What I really did on my summer holiday

Wednesday 30 August 2006

All through July, London had been persistently hot and sunny, which becomes dispiriting after a few days, and was not the England I had come looking for. Bright sunlight and brown grass are not a flattering look for this city. Besides, hot weather makes day to day life here very unpleasant.
So I escaped to Islay, a two hour ferry ride west of Kintyre (no, I didn’t make a detour to see the statue of Linda McCartney cuddling a baa-lamb), and spent a week gladdening my heart with an old-fashioned Scottish summer filled with clouds, rain, mist and fog. Islay is one of those rustic backwaters of the type you see eulogised in feel-good movies, where cows and sheep placidly wander over the highway; a place where my mobile phone couldn’t get a signal, saving me the trouble of turning it off. Despite my aversion to fresh air, it was an ideal location for indulging in my favourite pastime of doing absolutely nothing.
To encourage my indolence, I stayed at a bed and breakfast overlooking the sound and the neighbouring island of Jura. I could easily have sat there all day, drinking tea and watching the fog roll in and out over the valley and around the Paps, or the Jura ferry crossing over every hour or two. In fact, I almost had to sit there all day, the wife of the house having stuffed me to the point of immobility with a breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, haggis, mushrooms, pikelets, toast and fruit pudding. Presumably she liked cooking for someone who appreciated her food; the other people staying there were a quintissentially English couple, who whinged and muttered an ineffably English complaint about having to eat a cooked breakfast every morning.

I didn’t get around to taking a ride on the ferry to Jura. I considered going there to visit George Orwell’s house, but it turns out it’s up the other end of the island, a 25-mile drive up a one lane road, followed by a three mile hike to a house which is closed to the public. He wasn’t kidding about wanting isolation to finish writing 1984. I’m not crazy enough about Orwell to put myself to that sort of trouble; not while there are people willingly plying me with tea and toast.

Besides, I’d be kidding noone but myself if I didn’t say that the real reason I went to Islay was because it has eight distilleries on it. Under the surface, the island is one huge peat bog, and it produces the heaviest, smokiest, richest malt whiskies: the likes of Laphroiag, Ardbeg, and Lagavulin. Anyone visiting the island will probably end up visiting at least one distillery, especially if the weather is “changeable”, and it’s worth taking the guided tours of at least two places, if you have time. I went to Ardbeg, whose café is one of the best places to eat on the island, and Bruichladdich, one of the smaller, lesser-known distilleries in the north of Islay.
There are several benefits to doing the tour of more than one place. Firstly, you get to meet different cross-sections of the groups of Germans, Japanese, and Swedes making their pilgrimage to the venerated malt of their choice. Secondly, the two tours I went on emphasised different aspects of the process. At Ardbeg our guide gave us more details about fermenting and distilling, while at Bruichladdich we got into a long discussion about the part that different casks can play in affecting the type of whisky produced.

Thirdly, they will get you drunk. There is of course the complimentary dram at the end of the tour but at Bruichladdich, where there’s only a few people around, if you show genuine enthusiasm for their product they will start showing off the different whiskies they make. I wondered why I felt a bit woozy after leaving the distillery, until counting back on my fingers I realised I’d had at least a taste of seven different whiskies, from a shot from their Cotes du Rhône cask containing a whisky turned red and sweet as liqueur, to a sample of an almost drinkable three-year old spirit, which you can buy futures in and then wait for another seven years until it’s ready.
“I’ll let you in on a secret,” whispered the Dutch guy, on a working holiday at the distillery, who had been showing us around. “I don’t much like the stuff they make here.” It’s one of the lighter, less peated malts on the island, and he preferred the smokier stuff. When I concurred he led me over to an old bourbon cask with one of their heavier malts maturing inside, where I helped myself to a half-litre Valinch – after another taste, of course – as a souvenir of my visit.
That last sentence or two made me sound like a wanky whisky writer, but after a few glasses of brown spirit I end up pontificating as though I were wearing a cravat, so it’s an accurate reflection of my state of mind.
The whisky is a pretty big deal all over the island. It’s a pretty special feeling to walk into a small, country pub and find the rack of bottle dispensers behind the bar habitually filled with top shelf malts. It’s also a pretty special feeling to hang around the Port Askaig Hotel on Friday nights and get matey with yacht owners sailing over from County Antrim until they start shouting you drinks. Of the few pubs on the island, most of them are geared toward the ageing, middle-class posh types, but Port Askaig welcomes in the less fashion conscious to play folk music at night, and aren’t afraid to follow it up with The Modern Lovers on the stereo.
Don’t get the wrong idea: I didn’t go to Islay just to get drunk. Remember, there was also the long breakfasts and the sitting around in majectic scenery, doing nothing.

