Thursday, April 26, 2012

incidental music spot of the day

End by The Cure (from their 1992 album Wish) on the BBC's documentary Rowing The Arctic last night. If you happen to click on that iPlayer link while it's still active, it's from about 41:35 for 20 seconds or so and then another minute or so after that behind Mark Beaumont's commentary.

I was never the biggest fan of The Cure, as in general I have a bit of a problem with Goth miserablism, in that instead of it tearing at my very soul in the prescribed manner I tend just to find it hilarious. They have been around pretty much for ever, though, so there's a good chance of the odd good tune popping up here and there, and End is a cracking one which probably appeals to me more than most of The Cure's output because it features relatively little of Robert Smith's voice and lots and lots of guitars. I exempt Love Cats and Friday I'm In Love from any of this criticism, as obviously everybody loves those. Here's a live version of End from the Paris Live8 concert in 2005, with bonus Spanish subtitles.

As for the actual non-musical content of the documentary I have to simultaneously salute the courage and endurance of the people involved and admit to some slight irritation with the increasingly contrived nature of these stunts. I guess on a planet of finite size most of the obvious firsts have already been taken, you know, the North and South Poles, Everest, that sort of thing, so now people have to come up with variations on the basic themes - solo to the Pole, up Everest without oxygen, across the Andes by frog, that sort of thing. And in every case they now have to take a camera crew (or at least a digital camcorder) with them to record the whole thing for the subsequent documentary film, with coffee-table book and souvenir beermat tie-ins. I accept that this is how these trips get funded these days, but still. And there's something a bit grating about someone who's chosen, of their own free will, to ascend Kilimanjaro by spacehopper while blindfolded doing a tearful piece to camera saying "this is so hard, I don't know if I can do it": well, you chose to impose these ridiculous conditions on yourself, so, basically, shut it.

And one has to observe that even with the somewhat contrived definition of "pole" being used here (the conveniently southerly 1996 location of the magnetic North pole) the expedition failed according to its own terms, since they had to drag the boat 3 miles over ice to reach their destination. Not that I'm, you know, having a pop or anything.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

deity or no deity

Today's crackpot theory is one I came up with after a couple of weeks off work on paternity leave. Now obviously parenthood is the best thing ever, but there's no doubt that it does restrict your opportunities for, say, just wandering off down the shops or up a mountain for a few hours if the fancy takes you. So one of the things you end up doing, while trying to keep a small person fed and warm and entertained and, well, alive, is watch a substantial amount of daytime TV.

You have to be a bit careful, obviously you don't want to accidentally end up watching Loose Women or, worse, have your eyes fall upon the unguarded portal to Hades aka That Which Once Seen Can Never Be Unseen, or, as it's known in the TV listings, The Jeremy Kyle Show. In general you're better off finding one of the free channels which just re-run old game shows on a constant loop - Challenge is a good one as it has re-runs of old episodes of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? as well as Alexander Armstrong's Pointless, which I rather like as it appeals to the nerdy trivia-obsessed pedant in me.

You can also, with a bit of judicious channel-hopping, spend most of the day watching re-runs of Deal Or No Deal, and here's where this post starts to coalesce into something resembling a point. It's about religion, almost inevitably, so feel free to sigh heavily and stop reading now, if you like.

One of the standard arguments that religious adherents trot out when they get involved in an argument with an atheist goes something like this: well, religion has persisted in the human psyche for thousands and thousands of years, hasn't it? So therefore, by your own argument, Mr. Evolution, it must be of some use to us, mustn't it? Therefore it must be true. Aha, checkmate, etc.

Now of course the "therefore it must be true" bit is clearly bollocks, and easily demonstrated as such by pointing out the huge range of mutually contradictory religious worldviews that exist, but there's some interesting mileage, from a purely anthropological perspective, in examining why this sort of stuff is so persistent, since it clearly is.

