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The best thing about working in a library is the people you meet, and indeed the friends you make. Of course it’s a small minority that you actually have enough in common with to think of them as friends, but one such, on discovering that I hadn’t read Keith Richards’ autobiography, immediately went home and got it so he could lend it to me. The usual arrangement is that we library staff lend books to the people that come in during the course of the day, but it’s always very pleasant to wear the shoe on the other foot from time to time.
Life is not a book I would have read, left to my own devices. I’m not usually exercised to read about someone’s life simply because I like their work, and I don’t believe that interesting art is usually made by extraordinary people; obviously most of the people I know are not tie-wearing wage slaves, and if they were I might be more interested, but I don’t see that the details of someone’s background is usually that illuminating in understanding or appreciating their work. The kind of biography that interests me is written because the life in question was an interesting one, not because the subject is well known for other reasons. However, I took my friend’s recommendation, advanced Life straight to the top of my enormous reading list, already having an inkling that Richards life was probably rich in anecdote at worst, and gave it a go.
It’s not the most extraordinary book I’ve ever read, but it was certainly very enjoyable. The ghost writer stays pretty much out of the way, and it’s clear that most of the text is a straight transcript of Richards talking to tape; he comes across as a likeable man, with a down-to-earth attitude, although he was probably a royal pain in the arse to work with at the height of his infamy in the 70s. This is not a man who seems to think his success makes him special, however, in stark contrast to his bandmate Sir Mick. Anecdotes do indeed abound, and there are many hair-raising scrapes, largely, but not all, related to the weird circumstances of the wealthy celebrity smackhead. Not many rock star biographies would be of much interest to me from this point of view, but Richards basically invented the clichés; he blazed the trail, and with Jagger was really the first musician to combine performance and songwriting with towering, monumental self-abuse and self-indulgence. The visual style and the lifestyle were defined by the Rolling Stones in their 1970s tours, and as such there is genuine cultural significance in what Richards has to say.
The most interesting things he has to say are about musicianship, songwriting and the creative process however. He’s an intelligent man and a deep thinker, who has made some effort to understand what he does; he worked hard even when he was a junkie, by the sounds of it, if in a very chaotic and unpredictable manner, and worried at his ideas like a dog with a bone in a way that I only started to be able to do when I started writing prose instead of playing music. There are no groundbreaking philosophical observations, and Richards’ understanding of art in general is a pretty conventional one, but there are some solid insights that will be of interest to open-minded composers in any field. I had a lot of fun reading this book, and it did make me laugh out loud on a few occasions (such as when he woke up under the desk after a protracted recording session, pockets full of drugs and paraphernalia, to discover a French police brass band in the room listening to playback from their own session!). The Rolling Stones are a cultural phenomenon of considerable influence, and they made some genuinely groundbreaking art in their time; Life is as good an insight into their story as you’re likely to read.
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Sometimes gigs are crackling with energy with virtually no audience; it depends on the bands. Last night at the North Street Tavern in Sudbury there were times when I was the only audience member not playing in one of the bands, but it really didn’t matter. A few more people drifted in (and I ran into a whole bunch of people I wasn’t expecting to see, which was really nice, even if it did make me want to stay out and get severely hammered in several dimensions), but it was a pretty bizarre, if familiar, situation. Three bands, playing underground music, every bit as good as any of the best known acts in their field, virtually ignored in an ordinary drinking pub in a small provincial town. Quite a treat for me, since I could actually move around, and I could take a few photos without getting phlegm, beer and elbows in the lens, but honestly, people don’t know what they’re missing.
The Domestics were electrifying; I’ve reviewed a couple of their releases, and they are generally one of the bands I go out of my way to support, yet I had somehow managed not to see them playing live until last night. Playing in a small corner, with James Domestic standing to sing in a circulation space by the bar, basically among the select audience of fellow punk musicians, they gave it total commitment, humour, insanity and intensity. Selected observation: Paul Rhodes looks at his bass while playing as though it’s just said something really offensive, or done a revolting fart… Anyway, thoroughly top-whack band, political hardcore, and as good as they come.
