messages from the past for the future

 

Sitting down to write this, a month after breaking my leg and having to grapple with hitherto-unconsidered questions like ‘how do I usually sit on a toilet’? and one week before a General Election where my preferred of the apparently plausible outcomes is an unsatisfactory coalition government, it feels strange and maybe wrong to be looking backwards. But, disturbing and reassuring in more or less equal measures, I think it’s a good way to look forward to whatever happens next.

I remember as a child, looking at a stamp album that had belonged to (I think) my dad (or maybe his dad) when he was a child. Even for someone with no interest in stamps, and less interest in collecting them, it was a peculiar and fascinating book; unfamiliar places, people, even currencies. The thing that stands out the most in my memory though is a stamp from Bosnia, a name which at the time I hadn’t heard before and which sounded as unlikely and frankly made-up as countries like Syldavia and Borduria that I knew from Tintin books. That memory itself has a strange and silly quality now, but at the time (somewhere in the mid-80s would be my guess) Bosnia was as fantastical to a child (or me at least) as I expect the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia would be to Primary school pupils now.

classic cold war artefact: Iron Maiden behind the Iron Curtain laserdisc (1985)

30 years on from the series of revolutions that symbolically culminated in the destruction of the Berlin Wall (the free opening of the Brandenburg Gate itself happened 30 years ago last month) it’s perhaps only natural that those who remember those times should be thinking of them. If you grew up with the cold war in the background (that is, any time really from the years after world war two up until the end of the 80s), the war itself may have constantly ebbed and flowed, but the communist eastern bloc was, monolithically (technically at least duolithically, but that’s not a thing) omnipresent in a way that now seems as unlikely and distant as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was there at school (we had to learn about “East Germany” (the GDR or DDR), “West Germany” (FRG or BRD) and the differences between the two, the USSR /CCCP, the space race, the arms race, ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ etc etc etc), it was there in sports (especially the Olympics, but “West Germany” was quite a big deal during the ten minutes that I liked football) and in entertainment. Usually this meant sinister, emotionless and robot-like communists being the bad guys in endless numbers of films and TV shows (classic example; Rocky IV, but see also Red Dawn, Red Heat ad infinitum – it was interesting, in a depressing kind of way to see this old view of ‘reds’ adopted, without irony in the third, inferior season of Stranger Things this year), but it wasn’t all bad – sometimes bands made a point of playing behind the Iron Curtain and talked about how great the audiences were; I remember Iron Maiden played in Poland, Hungary etc in the mid-80s which presumably was a logistical nightmare, but nice for their fans who mostly would only have been able to hear their music through unofficial or even (the same thing really) illegal channels.

A few things have brought that period, and specifically the GDR, back to me recently; Tim Mohr’s superb book Burning Down The Haus – Punk Rock, Revolution and the Fall of the Berlin Wall (Dialogue Books, 2019), the work of the German photographers Ute and Werner Mahler and the Ostkreuz photography group, interviewed by Kate Simpson in issue 90 of Aesthetica Magazine (August/September 2019), the TV shows Deutschland 83 and Deutschland 86 which I just watched, somewhat belatedly and a series of John le Carré’s classic spy thrillers, notably A Small Town In Germany (1968).
The central realities of all of these things is pretty much the same; in East Germany, the state, and especially the secret police (the notorious Stasi) was watching you, and not only did they not care if you knew it, they wanted you to assume you were being watched.

East Berlin punks at Planterwald, approx. 1981 by Harald Hauswald (Ostkreuz Agency)

One of the most chilling things in Tim Mohr’s book is the way that, from the beginning of the 80s until its end (punk seems to have had an extended lifespan in the GDR, partly because fashions were slower to take root and spread where the majority of the media was under state control, but also because it remained – from the music to the image – genuinely oppositional and rebellious, rather than being absorbed into mainstream pop culture) the punks were, as often as not arrested because of informants from their own families or even the bands themselves. Nevertheless, after a slow start, the bands multiplied, but in a planned economy with full employment its slogans were something like the opposite of the UK’s punk bands; Too Much Future being the classic East German punk statement; more info here. As Mohr notes, long before the advent of GDR punk, informing for the government was something like an epidemic. In fact, by 1952 – that is, just four years from the official founding of the nation – the Stasi had already recruited 30,000 informants (Burning Down The Haus, p.2), and that figure would rise exponentially throughout the decades. This was the reality that artists like photographer Ute Mahler were working in;

