Has anyone made a comedy map of Britain? I don’t mean a map indicating clubs and the birthplaces of comedians; I mean a map marking the real locations inhabited by fictional comic characters, haunted by absurdist conceits. The more anonymous and duller a place is, the more likely it is to have been infused with significance by generations of comic minds: dormitory suburbs, brownfields, dead ends, postwar nowheres. Balham, Putney, Hendon, Cheam: London and the counties are held together in an invisible network of bathetic, negative landmarks. The enervated traveller crossing these liminal spaces is suddenly seized with a numinous inversion of meaning with which the no-place has become invested. What ley-lines connect these psychogeographical lacunae; do they awkwardly bisect the zones of conscious importance, or sneak behind and between through forgotten territory?
Last Friday night a self-selected cross-section of Londoners and American tourists were sharing a small frisson at finding themselves congregated outside a bingo hall in Cricklewood, reminding each other that The Goodies lived in Cricklewood. This wasn’t the reason we were all there; we had come to see a different British institution, of similar cultish appeal. We had come to see The Fall; or not see The Fall, as the case may be.
The Americans amongst us were hopeful of seeing a real, genuine Fall gig, having been repeatedly exasperated at home by the nominal band’s touring habits: either gracelessly imploding on stage or working a setlist top-heavy with interminable ten-minute dirges about supermarket car parks in Salford. (Mark E. Smith has his own appetite for psychogeographical nullity.) Perhaps they didn’t know that the band’s London gigs tended to be equally perfunctory: it seems anything south of Birmingham is much of a muchness, as far as Smith is concerned.
To get an idea of the venue, take a look at their website
(proletarian visions of prosperity). No really, it’s priceless. A gilt-edged coffin for Punk’s corpse, WMC Blobs laid to boozy rest with Celtic troubadors and cowboys from Carlisle. As a harbinger of the muzzy haze of regression that threatened, the opening act was John Cooper Clarke, preserved like Sharon Osbourne.
Perhaps it was the faded premises on the cultural and subcultural margin that made the band turn up and play. The band, such as it is, all vestigal entity outside of Smith himself having long departed and now routinely replaced with such regularity that even fans can’t keep track of the musos’ names
, has a reputation for only partly turning up, in body or mind; with Smith himself late, drunk, or a no-show. Instead of a vicarious trainwreck thrill we got the embodiment of a Rock Band at Work, of performance as routine.
Smith, famously looking 20 years older than his real age, stumbled round the stage snarling and hollering incoherently as usual, into one or two mics, as usual, dropping one or picking up the other, peripetetically bemused by their technical failings, nonconsensually futzing with his bandmates’ gear, as usual. Performance as routine, stripped of its romance and mythology when seen plain on stage as schtick – in the same way that he refuses to play any songs more than a few years old, Smith’s performance denies his fans the delusion of shamanism, of recollection of an intangible psychic resonance. What is left is form and technique, with no invocation of the past, to impress the punters – not appeals to faith. (My companion for the night, oblivious to The Fall’s history and significance, attested to this.) The conventional becomes experimental.
The band confined themselves to solid riffs, one per song, starting out OK and then locking into a tighter groove that propelled the music and voice into the higher levels, into the lower reaches of the transcendent state a good rock gig can give. After this peak it was in the recoil of the interval, ebbing into a slower, muted rhythm, “Blindness”, its protracted disorientation nudging the punters into a dreamlike semiconsciousness. Smith himself had delayed his entrance onstage, like Elvis in Vegas, but then disappeared early as well, before and after the encore, effacing himself backstage inconspicuously, not to return. It seemed over too soon.
Catching the band in an upswing of collateral cool thanks to John Peel’s untimely death, the crowd was a mixture of disoriented tourists, middle-aged punks in mufti, prematurely-aged anoraks comparing notes on Tuesday night’s gig (and observing that one band member had been sacked
in the interim), curious students, a mosh pit, bright young things their dowdy finest, a pair of them dancing like frenzied muppets on the balcony behind the band, alternately irritating and amusing the more sombrely dedicated punters. And of course, the indifferent regulars up the back getting their pints in all the while.