Science Made Us Robots play fun bouncy punk, of the sort I used to call pop-punk, until pop-punk became indelibly tainted by an army of generic airheads stringing sugary vocal hooks together over a thick wank-burger of over-compressed shiny rock syrup. This was the real deal, and it was great to hear it. I’m a big fan of Agent Orange, founding fathers of pop/surf punk, and this band has the same combination of excitement, enthusiasm, buzz-saw intensity and melodic accessibility that makes all that sort of malarkey so good, although they have their own sound, which is probably more like some other bands, but I don’t go in for all that ‘X sounds like Y channeling Z while fucking Q over the back of L’s camel’ bullshit. Very entertaining.
Shithouse are total raving noise terrorists. Speed and volume are their weapons of mass destruction, along with a snare drum that gets in just behind your eyes and makes your frontal lobe bleed copiously. Obviously it’s not just noise; what they played was very clearly hardcore punk, but within the recognisable boundaries of the style they are apparently on a mission to find the most intense and brutal sound it’s possible to produce. At the same time they come across as pretty fun loving chappies, with a nice line in banter and japery. Their drummer gave Science Made Us Robots’ drummer a run for his money as purveyor of the evening’s most alarming facial expressions, but I feel the other bloke had the best of it in the end (see photo above). So yes, another completely superb band, strongly recommended. The whole night was an improbably high quality racket-fest, and if you have a chance to see any of these bands play, take it: we’re very lucky to have music of this standard available for free, and the nice people making it deserve your support.
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I’ve just finished reading King Rat by China Miéville; as with all of Miéville’s novels I began reading at a measured pace, and ended up devouring it in huge gluttonous mouthfuls that took the place of doing any work of my own… I began reading Miéville’s work with the ‘Bas Lag’ trilogy, as part of my general effort to familiarise myself with what’s been going on in fantasy fiction, and after reading those books it was clear that I needed to read everything he’s published; this was his first novel, which is why I decided to start here.
King Rat postulates a hidden city, co-existing with London, parallel to London, connected to the London we know, but separate from it. It’s not one that is populated with a diverse range of colourful characters, like the fuck-wittedly twee hidden city in the Harry Potter books, but one in which a select group of powerful but lonely supernatural beings lord it over empires of spiders, rats and pigeons. I say that the book postulates such a place, and that’s the important point: it doesn’t just describe it, simply magicking it into existence by authorial fiat, but it imagines it with ruthlessly consistent logic, in thoughtful detail. It imagines it in the same way that any writer imagines the scenario in which their fiction plays out, and like all the good stuff, it imagines it with equal measures of fancy and truth. The fact that it concerns the fantastical and the impossible makes it no more fanciful or less truthful; its possession of both these qualities is a function of the skill with which it is written.
That King Rat is Miéville’s first novel is apparent, at least in comparison to his later work, for which ‘polished’ is probably the wrong word, but which is certainly more worked, more burnished, more worn-in and patinated. Darkness is a theme throughout the four novels I have now read of his, one of the materials from which his subjects and his prose are made, and there is darkness a-plenty in King Rat, but it is a brasher sort of darkness, full of noisy contrasts. The plot is pretty linear, and its more dramatic transformations are driven by deus ex machina, with a conclusion that provides the closure we’re looking for, in contrast to the bleaker conclusions with which the ‘Bas Lag’ novels are terminated; what the conclusion does provide is a nice moment of Iain Banks style wish fulfilment, however, which never really goes amiss.
Music is a big part of this story, and Miéville does an extremely good job of writing descriptions of it. There are times when he gets his terminology wrong, when he’s writing about electronic music production, but probably not in a way that would impinge on anyone who hasn’t made any electronic music themselves; his descriptions of sound, of timbre, of texture, and of the affective narrative of music are spot on, however. As someone who has devoted an inordinate amount of effort to the problems and challenges of writing about music, I have to say he acquits himself extremely well; a lot better than most writers of fiction, who tend to ascribe qualities more conducive to their plots than credible to the well-informed reader, and who tend to overlook the importance to musical experience of its status as social praxis. King Rat takes place (partly) in the world of drum and bass and jungle, and this is clearly a world that Miéville understands.