Name your crap garage band by recycling concepts from two of my unfinished blog posts.

Monday 28 August 2006

Defibrillator Chicken

This is how you Take Back the White

Wednesday 23 August 2006

The month of Vivisector-related blogging approaches, and the Patrick White Readers’ Group has worked out a plan on how to read and/or write about Patrick White’s evidently-neglected novel. That is, provided you have managed to get hold of a copy.
Previously: I don’t read Patrick White. Not as a rule, anyway.

Au Tombeau de William McGonagall

Sunday 20 August 2006


Beautiful city of Edinburgh!
Where the tourist can drown his sorrow
By viewing your monuments and statues fine
During the lovely summer-time.
I’m sure it will his spirits cheer
As Sir Walter Scott’s monument he draws near,
That stands in East Princes Street
Amongst flowery gardens, fine and neat.
And Edinburgh castle is magnificent to be seen
With its beautiful walks and trees so green,
Which seems like a fairy dell;
And near by its rocky basement is St. Margaret’s well,
Where the tourist can drink at when he feels dry,
And view the castle from beneath so very high,
Which seems almost towering to the sky.
* * *
Beautiful city of Edinburgh! the truth to express,
Your beauties are matchless I must confess,
And which no one dare gainsay,
But that you are the grandest city in Scotland at the present day!

- Wm. McGonagall, “Edinburgh”, Poetic Gems (London: Duckworth, 1970), p.84.

Ah fooked dis place afore yew!

Wednesday 16 August 2006


There’s something in the air around my neighbourhood: if it’s not the grand guignol of the bird-on-bird violence on one side of the bunker, it’s the dodgy pub on the other side. This is the place where there was a shooting last month, and no sooner have the police incident signs come down than the locals are punching on out front again.
Judging from the overheard quote above, it seemed to be some sort of turf battle over who’s the dodgiest cunt on the block.

That’s probably a “yes” to the former, then.

Wednesday 16 August 2006

Me, 25 May, looking around the Pompidou:
That Donald Judd stack is really biffed about: did someone drop it, or did the Pomp get it cheap off the back of a truck?

The Los Angeles Times, 3 August:

The world-renowned Pompidou Center of Paris, which set out in March to celebrate the work of Los Angeles artists, has accidentally destroyed two of their works — which fell from museum walls. A third piece was slightly damaged.

Yes, it turns out the Centre has form in trashing art works loaned to it.

“It’s no secret in the museum business that handling can be very sketchy at Pompidou,” said John Walsh, director emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

(Links found via Modern Art Notes.)

I saw the LA show: like everything else at the Pompidou, they stuffed so much into this one exhibition there was no way you could take in everything in a single visit, even if you stayed all day. There were about twenty videos or films, some an hour long, in addition to a couple of hundred static works. Perhaps they were planning for attrition.
After a year in Europe it was great to see a substantial body of art from a place that was new, modern, urbanised (or suburbanised), and spacious (yeah, like Australia). One of the side effects of moving to the UK from Australia is that it has made me want to live in the USA. Even though I can’t drive.

In other words, Crowded House.

Tuesday 15 August 2006

Really, really regrettable comparison used in the publicity for an upcoming gig at The Spitz (scroll down to 1 September):
The enigmatic Westcountry acoustic duo Show of Hands are formidable operators in the roots arena. Voted “Best Live Act” in the 2004 BBC Radio Folk Awards, they’ve been likened to U2, “Crowded House without the drums” and…

Grand disillusion: it’s taken me this long to finish posting about the Berlin Biennial

Tuesday 15 August 2006

Sometimes you wonder why you bother. As an artist, as a curator, as a gallery-goer. An interview with the curators of the fourth Berlin Biennal reveals a quiet desperation as they discuss the scratching around they’ve done in a hunt for some means to break their lassitude. Contemporary art novices will wonder why they don’t talk about art; old hands won’t even bother clicking the link.
For their professed perversity, the curators’ attempt to shake things up doesn’t amount to more than pissing into an ocean of ennui. The only thing that got me truly puzzled at the Biennial was the inclusion of 30-year old art by Bruce Connor and Christopher Knowles, and even this looked like a curatorial gesture of defeat. No-one here, on either side of the Talent Moat, was operating outside of their comfort zones.
The biggest part of the exhibition was held in the old Jewish Girls’ School in the former Soviet sector: it was the first time the building had been open in over ten years. Really, everyone should know by now that attempting to put art in derelict buildings is a mug’s game. The art is left to compete with the building, and almost always loses. Correction: always loses.

