Thursday, 29 January 2009

2666 - The Part About Fate

The skill of the translator is a difficult thing to quantify. It is often when the writing seems effortless, when you don't notice the translation, that you know you are reading a really good one. The scope of this novel, and the range of Bolaño's writing gives Natasha Wimmer an opportunity to show just how good she is. This third section, telling the story of Oscar Fate (it's a nick-name loaded with portent), is immediately different in style. As someone who reads a lot of American fiction it had begins with that reassuring tone of realism, of statement, feeling almost Chandleresque.
Fate is a journalist for 'Black Dawn', a small Harlem magazine focusing on black-interest stories, and is still it seems reeling from the death of his mother. When he is assigned to cover a boxing match in Mexico he feels professionally out of depth and with the unfamiliar surroundings Bolaño creates a brilliant sense of unease. This is a man with his centre missing; he feels unaccountably sick to the stomach, unable to focus clearly and the creeping sense of unreality blurs the distinction between what is real and what he dreams. It is hard to articulate what this feels like until Bolaño does it for you. In a conversation with a motel clerk the name David Lynch pops up and that's when you realise why it all feels so vivid without being tangible.

Whilst in Mexico Fate gets to hear about the killings, the mysterious deaths of maybe two hundred women.

"That's a lot for one person," he said.
"That's right amigo. Too many. Even for a Mexican killer."
"And how are they killed?" asked Fate.
"Nobody's sure. They disappear. They vanish into thin air, here one minute, gone the next. And after awhile their bodies turn up in the desert"

Without the support of his editor and with little interest in the fight (Bolaño does one of his brilliant undercuts by describing the warm-up bout with flair and then dispensing with the disappointing big fight in a few lines) Fate gets drawn into the story, first through a female reporter and then through Rosa Amalfitano (daughter of the professor from parts 1 and 2) and a group of friends around her. That sense of unease I mentioned earlier builds as the pace of the plot ratchets up, Fate becoming convinced that Rosa is in danger, perhaps in line to be the next victim. Rather than this simply being an increase in pace, it is an increase in style, the language subtly warping so that as this section reaches its conclusion you are as confused as Fate himself, and perhaps as nauseous.

Even in a throw away conversation about the advent of the multiplex and the death of the cinema experience Bolaño is able to throw the doors open onto something which reaches much further, something he calls the end of the sacred.

The end had begun somewhere, Charly Cruz didn't care where, maybe in the churches,when the priests stopped celebrating the Mass in Latin, or in families, when the fathers (terrified, believe me brother) left the mothers. Soon the end of the sacred came to movies.

The breakdown of society is palpable, but without feeling grandly apocalyptic, it's hidden in the shadows at the corner of the room. That is what makes the killings possible as an overheard conversation in a restaurant makes clearer. A 'white-haired man' discusses how the many deaths of those outside society go unremarked, whilst the single murder within it becomes a headline. And then, throwing those doors open again,

'In the nineteenth century...society tended to filter death through the fabric of words...We didn't want death in the home, or in our dreams and fantasies, and yet it was a fact that terrible crimes were committed..Everything changes you say. Of course everything changes, but not the archetypes of crime, not any more than human nature changes'

How's that for a theme? I have a feeling that the 'white-haired man' will have more to say.


Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

It is almost unfair to review this film after having recently read Rohinton Mistry's superb novel, set in Mumbai, A Fine Balance. How can a film (itself adapted from a novel - Vikas Swarup's Q and A) possibly compare favourably with the detail and breadth achievable in a novel of 600-plus pages. It can't. But I'm not sure that I would be waxing lyrical about this film even if I hadn't been spoilt beforehand. I'm going to sound a mite curmudgeonly by raining on the parade of 'the feel-good film of the decade' (a baffling description of a film containing so much misery and violence) but I'm sure Danny Boyle is a bigger man and his film will doubtless pick up at least one Oscar, the Americans clearly having gone for this primary-coloured take on class, hope and the Indian dream.

The first problem is the structure. How did a boy from the slums, who grows up to become a chai-wallah in a call centre get to be on India's biggest game-show facing the 10,000,000 rupee question? How could he possibly know all the answers up to that point, asks the policeman interrogating him on suspicion of cheating. The highly contrived answer is that through his tough life he picked up the answers to the very questions he happened to face. The University of Life is almost beyond the realms of cliché. We also all know the format of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire so for it to be presented as a live show in order to allow the pulse racing climax just adds to the contrivance.

The pulse racing is another issue. There is barely a shot which isn't filmed with the camera tilted to one side or the other. The frenetic cutting and soundtrack is exciting for the films opening scenes of slum children racing through narrow alleyways pursued by police or a great moment when our hero graphically demonstrates his determination to meet his film-star idol. But as the film progresses I found myself wishing he'd just put the camera on a static tripod and let the actors do some acting (this makes me feel that Steve McQueen's Hunger - featuring a 20 minute long single-take may be more up my street). That said, the acting on the whole is fine, especially from some of the children. Dev Patel, the lead, actually doesn't get a huge amount to do except look worried so his nomination for a best actor BAFTA seems a bit generous.

Anyone who has read A Fine Balance will know the complexity of the relationship between Beggarmaster and his charges, something this film fails to even begin to tackle. It's all a bit black and white, goodies and baddies, with interesting relationships like that between the two brothers, or even between Jamal and the gameshow host, not given enough time to be explored and developed. As for the feel-good factor it should be a victory which shows the price paid for it but with the Bollywood dance ending it's a bit like those moments at the end of Shakespeare's comedies when everyone gets paired off and does a country reel, brushing all the untidiness under the carpet. I know I'm going to be in the minority here and perhaps I'm missing the point (this is a filmic film, which transcends reality?) but all too often in seems that a tricksy camera move or effect is preferable to some decent script. It's been made too easy and palatable in order to maximise its appeal, which is why it'll be a huge success but probably won't be remembered in a few years time.