The real strengths of this novel are twofold: characterisation which doesn’t blink when confronted with the challenges of the scenario; and the language. Mieville has some real fun with dialect in this book, specifically with Jamaican patois and with a historically promiscuous cockney slang whose compass reaches back to eighteenth century cant; but there is a baroque complexity to the language of which these culturally specific patternings are only a part. Shady nooks of vocabulary are mined for the precisely apposite word, without regard to its common usage or otherwise; sometimes the reader is left struggling to keep up, but mostly context provides the necessary cues and clues. All of this bespoke linguistic specificity layers the tale with meaning and significance; King Rat has things to tell us, and it is up to us to listen if we want to hear them. This is what lifts it out of the territory of the commonplace commercial thriller; it is not a horror novel, or a fantasy novel. King Rat is a novel that makes use of the tropes to be found in both those genres, but it is not in any sense a generic piece of writing. It is entertaining, and it’s thought provoking, but it is most of all atmospheric; it is an experience, an articulation of mood, a colour in speech, the flesh made word.
This is a really extraordinary book, this Habibi malarkey; I don’t really know where to start talking about it. Craig Thompson’s previous big fat famous comic book, Blankets, was a beautiful and accomplished piece of work, and as it’s pretty autobiographical in nature, it’s the source of most of my information about the author/artist; it gives a hint, through its account of his (by British standards extremely) religious upbringing, of where the interests he develops in Habibi may have originated, but the later work surpasses it on most levels. It is a complex network of ideas and meta-narratives, decorative fields and calligraphic embellishments, symbolic imagery and metaphysics… and it’s a straightforward tale of life and love in conditions of great material poverty.
Where Christianity provided the moral and cultural backdrop to Blankets, the narrative of Habibi takes place within the Moslem world. Thompson has clearly done a great deal of research, as not only is his narrative informed by a sophisticated command of many threads of Islamic mythology, but the symbolic value and material form of Arabic script is a central thread; he begins by describing a ‘river of ink’, and the act of writing is one of the most value laden acts throughout the story. Islam forbids the making of pictorial images (and this irony does not go unremarked in the book), so its visual arts are based on abstract patterns, and on the symbolic representations of calligraphy; the tension between this restriction and the form of the comic, and between the competing representative modes of semblance and substitution, metonym and metaphor, are the central formal engines of the book.
Thompson invents a country to set his story in; it’s hard to say exactly where it is, either in North Africa or on the Arabian Peninsula, and it’s also hard to say exactly when it is. The lives of its inhabitants in the first part of the book seem pretty medieval, but they have motorbikes; I began with a working theory that it was set in the the 1930s, but what I’d seen at that point wouldn’t have excluded any of the succeeding three decades. However, a large part of the narrative takes place within the harem of the Sultan of Thompson’s country, and there’s more or less nothing of modernity in those sections of the book; there are also extensive sections in which one character recounts various Quranic (or Biblical) legends, and these are very close in tone the scenes in the harem. Later in the book we get to see the downtown of the Sultan’s city, however, and it’s extremely modern and secular, with the women dressed in western attire, their heads uncovered; there are still slaves openly on sale in the streets, though, which is not something that would be found in the modern Islamic world, certainly not in a gleaming twenty-first century metropolis.
The story is pretty harrowing; the suffering of the central characters is intense, as is the cruelty of many of the people they come into contact with, but there is a clear belief in the human potential for love and solidarity. Resilience is one of the major themes of the work. Really though, it’s all about stories: it’s about the power of narrative to heal, to inform, to comfort, to contextualise, to form identity, to explain experience, to connect the individual to culture and history to myth.