Everyone knew that people were spying for state security. But nobody knew who. It could be anyone. We lived and breathed with this knowledge. In 1980, I stood at a May Day demonstration just below the grandstand. The demonstrators cheered at the government, which was on a podium above me. I got the impression that all the attendees were in agreement and were happy about it. Whilst editing the pictures, I discovered other faces in the crowd. That confirmed to me that you must look closely for what might be hidden.”

Ute Mahler, interviewed in Aesthetica, issue 90, p. 128

Action Force SAS figure, 1982: this creepy thing was one of the ‘good guys’

From a child in the UK’s point of view, the activities of the CND, the Greenham Common protestors, WarGames, Raymond Briggs’s When The Wind Blows and even silly things like the Frankie Goes To Hollywood Two Tribes video (bad lookalikes of Reagan and Chernenko wrestling. At least I remember thinking it was a bad lookalike, but whether I knew it was Chernenko by name now seems doubtful; I had to look it up to write this as I have no actual memories at all about any pre-Gorbachev Soviet leader apart from Andropov, whose name seemed funny. I vaguely remember “his hand dropped off”, but whether from playground or TV I don’t know) and toys like the initial run of Action Force (Action Force was the European release of GI Joe, although initially there was no back story/characters, just a lot of more or less accurate military equipment) with their gas masks etc strengthened rather than diluted the sense that, beyond ‘the west’ there was a huge, sinister and implacable enemy. As far as I remember, although children’s entertainment in the UK wasn’t by and large as propagandist as Hollywood, there wasn’t much to counter the idea of the brainwashed, robotlike communist, programmed by the state from birth. And, at no point before 1989 did it feel like that was about to change.

That feeling was as strong, or even stronger, inside the Eastern bloc, as Ute and Werner Mahler explain;

“The generations after us might find it hard to understand the complex workings of the GDR, as memory begins to move into the past. These new generations perhaps cannot imagine how one could live in such a country, where one could not officially say what we thought. … When we took pictures in the 1970s and 1980s, we would never have imagined that one day the GDR would not exist. At that time, we wanted to show life as we experienced it – just as it was. Today, the images act as documents from a vanished country. In this way, they are given a renewed sense of purpose.”

Ute & Werner Mahler, interviewed in Aesthetica, issue 90, p.124

Even, as Mohr explains, the day after the Berlin Wall fell, the Stasi were making arrests in something like the usual way, although the state quickly descended into chaos. But maybe everything feels permanent when you live through it; I remember when, what felt like 1000 years or so into Margaret Thatcher’s reich, we had had the Miner’s Strike, the Falklands war, there were millions of unemployed and it seemed like I had never met anyone who liked Thatcher, or anyone who voted for the Conservative Party and yet, come election time they still won. Maybe it’s more significant that I don’t remember anyone I knew being especially keen on Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock? But anyway; my memory is that by 1988, there was no feeling that the cold war was going anywhere; by 1990 it was over. Until I was 23 my only conscious experience was of a Britain run by a Conservative government, and then that was over.

symbol from an 80s
cold war childhood
Bob Light and John Houston’s satirical Gone With The Wind poster, c.1981 – vividly brings back the era to me