Monday, 26 January 2009

2666 - The Part About Amalfitano

In the first section of this novel when three critics go to visit the home of the professor assigned to guide them they are bemused to discover a book hanging on the washing line. A book of geometry written by a poet and hanging on a line not to dry, having clearly been there for some time, but hanging there with some purpose.
The character of Amalfitano doesn't make a great impression on the critics initially and in the second, and shortest, section of this book we go back a little in time to see the breakdown of his mind following the loss of his wife. She wishes to visit a poet in an asylum, a poet she claims to have slept with before she met Amalfitano (something he knows to be false, knowing him to be gay and having introduced her to the poets work himself) and leaves him caring for their daughter, keeping him updated on her exploits in a series of bizarre letters.

It isn't until seven years later that he sees her again, and then only briefly, the madness in her letters and this last visit perhaps providing the tug that begins the gradual unravelling of Amalfitano's mind. It begins with the book, which he doesn't remember buying or receiving, a book which clearly represents the one we ourselves are reading:

On the front flap, the reader was informed that the Testamento Geometrico was really three books, "each independent, but functionally correlated by the sweep of the whole" and then it said "this work representing the final distillation of Dieste's reflections...

Borrowing an idea from Duchamp he hangs the book on his washing line 'to see if it learns something about real life', much to the chagrin of his daughter, 'You're getting crazier every day, you know'. And indeed he is. He begins to hear a voice talking to him, finds that he has doodled diagrams and lists that make no sense. As his story progresses a distance opens up between him and the other people in his life, the text becomes dominated by his intellectual ramblings, and we get closer and closer to 'the melancholy literature professor put out to pasture in his own field' of the first section.

Despite being only 65 pages long it isn't an easy read. No paragraphs and the sluggish energy make it harder work than it should be but I'm going to take heart from Amalfitano's reaction to meeting a man whose taste in books restricts him to the safer, minor efforts of the classic writers (The Metamorphosis rather than The Trial, Bartleby over Moby Dick)

What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choses the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters strugggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.


Saturday, 24 January 2009

2666 - The Part About The Critics

In The Savage Detectives, Bolaño's riotous road-movie of a novel, a small group of writers head off into the deserts of Mexico on the trail of an enigmatic poet who has been missing for years. In the first part of his final work, 2666, we again join the search for a mysterious writer, this time a novelist, that will take us to Mexico once again but also encompassing the Europe that is his homeland and also that of his pursuers. There is something immediately comic about the set-up as we meet our four critics (one female, three male), one each from England (Norton), Italy (Morini), Spain (Espinoza) and France (Pelletier), making it sound like the beginning of a dirty joke. Which isn't as far off the mark as it sounds.

United by their admiration for the improbably named German writer Benno von Archimboldi they meet first at conferences and lectures, becoming a cohesive group when in opposition to a rival faction of 'Archimboldians'. As their meetings increase in frequency so the professional lines begin to blur and Pelletier and Espinoza embark on their own seperate affairs with Norton. These marathon sex sessions seem to provide the only excitement or meaning in their otherwise dry existences. The tedium of conference after conference and the frustrating search for Archimboldi himself (who has only ever been seen by his publisher and a handful of others) is all too effectively conveyed, the sex punctuating the text much like the dots which separate each of the short sections. As only academics could, both men discuss their relations, openly aware of the other's involvement, but both of them powerless to get what they want from the relationship. Another man in Norton's life warns them both away invoking the image of the gorgon Medusa which recurs later. The tension between them actually acts like a glue, keeping them together, with only the invalided Morini excluded (although he too is aware of what is going on). This tension finds a release when the three of them savagely beat a Pakistani taxi driver who insults them, an event as surprising as it is brutal.

When they stopped kicking him they were sunk for a few seconds in the strangest calm of their lives. It was as if they'd finally had the ménage à trois they'd so often dreamed of.

One lead in their search for Archimboldi takes them to Mexico where they are guided by Amalfitano, a professor whom the group first view negatively, trusting him more when they realise his scholarship but remaining baffled by much of that he says. Here we get some of Bolaño's trademark humour, the puncturing of pomposity, as when Amalfitano finishes rambling after two and half paragraph-less pages about 'the relationship of Mexican intellectuals with power'.

"I don't understand a word you've said," said Norton.
"Really I've just been talking nonsense, said Amalfitano.

Away from the grey officialdom of Europe we also get more of the evocative images Bolaño seems to conjure effortlessly ('The sky, at sunset, looked like a carnivorous flower'), bringing a dark-hued colour to the writing.

It certainly stands on its own as a novella, but I'm sure that if I was reading it as a stand alone work I'd be left feeling a little unsatisfied. The emptiness at the centre of each of the critics, which would presumably be filled by their finding Archimboldi, remains vacant; filled by their unsatisfactory personal relationships which reach a, dare I say it, predictable conclusion.

What isn't predictable with a writer like Bolaño is what will come next.


Friday, 23 January 2009

2666 ÷ 5 = ?

I'm doing it. I'm reading the big one. Roberto Bolaño's final work before his death in 2003 is the 900 page epic '2666'. A note at the front of the book explains that Bolaño's wish had been for the five parts of novel to be published as separate books, one per year, to help provide for his children's future. Respecting the artistic value of the work, this decision was reversed by his executors and so it comes to us first as a hefty opus. Given that it's going to take some time to get through, I thought I'd post my initial thoughts on each section before attempting a grand view of the work as a whole. I have no idea whether that will add anything to the experience but I guess we'll see.


