Thursday, 31 July 2008

The Wire - Season One

After watching The Sopranos in its entirety in one fell swoop last year I was left exhilarated and bereft, worried that I may not be able to enjoy anything on television ever again as it could only fail to live up to the genius of David Chase's 'family' drama.

There has been a lot of positive stuff written about David Simon's series, particularly in The Guardian recently which means that as I began watching there was a heavy burden on its shoulders. Set in Baltimore, a city familiar to those who watched the brilliant Homicide: Life On The Street, this is a complex drama following drug dealers and the police who are watching them. It is uncompromising stuff and the first few episodes left me a little confused, often reaching for the rewind button to go back over conversations. The writers don't feel the need to explain everything they write, crediting the audience with some intelligence (which makes a nice change) but also having total confidence in their material. This is a slow burn series and as the characters are introduced and developed the plot progresses.

As the series tag-line says: Listen Carefully. The slang used by those on the street is sometimes like listening to a different language, tuning your ear in takes time, but this is an experience mirrored by the police themselves who as they listen in on 'the wire' have to decode the phrases used that detail the movement of drugs and the committing of violence in order to place themselves a step ahead. The language used by the police themselves is complex. The legalese, the police slang or simply the detail of genuine speech between friends and colleagues is left for us to sort through but the experience of keeping pace and sometimes having that breakthrough moment where knowledge dawns on you meant that I felt I was following the investigation of the case in real time rather than having the privilege of foresight which is often gifted to the audience.

This is truly an ensemble piece, as evinced by the alphabetical cast list in the opening credits, but one name comes before that and if the program has a leading character it is Dominic West's detective Jimmy McNulty. A hard drinking cop with a failed marriage and questionable parenting skills is a risky leading man but the series is all about moral ambiguity. We are encouraged not to see the cops as good and the dealers as bad. In fact for large parts of the first series we see the dealers abiding by their rules and code whilst the cops bend theirs and behave appallingly towards each other. McNulty is hated by his boss (especially as it was his out-of-turn conversation with a judge which forced him to assemble the team for this case originally), his wife, his lover and some of his colleagues. He even hates himself. But the case he builds against Avon Barksdale and his crew becomes a personal crusade of redemption which brings him right to the edge. The kind of man who uses his own children to help him tail a suspect (and loses them in a market in the process) is not what his colleagues might term 'good police' but we follow him and feel ourselves rewarded with those flashes of integrity which keep him pushing the case along when the powers that surround him threaten to collapse it.

It is a mark of the scale of the program that it encompasses not just the bureaucracy of police work, or the politics in the office, but the politics above and beyond it. The chain of command is one thing but the greasy pole of promotion means that those with ambition have to keep things well oiled. It is difficult to maintain integrity when everyone seemingly has to make compromises in order to move up. Even the investigation itself as it follows 'the money' will uncover corruption at the highest levels. With the recent scandals involving political donations in the UK it is worth pointing out that the American political system actively encourages ignorance of the source of political donations.

At the other end of the scale we see not just the dealers but the users themselves; the men and women who amongst the warren of 'low risers' and 'towers' that make up social housing have never been the given a chance. One character, Bubbles, is brought vividly to life by Andre Royo. The marked and scarred skin on his face, the missing tooth, the twitches and facial tics that mark him as a man in the grip of addiction are subtly devastating. His attempts to go clean and straight are heartbreaking as with a small look of concern or worry we see how much it means to him and so, eventually, to us. Most of the other addicts are shown to be animals, doing whatever is necessary to survive, literally crawling all over each other at one point when free vials of heroin are tossed into the air.

This is a human drama, a family drama, literally with Avon Barksdale and his nephew D'Angelo (whose acquittal in the first episode sparks the investigation), but also symbolically amongst his wider organisation and of course the police. Because the series takes its time in establishing the characters without relying on the shorthand of recognisable traits the characters feel fully rounded. We don't have to understand them or even like them to be interested in what they do and why they do it. And crucially it is our involvement in their stories, rather than the plot itself which will bring us back for another series. I can't wait to get going on series two and if you haven't already I seriously recommend you get going on number one. It takes at least six or seven episodes to get its teeth into you but by then you'll be hooked, an addict like the rest of us.


Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

Ok, so it was Tuesday night, there wasn't anything on and this was on pay-per-view. Based on the true story of one congressman's efforts in fighting a covert war in Afghanistan it is fairly lighthearted fun which I will probably have entirely forgotten by the time I've finished writing this.

Tom Hanks plays the man from Texas on Capitol Hill, first seen in a hot-tub with strippers and a Playmate whilst cocaine does the rounds. Almost never without a glass of whiskey he isn't the obvious facilitator of funding for the mujahadeen in Afghanistan. The woman pushing his buttons is the wealthy and anti-communist socialite Julia Roberts. Together with the guidance of CIA man Philip Seymour Hoffman, Wilson brings together Israel, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and America in an unlikely alliance against the Soviets. Hanks is on reliable form enjoying the character of a man who's hiring policy in the office is 'you can teach them to type but you can't teach them to grow tits'. Roberts does well in a small role but most of the laughs come from Hoffman whose belligerent spy deals in the uncomfortable truth from behind his ever present shades. The film deals with the politics pretty lightly and seems to take quite a long time to make a fairly simple point. It lacks the skill employed in another Hanks film 'Catch Me If You Can' which made a real entertainment from the life of fraudster Frank Abagnale. Not to worry though, it filled a couple of hours nicely enough.


Tuesday, 22 July 2008

TV dinner


Friday, 18 July 2008

what lies beneath

by Edward Hogan

A novel set in a mining village during the 1980's might lead you to expect something rather predictable; gritty northerners, trouble down't pit and plenty of politics. But with his first novel Hogan has created something far more interesting and unworldly. The cover gives some sense of that; the ethereal glow of the dress and the pale skin beneath it, not to mention that this is a woman at the centre of the story. The strange circumstances of her death are the secret that haunts this story, and the efforts of her son to uncover that past provide the second strand of Hogan's narrative. But the title is important too. The village of Blackmoor is as much a character in this book as any of its inhabitants, and just as John Burnside created such a haunting presence with Innertown in his recent novel Glister, Hogan skillfully creates a myth around another landscape eaten away by industry.

Beth has always been marked out as different. Born 'a long shot' on the 29th February 1956 'the doctor noticed her extreme pallor and that extreme movement of the eyes. The pupils swayed slowly from side to side, or else trembled like a clenched fist'. Her albinism has always made others keep their distance, but George Cartwright becomes fascinated by her at school, almost stalking her, and eventually these two outcasts are married. After the birth of their son, Vincent, Beth suffers from severe post-natal depression and the strains on their marriage are only exacerbated by the events in Blackmoor.

After the collapse of the mining industry Blackmoor is a village in decay. What Hogan avoids is the '...romanticized idea of coalmining towns, informed mainly by the funny parts of the film Kes and repeats of Ridley Scott's Hovis advertisment on The Best One Hundred Adverts of All Time.' The men still frequent the Miner's Clubs, searching for a new purpose in life whilst the mine below them fills with water and dangerous gases. The Cartwright's lawn seems to be hot and other villagers experience sightings of blue flames and noxious air. The politics of the novel come when the villagers unite to tackle British Coal as they begin to question the safety of the very ground beneath their feet. Hogan shows with subtlety the fragility of community when the roles that people have previously played in it are ended or brought into question. People are quick to snap or look for blame and both George, but especially his wife Beth find themselves on the wrong end of the villagers glances.

Hogan's writing is filled with well observed detail and idiomatic language. The sense of the surrounding landscape is strong throughout as well as the struggles of the characters who inhabit it.

'Tell you what, you look outside and you just think, this place is billions of years old. Those trees. They're going to be here when I've disintegrated, and maybe a hundred million years or whatever, they'll be a seam of coal ready for some twat to set another bloody village on. We've been here for, what, a century? It's bugger all. Just a graze. Like a kid scratching around in the mud. We don't mean anything to it.'

