Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Condition of Music

This from a novel that has much to say about music, among other subjects:

The music hammers at him; he feel it at the back of his throat. Steely Dan, their best album. Full of angular licks and slick changes, lyrics that peck at you. But he doesn't want to hear it. Music unstitches him now; he can do without it.

Irritatingly Steely's best album is never named in the narrative. Not one of the early ones, I'm guessing. Angularity is there, but not a startling feature of Can't Buy A Thrill. I'm thinking Aja, on which the changes are at their slickest in the catalogue. Though it's a bit of a trite choice for Lu Fox, the male protagonist of Tim Winton's Dirt Music, the novel from which I'm quoting here. But people make trite choices and see their preferences as part of the fabric of things. Winton's particularly good at that.

It's been easy to enjoy Winton's narrative, as you might guess from the deployment of hammers, peck and unstitches in the above. He combines the cerebral and visceral to impressive effect. His characters communicate and resonate - even though he's often grappling with extreme states. I've got around 130 pages to go and I really, really want to know what happens. Childish but a good sign.

It looks like I've acquired a new favourite, well, favoured, let's say, writer.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Stop Making Sense

Idle thoughts on a busy day: Always consider the dictates of reason. Always question the dictates of reason. Sometimes ignore the dictates of reason. Maybe often.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

State of the Union

Boon leant me a copy of Barack Obama's Dreams From my Father the other day. This was oddly fortuitous as the book had just gone from being a possible read in 2010 to a must read by April, the result of my tuning into an excellent interview with Seamus Heaney on the World Service in which the Nobel laureate and greatest living Irishman extolled its virtues. That's just about as high a recommendation as one can imagine for any book but especially intriguing when the author happens to be the President of the United States.

And now he's losing some, if not most, of the popularity necessarily attendant upon the essentially untried, Obama has become, in my eyes, even more fascinating a figure. I'm sure he knew it would happen since I knew it would happen and he's a lot cleverer and more politically aware than I am. This is the period when greatness may emerge, when it's all running against you. Think Lincoln with the Union falling apart - a thought I know the president shares.

I love a mess, what life essentially is.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Third Thoughts

One last thing about Day-Lewis's performance (in There Will Be Blood) that I liked. Monumental as it was, it always felt like it was serving the ends of the movie rather than stamping itself on otherwise recalcitrant material. In that sense, selfless - as well as in the sense of the actor losing himself completely.

In the final scenes he looked like he'd been sweating oil.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Second Thoughts

Just watched the last twenty or so minutes of There Will Be Blood, and mighty glad I did. The last two scenes - well, more encounters I suppose - are uniformly excellent and go a long way to justifying the whole narrative arc of the film. Day-Lewis's extraordinary creation descends into a kind of madness (but I suppose he's been there all along really) disowning his 'son', H.W., in a powerfully, painfully emotional sequence, and doing even worse to Eli Sunday, his sort-of nemesis throughout the movie. It's all very horrible and entirely inevitable in this mythic world. I made the mistake of trying to watch something I thought was trying to be realistic when I should have been thinking Shakespeare.

So now I've come to the conclusion I was probably wrong-headed in all my criticisms of what I watched yesterday. The problem, and possibly the reward, is that I'll need to view the whole thing again. But this won't be soon. I need a bit of distance. And a whole movie in a couple of days is a big thing for me.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Catching Up

Spent a fair portion of the day dealing with the sort of business that simply needs dealing with - quite a bit of it related to the car. Had to take it to pass an inspection, a mandatory requirement, and rightly so, now it's three years old. It passed without fuss so now it remains to spend oodles of cash just to ensure I have the right to drive it. Again, rightly so in my estimation. I regard driving as a privilege and perhaps one that I should seriously consider for-going in view of the wear and tear it exacts on our environment.

I also have been reminding myself of just how bad I am at watching films. I've been having a go at a DVD I bought around about this time last year, at an iffy price, when I was in Medan in Indonesia. I'm off there again in a couple of weeks and I suppose it was that which made me aware of the need to ensure I'd actually watched all the DVDs I came back with last year.