One of the stranger things to find, looking back on the phantom communist enemy of my childhood is that, contrary to what appeared to be the case on TV at the time, the people of East Germany, discontented though they obviously were, did not necessarily want to become westerners. As depicted vividly in Deutschland 83 and even more so in Deutschland 86, Communism as practised through the GDR’s dictatorship was a failed ideal, but it remained for many, something like an ideal. The bands documented in Burning Down The Haus, like the immediately post-Communist East German club scene that Mohr experienced himself, were ‘radically egalitarian’. These were, after all, people raised in a system which preached the power of the people, and even enshrined in law the freedom of expression, although in practice it didn’t allow either of those things. Often bands or musicians – people who were routinely arrested, beaten by the authorities, held in prison awaiting trial for months and so on – had opportunities to flee to the west (or were even encouraged to by the authorities who couldn’t cope with them) but chose to stay and work for change. Fascism and consumerism were seen, not just by the authorities, but by the punks, as the enemies of freedom, and even when the punk revolt happened it was often aided by (which seems odd but makes a kind of logical sense) the Lutheran church, which had an uneasy but respectable existence within the state. This meant that not only the punks (who tended towards anarchism in the 19th century sense politically), but also environmentalists, peace activists and other dissidents the church protected and to a degree nurtured, were working under the auspices of an institution which also had essentially anti-capitalist principles at its heart.

Rebelling against a de facto egalitarian state in itself creates a strange situation, as Ute Mahler recalls;

“In the GDR, when the collective was praised as an ideal, we were all lone fighters. In this new society where individuality is so important to so many people – coming together is the key”  quoted in Aesthetica, issue 90, p.124-7

And this is not really a paradox, even to an individualist; if the contrasting but ultimately similar oppressions of the 20th century, whether Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Communist China etc – have taught us anything, it’s that totalitarian power structures, of whatever political hue value conformity above individuality; but also that political progress requires subjected peoples to firstly insist on their individuality, but also to act in concert with each other, to combine their voices in order to be heard.

Perhaps because a general election is looming as I write this, reading about the lost world of the eastern bloc and its failures (mostly the same failures as capitalism to be fair; poverty, starvation, oppression etc etc) begs the question; what is the country that you believe in, if not a reflection of yourself and what you want? The Eastern punks were patriotic in the sense that they wanted the freedom to be themselves, in an East Germany that recognised the right to have dissenting voices and views, to improve the experience of East German citizenship for all. But, like everyone else, they shared their country with the other by-their-own-admission patriots who believed in a completely different country. If you consider yourself a patriot, you are probably living in a country with lots of other patriots whose country has the same name as yours, but whose beliefs and ideals are not the same as yours. Those who fought and died for [name a country] in [name a war] and those who fought and died for [name an opposing country] in [the same war] were fighting for the same thing, but they were also not fighting for the same thing. The people who fought for Britain against the Nazis and the people who fought for Britain against the Zulus both were and were not fighting for the same country, though on an individual level the end result – their deaths, and the deaths of their enemies – was much the same.
Somewhere in a previous, equally muddled* article I mentioned the poet Edward Thomas. Against the WW1 poetry of super-patriot Rupert Brooke, or the “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” humanism of Wilfred Owen, you have to balance the entirely personal patriotism of Edward Thomas;

 At the age of thirty-six there was no strong pressure on him to enlist, but in August 1915 he finally made up his mind… When his friend Eleanor Farjeon asked him why, he scooped up a handful of earth and said, ‘For this.’
Andrew Motion, ‘An Imaginary Life’, in Ways of Life, Faber & Faber 2008, p.102.

And no doubt that was true. But what he fought for doesn’t change the fact that what he was injured for (he survived the war, minus an arm) was the global ambitions of the small group of people then running the British Empire. In the end his patriotism and theirs amounted to the same thing; but they were not the same thing.

Thomas’s kind of patriotism is the one that I think most matches my own; despite being a lefty internationalist I am quite a patriotic person. I love Scotland and value it not because it’s the ‘greatest country in the world’ (not that I’m saying it isn’t; just that the concept itself is utterly meaningless I think) and not because it’s beautiful – which it undoubtedly is, but so is every country I’ve been to – but because it is uniquely itself. It’s the big picture and the details; the texture and the atmosphere, the things I like and the things I don’t like. What I’m really saying I suppose is just that it’s the country I know best, the one where all of my responses to the world were shaped – which is of course not something to run up a flagpole and if one somehow did there’s no reason that anyone else in the world should want to salute it. But it is patriotism nonetheless. One of the many ironies of our particularly irony-ridden times is that on the whole, the conservative/nationalist parties of whom there are suddenly it seems very many indeed, are by and large those least committed to any kind of environmental/green policies. Strange because if, like the Conservatives nominally are, you are all about pride in your culture and your country and your history, but aren’t really concerned about the welfare of the actual, physical country as a piece of land then what do you even think you stand for?