Habibi is a work of astonishing intricacy; its narrative is a monkey puzzle in itself, but it would do the book an injustice to separate the narrative from the visual. There are many pages of patterns and calligraphy, which some readers may mistake for relatively unimportant decorative end-papers between chapters, but this detailed visual world is central to the meanings of the comic. The book is a visual feast, a thing of enormous beauty, full of audacious, page-bursting layouts, but there are also pages where a simple grid of equal sized panels is populated exclusively with words; Thompson has really pushed the boundaries of the medium with this book, and without ever appearing to be clever, or self-consciously post-modern, he has explored the relationship between the different elements of the form in a way that I haven’t seen before. The meaning of a comic is never in one half or the other, words or pictures, but is always a synergy, just as the meaning of a song is always an experience that is not present in the lyrics or the ‘harmolodic’ content separately, and is always greater and more complex than a simple addition of one plus the other. However, the distinction between one and the other is not a given, and Thompson’s achievement here is to have made it less a given than it has ever previously appeared to be. Writing is drawing, drawing is writing, and Habibi is one of the most extraordinary achievements of sequential art.
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I came across An Anarchist FAQ online, I forget exactly how. It’s what it says it is, a general guide to anarchism, organised according to the commonly asked questions on the subject, e.g. ‘isn’t that a load of old tosh?’ and ‘anarchists, aren’t they the ones that wear black and throw bombs?’. Well, those aren’t actual examples, since the project has been developed in a less flippant and facetious manner than it would have been if I were involved in it. I read Section A online, in breaks at work, and whenever I had none of my scheduled reading material to hand, but had internet access. I found it very informative, and resolved to read the whole FAQ, to which end I downloaded it as a PDF and put it on my phone; as I prepared to embark on it, I realised that there was actually a hell of a lot of it, and that it would be more comfortable to read on paper, so I ordered the AK press edition, in two volumes. When they arrived, I realised that I had massively underestimated the size of the project; each volume is around 500 pages, but they are large format with small print. I’m guessing that if they were printed and bound in the format of a novel or biography, we’d be in the vicinity of 4000 pages! So I decided to read it section by lettered section (from A to J), rather than in one sitting, starting with a re-read of section A.
Section A is entitled ‘What Is Anarchism?’ and it begins with a basic discussion of the meanings of the words anarchy and anarchism, the relationship of the philosophy to socialism, and its origins as an identifiable system of thought. It then broadly addresses the implications of anarchy for any proposed future anarchist society, and rebuts the most commonly raised objections; this subsection is pretty much a miniaturised version of the whole FAQ. After this there is a discussion of the various branches of anarchism, the historically significant anarchist thinkers, and the most famous examples of anarchist principles being put into practice.
An Anarchist FAQ is a collective effort, as befits its subject, but its cover bears the name of Iain McKay, as he has done the lion’s share of the work. It really is a gargantuan project, a comprehensive reference work, every section closely argued and backed up with extensive quotations, not in order to validate its claims by appeal to authorities (that wouldn’t be very anarchist, would it?) but to demonstrate the major currents of anarchist thought, and because it’s hard to put things better than many anarchist writers have already put them.
It’s commendable how completely the book (or section A at any rate) is informed by anarchist principles; it presents arguments, and allows them to stand on their merits, leaving the reader to reach their own conclusions independently. Yes, it is a passionate and committed piece of advocacy, not a detached external examination of the subject, but it lays every one of its assumptions on the table, and is ruthless in its examination of the unspoken ideologies that inform most other political creeds. It’s daft really to suggest that any such work should be truly objective; every writer is informed by their own sense of how the world (and their subject) works, and that sense is inherently political, just as it is philosophical and whatever-else-ical. When discussing worldviews, we can’t really pretend to stand outside our subject; this is a decidedly anarchist book, but that doesn’t make it any less a suitable introduction to the subject, even if you are a staunch conservative. Nowhere does it ask you to accept its arguments unthinkingly, or to buy into any assertions for which it does not provide sources or evidence.