The most persuasive explanation I've ever read goes something like this: once early man stopped swinging around in trees eating bananas and generally just roaming about wherever he pleased hunting and gathering as he went and started doing things that required him to stick around in one place, like building proper dwellings or planting crops, little communities of people started to aggregate and we developed into a properly social species. One of the side-effects of many little communities with their own patches of land is an inevitable competition for resources, and therefore conflict between communities. So there's a great deal of utility in being able to know who is "one of us" and who is an "outsider" quickly and easily. This is trivial when everyone in your community is either a member of your immediate family or at least someone you know by sight, but less easy when communities get bigger than this. So it's useful to have a shared collection of stuff that you and your kind know about, and that outsiders don't. Now there's not much point in this stuff being universal real-world stuff like "the sky is blue", "rain is wet", and stuff like that, as that doesn't help. So it's positively a benefit to have a collection of stories that are a bit out of the ordinary, say about burning bushes, parting of seas, guys coming back from the dead, yadda yadda yadda. If some of these myths are of the Just-So Story variety that seem to explain natural phenomena like the sun coming up in the morning, periodic flooding, locust infestation, etc. etc., well then so much the better. Add to that the evolutionary benefit of believing things your parents tell you - like "cliffs are dangerous", "fire is dangerous", "lions are dangerous" - without insisting on testing it out for yourself, add several thousand years, mix well, and hey presto, organised religion.

Anyway, the Deal Or No Deal connection is that I watched a few new-ish episodes after not having seen ths show at all for a couple of years, and noticed a few changes. Firstly, Noel Edmonds' hair and beard combo has undegone a radical transformation from a greyish bouffant and goatee combo back then to a frankly terrifying dark brown full beard and yellow-ish (but still fairly bouffant) hairdo combo now, courtesy of (I assume) a large amount of Just for Men hair dye and beard treatment. More importantly, as far as my theory goes anyway, the language used within the game has mutated into a jargon probably incomprehensible to those who don't watch the show regularly. The jokey "West Wing", "East Wing", "pilgrims" stuff was there before, but now we've got all manner of other stuff like "the death box" (number 22), "the guv'nor" (an offer of £26,000), "the power 5" (the top 5 red amounts), "5-box" (the penultimate banker's offer, made when 5 boxes remain), and many more that probably passed me by because I simply didn't understand them. Add to this the constant stream of bullshit about "strategy" (satirised by Charlie Brooker here), convoluted explanations from the players about their reasons for choosing a particular box (birthdays, usually), and liberal application of the gambler's fallacy among assorted other irrationality and I think you have quite a close model of how religions develop and eventually ossify into arcane and incomprehensible ritual accessible only to the chosen. Admittedly the adherents of Deal Or No Deal haven't started killing each other in some dispute about dogma yet, but I expect it's only a matter of time.

It should also be noted, while we're speculating about the depths of irrationality to which people might sink, that Noel Edmonds is a bit of a devotee of the splendidly fluffy and inane self-help psychobabble known as Cosmic Ordering, and has written a book on the subject. Someone who has also jumped on this particular bandwagon is astrologer Jonathan Cainer, whose televisual ambushing at the hands of The Amazing Randi and Fry & Laurie back in the early 1990s really never gets old.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

levon knows I'm miserable now

Here's a brief and slightly belated tribute to Levon Helm, who died last Thursday. I've mentioned my great love for The Band here before, and their first album Music From Big Pink in particular, and Helm (the only non-Canadian in the line-up - he was from Arkansas) was a vital and integral part of their sound as vocalist and drummer and (as pretty much every member of the band was) multi-instrumentalist. One of the great things about The Band is that they had three "lead" vocalists (if you disregard the couple of songs Robbie Robertson sang on) in Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, all three of whom are now dead, as it happens. I think Helm was my favourite singer of the three, though, featuring on classic songs like Rag Mama Rag, Up On Cripple Creek and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.