Thursday, 22 January 2009


I'll keep this brief. A wonderful script, perfect casting and a story that manages to be sweet without making you want to barf, Juno is that rare thing: a film which has something genuinely original about it. A tale of teenage pregnancy may not have you rushing to the video store (does anybody use those anymore?) but it isn't the details of the plot which make it a joy, rather it's the very real journey of the characters as they all learn to deal with the consequences of Juno's pregnancy. The timid, boyish father of the child, the cool as a cucumber best friend, the ever supportive father and the uptight couple who aim to adopt the baby, all have things to learn about being an adult.

Diablo Cody who wrote the script (and won an Academy Award for it) has some amazing ways of phrasing things but also some real empathy for her characters, especially the teenage girls Juno and Leah. Ellen Page as Juno is utterly engaging, seeming to inhabit the part rather than act it (something which is even more obvious when you watch the screen tests on the DVD). As I've said already the casting is peerless, not a single weak link, the actors clearly relishing the opportunity to get their teeth into some dialogue which contains character rather than plot development. It takes the first couple of scenes to tune your ear in, and it may be that many will find the film to be relentlessly quirky. Many elements of the film have a whiff of Wes Anderson, especially the intrusive soundtrack, but underneath it all is affection and heart and the kind of warmth that keeps your interest to the end. The ending manages to leave you feeling good without feeling patronised by a neat and tidy finish which shows that the film makers have the kind of maturity, the discovery of which, the film is all about.


Tuesday, 20 January 2009


The Comfort of Things
by Daniel Miller

In David Fincher's brilliant adaptation of Fight Club there is a scene where the camera pans around the flat of our Narrator. As he describes all his lovely 'stuff' the names of each piece of furniture pop up on screen, IKEA catalogue style. We also see him flicking through a catalogue like it's pornography. This is a man who clearly loves his things as we find when his entire flat is destroyed, 'That condo was my life, okay? I loved every stick of furniture in that place. That was not just a bunch of stuff that got destroyed, it was ME!'. But his 'friend' Tyler Durden wants to free him from this materialism, 'The things you own, end up owning you', he says, and so begins the rebirth. Daniel Miller would like us to see that

'in many ways the opposite is true; that possessions often remain profound and usually the closer our relationships are with objects, the closer our relationships are with people.'

To do this he took a single street in South London and got behind closed doors, interviewing the inhabitants and showing, through their diverse stories, a varied and alternative view of how people express themselves through their possessions. As a demonstration of the startling variety of people in just one small part of the capital it is fascinating. The breakdown of society and community is an all too frequent news headline and whilst Miller doesn't refute it he certainly shows that if we made the effort to get to know our neighbours we might find them to be a jolly interesting lot.

Who would have thought that a weekly trip to McDonalds and the plastic toys given away with their Happy Meals would provide a mother with her only opportunity to spend quality time playing with her children? This regular ritual became a cornerstone of her relationship with them, the toys even helping their education (a collection of Snoopy's, each representing a different nationality) and the second toys which she collected, now stored in a cupboard in their wrappers, 'will be their inheritance'. Marina struggled with her parents values and was able to repudiate them in a single gesture which brings us full circle. Given her parents love of antique furniture you can imagine the hurt caused by their daughter buying a chest of drawers from a certain Swedish furniture store.

'I bought from IKEA because it was easy to open the drawers, you know. And it was wood, and I could build it myself and it was £200, not one for £600 that didn't work and smelt and probably had worms.'

So she managed to use IKEA to free herself from her parent's influence. What would Tyler Durden make of that I wonder? The book has many stories to tell. Some are obvious like the Australian, whose laptop has huge significance, standing in for his home itself, his email address the one place where his family and friends know they will always be able to find him. Within that laptop he is able to keep strict and neat control over his life whilst his home is almost devoid of items from the past (Miller finding significance in the Aboriginal practice of dissociation from the material possessions of the deceased).

Some are striking like the heroin addict whose flat was gradually emptied to feed his habit but no matter how bad things got, two things remained, his photos and CD collection. In many ways it seems that his regard for these two things is what kept him alive. Even when the carpets went from underneath his feet he wasn't able to relinquish his memories of happier times and the immediate emotional connection stirred up by his music, which isn't so much the comfort of things but the power of them to exert an influence over even a life out of control.

Some are poignant like Jenny, a 91 year old living on her own who in her blindness finds great joy in dusting. After having been visited by family or friends and spending time reminiscing she can then spend time running her fingers over the objects which fill her home, deeply connected to those memories and also of course filling the void left by the absence of her guests.

I didn't find this to be quite the refutation of empty or alienating materialism I expected. There were occasional glimpses of the altruistic relation to objects like the philatelist whose collection is not for monetary gain but just one example of the care he takes over his possessions which is an extension of or rather very much a part of his great care for the people in his life. But very often the objects which have real significance are because of people first, because of the past, of memory; the 'sentimental value' which we can all understand. The pair of trousers from before a pregnancy which didn't fit after the birth but then all of a sudden did again ('I did feel absolutely ridiculously so pleased. I don't know why, because it's only a pair of trousers. It wouldn't have mattered if they had been new trousers. I don't think I would have been so excited. But it was because I could match them to a time when I could wear them').

This reinforces Miller's strongest point which is that in a modern metropolitan city like London, where the traditional unifiers of religion and community have a diminishing impact on people's lives, what takes its place is not an empty attachment to material possessions and a diminishing of personal relationships; most people would agree that the measure of happiness in their lives was entirely dependent on the success or otherwise of their personal relationships but what Miller could see was the vital role objects within the house or even the house itself could play in that, and how effectively this was displayed to an observer like himself.

