Monday, 15 November 2010

Visiting Nick Drake

The autumn colours of gold and dark reds flitter through the Warwickshire countryside as the foliage rustles in the wind; creates a presence of eyes watching, amidst the arm-like branches that adorn the hedgerows and gardens of pristine red-bricked houses and snug thatched cottages. The bright sun betrays its November setting, yet the crisp bite in the air snaps at the skin mischievously. The atmosphere is drenched in the melancholic dregs of summer - the winter is soon upon us, the animals are preparing to hibernate, nature is about to shut-shop, the dying year has not long to live.

This is Tanworth in Arden. A serene, small village that seems quintessentially English. It is, to music fans across the world, a special place, associated with one of the finest songwriter's the country has ever produced.

Nick Drake.

The tragic story of Nick's life and work has touched many people. Nick's struggling musical career, along with his battle with depression and ultimately premature death at the young age of  has fascinated a generation and has been written/studied about extensively. What makes Nick's tale so poignant is the success and adoration he so dearly craved, was only achieved years after his sad death.

I discovered Nick's music through my love of the Wes Anderson film, The Royal Tenenbaums. Snuck away on a soul-searching soundtrack of delights, was an unusually sounding folky song; amidst the storyline of a character reaching a crisis point, it was a simple melody and yet hit that particular soft spot for the reflective. I was caught in Nick's alluring net, and quickly sought out more of his music.

I wondered where Nick had been all my life. The sadness, the subtle beauty, the tragic elements of life. His exquisite guitar playing accompanied with haunting lyrics of poetry; his sadness at life, his ghostly, even rather odd tone of voice. Part of me fell in love with Nick's music, his words, and even Nick himself. Listening to his work made you plead to some other-worldy presence, to tell him he had made it, that we loved him, that it was going to be okay.

Visiting Tanworth In Arden was perhaps, a musical pilgrimage. You could imagine Nick strolling his long legs through the small village in autumn, his eyes casting at the golden colours...and suddenly it was understandable how he could have been inspired to write such reflective songs of delicate sensitive succulence.



Nick's grave lies in a quiet, tranquil churchyard, overlooking a landscape of English countryside that makes you tingle. To visit the grave, is to pay your respects, to appreciate his life and what he achieved. There is something comforting in the knowledge that this is his resting place. There is a silent respect, an atmosphere of calm, and of something, just that little bit exceptional.

One of the aspects of Nick's music that makes him so effective is that he sings and plays as if he is performing especially to you. It is comforting, if heartbreaking, that he seems to understand feelings you may experience yourself.


The sad story of Nick Drake is also positive. Positive that so many have enjoyed and loved his work, positive that he will never really die; that he created something that has united people and that will live forever, and last longer and past a time where we ourselves will be nothing but the rustles in the foliage of an exquisite countryside. We rise. We are everywhere.

The complete set of photographs I took at Tanworth In Arden

Thursday, 11 November 2010

11/11

Armistice day is the right occasion to pause and reflect on sacrifices made by others which have enabled us to sample many of the freedoms we enjoy today.

It was studying Wilfred Owen poetry in school that captured my interest so painstakingly to World War I in particular. Amidst the black and white grainy photographs in history text books, it was difficult to truely relate to the horrors of the trenches, to the terror of the gas attacks, to the squalid diseased conditions and war of attrition that so many thousands of men faced daily. But the poems got you. The poems were sheer evocative gut-wrenching reality.

Pictures paint a thousand words. But the poems painted a thousand pictures.

At a time where we have media obsessed with celebrities, bombarding us with images and portrayals of a lifestyle which we begin to think we want; it is easy to be fooled. It is easy to forget the truth. We forget what has gone before us, we forget that life is about people and having good people in your life.

DULCE ET DECORUM EST

And lest we forget.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Lost In Translation

The Guardian and Observer publications are running supplements featuring their "Greatest Films of All Time" in various sub-categories of genre. Deciphering culture greatness is always a contentious subject of classification. I relish perusing these types of lists; to criticise, to agree, but most of all, to observe why we, as humans and devourers of arts and popular culture, love listing these things in the first place (and subsequently argue about it like it actually means anything).

I was intrigued to see one of my favourite films featured in the "Greatest Romance" section; Sofia Coppola's most beautiful and wonderfully underplayed Lost In Translation. I was curious, because as much as I love the film, it never even occurred to me to even class it into the 'romance' film genre.

Lost In Translation is a film that appears to divide many. It seems to leave many either completely cold, disinterested or feeling as if Sofia Coppola had snuck behind them and pick-pocketed their purses; or like a union of chords had been struck, and the director had sent Bill Murray & Scarlett Johansson around to their homes to touch their hearts personally. I am, obviously, firmly in the latter category. The film has such softness of focus, such subtle of performances, such minimal action, such musically touching soundtracks, that it makes me want to melt.

It was as if watching made my brain wires connect to a long-lost port to enable the motherboard to finally work.

Lost In Translation is a film that appears (to some) to have little plot, but in fact, there is a maelstrom-complex multitude of happenings beneath the seemingly mill-pond surface. The touching snippets of comedy mixed amongst the tragic sadness of reality are all too real - ok, we may not all be aging depressed movie stars stuck jet-lagged in a boring hotel in Japan, but we have all had feelings of solitude, of lack of direction; the sense life is happening elsewhere and we are unable to gain access into the greatest game of all.

It doesn't matter who we are, where we are, or what we are doing; ultimately, if we are not happy with who we are, we will feel lost and alone. And the crux of Lost In Translation, at least to me, seems to be one of the most inevitable aspects of existing - how life is made up of moments, events, snippets of time, where we can meet a person, connect, share a moment, maybe even touch someone's life...and yet never see that person again. Meetings and departures.

Wherever you go, you always have to leave.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Choose (Online) Life

I was reading the latest news on the BBC website, having finished writing an email for submitting an e-form application; and after logging-out of my online bank account where I was keeping a 24 hour eye on finances; whilst listening to streaming music on spotify, and also quickly checking the train timetable on the railway e-route planner; before buying some groceries on an e-shop, whilst speaking to a friend in America on instant chat, and also quickly monitoring the daily lives, and their breakfast contents, of thousands of strangers on twitter....when it occurred to me, that actually, I really DID spend quite a lot of time on the internet.


