compilation (this one, for instance, which is the one I have, although it only includes stuff up to 1993) that would be a pretty good start.

So here's my favourite ten Prince songs, in no particular order, and written down largely off the cuff, so no guarantee of completeness or definitiveness, nor indeed originality, since a lot of these are the big hits. If you want to know what other people, doubtless more knowledgeable about the unexplored nooks and crannies of his vast back catalogue, think, plenty of other opinions are available.
  • I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man - I think this may be my favourite Prince song of all, just because it's such a joyous summery tune, and in its 6½-minute album version gives Prince the chance for a bit of a rock guitar workout, something he usually kept on a tight rein on the albums. Its lyrical theme of man rejecting a woman's offer of a one-night stand because he knows she won't feel good about it afterwards typifies Prince's generally groovy and empowering attitudes to women and female sexuality, not something you could say about many mid-1980s male artists.
  • Little Red Corvette - cars as metaphor for sex, horse-riding as metaphor for sex. It's about sex, basically.
  • Sign O'The Times - atypical in that it's got a socio-political edge to it, but typical in that it typifies Prince's gift for minimal backing arrangements (Kiss being the classic example of this). Also one of the small group of songs to lyrically reference the Challenger shuttle disaster.
  • Dirty Mind - well this is just pure filth, with the pulsing synth groove humping your leg like a randy Yorkshire terrier.
  • Alphabet St. - a bit of jangly funk guitar, a bit more lyrical depiction of non-vanilla sexy sexy times ("I would like").
  • Pope - a track from the 1993 Hits compilation, this previously unreleased song is a pretty silly throwaway tune that was obviously just Prince mucking about in the studio, but is still sharp, funny and ferociously funky.
  • Cream - well, again, it's just (just!) about sex, but it's an irresistible sinuous groove that owes more than a little to Get It On by T.Rex.
  • Sexy MF - extreme funkiness, liberal use of the word "motherfucker" and some bowel-loosening parpy horn stabs.
  • Purple Rain - yeah, I know, but think of it as a sort of mid-1980s Hey Jude; similar tempo, lengthy coda and all. And it's another one from the more rock-guitar-oriented end of his range, which fits my personal prejudices.
  • Raspberry Beret - another glorious summer tune; boy meets funky scantily-clad hipster girl in the corner shop and they head off to a deserted barn on his motorbike to go at it like knives. The Hindu Love Gods' brutish meat-and-potatoes cover version is worth a listen too.
Of course this neglects all the great songs that he wrote for or had covered by other people as well, from I Feel For You to Manic Monday to Nothing Compares 2 U.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

the last book I read

Ragtime by EL Doctorow.

It's New York City (and its environs) in the first decade-and-a-half of the 20th century - so if there were ever a time and place where it could be said that Great Things Are Afoot, this would be it. The invention of the motor car, the skyscraper, the movies, all fuelled by a relentless influx of immigrants from all over the world; mainly Europe but plenty of more exotic places as well.

And the people: Henry Ford, JP Morgan, Harry Houdini, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Emma Goldman - all in or around New York at this time doing their various things for the advancement of humanity.

Amid all this momentous stuff there are some actual people living their lives as well. For the purposes of the novel these are: a WASP family living in New Rochelle, just outside the city, an Eastern European immigrant and his young daughter, and a black musician and his fiancée. The WASP family are known, slightly impersonally, as Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brother and "the boy". Father goes off on expeditions, including Peary's 1909 North Pole expedition, while Mother's Younger Brother moons around fairly aimlessly in that way young men do until he becomes obsessed with socialite Evelyn Nesbit and the media circus surrounding her and her husband Harry Thaw. Having met Evelyn through the radical Emma Goldman and conducted a brief affair with her, Mother's Younger Brother finds himself open to radical ideas.

As it happens Coalhouse Walker has a radical idea for him - having been victimised by some of the New York fire department and had his car (a Ford Model T) confiscated, Coalhouse embarks on a campaign of terror against the city with an expanding band of sidekicks to get compensation. Coalhouse also has a fiancée, Sarah, and a child, who ends up living with Mother and Father after Sarah dies. Coalhouse ropes Mother's Younger Brother (who has an aptitude for explosives) into his cause, but things inevitably end in tears, and, in Coalhouse's case, a bullet-ridden death at the hands of the New York police. Meanwhile some of the carefree living will have to stop, as World War I is on the verge of breaking out.

I suppose you'd classify Ragtime at least partly as "historical fiction" in that it takes a real, well-documented period of time and some real, well-documented historical figures and weaves a fictional narrative around them. It mucks around with the rules slightly by having some of the "real" people do things they probably didn't actually do, like the rather fanciful whimsical interlude of Freud and Jung riding on the Tunnel of Love at Coney Island. As always there are some shades of grey here - I'm not sure you'd class, for instance, Turbulence as "historical fiction" despite its featuring some real-life events.

The trick with this sort of thing is to ensure that the transitions between real-life stuff which is documented in the history books and the stuff you've made up just to drive the story along aren't too lumpy and jarring. The only place where this doesn't seem seamless is in the character of Coalhouse Walker, his transition into urban terrorist, and his co-opting of Mother's Younger Brother into his band of outlaws. Interestingly this bit of the novel was apparently adapted (or stolen, depending how happy you are with the amount of attribution Doctorow gave for doing it) from an earlier (19th century) novel called Michael Kohlhaas by German author Heinrich von Kleist, itself apparently based on the real-life (16th century) story of Hans Kohlhase and his doomed attempt to get some redress for the mistreatment of his horses.

The distancing device whereby few of the (fictional) central characters have names is a slightly odd one - it doesn't divorce you from caring about individuals in the same way as Last And First Men does, but it does keep you at arm's length in terms of engaging with what happens to them. It also just reinforces the point that the book's main concern is the Great Sweep Of History, rather than the little people who populate it, and if some of the individuals get a bit lost, well, so be it. There might therefore be a sense in which you find it difficult to engage with any of the major characters - apart from the bit where Mother's Younger Brother falls out of a wardrobe while having a furtive wank in Evelyn Nesbit's hotel room. Well, we've all done it.

As with Under The Volcano, this is a dead cert for just about any list of "great 20th-century novels", and sure enough it pops up in the TIME magazine list of 100 greatest 20th-century novels. It was also made into a film in 1981 which featured James Cagney in his last appearance.

Here's Doctorow's appearance in the Paris Review's Art of Fiction series of long meandering interviews.