The movie in question was There Will Be Blood and, sad to say, I've yet to finish it. It's obviously got a lot going for it. The cinematography is seriously good, the sense of period spot-on (the oil-fields of California around 1902) and the acting very fine, except for Daniel Day-Lewis who goes well beyond that into his usual stellar territory. But I just couldn't get into the thing on the level of story somehow. I wasn't too sure of what was going on most of the time and when I was I wasn't too sure of why anyone thought it would be good to make a film of it. I think I've got about twenty minutes or so left and I'm not looking forward to it, though I will watch out of a sense of duty. And I mean that seriously. I know the film-makers involved have got something valuable to say, it's just that I'm too deaf to hear it.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Shifting Paradigms

Duly, but, happily, not dully, completed reading last year's November 5 issue of The New York Review of Books with Bill McKibben's In the Face of Catastrophe: A Surprise, a review of a book by Rebecca Solnit about communities that arise in times of disaster, generally, though not exclusively, the natural sort. I've yet to find anything quite as gripping in the other two mags I'm now embarked on, the December 3 edition of TNYRB being an especial let-down after the giddy heights of November. In fact, it was my third reading of the McKibben piece which seems to me extraordinarily thought-provoking - though perhaps it's slightly more accurate to say that it's Solnit's book that's doing the real provocation.

McKibben says of her work: A Paradise Built in Hell is an 8.5 on the intellectual Richter scale. It opens a breach in the walls of received wisdom that one hopes many other thinkers will rush through. I'm not sure I'd be classified as a thinker in McKibben's sense - I think he's referring to those movers and shakers at the cutting edge of thought, as it were - but I must say, what I read of Solnit's ideas certainly made me question some of my deepest assumptions about human nature. Essentially she questions the whole Hobbesian package regarding the law of the jungle governing the deepest roots of our behaviour. It seems that in instances like the Hurricane Katrina saga people's essential instincts were to help each other - despite the story the mainstream media felt necessary to spin, possibly because it was felt to be what should have happened according to our models of human behaviour. The lawlessness set in when the authorities decided some law was necessary.

Now all this sounds suspiciously utopian in its drift. But it chimes with a few things I've learned and noticed over the years. At the very least, it's a reminder that the world and those on it are often a lot more complicated than our mental models of them can allow for.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


I'm trying to finish the November 5, 2009 issue of The New York Review of Books. That makes reading it sound like a bit of a pain, but the quality of articles in the issue in question is excellent and I'm thoroughly enjoying the read. I bought it originally having read Jerome Groopman's enlightening article Right & Wrong Diagnosis on-line (here) and decided I wanted a 'proper' copy, as it were. I then discovered the issue to be full of unputdownable stuff - John Carey on a new biography of Robbie Burns, as just one example. The problem has been that unputdownable as it is I have had to keep putting it down.

And this problem has been compounded by my puchase of another, later issue when we were in London along with a tasty-looking London Review of Books for the month of December. Both were a lot cheaper than they would have been in Singapore. Fortunately, I managed to avoid loading up with piles of other worthy magazines - this being made easier to do than in past visits to the UK by the relative dearth of items of interest on the shelves of places like W.H. Smith. I assume the business is moving on-line by some mysterious process. Or perhaps it's just symptomatic of the general cultural dumbing-down for which our species has opted. Or perhaps it's my fault for simply not reading enough.

Anyway, part of this weekend is being dedicated to cutting into my backlog of reading. I'm also intending to try and view all the DVDs I've accumulated recently - not many in terms of what other people have got (about 5 to watch) but tricky for someone as resolutely movie-averse as myself.

Friday, January 22, 2010


Very satisfying said the missus, just five minutes ago, of her banana and walnut cake, as we munched several choice slices. Accompanied as we were by Dylan's Together Through Life and lashings of tea I'd venture to suggest she was not wrong. As highlights (of life) go, this is a strong contender for the year's list.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Retrospective: Odd Harmonies

It was back in the little apartment we rented in Paris, in the Marais - great place to be, by the way: right by the river, lots of halal eateries. Basically it was a one-bedroom flat, but there was a sturdy sofa bed in the front room for the girls and they enjoyed having the living-room to themselves, with tv, DVD player and the like, once Noi and I had taken off to the land of nod. I suspect our nieces had a few late night sessions.