So anyway; in the world of 1988, the world of 1990 seemed unthinkable, but it happened anyway, because people wanted it. I know that as 2019 draws to an end the world is full of people, in Chile, in Hong Kong, in Iran and Sudan, in the USA and the UK; in every country, who want thoughtful, compassionate, democratic government and not repression, corruption and leaders who are quasi- or actual dictators. Who want to be represented, not ruled. And it’s not impossible.

* when I read my writing it makes me think of that episode of Peep Show where a disgruntled lapdancer says “If you can’t sum up all the aims in the first line then they’re too diffuse.” I think my writing tends to be a bit diffuse.**

**See?

a true state – cut and paste and the art of collage (Edinburgh, summer 2019)

Francesca Woodman, Untitled (1977)

2019 has, in many ways, not been a good year so far. But this summer, the National Galleries of Scotland had (well, has; they are still on) three particularly outstanding exhibitions that brought a bit of light and intelligence to a period of more-than-usual stupidity. At the National Gallery itself, there was the excellent, eye opening and brain-frying Bridget Riley exhibition (closes 22nd September), at the National Portrait Gallery the superb Self Evidence (closes 20th October) in which Francesca Woodman’s tiny, intimate, self-enclosed photographs vibrate balefully in their little corner, overshadowing (for me) the also (but in an entirely different way) intimate and at times frankly challenging monumental works of Robert Mapplethorpe* and, to a lesser extent, the brilliant but (I guess appropriately) don’t-quite-fit-in Diane Arbus portraits of the lives of people marginalised and made invisible by mainstream culture.

*though the Mapplethorpe pictures were the ones that moved me the least, they did provide the priceless spectacle of parents hurrying their curious kids past the notorious 1978 Self Portrait With Whip. They had been warned!

But for me, the highlight of the National Galleries’ summer programme is Cut and Paste: 400 years of Collage at Modern Two (closes 27th October).

Thanks to its inclusive definition of collage (which covers photomontage, traditional collage, plus bits of decoupage, pressed plant samples and even quilting) as well as its historical scope, the exhibition manages to be both focused and wide-ranging, and also (I found) surprisingly moving. What collage does, or at least amplifies – perhaps paradoxically given its use of found/ready-made materials – is that aspect of art that disappears most quickly in reproduction; the hand of the artist. This is art not only as a reflection/projection of culture but one that includes material culture itself.* There is, sometimes regardless of the picture/object, a poignant quality that comes from the materials used, in a way that doesn’t happen with paint, unless you are the kind of conservator who can isolate pigments used to specific periods (I’m not, unfortunately).

*I don’t think this is just pretentious bullshit; but you never know

Pablo Picasso, Bottle and Glass on a Table (1912)

I’m getting ahead of myself here, but a seminal collage that makes an appearance in the exhibition, Pablo Picasso’s Bottle and Glass on a Table (1912) is a classic/typical Picasso cubist/spatial experiment, but the use of newspaper – a very specific, dateable piece of ephemera (from Le Journal, 3 December 1912) – gives the work, instantly and inherently, a dimension largely absent in conventional painting. The feeling that the collage is both artwork and artefact; literally as well as figuratively multi-layered, makes a case for collage as a distinct and special art form, a feeling echoed by the Scottish artist Eduardo Paolozzi (represented by some outstanding works in the exibition), for whom the form offered clarification, where formal art training raised problems and questions: “Unlike the world of school where the universe was systematised in a certain order, the reassembly of this disparate material reflected a true state, both autobiographic and dynamic.” (quoted in the exhibition catalogue,  p. 126)