This shocking [sic] revelation made me think. What did I do before the internets? Could I even remember a time before online media engulfed my life like a smothering python of digital information.

I remember the very first time I saw the World Wide Web. I was studying GCSE I.T in high school. Just like how my father points to areas of Cardiff to me sometimes and claims; "In my day Sian, it were all fields..." ...in my day, it were all Windows 3.1. The memory of the retro graphics fill me with happy pixelated nostalgia. 


One drab Wednesday morning I trudged into class and sat down at my computer, ready to crack open a spreadsheet and devour it whole. But no. Today, we were being shown something NEW. Something DIFFERENT. Something that was apparently, THE NEXT BIG THING. We were being shown - "The World Wide Web".


I had heard of the World Wide Web, of course. But it was spoken and comprehended very much in the same way I now try to fathom the phenomenon that is "High School Musical". I sort of knew what it is, but also very much didn't.


Only one computer in the school I.T room had the Internet. The whole class clambered around the huge monitor (the days when monitors were the size of dog kennels and weighed the same as a baby rhino) and the teacher began her splurge. We were gathered around like how I imagined they would have watched the Coronation in 1953, only we weren't dressed like Just William.
"This is the WORLD WIDE WEB. This is THE INTERNET." She spent about 25 minutes clicking on icons before the computer started to make strange other-worldly noises. This was bizarre. And yet strangely alluring. The INTERNET was dialing. Whatever that meant. Something about phone-lines. Little did I know how familiar that little mechanical tinny tune would become, the sound that was like someone had put a spectrum underwater mid-space invaders. 


SO WE WERE ONLINE! Whatever that meant. The teacher told us she was taking us to "Yah. Hoo. Li. Guns" which was actually Yahooligans. I thought this sounded rather inappropriate for school class. But apparently, this white screen in front of us was linking us up to the corners of the globe! It didn't seem to make much sense. The whole world was at our fingertips! She said. We could access all this information! And what would we look up? The BT Yacht Challenge. It looked like a slightly slimmer lined version of Pong, with a few map lines. That was it.


My first experience of the internet was a damp squib. So damp it was more a drenched squib left out in the rain that got Noah. And yet over the years I have grown to love it.
Since that very first day, the Internet has slowly become such a systematically normal part of my daily routine, I can barely remember how I coped without it. People may complain about change, bemoan the loss of the old ways, which may be justified, or maybe not. But I love the way the Internet evolves and morphs. It may not always be positive, and we should be wary of potential dangers, but the Internet has and can bring people together, and share incredible information. Besides, life is about change and knowledge. Let's embrace it. Or express my love for it via social online media....

Friday, 8 October 2010

I'd like to be a pond



Lost amongst the woods & trees,
The same, but different, such a tease,
I found familiar, of which I was fond,
A beautiful, solitary, lucky old pond.

Quiet & still, content so rare,
Standing me, the water there.

I don't know why, we had such a bond,
I decided I'd quite like, to be a pond.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

National Poetry Day


Creative juices, once fluid, now rock,
Static numbness, such wicked block.

O such horrors when, there's nowt to say,
On a National, Poetry Day


Friday, 24 September 2010

Moving

Moving out.

Two simple innocuous words. Do not believe their deceit. The reality is the tiresome packing of clothes, the boring sifting through worldy possessions, the mucky dirt of the past - even grubbier than the actual cobwebs and dust that have accumulated en mass over the passing years. Dust is like my fan base, a loyal crowd of particles that stalk my airspace.

Oh what a laborious, woebegone task. Few things are more soul destroying than spending hours packing bags, only for the flimsy plastic to rip as soon as you pick them up; the cheap material looking like someone squished into clothes two sizes too small, before stretching, splitting and vomiting up the entire contents.

Worst of all, the memory jogs of old, and always with the most bizarre object; a yellowing christmas card from Nan, her scrawly, spidery handwriting that now just symbolises a huge gaping hole in myself; a ticket to the Empire State Building in 2001, a heart-wrenching time when anything still seemed possible against a backdrop of smooching couples; a well-chewed book, that is like looking into a mirror that instead of a reflection, reveals every single mistake I have ever made.

Even worse still - the plethora of receipts. The guilt of flittered away pennies; papered judge & jury of waste. What was I doing buying a flumklpe from Ikea? What actually IS a flumklpe? How could I spend so much money in B&Q? I don't even like DIY. And did I really need 12 packs of ice lollies in one week...

Moving out. Moving on. And yet it is almost more like moving backwards.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Autumn Changes


yellow leaf
Originally uploaded by sian_quincy
Autumn. It sneaks upon us, arrives quietly and unassuming, bringing the soft browns mingling gently amongst the dregs of luscious greens and brightness of warmer months.

Autumnus. Blue turns darker. The greys gradually descend upon us, trickling down like water-colours across the canvas, before the harsh, thick oil paints of winter black submerge them into the landscape.

Fall; as the leaves drop, so does the temperature, so does our temperament. Woebegone drops start to seep onto the skin. A lament of summer gone, the sun and promise gets lost amongst a polaroid of saturated faded memory.

Autompne. Nature begins to age. Once blooming foliage crumbles into wrinkled maturity. Like dying bud heads, our brittle selves start to buckle. Things are changing. It turns. The true New, despite the fraud of January.

Autumn is the reflection in the gentle water of the ancient small stream that flows through a country field; so endless in its journey, so quietly relentless. It's seen it all before. Mellow but triumphant; the dark reality lays dormant underneath. It patiently waits for the inevitable next mortal to find it and catch the brief reflection before they become the next victim; leaving nothing but a shadowy phantom of what was, at one stage, a seemingly endless summer.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Happy Birthday Roald Dahl

On what would have been Roald Dahl's 90th birthday, it seems fitting to pause and marvel at one of the finest writers Britain has ever produced.