I was the first to wake in the morning, to do the dawn prayer. Then I would use all my powers of persuasion to get Fafa up to do the same. Noi and Fifi weren't able to do prayers for the few days we were there. Once Fafa had prayed she took herself back to her bed for a few extra zzzzzzzzs. (That kid can really sleep.) So I'd be left with a bit of time on my hands and not much to do except read and listen to a bit of music. I'd start with some fairly tranquil stuff so the girls could sleep on, but gradually put on some more lively sounds as the morning truly arrived. Still it took a long time to stir the troops.

After I'd bought the Fripp and Eno Equatorial Stars album that became the first choice in the earliest hours - slow, trance-like, drifting: no sleeper could protest. One morning, as the CD was playing, I turned on my mobile phone. I'm no great lover of these generally pernicious devices and had mine turned resolutely off for most of our time in Europe. I was simply checking for anyone who might have tried to make contact in the last day or so.

The most extraordinary thing happened. As you no doubt know, most of these phones seem to come with a little bit of start-up music. Mine being manufactured by Nokia plays that nah-nah-naah-nah-naah phrase, a sound that gets increasingly irritating the more I hear it. But not this morning. The phone certainly played its ditty, but this time in the most magical synchronisation, rhythmically and harmonically with the cunning musical stylings of our ambient heroes. It seemed like business as usual on the Equatorial Stars front - I didn't know the music well enough to be aware that Eno had not deliberately incorporated the Nokia tune in its textures as a kind of joke. But the irritating ditty was now revealed, in its utterly-transformed-yet-the-same form, as one of the great motifs of our time.

And instantly it was gone, never to be recaptured. Spooky.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Got in at around 7.30 this evening, cream-crackered. A long day indeed when you consider I stepped out at 6.05 this morning. Yet tired as I was I felt oddly satisfied. A few hours with our drama guys, feeding off their youthful high spirits. provides the solution to this conundrum. It may be vampiric, but I've reached an age when the odd transfusion now and again is something to welcome.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Self

No one is ever himself, Galip whispered, as if divulging a secret. None of us can ever be ourselves. Don't you wonder if other people see you as someone other than the person you really are? Are you so very sure you are your own person? If you are, are you sure that the person you are sure you are is really you?

Thus Galip, the central character (if a character is what he is) in one of the later chapters of The Black Book. (Just finished, by the way. It started well and just got better.)

And what if the self is no more than a thin stretched tissue binding together the various autonomous bits and pieces that make us up, creating a fiction of some kind of togetherness, before it all falls apart, even as it falls apart, to convince us, console us, it was once all together? If I'm not mistaken (and I might be, I might be) that's the story told by Michael Gazzaniga in Human. My intuition tells me that might well be the way it is when I look inside, though I must admit, other humans look all of a piece to me.

It's odd to think of us all being so selfish if there were no real self to be selfish for.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Retrospective: Automatic For The People

Back in December I found myself driving a biggish Vauxhall Insignia, basically because we felt we needed a big car for all our luggage. In the event we were later able to manage with a smaller Kia Soul, a car I much preferred driving. Not that there was anything wrong with the Insignia in terms of its handling. Both cars were easy to drive in that respect - and it was nice to get back to driving using manual gears, much as I enjoy the ease of the automatic Toyota Axio I drive over here. (Basically we have an automatic to reduce the strain on my back in heavy traffic.) But what I'm leading up to is the irritation the Insignia engendered as a result of all the pointless bells and whistles on board.

In ten days of driving it I never got the hang of all the buttons to press on the dashboard. To take but one example: for some reason they now make cars with headlights that automatically turn on, whether you want them to or not. There's a way to stop this, but it's just one more thing to think about and press that you don't really need on your mind. And they've got rid of the trusty handbrake, replacing it with a little button that doesn't quite work as a handbrake used to. As far as I can figure out, you're supposed to trust the car to hold itself where it is on a hill, if you've employed the handbrake (or the funny little stand-in they supply) as you transfer your right foot from the footbrake to the accelerator. (Because the new-fangled brake-thingie won't release unless you've got your foot on the footbrake.) I checked this in the driver's manual and couldn't make any sense of the instructions. Anyway, I elected to hold the car on the clutch and avoid the dratted little switch as much as I could. Whose idea was it, I wonder, to get rid of the perfectly sane and serviceable brake that fitted the hand so neatly and usefully?