In a book which felt a little too long for me Miller actually makes his clearest points with the opening two chapters; Empty and Full. The welcoming warmth of Mr and Mrs Clarke, in their house filled to bursting point with Christmas decorations (800 ornaments for the tree alone) has an immediate effect on Miller. Their attention to things is an extension of their sensitivity and attention to others and most of all to each other. The 'aesthetics of care' applies to both people and objects 'since one always turns out to be the vehicle for the other'. He contrasts this with George, a man used by his parents to express their total authority, now left dependant on authority for his entire life. 'The flat was empty, completely empty, because its occupant had no independent capacity to place something decorative or ornamental within it.' This literal emptiness combined with the feeling that this man, whose life was devoid of relationships with others, was basically waiting to die reduced Miller to tears.

With my own relationship to books and music and by extension to the people I talk to about them and lend them to I found a lot to connect with in this book. It is fascinating to look at objects in a more significant way, especially when they seem at first to be so inconsequential. This is an accessible and provocative book which challenges some of our basic assumptions, as the best non-fiction should. I'm off to look at some first editions now.


Sunday, 18 January 2009

do not adjust your sets

Don't worry, remain calm, I'll explain everything.

I couldn't take it anymore. The slightly sickly greeny-browny-soupy-colour of my blog was doing my head in. I had to change it. Maybe it's the new year, call it spring cleaning, but either way I hope you like my new home. It still needs some tweaking but whilst you wait would you care for a cup of tea?

A Nice Cup of Tea

By George Orwell

Evening Standard, 12 January 1946

If you look up 'tea' in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important points.

This is curious, not only because tea is one of the main stays of civilization in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but because the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.

When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden:

  • First of all, one should use Indian or Ceylonese tea. China tea has virtues which are not to be despised nowadays — it is economical, and one can drink it without milk — but there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase 'a nice cup of tea' invariably means Indian tea.
  • Secondly, tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.
  • Thirdly, the pot should be warmed beforehand. This is better done by placing it on the hob than by the usual method of swilling it out with hot water.
  • Fourthly, the tea should be strong. For a pot holding a quart, if you are going to fill it nearly to the brim, six heaped teaspoons would be about right. In a time of rationing, this is not an idea that can be realized on every day of the week, but I maintain that one strong cup of tea is better than twenty weak ones. All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes — a fact which is recognized in the extra ration issued to old-age pensioners.
  • Fifthly, the tea should be put straight into the pot. No strainers, muslin bags or other devices to imprison the tea. In some countries teapots are fitted with little dangling baskets under the spout to catch the stray leaves, which are supposed to be harmful. Actually one can swallow tea-leaves in considerable quantities without ill effect, and if the tea is not loose in the pot it never infuses properly.
  • Sixthly, one should take the teapot to the kettle and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours. Some people add that one should only use water that has been freshly brought to the boil, but I have never noticed that it makes any difference.
  • Seventhly, after making the tea, one should stir it, or better, give the pot a good shake, afterwards allowing the leaves to settle.
  • Eighthly, one should drink out of a good breakfast cup — that is, the cylindrical type of cup, not the flat, shallow type. The breakfast cup holds more, and with the other kind one's tea is always half cold before one has well started on it.
  • Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.
  • Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.
  • Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tealover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.

    Some people would answer that they don't like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.

These are not the only controversial points to arise in connexion with tea drinking, but they are sufficient to show how subtilized the whole business has become. There is also the mysterious social etiquette surrounding the teapot (why is it considered vulgar to drink out of your saucer, for instance?) and much might be written about the subsidiary uses of tealeaves, such as telling fortunes, predicting the arrival of visitors, feeding rabbits, healing burns and sweeping the carpet. It is worth paying attention to such details as warming the pot and using water that is really boiling, so as to make quite sure of wringing out of one's ration the twenty good, strong cups of that two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent.

(taken from The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 3, 1943-45, Penguin ISBN, 0-14-00-3153-7)


Friday, 16 January 2009

Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavillion

Originally published by [sic]Magazine

It may only be the middle of January but for the last few days I have been enjoying almost constant sunshine as I listen to a ridiculously early contender for album of the year. I also feel a little woozy too due to the rather trippy album art above, but it's my own fault for staring too long. Animal Collective have been making music for a while now which plays fast and free with influences, approach and steadfastly refuses to be labelled easily. But at the same time they have never been in danger of crossing over into the mainstream and a wider audience with albums which always contained tasty treats but never quite managed the satisfaction of a slap up meal from start to finish.

Part of this is due to the fragmented nature of their sound, their desire to push the envelope and also of course the ethos behind their collective which means that not all members have to be present for each recording. Merriweather Post Pavilion sees Josh Dibb (aka Deakin) taking a break and the influence of Noah Lennox (Panda Bear) coming to the forefront. After being such a fan of Person Pitch I have to say this makes me very happy. And it should make you happy to because it also makes for their most satisfying album yet.

All the elements you might expect are there: tribal beats, ambient noise, sampled instrumentation, sunshine soaked psychedelia, and harmonised vocals. Some reviewers have called it their most accessible album or even a pop album but don't be fooled into thinking that this is an easy listening experience. Avey Tare said in a recent interview that they "..want people to hear the melodies and to pick up on things. I don't know if we're getting better or just doing it in a different way." Well those melodies are much clearer right from the opening track which begins with quiet vocals reminiscent of Mercury Rev before thumping beats come in and the melody carries the touching lyrics about missing somebody you love (which picks up on what Avey Tare has mentioned as the album's theme: "being away from home a lot in the past year, from our girlfriends or wives or families"). This is followed by one of the album's standout tracks. 'My Girls' starts with a triplet beat on the keyboard which might remind you of 'You Got The Love' by The Source but when the harmonised vocals come in and sharp percussion it becomes a catchy song about a man's love for his family complete with an ecstatic 'Woooh!' in the chorus. I'm not making that sound very good am I? Just listen and I bet you'll love it.