So anyway; the exhibition is arranged chronologically, in the usual Modern Two layout; in various rooms, up the stairs, through the corridors etc, always I think a layout that makes for an engaging, surprising way of looking at art. Partly deliberately (there were too many people in the first room), I went around the exhibition in reverse chronological order and in retrospect that seems like a good decision. This meant that the exhibition opened with the Chapman Brothers’ The Disasters of Everyday Life (2017), a spectacular-looking wall-like object consisting of 80 of Goya’s horrific etchings, The Disasters of War, with of course added bits and pieces, sometimes powerful, sometimes deliberately absurd, I think (though I’d have to go through again the other way) it serves better as a kind of abstract for what is to follow than it would as a conclusion, where peering at a lot of small images might have seemed a bit anticlimactic.
I’m not going to mention every picture in the show, though I can’t think of anything that doesn’t deserve a mention. The first thing to have a major impact for me was Lucy Williams’ 2015 Crescent House, as much a piece of model making as a collage, a strange, small scale (just under a metre long) recreation of a bit of postwar architecture, but simplified and made more colourful, giving it a feeling of harmony almost like a kind of 3D Mondrian.

Lucy Williams – Crescent House (2015)
Linder – Pretty Girl (1977)

Crescent House captures something of the intended optimism of the postwar new town planning that’s most often associated now with neglect and urban decay. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing (Williams is around my age), but for me there was something powerfully bittersweet about the feeling of an abandoned, never-quite-attained future, heightened by the realness of the work as an object.

The aesthetic of Crescent House – though that is far lighter in tone – makes me think of the late 70s work of Linder (Sterling), another exhibition highlight. Although similar in its reference points to the pop art collages of Richard Hamilton a couple of decades before (sadly his iconic 1956 collage Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing is not in the exhibition, though they do have a nice work by him, Desk from 1964), the feel of Linder’s work is far darker (it makes me think of the confrontational industrial work of Throbbing Gristle and COUM Transmissions around the same period) and the satire more pointed. Works like her Pretty Girl series(1977) exemplify a particular approach to collage. Using the detritus of everyday life; magazines, posters, advertising, it became a way of embodying in the art a criticism of the culture that it’s a reaction to as well as a product of. It’s a feminist criticism of the objectification of women that uses already depersonalised women (part of the problem) and merges them with actual ‘objects of desire’ from a patriarchal culture that above all else believes in commodification for its own benefit.

Craig W. Lowe, Bedroom Cupboard door covered with stickers, 1987-1997

Thanks to the exhibition’s open-minded and inclusive approach, there are some unexpected revelations (but aren’t all revelations unexpected? I mean, that’s obvious). While Craig W. Lowe’s bedroom cupboard door covered in stickers c. 1987-1997) may appeal most as nostalgia, the inclusion of Jamie Reid‘s original Sex Pistols Never Mind The Bollocks cover collage (1977; copyrighted image so I’d better not share) opens realms of not-previously-considered information (at least to me) about one’s record collection. Firstly, the collage is black and white, and secondly, it isn’t just a picture or a ‘file’, it’s an actual thing. Like, presumably all album cover art (and book cover art etc) before the digital age, the NMTB cover in all its yellow and pink (or pink and green) glory, taken for granted forever, is not a picture, it’s a photograph of a picture. In its final form it’s been overlaid with colours, but that object there on the wall in Edinburgh is the thing itself. A strange feeling, like looking at the inscription on a ten pound note and considering that it is a representation of something, rather than ten actual pounds.