The greatest irony is that despite the vehicle being able to tell me about the outside temperature and my fuel consumption and the like, it couldn't spot a devious speed camera. The result: I've been summonsed for hitting a measly 37 mph in a 30 mph zone!! The injustice! I rest my case, your honour.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Retrospective: Bigger Worlds

Fifi's excitement at being in a bookshop as sheerly, spectacularly big as Foyles - in London, where we were in early Decmber - was a reminder of the limitations of our little world here - reinforced today by The Sunday Times devoting a mere half a page (again) to Books. One reviewed only. Foyles's section on Vampire Stories - which seem to have become a sub-genre of teenage fiction - held her mesmerised. Pleasingly she was able to dole out some advice to a fellow browser, a lady buying something for her teenage daughter. Fifi obviously looks like the expert she really is in this line. (She can get through one of these fang-gnashing tomes, and most are pretty bulky, in a matter of hours.)

I shared the excitement, in this and other literary emporia, but in my case it was somewhat moderated by the fact I was keeping myself on a tight rein in terms of increasing my library, for similar reasons to my equally cautious approach to the purchase of CDs. So I restricted myself to the following: Pamuk's The Black Book (which I just haven't seen on shelves lately over here); Neil Robert's Ted Hughes: A Literary Life; a recent collection of poems by Ian McMillan entitled Perfect Catch; Charles Causley's Collected Poems (from Foyles - haven't seen it anywhere else); and the obligatory graphic novel/comic book, Alan Moore's (oh, and Kevin O'Neill's)(why do I so often forget the artist?) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - Century 1910.

I've been semi-deliberately spinning out The Black Book so as not to rush the simple luxurious pleasure of reading Pamuk at his most Pamukian; but, I must admit, the practicalities of dealing with the Toad Work have also played a part in slowing me down. At times I've broken away from the mysteries of Istanbul to read Stanley Wells's Shakespeare & Co, one of the books I treated myself to in the splurge of last October, just to put myself on more familiar ground. Wells is not as exciting as some of the more recent writers on the bard and all things bardic, but he's solid and informative and sometimes that's all you want - especially at the beginning of the first term of the year.

I've mentioned Roberts's book before. I'm glad I bought it as it is likely to serve as a prelude to a major embrace of Hughes I'm planning for the year ahead. Of the other purchases I've now read, the latest adventure of the Gentlemen seemed disappointing, but I'll reserve judgement until I've got hold of the other two episodes that have been promised - according to one or two of the reviews I've come across.

That just leaves the poetry and I'm sort of holding myself back from two favourite writers - sort of delayed gratification in a way. It's good to have something to look forward to.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Retrospective: Ears Wide Open

Just recently I've been making mention in this Far Place of one or two of the CDs I picked up on our European jaunt, so I thought I'd go the whole hog and spill the beans on the entire cache. This won't take much time as I consciously, manfully, somewhat ruefully, kept a grip on my wallet, not so much because I couldn't afford to throw the green stuff around, but rather due to the fact I don't consider myself as having done anything like justice to the music I already own. (And this guilt is multiplied when it comes to DVDs. I don't own that many, but I'm far from having viewed all of what I've got.) Another relevant point here was not wanting to overload our baggage on the way back. I can rely on Noi to do that anyway with all our other purchases.

So the number of CDs purchased added up to a paltry eight, one of these being a 3 CD and another a 2 CD set. Of these, two were of the spoken word variety - the Naxos Selections from The Faerie Queene (with three CDs) and Great Poems of the Romantic Age (with two.) A chap named John Moffat reads the Spenser and he is excellent. I'm familiar with his voice from a couple of my Penguin audiobooks, two collections from their poetry anthologies series. Somehow he manages to sound quite old fashioned in a dignified sort of way which suits The Faerie Queene well, but he's also got a surprising range of 'voices' for characters and does great justice to the denizens of the faerie kingdom. Fortunately the grudge-nursing system in the bedroom seems to find the set acceptable so at the moment this constitutes my late night listening.

