Postcard from Venice

Friday 28 July 2006


I came here in my young youth
and lay there under the crocodile
By the column, looking East on the Friday,
And I said: Tomorrow I will lie on the South side
And the day after, south west.

- Ezra Pound, Canto XXVI.

It’s been another slow month

Thursday 27 July 2006

And it’s about to get slower. I’m on holiday all next week. Don’t worry, I know you’ll cope somehow.
I was going to suggest some highlights from the past month but (a) there aren’t any, really, and (b) the July archive is mangled right now. I didn’t even get around to posting the write-up of the Berlin Biennial. Ah well.

Unfortunately, when they arrived at the other end they discovered the movie was also showing there. (Bada-bing!)

Thursday 27 July 2006


Eurostar said the partnership with the movie – whose cast included French actress Audrey Tatou – helped generate “strong interest in overseas markets”, with travel agents reporting increased sales on the London-Paris route.

Just what the world needs

Tuesday 25 July 2006

I have finally made my first edit to a Wikipedia article. Of course, it concerns you know who…

Why I don’t read Patrick White

Tuesday 25 July 2006

I have read and enjoyed Patrick White’s Voss and Riders in the Chariot, and sat through Shepherd on the Rocks without undue discomfort. The back cover blurbs of his novels interest me more than most books published these days. And yet I have always balked at reading more White. Why?
The Nobel Prize doesn’t help. There’s something about the average Nobel laureate that makes them seem like the sort of author UN delegates pretend to read. It is the epitome of officially-sanctioned literature, its demand of “idealism” (extraordinary word, just ask Allen Upward) become an officially-approved meliorist sentiment. It deals in certainties, it evades ambiguity the way it avoids awkward details and disturbing complications. It is perfect for Goverment-sponsored reading programs.
How many of your favourite, literary, capital-S Serious authors received a Nobel prize? Just look at the anointed Americans.
My other problem is the same one Kyle Gann at PostClassic encountered recently, when reading a comprehensive handbook of 20th Century composers:
Eurocentric criteria with which I might have been sympathetic when I was 20, before I became more acclimated to the changes that came with postmodernism. On one hand we have “the wider human condition,” i.e., the programmatic holdover from Romanticism that music is supposed to encapsulate some echo of the bourgeois man’s relation to society. On the other, “the narrower expression of the ethos and ideas of the day,” which seems to reflect a modernist belief that the Hegelian World Spirit, moving ever westward… is embodied in a mainstream of music on which all “serious” composers must comment, and to which they all contribute.

For “music” read literature, another artform we still cannot quite believe has no insides. My taste has always instincively been for the art that tells us something else beside the cultural received opinion. No matter how I liked White, I always had the feeling he was limited by the need to Say Something Important, and spent his career, on-page and off, play-acting The Great Author, mummifying his books in thematic boilerplate.
Despite these reservations I cannot bring myself to dislike what I’ve read: there is enough discomfiting unevenness in his writing to keep it lively, as his splenetic visions of righteousness wrestle with his petty meanness. The Readers’ Group is my excuse to finally read White again, and to see whether the good outweighs the bad.

Take Back the White

Tuesday 25 July 2006

Six months ago: The Sunday Times in the UK sends a chapter of some book by V.S. Naipaul anonymously to several British publishers. Of course, it gets rejected. At the time I wrote about how probably no-one involved in the caper on either side had read Naipaul, but then my argument devolved into pitching into James Frey or Peter Phelps one more time.
Two weeks ago: After several weeks of brainstorming, The Australian sends a chapter of some book by Patrick White anonymously to several Australian publishers. Of course, it gets rejected. I like to think that the journalist simply submitted the Sunday Times article anonymously to the editor to see if it would get rejected.
Amazingly, there’s more than one publisher left in business in Australia to submit novels to. Even more amazingly, at least one of them seemed to have read the submitted chapter before rejecting it. However, as the discussion of the caper at Sarsparilla observes:
in amongst all that commentary and discussion one thing kept coming up again and again: hardly anyone has read a novel by Patrick White and seen for themselves what the fuss is about.