Both of those linked clips are from Martin Scorsese's classic 1978 documentary - if you will, rockumentary - The Last Waltz, which you should snap up ludicrously cheaply on DVD right now. Album-wise you will certainly want the first two albums Music From Big Pink and The Band, and I retain a bit of a soft spot for their underrated third album Stage Fright as well. The 1972 live album Rock Of Ages and the ramshackle collection of Bob Dylan collaborations The Basement Tapes are well worth a listen too.

Here's a couple of other Band clips: a bracingly brisk run-through of The Weight (with Helm singing the first couple of verses) from the 1970 Festival Express tour, and a studio run-through of King Harvest (Has Surely Come), also from 1970.

Drummer/vocalist is a job few people have managed to do successfully, as Levon Helm did. There are a few obvious examples like Phil Collins and Don Henley, and there are drummers who sang the occasional lead vocal like Roger Taylor, Ringo Starr and Micky Dolenz. Karen Carpenter started out as a drummer, too, but eventually moved to the front of the stage (as did Collins and Henley). The only other example that springs to mind is Andy Sturmer of the mighty Jellyfish, who used to play a mini-kit while standing up at the front of the stage.

Levon Helm also gave his name to one of Elton John's more interesting songs, and also Elton and partner David Furnish's son.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

the last book I read

Invisible by Paul Auster.

It's 1967, and aspiring poet Adam Walker is in the middle of his studies at Columbia University, partly to further his poetical ambitions and hone his creative and literary skills, but also to avoid the draft. At an academic drinks party he meets the enigmatic European Rudolf Born and his girlfriend Margot. Their lives bcome intertwined: Born offers to give Adam creative control of a new literary magazine he is proposing setting up and funding, and Adam and Margot start a clandestine affair.

Not clandestine enough, as it turns out, as Born rumbles them and confronts Adam with his knowledge. He seems pretty relaxed about the whole thing, though, so it's something of a surprise when Adam and Born are confronted by a mugger on the corner of Riverside Drive and West 112th Street and Born whips out a switchblade and stabs their assailant in the stomach, fatally it later transpires.

Needless to say the magazine deal is off after all this, and Adam, after receiving some threatening communications from Born, delays reporting the incident to the police until after Born has fled back to Europe, something that causes him years of guilt.

Forty years of guilt, as it turns out, as we then zoom forward to 2007 to discover that the first part of the novel is the contents of the first section of a manuscript that Walker, now dying of leukaemia, has sent his old college friend Jim for a literary evaluation. After an exchange of letters between the two, part two soon follows. Far from being a continuation of the business described in the first chapter (I'm struggling hard to avoid a series of The Born Identity puns here) this is a description of Adam's last summer in the USA after graduating and before leaving for Paris to take up a scholarship there. Most of the summer was spent sharing an apartment with his sister, Gwyn. Adam and Gwyn became very close as children after the death of their younger brother, and in their early teens shared a night of guilt-free sexual experimentation very similar to the hypothetical one described here and here. Well, the temptation of flat-sharing proves too much for the flimsy taboo of incest to withstand, and they're soon fucking like crazed weasels.

Adam and Jim arrange to meet, but Adam dies before this can happen, leaving Jim with the skeletal notes of the third section of the book. This describes Adam's time in Paris, where he by chance runs in to Margot and Born again, seperately this time, rekindling his relationship with Margot but also hatching a plan to foil Born's plans to marry wealthy widow Hélène Juin, by the fairly simple method of befriending Hélène and her daughter Cécile and then spilling the beans about the stabby New York incident.

We then discover that Jim has been in contact with Adam's sister Gwyn, and that she has read the first three sections of the book, and agreed to their publication as long as all the names and locations are changed. Furthermore we learn that what we've just read is the result of that process, so in other words Adam Walker wasn't really called Adam Walker, he didn't really go to Columbia, etc. etc. We also learn that Gwyn categorically denies ever having indulged in any incesty shenanigans with her brother (hence her desire for anonymity).