The other six CDs contain some super music. There's the Eno and Fripp couple I got in Paris regarding which I've previously waxed lyrical. Then come four that cost a measly twenty quid in total, picked up in HMV as they carried 2 for 10 quid stickers: Paul Weller's 22 Dreams, which I bought along with Neil Young's Living With War; and Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago, along with which I snaffled the Bobster's Another Side of Bob Dylan. I'm uneasily aware that drawing attention to the price(s) makes me sound like a cheapskate, but since this is no great secret I can cheerfully admit to it. In defence of what musical integrity I have left, I'll just say this is all stuff I've wanted to get for some time.

On the DVD front, by the way, The Blue Planet was the big buy, but I also found a copy of Danny Boyle's Millions which I've been keen to get hold of.

When we were in England and France I didn't have that much chance to listen to all this as we generally let the girls play 'their music' in the car(s) or on available stereo systems (which were in short supply.) So we got more than our fair share of Beyonce, JLS, Lady Gaga, Black Eyed Peas and the like. (Hope I got the names right.) But I must say, I rather enjoyed bopping along to their stuff. I've never really held with the idea that music is not what it used to be. Most of it sounded pretty cheerful to me. I think it's ears that deteriorate.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Not So Blue

Got home reasonably early, before the evening had set in, and decided to bang on one of the DVDs from The Blue Planet, another goodie picked up back in Manchester. (It's easily available here in Singapore, but a lot cheaper in the UK.) We're now onto the third episode, filled with the satisfying knowledge that we can watch the first two, and all the subsequent ones, over and over and over again. The Waaahhhhh! factor for this series is off the chart.

And it, the experience of watching each episode so far, leaves me with a question: Is this Art? I mean, the images are frequently just about the most beautiful you imagine viewing, and when they're not they're usually powerfully dramatic, and when they're not that, they're still gorgeously relaxing. George Fenton's music is so 'right' (as the missus perspicaciously pointed out during one sequence of dolphins twisting nonchalantly, dizzyingly through the air to one particularly cheerfully, twisting tune) that it's almost as illuminating as Attenborough's inevitably unbetterable commentary. And like all great Art it makes you glad to be alive just for the privilege of being in the audience.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Mind of its Own

The CD player in the bedroom has developed an aversion to one of my favourite spoken word CDs - the Naxos AudioBooks The Essential Dylan Thomas. For around three years now I've often played the third and fourth of the CDs in this wonderful set as late night listening, with the timer set to automatically switch off after half an hour. A couple of nights ago I decided I was in the mood for Richard Bebbs's excellent reading of A Winter's Tale, my favourite of Thomas's longer poems, along with a few other goodies from CD4. But each time I loaded the disk, the player immediately spat it out. Then last night I thought I'd try CD3, specifically the evocative Memories of Christmas read by Philip Madoc, the best reader I know of Thomas's work, Burton and Thomas himself notwithstanding. The same thing happened - instant regurgitation.

But here's the odd thing: everything else I have crammed in the player's maw lately gets dutifully played.

What has the machine got against the Welsh wizard? And why all of a sudden?

And what can take the place of Thomas in soothing the fevered brow at the end of the fevered day? (To be honest, I already have the answer, having finally managed to pick up the Naxos set of The Faerie Queene back in Manchester. Hope the machine doesn't have a grudge against allegorical Elizabethan epics.)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bad Reviews

One of the things I admire about these creative johnnies is their readiness to put themselves in the firing line as far as reviews are concerned. It’s one thing to have a feeling that perhaps the show wasn't quite as good as it might have been; it's quite to another to have an anonymous critic telling you that, and worse, in cold hard print. And you having to get back up on that unforgiving stage the next night.