Iain McKay is not an academic, or even a full-time writer, but an anarchist, for whom this FAQ is the main form of his activism. As such, he has had to work on it in the time that earning a living and leading a family life permits him. Consequently, it is not a perfectly polished document: there are many minor grammatical errors and so forth, the consequences of editorial changes and the gradual evolution of the work. He welcomes contributions, as this is a living online document (the paper version representing a snapshot), but he’s more interested in receiving informed pieces of writing on particular aspects of the subject that proof-reading. It’s always quite clear what is meant, and although there may be some errors of attribution and so forth it seems that McKay is always happy to put them right when they are brought to his attention. The important thing is that the reasoning on which the FAQ is built is always sound, humane, rigorous and falsifiable.
I expect later sections will become more technical and argumentative in nature, but Section A is mainly just inspiring. There is a hidden history of fighters for freedom that runs through the last two hundred years as an undercurrent, ignored and concealed by mainstream political thought, but emerging periodically to question and ridicule it. It’s a history with its heroes and its martyrs, but they are not saints or ‘great men’; they are simply ordinary people who refused to cease doing right in times when power insisted on their acquiescence. It’s a story of great tragedy, but also a hopeful one; anarchism has historically arisen from the actions of ordinary, predominantly uneducated people, and the famous anarchist writers have to a large extent been documenting practice, rather than prescribing it. The really beautiful, awe-inspiring lesson that is here to be learned is that when ordinary people become aware of the possibility of liberty, they rise to the challenge magnificently, casting aside their prejudices with their chains. It’s just a question of getting the word out.
For the last 336 hours, I have been listening repeatedly to the following sounds:
Ayria - ‘Flicker’ Uncomplicated futurepop, a combination of bouncy EBM/electro-industrial dance beats and Jennifer Parkin’s vocals, which set out to be a bit dark and badass, but just come out cute. It’s a paler shade of cyber-goth music, very energetic, and accompanied by a full album of stomping remixes.
Meshuggah - ‘Contradictions Collapse’ More conventionally thrash-metal flavoured than Meshuggah’s later recordings, this is nevertheless pretty creative, with a lot of rhythmic trickery and incongruous jazz-fusion elements. Continually surprising and inventive, it’s a very rewarding listen from a band that seriously knows how to bring the heavy.
Chestburster - ‘They Mostly Come Out At Night… Mostly’ Grindcore, horrocore, goregrind… Chestburster play raw punk with incomprehensibly aggressive vocal violence, at tempos ranging from Sabbath to warp speed. Every song is ultra-short, and the (also short) album is programmed with a selection of apposite movie samples. Brutally, beautifully unhinged.
Tribal Tech - ‘X’ Their first album after a more than ten year hiatus, X is an incredible fusion odyssey, the perfect combination of chops, melodicism, improvisation, harmonic wizardry and sonic experiment. Every player is unfeasibly good, and while the album is hardly breaking new ground for these fellas, it’s impeccably written and arranged. Jaw dropping shit, yo.
Gary Willis - ‘Retro’ Tribal Tech’s bass player has tended to go to even more experimental places with his own music, but his latest solo release goes the other way. It’s fusion for being electric, but it’s basically a straight jazz album; a bass led electric-piano trio, demonstrating exactly how this stuff should be done. Stunning chops employed with total musicality, for beautiful results.
Also in the main vein have been some splendid short releases from Elizabeth Veldon (radical noise) Frappe Dreamgate (discorporate cubist pop) GHOSTS (post-trip-hop noir) Matt Stevens (his Christmas single, that’s how long it takes me to get around to listening to new music) and Quadrilles (brilliant indie-prog).