Easily my favourite author as a child, Dahl's books are as captivating as they are surreal; beautifully eccentric characters amongst a world of random extremes and magical wonder. At the heart of Dahl's work is often a dark macabre humour; there's the comedy of a bearded man who manages to contain half his lunch in his beard, or a drink that makes you fly by control of bottom burps, mixed amongst witches, cruel aunts, orphans, and brutal teachers. The world is hilarious, but not always fair, and yet there is a hope that the miraculous can happen to those who are good people.

Essentially, Dahl's books may embrace the fantastical - giants, witches, yet there's an underlying reality to the harshness of real life. His children protagonists often find themselves in horrid situations, through no fault of their own. But it is the belief in hope that shines through as strongly as the Trunchbull herself.

But what made Dahl's writing so engaging, arguably, was his uncanny knack for tapping into the child's point of view, understanding how children view life, their surroundings, and adults. He wrote for children, rather than at them. Adult characters in Dahl's books are often shockingly appalling creatures; cruel, mean, tyrannical (although even some younger characters behave in terrible ways, usually corrupted by the evil adults). The situations his protagonists find themselves in are often horrific, ready to make the reader want to leap behind the sofa for fear of a 60 foot sinister grandma or the giantess Trunchbull flexing her muscles.

Roald Dahl's books were so beautifully textured and descriptive. Dahl paints elaborate pictures of hilariously outrageous human beings (or beans as the BFG would say), comical and yet equally terrifying. Perfect to ignite a child's artistry, or adult for that matter.

His stories were a creative red rag to a dormant bull of imagination to whoever read them. And taught us to embrace the magic of life, even if it was often, just a little bit scary.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

A Stretched Band

Your understanding, if exists, is stealth,
For comprehending, I can't, even myself.
Beneath the surface, a smile will wilt,
Shackled, pounded, and wretched guilt.

Battled hard at the endless crease,
For you I wish, I could give a piece,
Desiring to scatter across any,
But too colossal, it is too many.

With you, so true,
I want to stand tall,
But please, no tease,
And afterall:

A stretched band is, a flawed guise,
It'll break before, it eventually dies.

Friday, 23 July 2010

The Talented Ms Highsmith

I often say sometimes I love a song so much it's probably illegal, and very often I love a book so much it makes my heart want to crumple into pieces so devastatingly, I feel I might cease to be.

Of course the melodramatic in me often gets carried away, but the overall sentiment is true. The Talented Mr Ripley is such a book that has that kind of beautiful effect of satisfaction, a bit like wolfing down a chocolate bar when you have not eaten all day; a delight and warming satisfaction rolled into one.

Written by Patricia Highsmith in 1955, The Talented Mr Ripley was the first Highsmith novel to feature Tom Ripley, a troubled protagonist Highsmith would go on to write five novels about. A psychological crime thriller, Highsmith writes the book from the perspective of Ripley, a struggling sociopath; a New York misfit small-time con-man, whom aspires to so much more than his dreary existence. From the dirty, mundane streets of New York city, Highsmith takes the reader to the sleepy beauty of coastal Italy, and the sophistication of the wealthy, the beautiful; thrown amongst a backdrop of crime.

What makes this book so effective is Highsmith's almost simplistic style, which flows easily and engages you. Yet there is an underlying level, a complex psychological undertone in the narrative that draws the reader into engaging with, essentially, a very sinister and disturbed mind.

As every thriller novel should be, it is moreish. But this is also due to the affinity Highsmith achieves between the reader and the protagonist. And this is what is so wonderfully unsettling in itself. The acknowledgement that you almost accept Ripley's utterly amoral actions, even though you also know they are very wrong indeed. You begin to fear for Ripley, fear for him getting caught, wanting him to succeed in his plans. Highsmith makes you fall in love with the lifestyle of the beautiful in the Mediterranean almost as much as Ripley himself. This is partly why you can almost empathise with Ripley's behaviours. It is this complex sensation of the human psyche that makes the book so deliciously remarkable.
This draws strong parallels to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho which often leads the audience into ambiguous feelings towards Norman Bates (interestingly enough, Highsmith's work often reads like a Hitchcock film, with similar themes and suspense. Her excellent novel Strangers on a Train was made into a successful Hitchcock film).

Written at a time before criminologists and Cracker-style TV shows that endlessly bombard us with glossy crime dramas of elaborate psychopaths, Highsmith draws attention to the idea of what a criminal thinks, how a criminal behaves. Just like Norman Bates, Ripley is and can be, charming, likeable, seemingly normal. Unlike classic melodramatic evil villains in books and film, Ripley is subtle, unassuming, sensitive, intelligent. He enjoys art and high culture. The book challenges the too often screaming tabloid headline notion of criminals only being 'monster uncultured lowlifes'.

The book also deals with strong themes of identity, questioning the idea of who we are, what makes what we are. Ripley is a fantastic mimic, assuming new idenities with ease, acting out roles. It not only highlights how we act out different roles ourselves throughout life, but also the interesting paradox of what the self actually is to what we appear to be.

Highsmith may not be a particularly fashionable writer now, and seems to be too often underrated or forgotten about. A troubled personality herself, her own life was filled with personal turmoil. She had a difficult relationship with her mother, and as an adult became an alcoholic. She often suffered from depression, and Highsmith found it difficult to have relationships with either sex. Acquaintances often called her 'cruel' and 'difficult'. Her behaviour was often erratic and reclusive. Yet she did also have a dry sense of humour. This dark humour can often be seen in her writing.
She was, arguably, one of the finest modern crime thriller writers, paving the way for characters such as Hannibal Lecter and various psychopathic literature since. She writes with such matter-of-fact-ease, and yet deals with such intrinsically convoluted psychological issues. It is this skill of making such sagacious insights on such a difficult subject accessible, which makes Highsmith's work so remarkable.

Reading The Talented Mr Ripley is very much like indulging in delicious chocolate. It is wonderfully enjoyable, supremely satisfying, and yet, also, you have the guilty feeling. The guilt that we humans are all, like Ripley, flawed, and it questions our own capacity to be just that little bit wicked.


Friday, 16 July 2010

Betjeman Beats

Music and poetry is a potent combination. Like music and images, they are entangled together in forms of exuberant brain-pleasuring or indeed heart-wrenching experiences that seem to make life just that little bit more purposeful.