In response to this dilemma, The Patrick White Readers’ Group has been formed. Punters are invited to read The Vivisector and share their opinions during September. The tricky part for White’s fellow Australians will be getting hold of a copy: his novels are no longer printed in Australia.

“Remarkably boring sonic content but being free of musical substance can firmly be considered ‘sound art’”

Monday 24 July 2006

I had an urgent barbecue to attend in the Cotswolds, so unfortunately I had to cancel plans to see Mattin and some other new-musicy dudes play at Alma Enterprises last weekend. I forget who else was playing; I wanted to see Mattin again, having previously seen him give one of the best live laptop performances I’ve experienced outside of a strip club.
The stage presence of most live computer sound-crunching musos has been definitively described elsewhere as that of “bored young men checking their email”. Usually, the music isn’t much more engaging. But several years ago, in the Iwaki Auditorium, Mattin conscientiously set up his Powerbook, covered his ears, winced in anticipation, and waited.
Then, tentatively, he uncovered his ears and relaxed. Then he hunched forward and braced himself again, before relaxing once more. In between the occasional small adjustment to his inert computer, he and an accomplice crept from one corner of the auditorium to another, finding a place to freeze, cover over, and wait with increasing bemusement. There was never so much as a peep from the computer or the PA.
Last Saturday’s gig was held as part of a show currently on at Alma, “Arsenal: artists exploring the potential of sound as a weapon. I would have said I was disappointed with the show, but I don’t have high hopes for gallery presentations of sound art, or for shows which advertise a political subtext.
The necessity of artists compromising their aesthetic or political beliefs to conform to such a high-concept curatorial brief is evident immediately upon entering the gallery. You wouldn’t know the show was about sound art: four of the six artists have presented video installations. Apparently, sound doesn’t have much potential as a weapon unless it is circumscribed with image.
Of these, two were video documentations of events involving sound and/or music. In November 2005 Thomas Altheimer attempted to sail toGuantanamo Bay to play Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony within earshot of the camp. There may be an interesting documentary in his tribulations to make the project succeed, but not in this muddled, artsy-fartsy installation.
Rod Dickinson’s video footage of his reenactment of the sound barrage used by the FBI at the seige of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco is similarly dull and unenlightening, elucidating neither the reenactment nor the siege itself. The most psychologically disturbing aspect of this piece was its expectation that you would sit wearing headphones while watching a video of unspecified length.
There was also a music video, little more than an advertisement for the metaphor of sound as virus without any further exploration of how this may work as an idea. The final video was an incompetently shot video of someone’s backyard accompanied by non-English speakers reading an English language primer, a cheap bit of grant-bait that fits the curatorial brief only if the intended audience is poor Professor Henry Higgins.
The sad part of this show is that underneath it all lies the tired old idea that art still has some social subversiveness to it, a political relevance it can no longer even pretend to claim. And yet the proposed transgressions are so vague and unambitious. If you want some real mayhem, try getting hold of William Burroughs’ Revised Boy Scout Manual.

Filler by Proxy XXXVIII: Billy Joel – American Idiot

Sunday 23 July 2006

Emily at Progressive Boink analyses Billy Joel – The Essential Video Collection and reaches some conclusions about what makes a video [or Billy Joel] essential:
1) The song must feature an Important Life Lesson. This lesson can usually be summed up on a single sentence, and often ends in an exclamation point.
2) Billy and/or his band (also known as The Black Hole of Rockin’) must in some way remind the viewer of another band/another celebrity/some irrelevant piece of pop culture history. You’ll be surprised how often this happens.
3) There must be celebrity guest stars. Not every video features a guest star, but when they do, you can almost count of them being 80′s specific.
4) Perhaps most important in determining how essential a video is, is where it falls on the BJ Jew Fro Scale.
. . .Oh, and it always helps if a video has hilariously out-of-place black people.
Convincing scientific analysis of a dozen or so case studies follows. I think it was The Standing Room’s overzealous del.icio.us feed that brought this important information to my attention.