Dave Charleston continues his campaign to make the village of Stoke-by-Nayland into the cultural hub of rural South Suffolk, with an exhibition of prints and enamels by the excellent Dale Devereux Barker, at the tiny but exciting Open Road Bookshop. The work has been up for a week, but the opening was last night. Although I was quickly inebriated enough to loudly ridicule it and its author in the hearing of his potential customers, I remembered to have a look first…
Barker’s work combines an enthusiasm for form and colour in the abstract, a rigorous approach to the creative and technical problems of articulating that interest, and a totally accessible, eye-pleasing sensibility, devoid of pretension or self-importance. Varying degrees of figuration can be found within the work, from total abstraction to fully representational, the latter extreme often laced with humour. Humour, or playfulness, is a noticeable presence in much of Barker’s work, and even when there is no obvious denotational content, there is always an evident delight in the process of composition.
Barker’s visual language is notable for how well it scales: many of his pieces are no more than three or four inches across, but he produces work at all sizes, including some major public art commissions; it’s always very clearly his work, and there is no obvious stylistic distinction between his approach to the large and the small, although he obviously attends carefully to the varying demands of different formats. He is extremely consistent, aesthetically and in terms of execution, the smallest work receiving the same care as the largest, and this makes him a good artist to collect. He charges commensurately with his skill and experience, but the smallest stuff is well within the financial reach of the humblest collector (vitreous enamel coasters like the ones above are £15), and is so visually striking that it will happily occupy as much wall space as you want to give it (within reason).
The show at The Open Road is necessarily focused on small work (it’s a very small bookshop, and the walls are mostly covered with books) but there are also (appropriately ) some artist’s books on display, something that Barker does as well as he does everything else. The Open Road is obviously worth a visit at any time, but while this show is on it’s virtually compulsory. The evening continued with a trip next door to The Crown for some of their very classy fish and chips, and I can’t remember much after that.
Saturday night, out at a gig. This is hardly a commonplace occurrence lately, and I had more reason than usual to stay in, as a very dear friend was visiting for the weekend and it would have been nice to spend a bit more time with her at home. However, not only were three most excellent bands of the local noisy bastard fraternity performing, the mightyThumpermonkey were making a rare visit to our Eastern environs, and I really couldn’t miss it (the last time I went to see Thumpermonkey was in London, and although the gig was £5 on the door, I ended up paying out about £50 for the evening’s excursion).
When I write about things here, it’s not like a proper review and shit. I just record my thoughts and impressions of all the cultural experiences I have, mainly books and movies, but clearly also all the music I devour; so I’m not going on too many critical flights of fancy, just saying a few things about why i liked it so much.
First to take the stage were Hobopope And The Goldfish Cathedral, performing as The Ted Mint Explosion. I’d been really looking forward to this, as I’ve heard tons of Hobopope recordings and seen the material gigged several times by Paul David Rhodes on his own or with Ted Mint, to the accompaniment of a backing track; now that Hobopope is a functioning five-piece gig machine I was hoping for a taste of the full band experience, but sadly there were members who couldn’t make it. However, Mint and Rhodes still gave good mental, and the whole deeply peculiar, savagely noisy dada-core shebang was still helluva entertaining.
Telepathy get tighter every time I see them. Heavy and precise math-sludge, performed with a pleasing absence of vocals and a huge amount of onstage vigour, this is music to wig out to or music to listen to in geeky fashion, as the mood takes you. It’s equally superb in either application.
Thumpermonkey were on form, with their well-drilled avant-prog sophistication and their extravagantly goofy antics (most notably at stage left) and their decidedly peculiar lyrical themes. I was as happy as aThumpermonkey fan at a Thumpermonkey gig so I bought aThumpermonkey tee-shirt, and even a Thumpermonkey CD of which I already possessed a promo copy, because I’m sad like that. This is a really really really good band.
Earthmass were also on good form, despite certain members voicing some trepidation about following the rather more technically elaborate acts on the bill. They really shouldn’t have worried because visceral noise-mongery like this is something else altogether, and it stands on its own merits. Their epic post-doom is stiffened by a hardcore backbone that comes to the fore in the noisier moments, and that power combined with an overwhelming melodic hugeness is enough to make my brain fall out every time I hear them. Earthmass are seriously deserving of positive adjectives.
All in all a splendid night out then, both for the music and the social interactions, of which there were several, all positive. I really should get out more.
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