When I was growing up, my parents used to play us a vinyl 45 of this elderly gentleman reciting his poetry to music; crackling clicks of the record against the slightly eccentric English whimsical tones, set against clarinets and bands that sounded like something out of Wind of the Willows. There was a resonance with The Beatles' Yellow Submarine-type of pieces. Whatever the comparisons, it was bizarre. Utterly strange. And yet also rather alluring and admittedly, catchy.

The 45 my parents enjoyed playing us so much was the single release of "A Shropshire Lad", by John Betjeman. Already a fan of his poetry, this particular poem (and single) was all about the place where my mother grew up, somewhere that rarely got any kind of limelight. For my mother, it was like Justin Bieber singing about his greatest fan's home street in the middle of nowhere.

In 1974 the poet laureate Betjeman released an album of his poems accompanied by music called Banana Blush. The well-loved poet of a specific English quaintness; his poems are humorous, touching. They are reflections of a by-gone age. When reading Betjeman's work or indeed, listening to him perform them, it seems almost incredible to ever connect Betjeman with, essentially, a form of rap music.
And yet, it very much works, if not for everyone's taste.

The idea behind Banana Blush belonged to Hugh Murphy, the producer who would later bring us Gerry Raftery's Baker Street. Murphy had already made a record of poetry to music and sought out Betjeman for his next project. The music was written by Jim Parker, who now writes music for TV shows (Midsummer Murders included).

A Shropshire Lad both enthused and unnerved me. The catchy tune and pace was enjoyable for a kid, very much in the same way I enjoyed on Sgt Pepper at the same time. The crackling of the vinyl and odd accent bellowing about ghosts also made me a little spooked. There was an eerie tone to the record as he recited the poem against the clash of cymbals, making me think of ghouls in the personal place which I knew so well, and yet most people didn't; where my Nan lived, and in a place which I was already oddly convinced was haunted.
Moreover, I wondered when my parents might play me a record that involved Kylie or Madonna, but I was already accepting they didn't do things like this. Unless Philip Larkin was going to be remixed to a Jason Donovan number.

That these Betjeman albums have been forgotten about by the mainstream is intriguing. Poetry struggles to be seen as cool by the younger generations, whatever the exaggerated Hollywood films involving Michelle Pfieffer may lead you to believe. And yet the same generations submerge themselves amongst rap music, which has never been more popular.
In 2006, the Guardian reported the Betjeman music albums had resurfaced and become popular with DJs, including the tracks in mixes. The vinyls are apparently highly sought after on ebay for their "dope bass action". Aptly enough, Betjeman's own grandson is a DJ, and he played his grandfather's albums at a set at Glastonbury in 2004. The set went down a storm.

Betjeman's 'rap' efforts have also inspired a range of musical artists such as Suggs and even the great Nick Cave. An unlikely fan you would think but the legendary Cave described them in the Guardian as "beautiful, fantastic stuff. You have these blissed out memories of Betjeman's youth over wah-wah guitar. It's odd and brilliant..."

Odd and brilliant. Absolutely. With emphasis on the brilliant. Perhaps my parents were cooler than I ever gave them credit for, just a little before their time.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Comics will be the culture in the year 3794 - Salvidor Dali

The Guardian featured a recent article on graphic novels, which immediately caught my eye. What particularly interested me was the writer's admission that for years, 'picture books', were to her, just read by nerdy men.

In a lot of ways, something there resonated. However, I grew up with graphic novels, mostly in the form of Asterix, but more importantly, the work of the legendary Posy Simmonds. I did not realise it at the time, but they were helping to shape my humour, as well as beginning to hone my observational skills. As a child, I thought in pictures. I lived in pictures. I drew things daily. I played out my drawings, creating characters with costumes and accents. The world was a giant, living, colourful graphic.

Then I suddenly stopped reading graphic novels. Perhaps it was a time I was discovering Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen. I became entangled amongst Chekhov and Harold Pinter. I wanted the word. I dreamt pretentiously of acting. I also became obsessed with film and cinema, particularly Hitchcock, and perhaps this fulfilled my visual need.

But I forgot. I forgot the magic of the drawn image that had been conjured as a kid. I forgot that graphic novels weren't all superheroes in silly tights, read by greasy teenagers (an unfair stereotype if ever there was one). I forgot there was more to a cartoon than met the eye.

Fancying reading something different, years later I remember picking up a copy of Alan Moore's V for Vendetta that was lying on the floor of my friend's bedroom, amongst fag ends, Vogue mag, Sex in the City DVDs and photograph negatives. It seemed a tad out of place.

I quickly rediscovered my love affair with the graphic novel. I stayed up all night to finish it and the next day I re-read the Posy Simmonds books. It was back. For not only did I enjoy the comedy and witty observations of 1980s life, I could appreciate fully, for the first time, jokes and insights that had been lost on me as a child.
I dug out the Asterix books from the cobwebs of my parents' attic. I even rescued the Tintins. The drawings were visual delights. The stories entertaining yarns. Tintin books had taken me to far away lands as a kid. And I still used to refer to Asterix books for a lot of my Roman history knowledge.

I have since been amassing and reading as many graphic novels as I can. I had already spent years studying photography and art. I was being submerged back towards the still. And whilst I am not a particular fan of superhero books, I adore the medium more than ever. And it brought me back to drawing.

What fascinates me most about the graphic novel is how diverse they come in style or form, in theme or type. A Posy Simmonds novel is beautifully drawn in intricate detail, but often with a lot of text. Her observations portray the minute of middle class life perfectly. Daniel Clowes' Ghost World is more 'cartoony' and yet simply beautiful in the illustration, depicting adolescence so wonderfully tragic and yet so humorously enjoyable. Alison Bechdel's Fun Home is graphicy and drawn on computer and more text heavy, a memoir of personal experience, tender, tragic, self discovering, dealing with sexuality, of coming of age. Alan Moore's From Hell is a sketchy graphic tale of gloom and grim 1880s London, taking you back to the Ripper murders, in a wonderfully gruesome world that seems so vivid and real. Like Maus, a rather more crudely graphic novel that deals with coming to terms with the Holocaust, with the characters as animals, these images stay in your vision when you have long put the book down and closed your eyes tight.