Wednesday 27 September 2006
I was going to post about something of substance besides The Vivisector
(which I’m falling behind on the reading schedule – hey, it’s not like I’ve been crazy about it
) but my household has suffered a tragic loss.
There is a website based somewhere in Europe that offers one of those route planning service to motorists, and just like the UK based ones (Dear AA, please stop telling everyone that every single journey in Scotland must at some point involve taking a ferry to Bute
) it tends to be pretty useless. For the past month or so it’s been telling unsuspecting truckies from the continent that the best way into central London from the docks is via a side street next to The Bunker: a very narrow street, lined with parked cars, before taking a tight turn under a railway bridge with a clearance of about 3 metres.
From time to time one could amuse oneself looking out the window, watching a 16-wheeled semi-trailer inching up this street, and taking bets on far it would get before it realised that there was no way it was getting under that bridge up ahead and then having to reverse all the way back again.
As of now, this is no longer funny. My girlfriend’s beloved secondhand Fiat with the overheating problem
has been sideswiped by one of these foreign
juggernauts while blamelessly parked in said side street. The poor heap has been written off, so no more getting chauffered around the UK for me. I’ve been trying to persuade her to buy another car, preferably one with more leg room in the back, but she’s oddly resistant to the idea.
Tuesday 26 September 2006
Unfortunately, there’s nothing in their report that definitively links a love of classical music to the likelihood of being an evil genius, despite extensive anecdotal evidence in movies.
By the way, the first picture and caption in the article is even funnier than the one shown above. Slightly related: Headless Zombie Bunny
Thursday 21 September 2006
Wednesday 20 September 2006
This was in my mailbox yesterday. It’s been stamped onto the back of a used envelope and cut out with scissors, so I guess Islam has a hitherto unknown punk ethos. It is posed tastefully on a reproduction of an Adolf Wölfli drawing on the cover of a book of translations of Robert Walser’s writings.
Presumably the Pope’s just had one of these slipped under the front door of the Vatican, too. (The Islam thing, not Adolf Wölfli.)
Tuesday 19 September 2006
It would be too funny if in later chapters he conflates artistic and sexual activity!
Patrick White, chapter 4:
He began fiddling, rubbing, masturbating in nervous paint on a narrow board. [...]
He put her out of his mind while his drawn-out orgasm lasted: he had already decided to call this painting ‘Electric City’.
Heh heh oh dear.
If I had to recreate the original prank
of submitting a chapter of White to a publisher in the expectation of being rejected, and had to use The Vivisector
, the first scene between Hurtle and Nance would have suited admirably:
He let down her hair. It fell around them.* [...]
Ahhhh they were flooding together in cataracts of light and darkest deepest velvet.
The whole passage is pretty funny but I can’t be bothered typing the whole thing out. We all know that sex is difficult to write, but White’s attempt to infuse it with a stream-of-consciousness reverie by Hurtle about his childhood only makes things worse.
Nance, by the way, is the Maternal Whore, just in case you thought White had used up all his clichés in the first three chapters. Oh, and later in chapter 4, painting and anal-expulsive behaviour are linked as prosaically as possible. At times it’s like White is simultaneously parodying his novel while writing it.
Perhaps that’s it. Hurtle Duffield’s life as an Australian artist is an imitative parody of life as an artist. The books narrative conceit, and Hurtle’s sense of self, is founded on a sanctimonious, romantic myth of the artist hero, an idea that was in its death throes at the time Hurtle develops into manhood. An impossible idea to convey seriously when the book was written, and one that a “modern” painter like Hurtle can cling to only at the expense of his own relevance to the art he wishes to serve.
The parody turns on Hurtle’s inexplicable, impossible isolation, working like a mad scientist in a B movie; living in a rural shed or suburban Sydney, utterly cut off from any community that would have necessarily, in reality, sustained him. Like an Australian in the world, Hurtle works disconnected from his social context: White explains that Hurtle actively avoids contact with fellow artists. His study in Paris is barely mentioned and seems to have made no impact upon him.