At any rate, we were left free to roam the four floors of charming dilapidation only occasionally obstructed by artwork, once we had successfully passed through the security check and metal detector at the entrance. My German isn’t good enough to say whether they were searching us for bombs or for spraypaint. “Do not photograph,” admonished the sign tacked to the door, “this is not an art exhibit.” As we had guessed because, like the crumbling walls, it was more interesting than the art inside.
For the most part the art was trying to look Serious, i.e. grim and grotty in an effort to look more in tune with the darker aspects of life; the artists trying to pretend they weren’t quite so pleased with themselves, like the pious po-face of a libidinous preacher fronting up to Sunday service. Stockhausen spending a week barefoot in a rented log cabin in the mountains, divining the rhythm of the universe before he has to drive his Mercedes back to Kürten for a lecture. The grant recipient seeking inspiration by ramping up some empathy for the Turkish guest worker who comes into their flat each Tuesday.
Some of the art was just plain derivative (a room full of earth? in 2006?). People were making jokes about the dodgy lighting in a corridor being a Martin Creed work, until they found a title card showing that it was, in fact, a Martin Creed work. Then they made jokes about the Martin Creed work.
For all the standard curator-guff about inclusivity, the one piece that stood out and wasn’t thirty years old was Jeremy Deller’s film Theme for the 4th Berlin Biennial, shown in the old stables behind the former postal sorting centre: an old Klezmer group playing in someone’s flat, presumably the home of one of the band members. The tune they play is their own anthem to Auguststraße and the Biennial exhibitions that run its length. If only the rest of the show was as lively, well-crafted and generous as the theme tune performed in its honour. If only the other turgid, heavy-handed works in the show spoke as eloquently to the matters of history, society, and culture they loudly pretended to wrestle to the ground.
Curators need their fun, too: the room containing Christopher Knowles’ sheets of obsessively typed paper were hung in an old science room with a tattered poster of Einstein pasted on the wall.
Previously: Looking at looking at art.

Ravens 2 – Pigeons 0

Monday 14 August 2006

Once you’ve got a taste for it, you just can’t stop at one. Not what I want to see outside my window first thing in the morning. Maybe I should hang out a bird feeder.

Great moments in poetry: Charles Olson writes to his would-be publisher to discuss the typesetting of proofs for his Maximus IV, V, VI, 1968

Thursday 10 August 2006

Where in hell did anyone get the idea these lines are not as written… Oh Jesus! where again does such ideas - in the face of a incredibly careful mss – go fucking haywire??… Here again SHRINK LEADING!!!! oh God it’s too much!… Note: whoever directed the Printer to set this this way shld lose his fucking head.

Questi Cazzi Di Piccioni

Monday 7 August 2006

The roof space of the scuzzy block of flats across from where I live is infested with pigeons. Two ravens have just moseyed on into the hole the pigeons use to get into the roof.

Do ravens eat pigeons?

I’m hoping for the affirmative, particularly since that pigeon in Venice shat on me.
Note: The above was written a month or so ago but never posted, until now: The Squid Files has witnessed the same event today, with horrifying consequences. (Warning: lo-res but grody image that may offend some viewers, if they’re pigeons.)

I Want To Believe

Monday 7 August 2006

Meddlesome anorak that I am, I just looked back in on the Wikipedia entry for Jeremy Bentham to see how my little edit was going. It’s been re-edited, already. According to whoever violated my impeccable scholarship, the notorious Auto-Icon really, truly, ruly is wheeled in to Council meetings. Not being a member of the College, I’ll have to take their word for it.

Well! That wasn’t supposed to happen.

Sunday 6 August 2006

I come back from a small holiday away only to find that my last three posts, including the one which explained I would be offline for a week or so, didn’t get posted. Oh, and July went missing for a bit there, too.
I think it’s all working OK now, although it looks a bit pointless. Normal business resumes tomorrow.