Do not be fooled into thinking graphic novels are not literature, not worthy for study, not 'serious' enough to be treated as art. Or that they are just for kids. Or for nerds. Even if I, admittedly, am both a nerd and a kid.

My top ten favourite graphic novels at the moment, it changes (and is in no order):
1. Ghost World - Daniel Clowes
2. From Hell - Alan Moore
3. Tamara Drew - Posy Simmonds
4. Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth - Chris Ware
5. A Drifting Life - Yoshihiro Tatsumi
6. Fun Home - Alison Bechdel
7. Roach Killer - Jacques Tardi
8. Maus - Art Spiegelman
9. Exit Wounds - Rutu Modan
10. American Splendor - The Life & Times of Henry Pekar - Robert Crumb

Saturday, 29 May 2010

The Sounds of the Morning

Bird song disperses mental fog,
This the hazy morning prologue,
The mind in limbo, the limbs will sprawl,
The feathered mimics soundtrack their call.
Day embryo, respite with pretty,
Before humdrum grit birth, of the city.

Footsteps through the air do float,
A neighbour hacks, clears his throat,
Spluttering and lungs a-kicking,
Like car engines that start a-clicking,
Tweet vocals are left to ignore,
Mechanical cogs drone in their roar.

Distant sirens, the jingle of keys,
Swooping up amongst the breeze.
Crates from lorries crash with a clatter,
Amidst high shrill of children's chatter.
The day maps out, its own plan,
Echos only like, a morning can.

Mind still fathoming, mental numb,
A road sweeper chugs past, with a hum,
Monotonous tone, engine so constant,
Like me, so there, and thus so silent.
The light transforms and morphs its disguise,
As morning grows ancient, and relentlessly dies.

Mourning the morning, harsh to learn,
Sounds the same, but will never return.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Ant


When Adam Ant,
Went on a rant,
He was adamant.

When Adam Ant,
Was adamant,
He visited his aunt.

When Adam Ant,
Went on a rant,
Being adamant,
Visiting his aunt,
He was a cro(i)ss-ant.

It was all irrelev...ant.
For adamant, Adam Ant.




Saturday, 24 April 2010

Rufus Wainwright and the Es Muss Sein


Last week I saw Rufus Wainwright on his Songs for Lulu tour, the new album released last month, just a few weeks after the sad death of his mother Anna McGarrigle of cancer, in January.

The album itself is the most stripped bare of Rufus' works - it is simply Rufus at his piano. And yet the whole record is arguably his most complicated, intricate and emotionally textured of anything he has ever produced before.

The performance was exquisite. Criticised by some as being pretentious, Rufus played the entire album in full, clapping in between songs forbidden. The usual Rufus banter was absent. No little quips of welcomes. Or face pulling. Just Rufus, his piano, and the heart-wrenching musical tale of losing his mother.
Typically, the audience illustrated the amazing wide spectrum of fan-base Rufus attracts. From grannies to teens, to trendies to punks, from men wearing skirts to straight-laced middle-aged tweeds; it matters not, and everyone has a wonderful time. If solemn on this occasion.

Rufus Wainwright's music has had a big impact on me. When I first discovered his unique tones, his rather (almost) odd sound and alternative style, I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was, but I was instantly intrigued. Part grandiose orchestral epics, part melancholic piano or guitar compositions, it hit a nerve inside my stomach that I did not even know existed within myself.

Rufus' songs were like Columbus, roaming around new territories, discovering new wonders. Only the territory was my own self.

His voice sounds like melted chocolate, yet with sprinkles of glittering spikey sawdust. The melodies are soft and dripping with intricately layered emotion, and yet others are upbeat (almost) pop. Yet this was pop if Chekhov had written it...dressed as Judy Garland and sacrificing himself on a cross.

Rufus gave me a new love of music. I couldn't get enough. My every day life required a Wainwright soundtrack, even just walking down to the shops I wanted to be singing along about old whores and their diets or gay messiahs. His soulful tunes touched my own feelings of sadness. It resonated. And yet his lyrics were poetry alone, metaphors of romance literally or not. Relationships strained, relationships lost; self destruction, self love, ridiculously self obsessed and yet often unselfishly tender. It's a whirlwind, as dramatic as a Greek tragedy. Evocative words that danced around my heart, warming me when sad or making me more melancholic with their truths.

Music, art, literature....what it means to us individually is often through our own experiences and feelings, and what we bring to it ourselves. They say the genius in film making/writing is what is not said on the screen before us. Rufus' talent is throwing indulgences to gorge upon, to feast; and yet also leaving us gaps and corners for us to settle down in, bringing our own interpretations and spheres, to find solace or enjoyment. A reflection of what we live, of what we have.
Or sometimes, the hallowed tone of a single note, expressing in someone, the sheer pain of existing.

Es mus sein.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

A Shropshire Lass

It is always a peculiar feeling going back to somewhere you spent time at as a child. It's like visiting a parallel universe, where things often look similar, but don't seem quite the same. Possibly because you are twice the size and your viewpoint has a few extra years of baggage and cynicism clouding your view.
Or maybe just because things change.

Last weekend I returned to Shropshire, with my family, unusual in itself for us all to be away together, but even more unorthodox in that this was a weekend of manual labour. No strolling across Ironbridge back and forth marvelling at the divets, pointing at the severn river and commenting whimsically on the currents, slurping on an ice cream whilst perusing over novelty keyrings in the shape of the Ironbridge with the words "oh the irony (bridge)".

No this was manual labour. Helping out the family. We had to put fences up, and get scrammed by thick brambles. Holes are often dug on family get-togethers, but usually by insulting comments, not literal spade out and tunnelling away. But so it was.