The Sex Pistols cover primes the viewer (at least the viewer going through the exhibition backwards) for the various bits of Peter Blake’s Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover that are on show – and, great though they are (and I like Sgt Pepper quite a bit more than I like Never Mind The Bollocks), without that priming, the Beatles items wouldn’t have the same impact; perhaps because the cover itself is clearly a photograph of objects and cut-outs and seeing them is very cool but not really revelatory, the whole is too familiar and iconic to give the frisson of a moment captured. In fact, Blake’s superb, possibly slightly twee The Toy Shop (1962) is a far more vivid time capsule; clearly pointing to Sgt Pepper, its a conglomeration of bits and bobs familiar to children of the 60s – but also to children of later generations as belonging to the same family as the bits & bobs of their own youth (in my case, comics, football stickers, sweets, TV tie-in toys (He-Man et al), but also the odd antiquated throwbacks that still existed, like bows and arrows and balsa wood or polystyrene gliders which came with a weighted plastic propeller so they flew when thrown – do they still make those?). It’s hard to imagine that there will be a generation that can’t relate to The Toy Shop at all, however virtual entertainment becomes, kids will always like stickers.

Peter Blake – The Toy Shop (1962)

But Blake’s pop art nostalgia – powerful though that is – is one of the few purely positive and joyous post-war works in the show. More typical are the mischievous collage book covers made by Joe Orton and his partner and eventual murderer Kenneth Halliwell. These were put on library books and returned to the library – an act that eventually cost them a six month prison sentence – and they exemplify the sense of the significant, perhaps subversive and illogical accident that drew the surrealists to collage a few generations earlier.

Kenneth Halliwell & Joe Orton – collage on library book cover (c.1960-2)

For the surrealists, collage was almost a manifestation of the galvanising quotation from Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror (1869) where a boy could be described as being “as beautiful as a chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” This aspect of surrealism is brilliantly captured in Max Ernst’s gothic ‘collage novels’ (one of the most exciting inclusions in the show is an unpublished picture from his 1934 collage novel Une semaine de bonté) as well as in beautiful works by Toyen and some of the collaborative exquisite corpse collages made by André Breton, Jacqueline Lamba and Yves Tanguy, where each artist could only see their own part of the work until it was complete. Again, what I hadn’t really anticipated was the difference it makes seeing these items in real life – for example, I had seen and liked (and own a postcard of) Roland Penrose’s untitled 1937 postcard collage, but seeing it, life size, and looking at the actual real postcards stuck to it, was a weirdly moving experience. But why? It’s something about the immediacy and associations of familiar things, the thought perhaps of Roland Penrose actually going into a newsagent and buying the postcards one day in 1937. Why that should be more moving than an artist using paint I don’t know, except that, like the scrapbooks owned by Tristan Tzara (very exciting to see) and the paper cutouts by Matisse (which until now I’ve never been a fan of) it brings the whole process of making art into an immediate, almost tangible one.

Roland Penrose – Untitled (1937)

The work of the Dadaists (Hannah Höch was the main reason I wanted to see the show) is less self-consciously unconscious (well, that makes no sense) than the surrealist works, but the element of satire and sometimes bitter humour – especially in John Heartfield’s iconic anti-Nazi photomontages – make them the spiritual ancestors of the works of artists like Carolee Schneemann and Nancy Spero in the 1960s as well as Linder and even Terry Gilliam in the 70s. Highlights for me were the selection of works by Kurt Schwitters, whose own version of Dada, Merz, even had a collage-like genesis, the word itself apparently derived from a fragment of text relating to a banking firm (Kommerz und Privatbank). The fact that the word Merz also has echoes in the words schwerz (pain) and ausmerzen (to weed out or discard) adds to the sense that this was a movement (if you can call one person a movement) for which collage wasn’t an entertaining diversion, but a central idea. The cumulation of meanings and associations in works like Merz 229: Heet Water (1921) makes these small works with their train tickets, textiles, playing cards – pretty much anything that could be cut up and stuck down – powerfully evocative, as well as decorative in themselves.

John Heartfield – Adolf the Superman – swallows gold and spouts junk (1932)
Kurt Schwitters – Merz 229: Heet Water (1921)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The section on the birth of modernist collage features a group of Picasso works including the the aforementioned Bottle and Glass on a Table, which form year zero of modernist collage, alongside works by peers including Braque (who may actually be the first modernist collage-maker) and Juan Gris (whose The Sunblind, 1914 is a highlight) and then the ripples spreading outwards from that explosive group of works, including the Russian constructivists and suprematists, the Italian Futurists and even the Bloomsbury group in the UK; I was very impressed to come across a painting by Vanessa Bell (Portrait of Molly MacCarthy, 1914-5) that didn’t immediately wilt into insignificance when surrounded by the big names of European modernism.

