Why we do what we do

Thursday 21 September 2006

“The opportunity to hear lousy music live is greatly underrated.”

Advanced East London Evangelical Techniques

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.)

The Vivisector: Another chapter, another cliché

Tuesday 19 September 2006

Me, reading chapter 3 of Patrick White’s The Vivisector:
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.* […]
… Nance was holding the Delicious Monster against her periwinkle of a navel. […]
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.)

Advanced East London Citizenship Ceremony Techniques

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.

Memo to self: do not sleep with Judy Davis

Monday 11 September 2006

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.

Of late; real late.

Monday 11 September 2006

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.

He died at WHAT!?

Sunday 10 September 2006

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.

A brief history of time

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.

Vivisector month, week one wrapup

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.

Fucking with things you don’t understand

Tuesday 5 September 2006

On Tuesday, Australia’s federal parliament paused to honour Mr Irwin, whom Prime Minister John Howard said had died in “quintessentially Australian circumstances”.

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.