It began arriving at the hotel of kitsch. A beautiful building from the 1770s, decorated like the 1950s but playing the music of Elton John. It was like a musical montage of time travel. The brother in law had the entire contents of B&Q in the back of his huge trailer, painstakingly packed; it resembled an Escher painting. If Escher had drawn chainsaws, wooden posts and cementing bags.
Mother had packed an entire SUV boot of food, possibly to feed the British Army (and their wives, dogs, lawyers, window cleaners, tamigotchis and grandchildren who hadn't even been born yet). Because obviously, there were no food shops in Telford.

Worst was to come. I had to share an hotel bedroom with the parents. Two seconds into the first night, I suddenly remembered why I had left home in the first place, as a cacophony of warthog snores began to bounce around the walls. For a split second I thought a giant cyborg psychotic combine harvester was picking the building up, ready to devour it whole. How ironic, I thought, for a building from 1770 to last through the years, through economic decline, through world war, only for two middle aged sleepers to destroy it in seconds with their orchestra of nuclear snores. Needless to say it was a sleepless night.

Next day saw action stations and getting down to work. And that was just unloading the trailer. We assembled our motley crue and stood in the middle of a field. I surveyed the scene and immediately thought of Dad's Army, with a hint of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. It was an ominous sign when my Uncle accidentally stabbed my mother's hand with a giant knife when he went to kiss her a greeting.

I was stood clutching a pickaxe when some kids had walked by. There were giggles directed at me. Perhaps my Ted Baker sunglasses were not appropriate. I pretended not to hear. Mother had already told me to "wear old clothes" and had not been too impressed when I said I didn't have any.

Holes had to be dug, holes through thick earthy shropshire mud. Which turned out to be mostly stone. Surprisingly it was only by the fourth time my 'oh between a rock and a hard stone' gag became mind numbingly irritating.

My dad digged a lot, attacking the earth like it had accused him of supporting the England rugby team, and his face turned purple. He was making strange noises, sort of quacking. I brandished the spade off him. It was all too much like Arthur Fowler's demise on his allotment, and I was still traumatised by that.

Mum spent the whole time waving tools around. "Ooo me ends need cutting!" She was foraging around in her element, like a squirrel in a Holland & Barratts trolley dash. Then suddenly I saw a hatted middle aged walking secateer disappear behind the bank "Got a prick in my bottom!" she squeals as I went to help her back up again. I am sure that happened to Corporal Jones on more than one occasion.

The brother in law (The Gaffer) did all the really important (and dangerous) tasks. Like chain-sawing posts. Cue many Chainsaw Massacre "jokes". Uncle and The Gaffer had pressed ahead the military operation, whilst I contemplated pitching "digging machines" on Dragon's Den to Duncan Ballatyne for his Gyms. More calories burnt wielding a spade than you would ever get using the entire celebrity endorsed fitness dvd section in HMV.

I kept thinking of myself as a child. Imagine if someone had told me then aged 10, that one beautiful sunny scorching day, in the middle of Wimbledon; amongst the claps of the tennis crowds on the TV, the buzzing of bees in the garden, the family chattering, the metallic whirr of the electric fans trying to dampen the stifling heat....that something would happen that would change your life forever. And you would never go back to this place for years and years. When you did you would be a world-away, at an age that had once seemed geriatric, in a sphere that you promised would not occur. I would not have believed it....

We stopped only for tea. Tea and the endless supply of mother's muffins. I came to the conclusion if ever terrorists really wanted to disable a nation, they should destroy all tea supplies; the UK would implode within minutes.
Locals thought we were strange tourists having some sort of a bizarre picnic. A picnic involving spades and digging holes. The nearby pub were wary of my camera. "Is a boster is that".

Two days, dozens of aching limbs, a roll of barbed wire, 6,8329 gallons of tea, infinite swearwords and one sunburnt nose (mine) later, we had finished. A fence was up. Mother went around putting stickers on posts warning of barbed wire. "Tell me where to stick it Sian" She didn't understand my titterings in reply.

By the time I got back to Cardiff I had lost all trace of time and space. It had been a strange weekend, an exhausting weekend, and one I would not forget in a while. A blast from the past I have so often struggled to fathom, and yet I had learnt nothing new. Aside from how to hold a chainsaw. Perhaps next time I went back things would seem even smaller again.

I begged to the family that we could meet up in normal circumstances next time. But then realised immediately, that I had no idea what normal meant.


Saturday, 13 March 2010

A Day in the Life of Cardiff

The light is bright, the essence is full of promise, if but a slightly seedy one.
boxes
On the busy train into Cardiff, two white-haired old ladies sit on the battered seats, their Dot Cotton house coats visible underneath their rain-macs. Tightly pursed lips, arms folded cross their robust darlek-shaped bodies, clutching their handbags as if their lives depended on it. There is a slight smell of odor de cooking-oil.
"No discipline" utters one critically to the other, whilst staring directly ahead with a glare of a Terminator.
"Dave says he needs to go back to the doctors for his pills". Replies the other, frowning.
"They don't listen."
"That'll be another bus trip."
"We were brought up to listen."
"John Lewis is nice."
The mouths fasten shut and the two masses of old cotton-wooled hair bob up and down in complete un-agreement with each other. The train chugs along, a DJ tracked monotonous soundtrack.

The light is yellow and bright, giving Cardiff a vintage, almost sepia atmosphere.

On Queen Street the fruit seller is pushing his stock, his stall packed full with colours amidst scrawled little price signs- miniature jackson pollock-esque biro efforts. His grubby woolly hat is delicately tilted, appearing to defy gravity as he paces up and down, his stubbled cheeks red raw like one of his shiny apples.
"STREEEWB-BERRIEES FOR A POWND!" He yells, echoing down the street, ironically past the Echo vendor. "STREEEWB-BERRIEEES FOR A POWND!" Consistent, tone, pace, every 10 seconds. He is the Cardiff-accented metronome of fruit pushing. This is consistent hollering the speaking clock would be proud of. "BAAAAAAAG OF GRAAAAAPES FOR A POWND!" It shrills through the slightly musky, cold air.