Male harmony singing can be repetitive across an album's length but here the sheer diversity of styles means that they're never less than interesting and often so much more. On 'Guys Eyes' the voices are seperated, each following a seperate line like singing a round only for them to be united in the chanted 'need her' which is pushed along by tribal drumming. It's complex, intricate and brilliantly effective. 'Daily Routine' stutters in with a tentative fairground organ, the body of the song a mechanical sounding rendition of a repeated journey but at the end, as the organ fragments, extended vocals resolve the melody into a glorious finish. The inevitable mention of the Beach Boys now comes with 'Bluish' which is a gorgeous love song, kept honest by smart lyrics ('I like your looks when you get mean/I know I shouldn't say so but when you/Claw me like a cat, I'm beaming') and the constant sampled drone underneath its sweet pop melody. Hearts are clearly being worn on sleeves and that kind of romanticism pops up again with almost-ballad No More Runnin which is, well, beautiful.

As you would expect the album is bursting with sounds; animal, vegetable and mineral, with rhythms and percussion to match. But the clarity comes from the strength of the actual tunes and more than ever the genuine warmth of the lyrics. It's perfect that the album closes with the ludicrously positive 'Brother Sport', a bouncing and slightly bonkers floor filler (although it seems far more appropriate to think of people dancing around outside, arms held up to the sky) which is infectious in the extreme and a fitting climax to an explosive but coherent album. It rewards repeated listens, each journey through highlighting something new whilst unifying what you've already noticed. You couldn't ask for much more in the cold months at the beginning of the year, especially with all that gloom out there, and it just may be that when summer really arrives this album will have established itself as a constant companion.


Wednesday, 14 January 2009


The first piece of animation I saw from Pixar many years ago was Luxo Jr. You know, the little lamp that now features as part of the logo. Unbelievably that short film was made over twenty years ago in 1986 and for all the amazing advances that have been made in computer animation since then it is the charm that is somehow conveyed by an anglepoise lamp which means it still brings a smile to your face today. In fact seeing as you're here:

In many ways WALL-E is the direct descendent of that little lamp. A simple robot with limited movements and yet somehow capable of communicating subtleties of emotion, executing nuanced physical comedy and, crucially, making us laugh. It is the year 2700 and the Earth has been deserted by its human population after life became unsustainable. The rising tide of waste has covered the planet and it was the job of the Wall-E robots to collect, compact and clear it in preparation for our return. From space we zoom in past the thick layer of space junk orbiting the planet, past what look like rolling hills and skyscrapers but which resolve themselves into piles of rubbish, some haphazard some neatly stacked and ordered by the last remaining Wall-E, our hero. The first half hour of the film is all his. No speech, no other characters (well, he has one companion, a hardy cockroach) it's like a return to the era of silent comedy. Perfectly judged, filled with neat in-jokes it's just wonderful. If the rest of the film doesn't quite match its simplicity it can't be blamed, we need a plot to see us through a feature and in fact it's an achievement to keep it as focused on that same physical comedy as it does.

It's also a surprisingly brave for a studio like Disney to be behind a film with such a strong anti-corporate message and with such an apocalyptic set-up. But let's not go overboard looking for the wider cultural significance of the film, far better to appreciate its true strength: following that first achievement of computer generated imagery through to its apogee (so far!).


Monday, 12 January 2009

We will remember them

The Missing Of The Somme by Geoff Dyer

Following on from Sebastian Barry's superb A Long Long Way, my Great War education continues with the equally superb The Missing Of The Somme by Geoff Dyer. Anyone who has read anything by Dyer before will know that his books don't easily fall into any particular category. Combining elements of travel writing, literary criticism, art appreciation and cultural commentary he isn't so much a jack of all trades as a polymath, capable of using his wider knowledge to show things in a fresh light. In this book he set out

'...to write a book that was not about 'the War itself but the effect of the idea of [the War] on my generation'. Not a novel but an essay in mediation: research notes for a Great War novel I had no intention of writing, the themes of a novel without its substance.'

When first writing my thoughts on Barry's novel I attempted to articulate the sense of familiarity one has with the Great War. We know what we're going to get when we read a novel, play or even poem from that period. In fact, enough time has passed now for that familiarity to develop into something else. Or as Dyer more eloquently puts it.

'The problem with many recent novels about the war is that they almost inevitably bear the imprint of the material from which they are derived, can never conceal the research on which they depend for their historical and imaginative accuracy. We have...entered the stage of second-order pastiche:pastiche of pastiche.'

I think that's where my sense of familiarity comes from and Dyer is able to find a new perspective not just on the modes of artistic expression of our remembrance but even on the artists behind it. For many people the artistic experience of the war comes through the poetry of Owen and Sasson and their pervasive influence is shown clearly in this book. But what Dyer also highlights is a slightly more surprising view of these two spokesmen for the war and its horrors.

'We have become so accustomed to thinking of the slaughter of war that we forget that the slaughtered were themselves would be slaughterers. Owen personally "inflicted considerable losses on the enemy" when he captured a machine gun and Graves recalls that he "had never seen such a fire-eater as [Sasson]- the number of Germans whom I killed or caused to be killed could hardly be compared with his wholesale slaughter."'

This hardly chimes with our picture of the soldier-poets, or not with mine anyway, and this is typical of Dyer, puncturing the received picture of things. The very idea of remembrance is turned on its head when he points out that those famous words repeated each year on Remembrance Day:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

that seem 'not to have been written but to have pulsed into life in the nation's collective memory' were actually written in 1914 before the fallen actually fell. Making it a work 'not of remembrance but of the anticipation of remembrance.' With such a long running war this theme returns again and again from the front, the command that we must never forget even whilst the slaughter continues around them.

A large part of the book is taken up by his appraisal of the various monuments of remembrance both here and on the continent. He is brilliant not only at decoding the signals and meaning contained within these sculptures but also at finding the evocative description that can help us, the reader, to see and feel them almost as tangibly as he can. He also does this with the various photographs which pepper the text. One monument communicates in bronze and stone the heaviness of the soldier's life.