Rediscovering the secret history of music: NMAtapes

Thursday 20 July 2006

Found via Half/Theory: Shame File Music hosts an impressive array of weirdo fringe music from Australia and New Zealand, all freely available for download. Most importantly, they are in the process of digitising and uploading the complete series of NMAtapes.
NMA was the new music magazine in Australia, publishing about one issue a year from 1982 to 1992. The featured composers and performers were resolutely of what New Yorkers call a “downtown” musical orientation, revolving around free improvisation, home-made instruments and homebrew electronics, multimedia extravaganzas, lo-fi sampling, bizarro forays into rock and dance music, and general eclecticism and mockery of the dogma emanating from the self-anointed cultural centres in Europe and the USA.
Each issue came with a cassette tape of pieces by musicians who appeared in the mag. Most (all?) of it has never been reissued commerically: for decades this music has circulated by samizdat, dubbed and redubbed from library copies and occasional radio broadcasts, passed between music geeks who knew there was more to life than horrible pub rock and tribute bands. The music is wild, unique, and utterly essential to anyone interested in the less offensive developments in music over the last 25 years.
Shame File is halfway through uploading the complete series of ten cassettes. NMA’s website has published the complete text of the 1988 book 22 Contemporary Australian Composers, which describes the careers of many of the composers on the tapes.

Literary gaffes: a nitpicking footnote to Boswell

Wednesday 19 July 2006

In his otherwise very fine novel Boswell, Stanley Elkin has his protagonist “lunch with Ezra Pound at St Albans”. No doubt Elkin meant to say St Elizabeths, the mental hospital in which Pound was incarcerated at the time the novel takes place.
It seems a fitting mistake, given that Pound’s writing is notorious for being stuffed with references to obscure people and places, quite often misspelled, misremembered, or just plain wrong. For nearly ten years a team of editors pored over Pound’s Cantos and identified several hundred factual errors for correction, before deciding to abandon the project: not out of fatigue, but of a realisation that they were probably pulling apart the web of allusions that held the poem together, or at the very least “spoiling some of his puns.”
Some editions still have these “corrections”, others don’t. There was a general consensus among Pound scholars thirty years ago not to tinker with the poem any further, one way or another, until they had a better idea of what the poem is about.

I have been reading Boswell by Stanley Elkin

Tuesday 18 July 2006

Ten to fifteen years ago this book was ubiquitous in the remainder piles and cardboard boxes on the pavements outside bookshops. So were a lot of other titles by the same failing publisher, Arena, all with cheap covers featuring nasty, very 80s artwork; but Boswell was the king and everyman of this unloved, occupying army. It took years for the deluge of this one title in its thousands of clones to drain away.
I’ve never seen a copy of this book on sale at full price. My copy was bought second-hand eighteen months ago, from the $1 cardboard box on the pavement. Of course, it had been previously bought as a remainder, with the tell-tale texta stripe visible across the bottom edge of the pages. The flyleaf is inscribed in biro, “To Mahgo, from Liz, Jeremy, Daniel and Adam xxx”. Real classy gift, guys. It must be nice having friends who care enough to chip in about a dollar each for a birthday present.
For years I shunned it when bookhunting – its uninspiring blurb (“It’s a journey of disillusionment, but it is his destiny.”) and egregious presence made it seem ersatz, like a placeholder, a stand-in for another, better book that might have stood on the shelf. It infuriated me. I doubt I would have accepted a copy for free.
My recent change of heart, to happily blow an Australian dollar on a copy, is because, after being out of print for years, it has been reprinted by The Dalkey Archive Press – a publishing house I have happily allowed to lead me by the nose when developing my literary taste. Its parent, the Centre for Contemporary Book Culture, also runs an online literary journal with a righteous bitchiness of the highest order, in addition to publishing a few interviews with Stanley Elkin, and giving some more persuasive writeups of his work than the back of the Arena paperback.
The doomed paperback’s blurb should have touted this as a contender for the Great American Novel: Boswell is a character as archetypal as Gatsby, Kane, and Corleone. Keenly aware of his own mortality, Boswell’s motivation is fame: not the attainment of it, but to exist in the presence of it. To be famous to the famous. Appropriately for the century, his vocation isn’t so much chosen by him as assigned to him, by a visiting technocrat at high school who tells Boswell he will be surrounded by greatness, but never be great himself.
How’s the writing?
Perry is a very popular mâitre d’ in New York, though I have never understood the reason. His dignity and aloofness seem spurious to me. I feel that they’re simply tools of the trade with him, ones he uses a little squeamishly, as a professional locksmith might use dynamite. I like to picture him at home in front of the TV with his shoes off and a beer from Nate’s kitchen in his hand. There are softer, sloppier Perrys inside him, I know…. I looked at this mâitre d’hôtel, at this head waiter who got his name in the columns and was the constant bête noir of a government tax man who worried about his tips.