As Beth tries to explain to an outsider 'everything here is used or used up or burnt out'. She will be the one to absorb so much of the poison and her fragilities are rendered with a surprising vigour. In the aftermath, Vincent's struggles to grow up and his slow discovery of the past are very touching. With such an impressive début, Hogan may be one to watch.


Thursday, 17 July 2008

Fancy yourself as a director?

Not content with shaking up the music industry by giving their album away for free, Radiohead are at it again. This time they have created a video for new single House of Cards without using conventional cameras or lighting and then made the data available 'open source' for anyone to create their own version of the video. You can read more about the science in this article from The Guardian and see the original video below. If you do have a go there's a group on You Tube for you to show off the results. Go on, he's ready for his close up.


Joan As Police Woman

What a joy to discover an artist already past the debut album stage. Joan Wasser has already been through so much in her life that there is also a maturity to her music missing from many over-hyped new artists. A classically trained musician, who gained notoriety first as the lover of Jeff Buckley at the time of his death, she has grown in confidence as a singer in her own right after collaborations with Antony Hegarty (of Antony and The Johnsons) and Rufus Wainwright. The band name came about as a means to distinguish herself from her violinist persona and comes from Police Woman, a 70's cop show with a strong female lead. How appropriate.

Joan As Police Woman - Christobel

Her first album, Real Life, begins with a simply beautiful title track. Just piano and her voice and startlingly honest lyrics, 'It's true what they say about me/That I'm out of mind/But I think that you like it/So take the chance/Be reckless, with me/'Cause I'm real life'. It's almost so good that the rest of the album can't quite match its simple brilliance but worry not, it's a fantastic album. Most of the tracks are led by piano or keyboard but that doesn't begin to hint at the variety of styles she is able to create. The musicianship is top class and the album interesting from start to finish. She gets Antony Hegarty to back her on I Defy in which we hear him in uncharacteristically abandoned form. Christobel brings in some electric guitars and a faster pace (as well as having a chorus which sounds vaguely as though she may be singing 'Chris De Burgh. . .'). I wish I'd heard it when it was released.

Joan As Police Woman - To Survive

Her follow up To Survive comes after the death of her mother from breast cancer and contains more fantastic and honest song writing. The title track this time a song from a mother to her child - 'I know what it means to be sad/It never goes/So learn to hold it close as a friend/'Cause we never know/How much we can take/Before we break' - suffused with emotion and building like a big number from a musical (I mean this in a positive way). There are many different styles again from the gently insistent To Be Lonely to the big album closer To America with backing from Rufus Wainwright. Admittedly some tracks work better than others but there is consistent quality throughout in terms of both musicianship and vocals. Along with Leslie Feist and Martha Wainwright, Joan Wasser is flying the flag for female songwriters at the moment and they've never been stronger.


Sunday, 13 July 2008

classic geek

The Gone-Away World
by Nick Harkaway

In the film Sleep With Me, Quentin Tarantino makes a cameo appearance in which he delivers a monologue about how Top Gun is actually a film about a man's struggle with his homosexuality. It's a hilarious bit of movie geekdom and well worth finding on YouTube if only because it's difficult to imagine Tom Cruise's lawyers letting a film maker get away with it now. Reading this book is at times like being stuck in a conversation with Tarantino at a party, with his geeky knowledge of film, his energetic delivery, all of it accompanied by plenty of gesticulation and likely to end with some spittle on your shirt-front.

Nick Harkaway is John Le Carré's son, let's get that out of the way. He was also reportedly paid a £300,000 advance for this, his début novel, let's get that out of the way too. However you may feel about either of those things, the success or failure of this book is bound to depend on how you feel about a novel which reads like a sci-fi/horror/eco/kung-fu/tech thriller/war movie mash up - with a twist (which I'm afraid I guessed near the beginning, leading to a sense of deflation when it was revealed after 400 pages). Whatever the weaknesses, there is no doubt that Harkaway writes with immense energy and imagination, creating an extraordinary vision of an alternative Earth devastated by catastrophic war.