Jim has also been in touch with Cécile Juin, and the last section of the book is another transcription of a manuscript, this time a portion of Cécile's diary describing her last encounter with Born, now an elderly and overweight recluse living on a remote Caribbean island. Having agreed, after an exchange of letters, to travel to the island to meet Born, Cécile is somewhat taken aback when Born first asks her to marry him, and subsequently (after she turns him down) to help him write a memoir of his life, a life with some murky secrets including clandestine work for the French government and just the possibility of having been a double agent for the Russians as well. Not thrilled by a lengthy stay on a remote island taking Born's dictation (ooer), Cécile refuses, and leaves. The end.

It's easy to see how this novel would be knuckle-chewingly infuriating to some - we never get much in the way of clear resolution of any of the plot points, and there are many: did Born really murder the mugger in New York? Did Adam and Gwyn really have a stolen summer of transgressive happy sexy joy joy time, or was the whole thing a fantasy of Adam's? And was Born really (as he suggests) responsible for the car crash that left Cécile's father in a vegetative coma? There are so many different layers of narrative from so many different people (Adam, Jim, Gwyn, Cécile) that it's impossible to know what's "real" from what's not. Presumably this is Auster's point, though: none of it is actually real, after all, it's just a novel. And there's absolutely no reason why we should care about, or feel slightly cheated by, the revelation that (for instance) "Adam Walker" wasn't the "Adam Walker" character's "real" name, because he was never real to begin with.

You have to be good to get away with all of this metafictional rug-pulling without it just being annoying, and it's remarkable how compulsively readable this is, even while you know you're just being fucked with at various points. At Swim-Two-Birds, Christy Malry's Own Double-Entry, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, Kleinzeit, Invisible Cities and Slow Man pulled off similar tricks. Inevitably these sort of shenangians tend to polarise the critics: some loved it, some didn't, and some wrote lengthy hatchet jobs dismissing Auster's entire body of work. My opinion, for what it's worth, is that I enjoyed it, more so than the only other Auster book I've read, The New York Trilogy, which was much more explicitly arch and experimental.

I should also add that I picked up my almost-new paperback copy of Invisible a couple of weeks ago for the princely sum of ten pence in a charity bookshop in Chepstow. I conclude two things from this - firstly that whoever owned it first was less impressed than me by the metafictional playfulness, and secondly that I frickin' love charity bookshops. At a cover price of £8.99 that's a whopping 98.9% discount, and a spare £8.89 for me to spend on crack and whores.

Lastly, mention of Invisible Cities prompts me to the observation that this is the first book in this now quite lengthy series whose title is a part of the title of another book in the series. The only other pair that might qualify would be G. and Good As Gold, and you'd have to disregard the full stop which is an integral part of G.'s title, so I don't think it really works.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

monty, you terrible c*nt

Just to prove the point about Colin Montgomerie's commentary habits, here's a few links:

This Guardian article prior to the 2011 US Open bigging up Luke Donald and writing off Rory McIlroy's chances (oops):
We all know at the US Open we talk about the length of the course, we talk about the rough, we talk about everything, but it's the guy who holes out who's going to win, there's no question about that.
Lee Westwood is good enough – there's no question.
This interview during the 2010 Arnold Palmer Invitational:
We now have an Asian winner of a major, and as you say, the CA Championship there recently at Doral, I don't believe there was -- or was there one American in the top 10, you know, and there was only one American in the top eight of the Accenture Match Play. So there is a changing of the guard, there's no question.
This 2012 Masters post-mortem:
We have had Lee now having seven top 3s in majors and it does get to you, there is no question.
This Tiger-centric 2011 Masters post-mortem:
It was amazing he didn't continue on the back nine. His putting is just not as good as it was. When he gets that putting back to Tiger Woods-like, he will win again. There is no question.
- and finally this interview after his first-round 69 in the 2011 BMW PGA Championship (he eventually finished in a tie for 7th):
I can see well beyond that, seven birdies today was encouraging, there's no question.
I have nothing to prove here and it's a nice position to be in in a way that I can go out and enjoy my golf now, and if I can get the putter going, I still can compete, there's no question.
So he says it a lot. There's no question.