One of the things that puzzles me about these reviewer types is why they bother to stick the knife in as deeply as they do, regardless of whether it's deserved. Well, that's not quite true. I know why they do it: they enjoy it. There are few activities that can be legally carried out on a typewriter, nowadays a word processor, quite as deeply satisfying as showing your superiority to those arrogant souls who think they have a right to get their stuff on/in stage/film/CD/print/canvas. And the more deeply inadequate you are, the greater the pleasure that comes from slagging somebody off. (I'm guessing a bit there, but I don't think I'm too wide of the mark.)

I was reminded of this yesterday when incorporating a chunk of an article on Alain de Botton into a segment of a workbook we'll be giving our students. I enjoy his work generally and particularly liked The Art of Travel which we'll be using as a Part 4 text for English A1. Mr Charlie Brooker (whoever he is) does not share these sentiments as he makes abundantly clear in a piece subtly entitled The Art of Drivel.

Now if you've bothered to pursue the link above what exactly do you think has motivated Mr Brooker? 1) A love of literature such that he wishes to uphold the highest standards possible against the rising tide of barbarism? 2) A debilitating sense of envy towards someone who's been very successful doing roughly the same thing (writing) as he does but doing it a lot better? I know what my answer is, and it's not number 1.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Sense of Identity

Strongly recommended: Orhan Pamuk's The Black Book. I'm taking it slowly, as befits a Proustian (in the best sense) novel, and am now just over halfway, looking forward to the delights and, I'm guessing, surprises to come. It's something like, yet nothing like, Snow and I Am Red. But a word of warning. For those like Lear who but slenderly know themselves, and anyone going through an identity crisis, this is one (possibly) to avoid. I'm pretty much convinced by now that whatever 'I' I am is little more than a convenient fiction. Mind you for those of us who are not terribly impressed with ourselves this comes as a bit of a release - an idea that Pamuk, of course, does a good deal of justice to.

For insomniacs everywhere the chapter Can't You Sleep?, at the mid-point of the novel, will make particularly resonant reading.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Retrospective: A Sort Of Innocence

Thinking back to our first visit to Les Halles in December, and the purchase of those rather funky Fripp/Eno albums (also with one from Beyonce including a DVD that the girls wanted) put me in mind of another session of free music we enjoyed - this being in addition to the very fine busker in Montmartre whom I've mentioned in an earlier post. Just before we reached the shopping centre we were through an open square, La Place Des Innocents, and we chanced upon a very jolly gathering featuring a sort of competition between two bands playing some sort of ethnic, gypsy-sounding music. Whatever it was, it sounded great, from both bands.

A group of small school kids, by the looks of it out for the day with a couple of teachers, were circling a near-by fountain and dancing exuberantly as they went, to the extremely danceable music. One lady was winding through the crowd offering chocolates and bits of confectionery to all, especially the youngsters. At first I thought there would be some sort of charge involved for the grub, but, no, all this for free.

One thing about the French: they know how to enjoy life.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Retrospective: Snowbound

Why are the best moments the simplest?

After walking laughingly unsteadily through thick snow to a restaurant and snowball fighting on the way back, John and Jeanette saying The girls will remember this, always. And we all knew it was true.

And Mum's neighbour Barbara telling me about watching Fifi and Fafa from her window playing in the snow outside and how excited they were. It was lovely to see them. As if she were seeing something of her own childhood through the girls.

And Noi and the girls laughing excitedly at the hotel window as the snow fell outside, laughing at their own excitement and their own laughter, knowing what joy there was to come.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Retrospective: Spaced Out

Whilst in Paris I found myself taken aback at the range of music on offer in the shops, well, in one very large shop dealing with books, DVDs and CDs in Les Halles. They actually had a substantial selection of material from Soft Machine and King Crimson and solo efforts by various alumni (to give just one, telling, example of the delights on offer.) I was sorely tempted to buy far too much but manfully restricted myself to couple of Robert Fripp related CDs - one his most recent recording with his occasional partner in crime Brian Eno, The Equatorial Stars; the other a very tasty set of Soundscapes, or, in this case Churchscapes, At The End Of Time. (The Churchscapes bit arises from the fact the pieces are all taken from tours playing churches in England and Estonia.)