Before the Great War Wyndham Lewis was already publishing manifestos in London, rejecting the judgement and classification of art upon psychic criteria, renouncing the possibility of discerning psychology through paint. Lewis wrote several novels set amongst the artistic community in London. In each of these he depicts artists not as sensitive individuals, but as a pack, a caste, enacting a grotesque, vicious parody of the society from which they disdainfully set themselves apart, needing to exploit each other as much as the greater community at large. The Revenge for Love (1937) focuses on an expatriate Australian painter, whose daily life at home and grappling with his chosen medium are reflected in White’s descriptions of Hurtle painting at home. There is also a strange, siginificant event in the plot common to both works, which I won’t describe for fear of dropping spoilers to either book.
Perhaps I’m too enamoured of Lewis at White’s expense, but White’s most perceptive writing in The Vivisector has come when its world comes closest to Lewis’, in his study of the relationship between Hurtle and Caldicott, his dealer: the two of them cagily playing up to their roles, seeking simultaneously to cajole and dismay.
Incidentally, unlike Hurtle Duffield, Lewis’ Victor Stamp holds no delusions about his own importance, or indeed his own worth as a painter. Realising he will never be any good, what passion he had has dissipated, and he paints in a perpetual state of hapless bemusement.
There was, however, a consolation for these things. But it was a consolation with which he passionately refused to have anything to do. It was this. Most Australian or English artists were little, if any, better than he was himself.
* “Waaah, I’m bald!” she cried. (Sorry – blame The Muppets.)
Thursday 14 September 2006
When you get sworn in as a British citizen at Hackney Town Hall, they play Ray Charles singing “Georgia on My Mind” over the PA while the mayor hands you your papers.
Judging from the incredulous responses I’ve had from everyone I’ve complained to around here, I am the only person in London to have mosquitos in my house.
More about The Vivisector
soon, but right now I’ve got writer’s block.
I just explored one of the last unopened boxes that I packed before leaving Melbourne eighteen months ago. Amongst the electronic gear stuffed inside was an ancient Sony Discman. I popped the lid open and found Disc 2 of a three-CD set of John Cage
‘s Etudes Australes
. It looks like I left the country in a bigger hurry than I remembered.
Kilmartin in Argyll is famous for its bronze age cairns, stone circles and 10th century crosses in Kilmartin churchyard. But this gravestone is what really got me wondering. Is “experiment” used here as a synonym for misadventure? Is it an obsolete piece of medical terminology? Was Jimmy Stewart an infant scientific prodigy with a fatal reckless streak? I can’t help thinking the real explanation is that Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life is based even more closely on real life than I thought.
Saturday 9 September 2006
As alluded to previously
, I went to see one of Keiji Haino’s gigs this week. I don’t mind a bit of Japanese noise from time to time: besides the visceral fun of the extremes of pitch and loudness it possesses a keen awareness of the subtle intricacies of sound and its effects on the listener. But this performance ended up being extremely tiresome, although not because of the monotony of the sound. The gig began with Haino duetting on drums with Chris Corsano, who kept up his frenetic drumming all through the set while Haino switched to electronic noisemakers, then to electric guitar, then voice, then back to those electronics, then guitar again…
At one point he turned his back to audience and checked his watch, like Micky Dolenz on stage at a shopping mall. He wanted to fill up to the maximum the amount of time he was allotted. The extended guitar and drums duo sputtered through three or four false endings, any of which would have been a perfect conclusion – the shattering climax, the relfective coda – but there was always just one more thing that Haino wanted to add. Twenty more minutes and he was like a teenage boy alone in his garage imagining he’s a guitar hero. It was too much of a… thing.
A friend of mine went to a free improv night a few weeks ago and saw a saxophone guy play a great solo, which went for about fifteen minutes. When he’d finished, the bloke organising the night told him to keep playing, because he had another ten minutes or so in his set. Sax guy relented and played a second solo, which was weaker and anticlimactic. If money was at stake, it would have been an amount too trivial to worry about.
It’s amazing how many musicians have no sense of time, who can make great sounds, put them together beautifully, but have no idea how to construct a framework in which those sounds can best be heard. It’s easy to get lost in the moment while performing, either caught up in the uncanny beauty of your own sounds, or just concentrating on keeping things together from one minute to the next. A lot of people, given an amount of time to play, obsessively fill up every available second.