'Every piece of equipment looks like it weighs a ton...Things were made of iron and wood, even cloth looks like it has been woven from iron filings.'

From here Dyer develops his theme pointing out that the future is always getting lighter, hence the weight of the past. In another photograph, a panorama of the aftermath at Paschendaele by the Canadian William Rider-Rider, Dyer uses the language of the art historian to explain its effectiveness before allowing his own skills as a writer to find the perfect finish to this image of desolation.

'Instead of receding into the distance these trees disappear beyond the edges of the frame. There is no perspective. The vanishing point is no longer a more or less exact point, but all around. A new kind of infinity: more of the same in every direction, an infinity of waste. The sky lies in tatters in the mud.'

It is a testament to this short book that my review is made up in large part of quotations from it, and there are still plenty of other markers in my copy; images and observations that would be worthy of a mention here. In examining how we remember Dyer finds many genuinely enlightening ways to remind us exactly why we must.


Sunday, 11 January 2009

'did I say those words?'

I know he's a soft target but if you ever need something to bring a smile to your face quickly old George W is always on hand with a Bushism or two. Now, thanks to the Guardian's random generator, incomprehension is only a click away. Admit it: you'll miss him when he's gone.

BUSH UPDATE: It's so good it deserves to be posted up here too (thanks for the link John)

Bush Tours America To Survey Damage Caused By His Disastrous Presidency


Friday, 9 January 2009

there's no business like monkey business

Me Cheeta
by...erm, Cheeta

In the run up to Christmas you ran the risk of being buried alive by the towering stacks of celebrity autobiographies on sale at half price in WHSmith. We just can't get enough of the inside track on the lives of the rich and famous (even when the term 'life' may only refer to the ghost-written reminiscences of a twenty-year old). But where's the glamour and the romance? Enter Cheeta, film star and Guinness World Record holder as the world's oldest non-human primate (76 years and counting) who, in this satirical take on the Hollywood memoir, gives us a unique perspective on the Golden Age of cinema. I'll apologise now for the liberal use of quotation but it's just one of those books.

Plucked from millions of hopefuls in the jungles of Liberia, Cheeta (or 'Jiggs' as he is officially documented - 'As is almost traditional in these cases, my name was misspelled at Immigration') tells us first of his liberation from the jungle. This rose-tinted view makes his journey across the Atlantic in a crate a period of 'rehabilitation' consisting 'of almost permanent darkness, coupled with a total lack of potentially distressing or dangerous social interaction, and strictly no exercise.' With this naive perspective it is all too obvious that we are supposed to see us humans as the cruel, manipulative sadists we are. And this is before he's even reached Hollywood.

This early section is only partly successful. The reverse anthropomorphism (zoomorphism?), whereby Cheeta sees the world around him like the social hierarchies of the jungle, makes the studio bosses 'the seven Alphas' of Hollywood and almost the whole of Western civilisation an attempt 'to attract the attention of some sexually receptive females'. But the faux naivety is a bit too cute, even for Cheeta himself who interrupts some of his own long winded descriptions. Having dropped a few cracking judgements early on (Rex Harrison for example: 'an absolutely irredeemable cunt who tried to murder me') it is the searing put downs we want more of and he has plenty of them.

As a comedian himself he is uniquely placed to comment on Charlie Chaplin 'the Utopian dolt, satyromaniac, cradle-snatcher, self-mythologizer and (need I say it?) sentimentalist.'

'...the garnering of critical acclaim has never meant much to me -quite unlike the role it played in Charlie's life, which was pretty similar to the role morphine played in Bela Lugosi's, or the erect male sexual organ in dear, sweet Mary Astor's, which is to say, he was hopelessly dependent upon it.'

Ouch! Not just one hit but three in a single sentence. Sometimes he's subtle, 'I retain a loathing for two things in particular (three if you count Mickey Rooney).' other times less so, 'If Dietrich was a good German, I thought, then the bad ones must be absolutely fucking terrifying.' But most of the time he's deliciously salacious especially with his co star the 'inimitable' Maureen O'Hara ('in reality highly imitable. I myself can do a reasonable Maureen O'Hara by simply screeching as loudly as I can and flinging my excrement around').

So, where's the romance? Well there is one human whom Cheeta admires and loves above all others of course, Johnny Weissmuller.

'...this silvery-white creature on the screen was the paragon of animals, the ultimate alpha. You looked at him and thought - the rest of us? We're just beasts. If you can come up with something as beautiful as that, well, then, maybe you're right: we ought to obey you.'

The evocation of their relationship is filled with warmth, affection and moments of genuine insight. The moment when they are reunited, this heroic figure now physically ruined by strokes, reduces Johnny to sobs and may well have you tearing up too. Weissmuller went through several marriages, yet may never have found a more loyal companion than his simian co-star. You find yourself filled with sympathy for this gentle giant who ended his life both broke and broken despite never really having done anything wrong. Even Cheeta has recognised earlier the simple facts of the matter:

'If you're a star, Hollywood is a playground, and if you're not,they're right, it is a jungle. It's a town of heartless bottom-lines and harsh decisions and betrayals so ugly that from time to time the very earth beneath it shudders in contempt, like its teeth have been set on edge.'

It is as a satire of Hollywood, and everything that word seems to mean, that this book really excels. The put-downs are often laugh out loud funny (although with the book being a little too long you find some of the same jokes returning with diminishing effect) and the persist ant rumours about the exact nature of Cheeta's relationship with Dolores del Rio will keep you guessing to the end. We read books like these because we want to know what it feels like to be famous but despite the golden hue there is something sad about the conclusions of 'perhaps the most famous animal alive today'.