As is so often the case with this area of Fripp's work, it would be easy to dismiss the material as synthesisery noodling, good only for background. The way to prevent oneself reaching such a facile conclusion is to actually, actively, listen to what is on offer. Once you're drawn in it's not so easy to get out. But who would really want to leave?

The nearest equivalent in the Fripp canon to At The End Of Time, by the way, is A Blessing Of Tears, in itself a powerful recommendation. And the sleeve notes are wonderful. This is Fripp on playing in Estonia: What changed in Estonia? These spring to mind: The venues: sacred not secular. The audiences: willing to listen; able to listen. The culture: civilised, on human scale. As always, punchy and pithy in a prolix sort of manner. A bit like the music itself.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Retrospective: Art and Play

Of all the galleries we went in on our European venture it was the smallest, the Musee d'Art Naif Max Fourny in Montmartre, that afforded us the most sheer pleasure per square inch. We came upon it sort of by accident as we were going up the hill towards the church and decided to pop in for a bit of a break - a wise decision indeed. It seems the place specialises in brut (whatever that means) and naïve artworks by artists from around the world who are often self-taught. The work of a couple of such artists was on display in two delightful exhibitions, the creators in question being a chap called Chomo and a lady by the name of Marie Morel. Probably they're well-known in the art world, if not they certainly deserve to be, but I'd never heard of them before. So there was a huge element of exploration and discovery about the whole experience.

Chomo's work seemed to be based on recycling all sorts of rubbish. Some of it was quite nightmarish but in an oddly friendly manner. At times I'd look at a piece and think I could do that, and I could but not one tiny fraction as well. But the fact that I could think such a thing added to the enormous accessibility of it all. Mdm Morel's work was a bit more intimidating in its sheer excellence, but again was based on techniques that anyone could make a go of. She's got this thing of assembling big canvases, as it were, out of small, evenly sized units, squares or rectangles, each containing images - simple drawings, odd sentences, actual objects like twigs and feathers - relating to the theme in question. It was fascinating how your eye would begin with the big picture of the overall design, usually beautifully balanced in itself like gorgeous wallpaper, and then go down to the level of the individual, individualised panels.

There was a wonderful sense of playfulness in both exhibitions and that's always something to celebrate in art. (The girls loved it all, though I think Fafa found some of Chomo's work a bit scary.)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Retrospective: An Old Favourite

Slight error in yesterday's post: the Warhol fan is Fifi not Fafa. Our elder niece is showing distinct signs of developing a funky attitude to life as she enters her teens.

Before our December trip I think I would have probably denied having particular favourite artists myself or being any kind of fan of an individual painter, but our walk around Tate Britain, or the wing of it with all the Turners, reminded me that at one time, I think in my late teens, I developed a very soft spot indeed for the great Joseph Mallord William. That spot emerged softer than ever at the end of a wonderful couple of hours enjoying not just the paintings but a lovely room devoted to some of his drawings (with some of the original notebooks!) and the engravings made from them.

The extraordinary thing about a room full of Turners, at least in the clever way the Tate goes about displaying him, is that you are almost guaranteed at least one canvas that elicits a stupefied Waaahhh!!! as soon as your eyes touch it - or, rather, as soon as your eyes catch the blaze. Significantly in our choosing (the nieces, the missus and myself) of favourites it was telling how often all four of us plumped for the most abstract piece in each room. How did he manage to be so utterly modern and get away with it in early nineteenth century London of all places? I suppose it helped that he was so good at the photo-realism bit that his audience simply trusted him in his wilder flights.

Turner does that thing common to so many of the greatest artists in all fields: he educates his audience in the process of his development.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Retrospective: Looking At Art

What should you be doing in an art gallery, other than visiting the toilets, the bookshop and the little cafe (assuming it comes complete with these features)? I first started visiting galleries in my late teens and then, and ever since, I've never been entirely comfortable with my behaviour in these hallowed halls, never quite sure I'm doing the right thing, whatever that is. Now I'm old enough not to be all that bothered by the question (not having any great concern at all with right things as far as art is concerned), but visiting numerous galleries with Fifi and Fafa in hand did make me wonder ever so slightly if I were a good role model on their premises.