Trundling the other direction, amidst the aimless shoppers, dreadlocked chuggers with permanently fixed chirpy grins and southern accents, and suited-smart commuters pretending they can't see anything clamped to their smartphones; a middle-aged man dressed in a dirty pink-from-wear-Welsh rugby shirt from the terrorisingly horrible early 1990s - the period taste and wins forgot - begins to mimic and repeat the fruit seller's shouts as he carries on down the street, his arms swaying as he carries beer cans, his eyes large but very proud of himself indeed.
"STREEEEEWB-BERRIEES FOR A POWND!" goes the fruit seller. "STREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEW! BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRREEEEEES!" repeats the man, at passersby, who scuttle away, ignoring the scene.
"STREEEWB-BERRIEES FOR A POWND!" The fruit seller continues.
"STREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEW! BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRREEEEEES........" He continues down the street with a swagger of an X-Factor auditionee.

There's a slight smell of beer in the atmosphere. Outside a hairdressers on St. Mary Street, two young ladies are puffing on cigarettes in a doorway, both identically dressed in tight clothing, both identically gravy-browned with fake tan, their eyes giant spider-legs of thick mascara. They clutch their phones in one hand, their cigarettes in the other. Both text away manically, and yet in full-conversation with each other. Their hands gesticulating and multi-tasking rapidly, a hazy blur of arms and manicured nails. They appear to have more than two arms each, Shiva-esque. If Shiva was a hairdresser in Cardiff stood next to a load of empty goods boxes and Big Issue sellers.
"Yeah well," one quips in a thick Merthyr accent that could pierce bank vaults. "he looked just like wassiname. Wassiname. Lenny Henry." She pronounces the "ry" like Rea and goes so high, the pigeons nearby fly off.
"Yeah. But white." replies the other taking another drag on her cigarette whilst simultaneously yanking her tight top over her protruding belly.

An old, olive skinned woman is playing the accordion, asking for money as she shuffles along. She is clad like a fortune teller from a film, her clothes ragged and strangely other-worldly. The tinny music hangs around the sound of shoppers, cars and police sirens from the distance. A short while later the music stops, but no one cares. She nips down a dark alleyway, lifts up her long skirt and pisses into the wall nonchalantly.

The light is fading and the day takes on a harsher hue from it's photoshopped scene. The bars begin to open & the shadows lurk.

Later on, a peroxide-dyed blonde podgy man in shorts- despite the cold March temperature- rollerblades past Burger King. He is dressed like Timmy Mallett in 1988, a mixture of fluorescent acid trip and kids TV. As he passes, he spins around and dances a pose. You half expect a musical to break out.
Instead, there's a tall athletic young man with tights on his head. He is preaching loudly to passersby who seem to barely even notice his presence. One or two people smile to each other knowingly. This is Ninjah, everyone in Cardiff knows Ninjah; usually seen playing drums on various bins across the city centre. But people seem to think it's best to avoid eye-contact. Ninjah finishes his speech and ambles on to his next non-audience.

Trotting towards Cardiff Castle, there's a young trendy girl, completely over-dressed with so many various accessories and layers, she looks like a walking rail in Top Shop. On jimmy choo stilts. Her hair is bundled up in elaborate curls that appear to be made out of airfix model plastic. She turns to the skinny, spiky haired young man she is with, whose tight black jeans are half way around his bottom, displaying designer pants complete with washing label. 40 degrees in case you're wondering.
"Is that a castle?" she asks him, pointing a bangled, jangling arm to the huge Cardiff castle...that looks like a huge large castle.

It is dark. The promise is now all but dead. The seedy Jokers are being played. On the station platform awaiting the train home, the orange street lights fill the scene, a backdrop of BRAINS BREWERY signs and strange smell of sewers. Two teenage girls clutching books speak in a mixture of Spanish and English excitedly. The muffled tannoy plays indecipherably, although you can make out badly pronounced Welsh place names. The air is biting.

The train approaches to take me home from this giant jigsawed world I have been viewing.
station

"Isisthetraintomeeeeerthyrrrrr?" A young man asks no one in particular. "Cantbethetraintomerrrrthyyyyyyyrlike." He turns to his friend. "Rugbytomorrowinnit"

I mind the gap, wondering why we do. One day, I might at last, become part of it all.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Tears of a Robot



A shiny chassis, you cannot tell,
That all beneath is sick, unwell.
Futile false that dares to flatter,
It looks fine so does not matter.
When too late, pretend they knew,
That robots have feelings too.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Power of Photography

Last week new photographs of the 9/11 attacks in New York were published for the first time. September 11th 2001 is a date forever etched in our minds, an infamous day where the world seemed to freeze in terror as sinister events unfolded; and yet there was a sense the world we lived in was poised to change, and not for the good.

Historic events in contemporary times are often defined by the way they are recorded, the solitary photograph or short video clip has become the symbol of what occurred. The impact of 9/11 seemed so real and great, possibly because of the blanket media coverage that brought it all into our lives so vividly, swamping us. Never before had such an event been captured on so many live TV streams, photographed by so many people with access to cameras, commented on via the internet and mobile phones. A technological new century meant a technological new experience of world events. It meant a bombarding of footage, of images and the most chilling aspect of all - mobile phone voice messages of people about to lose their lives. We may not have been in New York on 9/11, but we were all engaged, terrified, connected, like never before.

But like past key events in history, it is often the photograph which becomes the icon and thus basis, of people's memory. We all watched the horrific TV footage, but it is the photograph still, that prints onto our memories. The photographic image allows us to pause, reflect, contemplate, study. It is a frozen moment. Still. Video footage is raw and has huge impact, but often details become blurred as the linear flows on, your brain sometimes only remembers fleeting elements. The video camera captures the event, the photograph captures the possibility of seeing the intricate core of what is actually happening.

One of the most fascinating aspects of 9/11 was the photographic work that was produced of the attacks, of the aftermath. Quite simply put, the photo-journalism of that day was breathtakingly stunning. New York seemed awash with photographers, either professional or not, and aided by the fact by 2001, digital photography was breaking into a medium of its own.