Monday, April 16, 2012

hubba bubba

A couple of thoughts in the aftermath of the exciting climax to the Masters last weekend and Bubba Watson's eventual play-off victory.
  • Watson himself is an interesting character - no doubt a more complex character than the amiable doofus he comes across as both on and off the course, and certainly a more serious golfer than the crazy swing and the pink driver would suggest.
  • Almost inevitably for a high-profile American sportsperson he's also a born-again Christian; to his credit though in the coverage I saw of the green jacket presentation ceremony he managed to avoid banging on about the fact that, as it does every few years, Masters Sunday fell on Easter Sunday. Some of the press coverage suggests I may have just dropped off for that bit, though. Other notable God-botherers and Easter Masters champions who stunk up the post-tournament ceremonies and interviews with their maunderings about imaginary Jewish zombies include Zach Johnson in 2007 and Bernhard Langer in 1993.
  • I think I'm right in saying that Watson is the first ever Masters champion to share a surname with a previous Masters champion (in this case the great Tom Watson, champion in 1977 and 1981). The Masters was the last of the major tournaments not to have namesake champions at some point in its history; this is partly because the Masters only started in 1934 and just doesn't have as much history as the others.
  • Just to prove the point, the Open Championship's long history features various generations of Willie Parks and Tom Morrises, as well as more recent examples like Fred Daly and John Daly.
  • The US Open list features Willie Smith and Alex Smith way back in the day, and more recently Bobby Jones and Steve Jones, Lou Graham and David Graham and Byron Nelson and Larry Nelson.
  • The (unrelated) Nelsons feature in the USPGA list as well.
  • Flitting between the Sky Sports coverage and the BBC coverage provides some interesting insights into the various conversational tics of the commentators and summarisers. Sky have Colin Montgomerie whose stock gambit is to append the phrase "there's no question" to the end of any statement of opinion he makes, as if to pre-empt any, well, questioning. So, was your breakfast OK, Colin? Well, the sausages were absolutely first-rate; there's no question. But the bacon was too salty. Butch Harmon, on the other hand, seems to be waging a single-handed war to get us to say "3-par" and "5-par" instead of "par-3" and "par-5" when referring to specific holes. I've no idea why, and I think if it was really going to take off and catch on it would have happened by now. The BBC, on the other hand, have cuddly old Peter Alliss, who is probably a bit past his sell-by date these days, but still capable of occasional matchless moments of wild improvisational genius.
Finally I offer you a golf-related lookeylikey of the day - European tour journeyman turned US PGA tour journeyman and maker-of-a-very-decent-living-thank-you-very-much-but-probably-not-quite-good-enough-ever-to-win-anything Brian Davis, and rubber-faced comedian and bloke-who-inexplicably-fills-huge arenas-but-who-I-don't-really-get-though-I-thought-he-was-pretty-good-in-There's-Something-About-Mary Lee Evans. I think in both cases it's the sense of the bottom half of the face being slightly too big compared with the upper half, and containing slightly too many teeth.

And they've both got caps on! What are the chances?

Monday, April 09, 2012

the last book I read

The Tax Inspector by Peter Carey.

So here's another motley collection of larrikins and galahs, then - the Catchprices. On the surface the shambolic proprietors of a car dealership in the fictional Sydney suburb of Franklin, beneath the surface there's something a bit weirder going on. Elderly matriarch Frieda nominally owns the business, but she's getting a bit scatty these days so most of the day-to-day running is done by her son Mort and her daughter Cathy, with assistance from Cathy's husband Howie and Mort's son Benny.

Everyone has their own dreams of escape - Cathy is an aspiring country singer, Benny listens obsessively to Paul McKenna-esque self-actualisation tapes and imagines himself being transformed into an angel (possibly of the avenging variety). A couple of the Catchprice clan have managed to get away, in varying ways - Benny's elder brother Johnny has joined a Hare Krishna group and transformed himself into Vishnabarnu, while Mort and Cathy's brother Jack has become a wealthy property developer.