The Go Away War is so called after the weapon which almost leads to the destruction of all life on the planet. The Go Away bomb doesn't destroy the enemy so much as make it disappear by removing the information which holds our atoms together as us rather than anything else. It is supposed to be clean, with no fallout, but in a thrilling set piece Harkaway shows the awful consequences of playing with physics on an elemental level ('matter stripped of information becomes Stuff...it hangs around, desperate for new information. It becomes hungry'). With millions dead or missing the construction of the Jorgmund Pipe creates the Liveable Zone, a narrow band around the planet which remains habitable for the survivors and it is in this environment we meet Gonzo Lubitsch and his crew. As part of the pioneering group who built the pipe they are the first to be called in when a fire threatens to destroy it, and by extension of course the human race. Gonzo is a hero in the American mold; jock turned special operative he knows how to do, he is a man of action. Our narrator however is not Gonzo but his right hand man if you like and he, like Tarantino, has a brain which bounces from here to there like a pinball, making it pretty hard going to keep up at times. When he has a wound superglued together he can't resist letting us know that 'this is what superglue is actually for'. This is what I mean by geeky, the text is punctuated by interruptions and parentheses, the spittle on your shirt. Every now and then a little gem comes along (as when he describes government as 'not so much a journey as a series of emergency stops and arguments over which way to hold the map') but it's not enough to make you want to get any closer to him.

There is a ridiculously colourful cast including Master Wu the gong-fu teacher, Ike Thermite the leader of a mime troupe and Ronnie Cheung military fight instructor with an appropriately filthy vocabulary. Some work better than others but it's difficult to really connect with any of them. It's broad brushstrokes all the way in a novel heavily influenced by films like The Matrix, Karate Kid, Apocalypse Now and Fight Club. It could have been an anti-war novel to rival Catch 22 or On The Beach but it lacks the focus required to go down as a classic. What it really needs is a hefty edit. Maybe the publishers wanted to get their money's worth and there are certainly a lot of ideas bustling around its 530 pages but they could have been marshalled better. The real strengths lie not in its variety but the genuine horror of Harkaway's depiction of conflict. After finishing it I was glad I'd picked up my copy for £4 rather than the cover price of £18. I wonder how Heinemann are feeling about the £300,000 advance now.


Tuesday, 8 July 2008

'let it be printed'

by Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti


official approval for something to be printed, usually given by the Roman Catholic Church [New Latin: let it be printed]

The title of this historical novel contains a huge irony. Despite its first printing selling well in Italy the publishers decided not to reprint. The authors claimed interference by the Catholic Church who had begun the process of canonising Pope Innocent XI, featured in this novel as far from saintly. Whether the conspiracies are true or not, it would have been a crime for this book not to have reached more readers (as it stands the novel has been translated into 20 languages with over 1 million copies sold to date).

There have been comparisons to The Name Of The Rose and, inevitably, The Da Vinci Code but having not read either of those I'm not best placed to compare. It is certainly a well researched historical thriller filled with plots, plague and papal intrigue and perhaps most interestingly comes on the back of genuine discoveries made by the two authors whilst researching their non-fiction work. You can read more about that here but let's get back to the novel. It is 1683 and whilst the citizens of Rome wait for news from the siege of Vienna, where the Ottoman Empire threatens to spread across Western Europe, the guests of the Locanda del Donzello are being held in quarantine. After the death of one of the guests from what is suspected to be the pestilence, the doors are shut up and our cast of colourful characters confined. I'll leave it to our narrator:

Here was I, a prisoner in a cramped hostelry which was suspected, with good reason now, of harbouring the plague. Hardly had I succeeded in shaking off that terror, thanks to the words of the physician, who foretold my resistance to infection, when Melani came telling that I ran the risk of leaving the Locanda del Donzello only to find Rome invaded by the sanguinary followers of Mahomet. I had always known that I could count only on the kindness of a very few persons, among them Pelligrino, who had generously saved me from the hardships and dangers of life; this time, however, I could count only on the (surely not disinterested) company of a castrato abbot and spy, whose precepts were for me almost exclusively a source of fear and anguish. And the inn's other lodgers? A bilious-tempered Jesuit, a shady and inconstant gentleman from the Marches, a brusque-mannered French guitarist, a Tuscan physician whose ideas were confused and perhaps even dangerous, together with my master and Bedfordi, who lay supine in their beds.