'...picture a human and a chimpanzee facing each other in awkward silence, with nothing to be said, the faint inanity of the interaction stealing over both of them. That's what fame is. '

(And for those of you wondering who the real author is (bless you if you believed it might really be just him and a typewriter) this insider tale of LA excess comes from James Lever, Oxford-educated son of a High Court judge.)


Monday, 5 January 2009

the appliance of science

Bad Science
by Ben Goldacre

Growing up with a Consultant Dermatologist for a father made cosmetics commercials an entertaining experience. You know the sort; 'contains pentipeptides and our most advanced Q10 complex', 'now with Vitamin E and Ceramide R'. My dad was able to translate what lay behind the bamboozling techno-babble, most of the words in those days tended to mean nothing more complicated than 'water' and vitamin E is used in most creams as a preservative but the word vitamin makes it sound like an active ingredient. He also used to point out that the whole point about skin is that it's waterproof, it's designed to stop stuff getting into your body, so most of the very expensive rubbish being advertised tends to just sit on top, contracting skin to 'reduce the appearance of wrinkles' as they very carefully phrase it nowadays. The single most effective thing to put on your skin was, and still is, humble Vaseline (in fact it's amazing that Vaseline don't make more of that) but there's not very much money in that.

Following on from his Guardian column of the same name Ben Goldacre, a doctor and journalist, has published Bad Science, where he attempts to engage us in the science that we are all subjected to and persuaded by on an almost daily basis. He is not a happy man. Not so much because people get things wrong, or portray them inaccurately but because the science behind it isn't really that complex. In fact the revelation of this book is not so much that he lays into some soft targets like Gillian McKeith ('or, to give her full medical title: Gillian McKeith') or homeopathy, giving us all a giggle along the way, but that he attempts to arm us all with the basic scientific tools that will help us to smell a rat. After all, most of what we get now in the press and on the television is statistics and we all know that there are lies, damn lies and then there are statistics.

When I was about 13 at school I once convinced my class that red apples could give you cancer. Having learnt the word 'carcinogenic' (those medical parents can really help you sound clever sometimes) I was able to use that a few times along with pigment and sound terribly convincing even though every word was absolute nonsense. I decided to use my skills as a bullshitter by pursuing a career in acting, but it turns out that they would also have qualified me to be an excellent nutritionist (a title which after all requires no actual qualifications). McKeith is taken to task here for portraying herself as a bonafide medical authority, making very sciencey sounding statements and peppering her books with sciencey looking reference numbers, underneath which there are some fairly glaring and basic scientific errors. Some digging behind her credentials makes things a little clearer. All of which is grist to the mill for someone like me who has always had a dislike of her and her humiliation tactics. If you want some ammunition against 'the awful poo lady' then look no further.

I have also had a personal experience of homeopathy (before I really understood what it all was). I had a touch of the man-flu, was given a pill and told to go to bed with my clothes on, pull the duvet over my head and sweat it out (the pill would aid this by opening the capillaries and aiding blood flow right to the skin's surface). When I woke in the morning after a hot night I felt fine, great in fact and put it all down to the pill. This is the beauty of the placebo. If you believe in the pill, it might just do the trick (which is a gross simplification of the cultural significance of the placebo - explained in much greater detail by Goldacre). It is the fact that the placebo is so interesting a phenomenon, worthy of attention and study, rather than the new-agey sounding nonsense about the 'memory' of water explaining how a substance which has been so diluted as to contain not one molecule of the original substance could have any medical benefit (beyond that of the placebo), which really gets his goat. If homeopathy was to come clean and present itself as a benign resource like horoscopes and crystal dowsing then it might just get away with it but when you read about someone like Peter Chapell, a homeopath who has developed a remedy that can be used to treat the HIV virus, or Matthias Rath who claimed his vitamin treatments could do the same (and who recently dropped his libel case against The Guardian), it makes me think very dark thoughts.

I was really interested to read this book because of the final chapter on the MMR vaccine. Being a young parent means that you are literally bombarded with information, advice, statistics, theories and good old-fashioned fearful paranoia and I'll admit that my steadfast rational approach to just about everything had encountered a little wavering when it came to making a decision that could impact on someone else's life. Goldacre doesn't exactly come out and say it but by calling the chapter The Media's MMR Hoax and showing that after several years of scare-mongering there is no evidence to support a link between the jab and autism, he helped put the issue to bed for me.

The role of the media is a large focus of the book unsurprisingly and it is almost gobsmacking to see how poorly researched, written and constructed some of the stories we have all read really are. The fact that the results which fuelled the MRSA superbug stories came from a poorly qualified man, out of depth and working out of his garden shed would be funny if it weren't so serious (especially given his untimely death from a car accident shortly after the facts of the matter were exposed). The pressure on journalists to provide stories with punchy headlines and stats that have impact leads to a fudging of the numbers, very basic and very misleading mistakes. The pressure on papers to maintain advertising revenue means that articles which should really be written by science correspondents are given to lifestyle or comment writers who don't use the science writers at their disposal to check the science. That's why it might be worth checking out the Bad Science website next time you read that cocaine use amongst schoolchildren has doubled or that you should be drinking gallons of purple grape juice due to its high level of antioxidants.

Science can be complex, but bad science is often pretty simple. Goldacre's book is eye-opening and provocative whilst always attempting to be fair rather than personally vindictive (well, he almost pulls that one off). It could have been better ordered, powered as it is by the digressive and slightly chaotic energy of a self-confessed geek but what's refreshing is that he credits his readers with some intelligence and places the ball firmly in our court.