I write this with a strange mixture of self-conflict when I reflect on some of the incredible images taken of the towers collapsing, or the planes colliding with the buildings. These images are utterly horrific. Some show plumes of fire, of smoke, of carnage. Twisted girders, blackened materials, a razored-cut web of wires; all that resemble some kind of apocalyptic metal hell. It is a blazed horror film, purgatory even, inconceivable if for the fact you know it is real. Some images show people - and these are the most utterly terrifying and disturbing of them all. People covered in dust, in burns, terror on their faces. Grayed indistinguishable figures standing at windows - innocuous enough perhaps, but the context of knowing their fate turns the shadowed forms into ghostly gut-wrenching symbols of mortality and tragedy. Lives are lost. This is the worst thing of all.

Yet amongst this, the images of the impact of explosion, are incredible to look at. There is a warped sense of not beauty in the photograph itself - far from it - but from the medium of photograph's own ability to capture so much detail, so much of the split second moment, in all it's colour and clarity of sharpness. It is a reminder of the medium's ability to do what it does. The magic of an image appearing on the paper. And the more detail, the more focus makes it that much more incredible. Part of me still finds photography such a wonder, a beautiful contradiction of processes; the science and yet also the other-worldy creativity.

Images of such events are crucial to remember what happened, but also illustrate to us, what a major impact Photography has to all our lives, whether we are even conscious of it or not.

New images of 9/11
Incredible Ground Zero images from photographer Joel Meyerowitz.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

The Old Woman in the TV Store



Deviate outwards, of the sphere,
Part inevitable, causes fear.
Amble past, rows of glassy
Rectangled puzzles, in their chassis.
Time itself she cannot postpone,
She knows that once, she'd have known.

A forlorn object on the shop flaw:
The old woman, in the TV store.

Phosphorescent and shiny, they overwhelm,
Her clockwork dark, in a cybernated realm.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Reaching for Those Stars


Twenty four years ago this month, I was sat in the back living room of my childhood home watching the TV. It was early tea-time, just having got back from school. I was filling my ruddy pouches with ribena and crumpets. This scene wasn't a rarity, given how many hours I used to spend with my eyes attached to the screen by visual telebox adhesive, watching Australian soap operas, learning and mimicking the accents to annoy my siblings with. But what was about to happen in front of my eyes was one of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories, and one that has haunted me ever since.

There came a sudden change in tone by the presenter, and the BBC kids' show Newsround - one of the main staples of my early televisual diet - appeared with breaking news. I can still hear the tinny, 1980s retro dot-dash-theme tune that sounded like it was created on a fisherprice keyboard accompanied with bongo drums.

The Space Shuttle appeared on the screen. It was a familiar sight of sorts. For weeks and months the Space Shuttle and NASA had been in the news, and it had been talked about in school endlessly. NASA were sending up a teacher into space, a civilian. It was huge news. Forget Star Trek and the plastic TV shows. This was real. An impressionable child, I had become caught up in the excitement of this, of the very notion of space travel, and my elder sisters in particular had been charting the whole progress of the mission avidly, clutching their Kids' Encyclopedia of Space. One of the first complete pieces of writing I had ever produced was a poem on a spaceman. I may have spelt it spaseman, but the whole-hearted sentiment was there.

We felt like children of the new space exploration world. One day, maybe we would travel off the earth as easily as you might catch a plane to another country. The unexplored universe felt at our fingertips.

But something wasn't right. Before we could even speak, the pictures showed the Shuttle bursting into plumes of smoke, and the words "disaster" and "explosion" boomed out from the speakers, sifting through my ear drums and directly into the pit of my stomach. Something bad had happened. Extremely bad.

The horror and shock at the realisation over what had happened, still resonates today. Not that I actually fully comprehended for a short while what was going on at the time. Later we would learn, similar to the Titanic sinking, that complacency with new technology should never be allowed to affect our sensible judgements over what could go wrong. But I did know the main facts - the shuttle had broken up, the mission had become a tragedy. The footage was replayed over and over. The plumes of jet-stream, of smoke. The worst of all - the images of horrified onlookers, of the families of the astronauts, of the heart-wrenching grief.

I can still remember my sister asking my mother, days later, if the astronauts were alive, that maybe they could have survived and were stuck on a desert island somewhere like Swiss Family Robinson.
But this was not a Disney film, nor was there much of a happy ending. A small chunk of my very world had been blasted away along with the Space Shuttle. Rather than children of a new space exploration age, we were becoming fast, the children of a mass-digital-media-news reporting world, a concept we would begin to appreciate more and more as the 1990s and new century loomed. I pondered on Challenger briefly whilst I was viewing the horrific events on September 11 2001, live on rolling news channels with updates via the internet. It was almost a heart-breaking preparation of what was to come.

This was also my first experience of the impact of photography, how a still image - in this case the tragically iconic photograph of the strange Y shaped smoke trail - could actually have a bigger impact than video footage, for it is a moment frozen in time, allowing us to pause, consider, scrutinise what we are experiencing and emoting.



The Teacher in Space programme had gained world wide attention, making the Challenger disaster a world wide tragedy. One of the reasons why the programme had captured people's imaginations so vividly was due to the chosen teacher herself - Christa McAuliffe. Aside from the fact that NASA were sending 'one of us' up into space, Christa's personality, intelligence, exuberance for life proved to be inspirational. Her ideology was focussed on teaching how the ordinary person was just as important to study historically as the politicians, the Kings and Queens; that essentially, the ordinary person could make an impact on the world. She had also grown up watching the epic Apollo space race, and had long yearned to be part of this something special.

Christa had become my hero. Her aim was to inspire kids - and actually us all - to go and live your dreams, to believe you can do anything. There was nothing more inspirational than Christa herself, practising what she was preaching. Her mantra was 'reach for the stars', and while she lost her life, her legacy lives; Christa had the courage to not just have a dream, but to also live out this dream. Her story touched millions, and whilst I was taught an extremely harsh life lesson, I have also retained an interest in astronomy and NASA ever since. Christa succeeded by reaching out to so many, and fixing her place in history which would burn as long as any star. No one ever forgets a great teacher.

I wish I had her courage. For a so-called 'ordinary' person herself, Christa McAullife was actually anything but.

Christa's NASA bio
NASA photographs - contemporary and archived - arguably the finest source of copyright free images you will ever find anywhere.