Into all this comes Maria Takis, eight months pregnant and tasked with conducting an audit of the business for the Tax Office. There seems to be a general view among the Catchprice family that this spells doom, based on their inside knowledge of all the various dodges, fiddling and general incompetence that's gone on over the years. So they try various tacks to convince Maria to abandon things, starting with some slightly creepy stalking courtesy of Benny, and followed up by Jack's slightly more orthodox powers of persuasion.

It turns out that Maria's finely tuned moral compass means that she's not that interested in hunting down small-scale crookedness like what's been going on at Catchprice Motors, and more interested in bringing down the tax dodgers among the privileged elite - the very same circles that Jack Catchprice moves in, as it happens. As if that wasn't complication enough, Jack and Maria start to conduct a romance.

The reader shouldn't get the idea that the Catchprices are just a bunch of lovable oafs, though, as there's a darker side that soon becomes visible - the legacy of father/son sexual abuse passed down from Frieda's late husband Cacka to Mort to Benny, Benny's dark obsessions nurtured in his dank basement room, and Frieda's habit of carrying round lumps of sweating gelignite in her handbag. When Frieda decides to deploy the contents of her handbag to rid herself of the burden of Catchprice Motors once and for all (as well as destroying any auditable evidence), and Benny simultaneously decides to move his stalking of Maria Takis to the next level by "inviting" her to pay a visit to his basement room, the stage is set for a quite lidderally "explosive" finale.

I should start by saying that this is the second Peter Carey book I've read, the first being the 1988 Booker Prize winner Oscar and Lucinda. I found that one to be a long and only intermittently rewarding slog, to be honest, so it's perhaps not surprising that I think this one is a lot better, not least because it's barely half as long. That's not to say I was totally blown away by it, though - the cast of grotesques and caricatures are a bit difficult fully to believe in or care about, with the exception of Maria and Jack, whose sweet romantic interludes are a bit incongruous in comparison. And the ending where Benny and Maria and Maria's now-imminent baby have a life-or-death struggle in Benny's porn dungeon while Catchprice Motors collapses into rubble around their ears is all a bit of an eleventh-hour swerve into Silence of The Lambs territory.

So, you know, it's fine, but if it's Australian fiction you're after I'd say you might be better off with Tim Winton, Patrick White or Thomas Keneally.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

in which kate middleton's crack is irreparably widened

I humbly submit here for your critical appraisal my latest work of challenging and confrontational performance art - a searing and unforgiving indictment of the inequalities inherent in the concept of a hereditary monarchy, and a thoughtful reflection on the atrocities carried out in its name.

My earlier, less successful attempt at the same thing is recorded for posterity here.

This sort of visceral, zeitgeist-y art terrorism doesn't just make itself, you know. I had to consider the choice of tools carefully - I pondered for a while the symbolism of taking an axe to William's shapely neck, but decided that might be a bit dangerous and would probably just propel the mug across the room to smash against a distant wall somewhere, out of camera shot.

So I went for the great big lump hammer in the end; a wise choice I think.

In the interests of full disclosure and candour I should point out that this is not just wanton destruction - the mug in question had sustained a crack in an accidental dishwasher-related incident the previous week and would have had to be thrown away anyway. In any case, while I am no friend of the monarchy, the mug was given to us as a wedding present (a slightly ironic one, admittedly) and was a perfectly good mug, at least until it got cracked. I realise this takes the edge off the performance art piece slightly, but hopefully you'll have proceeded through this blog post in a linear fashion and watched the video before reading this bit.

The mug was one of a set of two, as it happens, and while the other remains un-cracked and therefore currently in use for hot beverage storage and transportation, it's not impossible that it too could sustain irreparable damage at some point, at which time I may unleash another video upon an unsuspecting world. Maybe I'll have a shit in it or something.