Thursday, 1 January 2009

'there is no such thing as an uninteresting life'

A Fine Balance
by Rohinton Mistry

A book which has languished on my TBR pile for at least two years finally made its way into my hands after another strong recommendation and the window which opened as I awaited gifts from Santa. Until I read Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies this year I had always been wary of fiction from the Indian subcontinent. I have no idea why, but it is an area of the world I hadn't travelled to, wasn't really drawn towards and I had a suspicion that the reverence with which people often speak about it might be evident in the fiction it inspires, leading to a less than satisfying reading experience. Well, that's prejudice for you. Mistry's large and impressive novel has its reverential moments and is certainly not without faults but set against the background of the Emergency in India of the 1970's he tells a story which manages to be both epic and domestic, political and personal, written a style which is comfortingly old-fashioned and yet shot through with moments of startling violence.

We meet our four main characters in a prologue, or rather it is they who meet. On a train into Mumbai, young Maneck Kohlah drops his study books onto Ishvar Darji and his nephew Omprakash. It transpires that they are all travelling to meet the same woman, Dina Dalal; Maneck as a lodger and Ishvar and Om as tailors looking for employment. Having brought the four of them together Mistry then uses the next 250 pages to look back at what has brought them to that point. The two tailors have made a journey not only of geographical distance but of caste. Born into the untouchable Chamaar caste of tanners, where a living was scraped by waiting for other's animals to die, Ishvar's father, in defiance of what is acceptable, apprenticed him to his friend Ashraf, a Muslim tailor, in the hope that he would be able to make that leap into a profession. That it is a Muslim he is apprenticed to allows us to see the conflict within an independent India. As troubles flare between Hindu and Muslim the two young apprentices are able in a single act to save the lives of Ashraf and his family, unaware that they are powerless to help their own family as they come into conflict with the landlords in their attempts to exercise their democratic right to vote.

Maneck has left an isolated life in the mountains in order to pursue an education. He too is looking to better himself but safe in the knowledge that his father's business is there for him to take over in the future. His back story has less impact but works its charms through his ever optimistic parents. His father's store is central to the lives of the rural community, the secret of that success his secret soft drink formula, Kohlah's Cola. Even when his father loses an eye whilst bottling he's a glass-half-full kind of man.

'"One eye is sufficient for the things I am looking forward to seeing," he smiled, touching his wife's swollen belly. Whereas, he added, the ugliness of the world would now trouble him only half as much.'

This is typical of Mistry who is careful never to let things get too rosy before redressing the balance. For Dina this is especially true in spite of her relatively privileged background. She endures a fractious relationship with her domineering brother and seeks to live independently from him. Even when she frustrates her brother's attempts to find a suitable husband by falling in love and finding one for herself it isn't the escape she hopes for and her independence is always tenuous at best. Hence her need for both a lodger and employees to help with her clothing manufacture business.

Having established their backgrounds the novel really takes flight as their lives become closely entwined, stitched together like the quilt that Dina works on throughout the novel - made up from the remnants of fabric she salvages from each consignment. The quilt becomes a textile chronology of their time together an image signalled earlier in the novel, '"If time were a bolt of cloth," said Om, "I would cut out all the bad parts. Snip out the scary nights and stitch together the good parts, to make time bearable. Then I would wear it like a coat, always live happily."' And yet when he recognises one square of the quilt as from the day he and Ishvar lost their homes and Dina offers to cut it out he is more philosophical:

'"Calling one piece sad is meaningless. See, it is connected to a happy piece - sleeping on the verandah. And the next square - chapatis. Then that violet trusser, when we made masala wada and started cooking together. And don't forget this georgette patch, where Beggarmaster saved us from the landlord's goondas."
He stepped back, pleased with himself, as though he had elucidated an intricate theorem. "So that's the rule to remember, the whole quilt is much more important than any single square.'

Mistry is careful to undercut the philosophy (or 'fakeology' as the two tailors call it), always trying to steer a course away from the reverence I mentioned earlier. There are two reasons for this. Firstly there is the rich humour. The gentle joshing or plain hilarity in the face of those oh-so-wise moments is one aspect. But there is also a keen satirical edge to it too. On another train journey Maneck meets a political speech writer who lays bare the mechancs of his trade:

'"I made up three lists: Candidate's Accomplishments (real and imaginary), Accusations Against Opponent (including rumours, allegations, innuendoes, and lies), and Empty Promises (the more improbable the better). Then it was merely a matter of taking various combinations of items from the three lists, throwing in some bombast, tossing in a few local references, and there it was - a brand new speech."'

Mistry also has a very serious point to make about the politics of the era. Even though she is only ever referred to as 'the Prime Minister' it is clear that Indira Gandhi is not to be viewed sympathetically. Beyond the electoral fraud and the abuse of Emergency power we get to see first hand the destructive nature of her policies; whether the 'beautification' of the country which leads to the destruction of the tailor's slum housing or the spectre of sterilisation, used indiscriminately and with force in order to meet quotas and targets. It is Ishvar and Om who bear the brunt of this of course, constantly buffeted from pace to place by those who wield the power above them. Their story is a harrowing one, all the more so for the relentless nature of what they encounter. There is often a moment of calm after they survive one trial, where you allow yourself the indulgence of thinking that maybe that's it, there can't be more for them to endure with their dignified resignation, but there is and I found myself actually vocalising my anguish as I neared the end of the novel.

When talking about the quilt Ishvar says, 'the talent is in joining the pieces'. There is a similar skill in not just assembling a cast of disparate characters for a novel but in making their inter-relationships work, especially with the different ages, castes and cultural backgrounds on show here. In Dina's cramped flat the three men become almost a surrogate family to her, however hard she tries to keep a distance between herself and everything around her. Serving as the background to all this is the city itself, a bustling, chaotic place wonderfully evoked. Any number of its dense population could have been the focus of the narrative as Om is quick to point out to the restaurant owner who is always amazed to hear the latest escapade the tailors have been involved in.

'"It's not us, it's this city", said Om. "A story factory, that's what it is, a spinning mill."'


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