This is not to say that most musicians play for too long, although this is usually the case. It is to say that not enough musicians question the timeframe in which they play, and demand of themselves or others to play in an appropriate duration outside the expected commercial quantity.
My favourite noise gig was hearing Masonna
play, about ten years ago. It was intense, brutal, anarchic and yet completely focussed, and totally disorientating. I knew it was short, but the immersion in sound (John Cage would call it the “now-moment”
) was sufficient for me not to know if it was 30 minutes or 30 seconds. Someone told me later he played for eight minutes, I think, which seemed substantial given his material, and that if he played much longer someone would likely get hurt.
Thursday 7 September 2006
I was trapped for what seemed the better part of a week at a Keiji Haino
gig and so haven’t been able to give nearly as much time to writing as I wished. Analysis and comments of chapters 1-3 of Patrick White’s The Vivisector
abound at the Readers’ Group
What a cynical and complacent piece of hackwork this book is shaping up to be! Having previously gone some way toward talking myself out of liking
White’s work at all, I was prepared to be “surprised” by the novel’s qualities and rediscover depths to his writing that I had forgotten. As it turns out, either I’m more persuasive than I thought or White is still worse than I remembered.
The admired vividness of White’s prose, his descriptions of place and character, keeps getting lost in a muddle of inconsistencies in his style. The most conspicuous but least offensive lapses are the clumsy images he hopes might shock, which read like a self-conscious attempt to build a reputation as an imitator of Kingsley Amis. Then there are the brief shifts to a second-person narration, which appear too frequently to appear to be giving us any particular revelation, and instead come across as a stylistic tic; they do, however, help disguise White’s egregious habit of interpreting his own writing for us. Like a school text, he can’t help deflating the authority of his words by letting an explanatory gloss trail limply after.
To welcome them, Mamman had been wearing an apron over her dress as though she had come from cooking the dinner herself, which of course she hadn’t.
“Oh, Harry,” she said, and when she came up for breath: “It’s been so lonely!” In a house full of maids, and Rhoda, and Miss Gibbons.
As if Mrs Courtney’s capacity for self-delusion needed further explication. Bizarrely, more subtle points are permitted to stand for themselves. (Mrs Courtney once comments while reading Hardy that he means to shock her: is she reading The Mayor of Casterbridge?) You’d like to think the narrator only knows what Hurtle knows to excuse these lapses, but tracking the shifts in narrative tone ultimately dispels this hope.
This is not an assertion that the only worthwhile books are those written, god forbid, in an immaculate, or even consistent, prose style. What makes this book the work of a middlebrow hack is its pandering to the intellectual pretensions of its presumed readership. So far, the plot resembles A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as though it were written by Stephen Dedalus himself, cribbing from the back cover blurb of Jean-Christophe, with a dash of Great Expectations to spice things up. If you haven’t read the book, you can probably invent your own precis of the first quarter of the novel based upon what you already know about other artistic Bildungsromans, or Hollywood movies, and it will match White’s themes pretty closely.
Perhaps (I hope) I’m too thick to have noticed it yet, but I keep waiting for the first sign that the book is about to truly begin, and rise to challenge a single received idea it has indolently offered us. It hasn’t happened. Given his reputation, it is astonishing that White affirms, affirms every bourgeois pseudointellectual commonplace that was the currency of mid-century chattering. The special child who stands apart from his peers. The Artist as an individual possessed by a vision no-one else can understand. A boy’s sexual curiosity as an adjunct to his artistic insight (it would be too funny if in later chapters he conflates artistic and sexual activity!) Salt of the earth working class versus pretentious, decadent upper class. Mutual antipathies and alliances between siblings. Distasteful Freudian aspects of family life which simmer and – yes! – boil over. The squalour of everyday life for the common man. An unbroken list of cliches, all permitted to sit undisturbed for 170 pages and counting.
It is the book that “Makes Us Look Smart
, because it follows the rules we’ve been taught to explicate.” And White has thoughtfully written his own Cliff Notes into the text, in case we are too busy to understand what we’ve just read.