The only person he's missed there is Cloridia, a courtesan, but the list is colourful enough I'm sure you'll agree. Atto Melani, the castrato spy, is, incredibly, a genuine man who used his status as a diplomat to move around the Europe of this period on behalf of Louis XIV. It is he that enlists the help of our narrator, the foundling turned prentice, and the two form an unlikley Holmes and Watson as they piece together the mystery surrounding the death of Mourai and the indispositions of Pelligrino, the hostel owner, and Bedfordi. The quarantine creates the enclosed setting familiar from the crime novels of Agatha Christie but it isn't long before a discovery at the Locanda opens things up. Concealed within one of the walls is the entrance to a system of tunnels and passages that run underneath the city. From here Melani and his assistant are able to conduct their nocturnal excursions and meet two more fantastic characters. Hidden in the dark tunnels they stumble upon Ciacconio and Ugonio, two of the corpisantari, who hunt for relics in the labyrinth of tunnels, feeding themselves off the city itself. They are almost polar opposites; Ugonio's melliflous speech hilarious in its embellishments whilst Ciacconio is capable of repeating only the same 'Gfrrrlubh' which is translated by his companion to mean anything and everything. Together the two of them aid our detectives with their in depth knowledge of subterranean Rome and entertain us the reader with their unique forms of expression.

I have to be very careful of course in revealing too much of the plot but there is a very simple reason why such an interesting array of characters find themselves together in a hostel. 'Remember: the world is full of people who want to flee their own past.' In the true nature of a murder mysteries everyone is a potential suspect, each with their own secrets and as the corpisantari know, 'There are things that cannot remain buried.' With a wealth of research and historical detail behind them Monaldi and Sorti create a fully realised picture of Rome and the political machinations of State and Church across the whole of Europe at the time. If they sometimes wear that research a little too proudly, slowing up proceedings and making the prose a tad cumbersome in places, it is a forgivable sin when they clearly have such zeal for their material. The translation keeps the writing as fluid as possible and Peter Burnett clearly has a lot of fun with the utterances of Ugonio. Take this barrage of obscenity released on his companion.

'You soursaggy old scumskinned, batskinned, sow-skinned, scrunchbacked, sodomitic, skinaflinter, you puking mewlbrat, you muddy-snouted, slavering, sarcophagus shitebeetle, you bumsquibcracking sicomoron, you slimy old scabmutcheon-shysteroo, you shittard, sguittard, crackard, filthard, lily-lvered, lycanthropic, eunichon-bastradion-bumfodder-billicullion-ballockatso, you gorbellied doddipol, calflolly jobbernol, you grapple-snouted netherwarp, you clarty-frumpled, hummthrumming, tuzzle-wenching, placket-racket, dregbilly lepidopter, you gnat-snapping, weedgrubbing, blither-blather, bilge-bottled, ockham-cockam pederaster'.

Try getting some of those past your spell-checker. It is when the novel is written with this kind of humour or the breakneck pace of the final hundred or so pages that it is most enjoyable (in a Da Vinci Code kind of way I guess), but there is plenty of erudition for those looking for echoes of Eco. My guess is that it probably falls somewhere between the two whilst trying to pre-empt our criticism of its influences with an opening letter and addendum to accompany the 'manuscript' we are reading, explaining its providence and veracity as a genuine document whilst also pointing out the conventionality of its plotting. These parts of the book feel rather unnecessary, especially after the real intrigue that went on to surround the books publication. Its bestseller status shows that they've got something right even if it isn't with the backing of the Vatican (who may be worried about the planned follow up Secretum).