Boswell’s compulsive pursuit of fame – not merely as an end in itself, but as an entity independent of his own status – makes the book beautifully prescient. It’s hard to imagine it seeming more contemporary when it was written, over 40 years ago, than it does now. The one thing that has dated is its more rarefied sense of celebrity, expecting a standard of fame sufficiently high to seem quaint today. Except: it is Boswell himself who conflates greatness with celebrity. His appreciation for greatness is indiscriminate, embracing anthropologists and gangsters as part of the same elite. As he progresses in his calling he stops seeking out Nobel laureates, and instead monitors who gets the most mentions in Time.

Today, with the indulgent granting of celebrity, however small and meaningless, to anyone who wants it badly enough, it would be easy for Boswell to become some sort of a celebrity in his own right should he choose to do so, simply by virtue of knowing the famous. If this seems to be the one aspect of Boswell’s world that doesn’t jibe with 21st-century culture, you will be equally pleased and appalled with the turn of the book’s final section, which includes some of the most heartwarming character developments I’ve read since The Way of All Flesh.
Now, cheapskate that I am, I’m searching for a second-hand remainder of the other Elkin novel Arena published, The Magic Kingdom. Anyone who makes a black farce out of a guy’s disaster-strewn attempt to take a group of kids with terminal cancer to Disneyland is welcome in my house.

Goodbye Forever Again, see you next week.

Thursday 13 July 2006

There’s been lots of activity here, but very little to show for it. Moreover, my antipodean constitution still hasn’t accomodated the fact that summer is now in the middle of the year.
New material will start to appear next week; in the meantime enjoy the indices and website, which is still pretty much empty but now sports a design that is merely dull, instead of non-existent.

Mars hasn’t replied to my webmail suggesting a follow-up edition called Blame Bars

Tuesday 11 July 2006

These have arrived in my corner shop just in time for the end of the World Cup, which I suppose this was supposed to commemorate. More specifically, to commemorate the England World Cup effort – although I expect these were sold in Wales, Scotland etc as well. By ‘effort’, I mean England’s quadrennial ritual of hubris, complacency, whitewash, arrogance, denial, despondency, fingerpointing, scapegoating, infighting, xenophobia and general self-loathing. I’d say it’s a cack to watch but H.M. Government has my passport right now so I’ll keep quiet until they can’t kick me out of the country.
Unfortunately, I don’t think these will get discounted now it’s all over.
Baby Boromir is posing with the credulous snack atop an old paperback edition of Boswell by Stanley Elkin, which I haven’t quite finished yet but it would have to suddenly turn inconceivably crap for me to dislike it.

Because renaming the server after a Terry Pratchett* character is so five minutes ago

Monday 10 July 2006

I spent the end of last week stuck in Plymouth, testing a new web-based service for my place of employment. This post goes out to the in-house software development guy who left http://goatse.cx in the browser history of my test computer. Sir, you are a credit to the stereotype of IT staff.

* Ten years ago it would have been either Tolkien or Douglas Adams, but for obvious reasons both authors are no longer OK.

Name your quirky new band of critical darlings and their overrated debut album

Wednesday 5 July 2006

Experience the Ferocity of a Pyroclastic Flow!, by Translators from the Ukraine.
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