The problem is that as far as I can see there's just too much art to look at. This is true even of small galleries, but when it comes to places like the Louvre and Tate Modern the excess is so overwhelming that I find myself wondering whether I'm seriously expected to do anything close to justice to their contents. So what do you leave out? And what do you do regarding the stuff you are going to seriously look at? Give it one, two minutes? Stand up close? Pull back? Look at details?

What I have discovered recently is that I can absolutely lose myself in a painting or sculpture or even one of those installation thingies if I choose to. Choosing to depends on the piece in question having some kind of basic 'pull' for me. But if it has, and time is available, I can immerse myself for minutes at a time in a kind of meditative reverie. For some reason this gives me the feeling I am responding appropriately, but the process has little connection with any kind of intellectualised evaluation. In fact, it feels entirely and satisfyingly primitive. I suppose staring in this manner, which is what it amounts to, might make me appear formidably artistic, but equally I might just appear terribly short-sighted.

Another technique we adopted as a group - me, Noi and the kids - was to wander for a few minutes round a room and then vote for what we liked best. Childish, but it helped to focus the mind. The remarkable thing was how often two, three or four of us were in agreement and sort of knew which pieces the others would choose. It was also remarkable how often it was the more abstract 'modern' pieces which garnered the votes. I grew up at a time when 'ordinary' people still needed convincing that techniques other than basic realism were worthy of note (at least, that's what the papers said.) Yet the girls do not have the slightest difficulty in responding to 'puzzling' material. Fafa, for example, turned out to be an Andy Warhol fan. I don't recall them asking once what anything meant. Rather fortunate for me, as I don't think I'd have been able to answer.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Retrospective: Getting Serious

In our time in Paris and London we visited a fair number of art galleries. I found myself pondering therein on the intensely serious expressions worn by most of the coves being immortalised in the various works of art on display. This was especially true of those whose features were enshrined in marble - the fate of quite a number of French aristos and gentlemen. Now I know Art (with a capital A) is a serious and expensive business, particularly when it comes to the use of marble, and I suppose you'd want to enter eternity - or however long marble lasts - looking your best, but is that enough to explain the glum expressions on our chums?

I think not. The more miserable faces I encountered, the more the suspicion grew that these chaps looked so serious basically because they took themselves so seriously. Either that or they were also suffering bad cases of toothache. I'm no great art buff when it comes to the visual stuff but one of the saving graces of modern art (some of it, anyway) is that it can be quite funny.

There also seemed to be a lot of pictures involving severed heads in the Louvre (generally Biblical rather than in association with the guillotine.) Quite an odd subject for a painting when you think about it. Not the sort of thing you'd want on your dining room wall I'd have thought.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Irresolute, again

I had intended to start the year, 2010 not 1431, with a declaration of intention in the form of several resolutions. However, it has proved difficult to get on-line here on the hill and having forgone a posting for the first of the month I've decided to take this as a sign of sorts. Also someone plonked onto my desk at work a copy of an article making the not unreasonable case that resolutions are pointless as they don't work. This wasn't exactly news to me, and my resolutions have never been formulated with the vulgar notion of success in mind, but it, the perspicacious article, reinforced the sense of living in an age, well a month, of signs. So there are to be no such declarations.

But I found myself terribly impressed with the mission statement of the company Klutz, a subsidiary of the ever-worthy Scholastic Inc., and I can't resist quoting it here, not so much as a declaration of intent - or replacement for my own finely crafted mission - but simply as a reminder of possibilities. The statement reads: Create wonderful things. Be good. Have fun. I find it difficult to believe a committee might have come up with anything so elegant, sane and useful.

In case anyone is wondering where I came across the statement, it's on the inner jacket of the wonderful Drawing for the Artistically Undiscovered by Quentin Blake and John Cassidy. I treated myself to a copy from the bookshop of the Tate Modern, having offered to buy it for Fafa, who wasn't interested. It's aimed at eigh-year-olds and upward and since I'm definitely upward and artistically very much undiscovered, especially to myself, I thought I'd give it a go, a decision I have found no reason to regret.