Saturday, 5 July 2008

Lubo Alexandrov's Kaba Horo @ Cargo, London

As I've mentioned before, I have a baby. Which means that I also have no social life. None. Whatsoever. So when the opportunity came to go out for an evening I was initially a bit confused; how does it work again? Going to see a film seemed a bit dull. A play; a bit of a busman's holiday. A meal; we eat all the time. A gig however; now you're talking. Live music, there's nothing quite like it. So a quick look at Time Out online for music on Friday 4th July threw up, well, not much to be honest, certainly not much I'd heard of so I decided to be brave and take a punt. Critics choice was Lubo Alexandrov's Kaba Horo ('raw dance') described as an: 'Exhilirating Quebecois-Bulgarian outfit mixing up Balkan dance, tuneful Roma ditties and Turkish melodies, alongside funk, jazz and drum 'n' bass, led by guitarist Alexandrov'. Mental, let's do it.

Cargo is one of those trendy East London spots with overpriced tapas and clientèle competing with each other for the most creative hairdo. There is graffiti on the walls of the bar outside, one piece by Banksy now behind a protective perspex shield (which kind of defeats the object of graffiti doesn't it?). As we ate and drank, savouring the relatively pleasant summer evening, the area filled up with London's Balkan community and soon enough it was time for us to head in and start nodding our heads.

Lubo Alexandrov himself is a tall, cheeky looking chap who played guitar and with him was a bassist, accordion player, a guy on flute type thing, drummer and percussionist. You'll notice my lack of knowledge about the exact instruments and indeed any of the many musical influences but what proceeded was a fantastic night of music and dance. For those in the know there were lots of traditional tunes which got many of the crowd dancing and jumping up and down. For a few songs we were treated to a belly dancer who wore the biggest smile of the evening and inspired a couple of the crowd to jump up on stage and have a go themselves. All of the musicians were fantastic, each given their own moment to shine, and combining all of the different styles with energy and humour.

Visit their website to hear some of the music and if you ever find yourself at a loose end in London and you see their name on the bill anywhere, take a punt. You may just have the best night out in, well, like I said, ages.


Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Tricky - Knowle West Boy

Tricky - Slow

There's a bit of a Bristol revival at the moment what with Massive Attack curating this year's Meltdown festival and new albums from Portishead and Tricky's first muse Martina Topley-Bird. Adrian Thaws to give him his proper name, a leading light of the nineties 'trip-hop' scene, has struggled to reach the heights of his debut Maxinquaye with subsequent releases, and whilst he doesn't quite manage it with his latest either it is certainly his strongest material since then. He's enlisted plenty of support along the way and the album has an eclectic mix of sounds but most gratifying to hear, from one who potentially could have disappeared into an apathetic haze of spliff smoke, is some real creative energy being thrown at things.

Nowhere is this energy more prevalent than on the first single Council Estate about which Tricky said 'Council Estate is just me... that song is the upbringing me and friends had. It's the first single I've ever done with just me on vocals. I couldn't whisper that song. I had to come out of myself and do a loud, screaming vocal. I wanted to be a proper frontman on that one.' And boy, is he. It's a furious number, just over two and half minutes of competing sounds but with humour in its refrain of 'Remember boy, you're a superstar'. The next track Past Mistake is fantastic, very reminiscent of his past glories with a gorgeous female vocal from Lubua (an ex-girlfriend). She also features on the album closer School Gates which tells the (true) story of a teenage pregnancy and is another highlight. Puppy Toy is a bluesy bar room brawler. Coalition is an angry track about war in the modern world underscored by fractured strings (which reminded me of Faultline's album Closer Colder) as Tricky intones 'You can get your happy meal/In your happy car/You can make more money, more money/But here you are'. The album also contains one of the most unlikely cover versions in Slow which Tricky fleshes out with guitars and his own insistent vocal, injecting much more feeling and urgency than Kylie's anaemic original.

These are just my favourites. There's also ragga and rock as well as rap and more female vocals to enjoy. The albums eclecticism may be the problem but it's a much better problem to have than a lack of imagination. Rappers often talk about "keepin' it real" and "goin' back to the streets" but at the age of 40, in looking back at his past in Bristol, the Knowle West Boy has shown there's a real chance of a bright musical future.


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