Juan Gris – The Sunblind (1914)

It seems obvious to say that collage is comparatively egalitarian insofar as you don’t need to be able to draw or paint to do it – and it’s true that works by generally non-visual artists like Breton and Joe Orton have a similar energy and atmosphere as those by more conventional artists, but it’s also noticeable that, pre-modernism, although the idea of collage existed and there was sometimes that same element of playfulness, the work is more notable for its skill and ingenuity – especially in the Victorian photomontages – than for any disruptive or ironic qualities. But collage being what it is, it’s here that the sense mentioned earlier of the collage as actual material culture comes into play again, sometimes – especially for me in the small character pieces by George Smart from the early 19th century – powerfully so. Somehow, these little watercolour paintings adorned with carefully cut out and arranged pieces of paper and fabric (irresistibly reminiscent to me of the ‘fuzzy felt’ sets I played with as a child) bring us closer to the artist than just paint on canvas would do.

This is perhaps art history as human interest and association rather than as aesthetics (this is especially true in the case of the Victorian scraps and scrapbooks, perhaps because the ready-made nature of the scraps themselves makes the objects feel less like the works of an artist and more like a hobby; nothing wrong with that, but as the sort of things you see in auctions and junk shops they have the aura of being ephemera, rather than using ephemera to make something else; a false distinction perhaps), but for me this exhibition brings those two aspects of art – the human/historical and the aesthetic/technical together in a deep and very satisfying way.

I have no real criticisms of the exhibition; it is thought provoking, beautiful to look at and put together with care and imagination. It might have been nice to have had something by some of the other artists most strongly associated with collage, like Romare Bearden and Wangechi Mutu; but if an exhibition leaves you wanting more that can’t be a bad thing.

***POSTSCRIPT***

Since I mentioned the anyone-can-do-it aspect of collage, I might as well mention that I went through a phase, especially in my student days of making collages, and while they are nothing special, they do have a kind of diary-esque subtext which has only really become apparent over time. Since it’s my website and no-one can stop me, here are a couple of examples, plus a more recent one.

untitled collage, c. 1998?
untitled collage c. 1998-9

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

untitled collage, 2019
untitled collage, late 90s

The Vanishing Everything of Everywhere; Goodbye 2017

Time, time, time, see what’s become of me…” When The Bangles covered Simon & Garfunkel’s A Hazy Shade of Winter in 1987, the song was 21 years and one month old, now The Bangles’ version (from the underrated – according to me – movie of Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero)  is 30 years and one month old; time flies, another year draws to an end etc etc etc. It took until the early 90s for 60s nostalgia to really take hold and, true to form 30 years on from the 1980s, 80s nostalgia is everywhere; in music, in fashion, (especially) in film and television. Even the tired, terrifying old tropes of the cold war are back; excellent stuff.

It’s approximately 90 years since HP Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.” (in the essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1926-7)), and it’s got to be something like 25 years or so since I first read those words (in the HP Lovecraft Omnibus Vol 2, Dagon and other Macabre Tales, Grafton Books, 1985, p.423 ). So what about it?

Lovecraft might well be right about fear; but more pertinent to my intro is that perhaps the oldest emotion preserved in literature – at least (major, major caveat, based on my ignorance) in the literature of Europe – is nostalgia, and the feeling that things were better in the past. (see also here for an excellent & thoughtful look at nostalgia) The literature of the ancient Greeks makes clear that the age of heroes already lay in the distant past; the pride and arrogance of Imperial Rome was tempered – formally, at least – by the belief that it was a pale imitation of the Republic which the Empire supplanted. The earliest literature in (old) English makes it clear that the inhabitants of what was one day to become England were a) not entirely sure of what had come before, but b) knew that it was in many ways ‘better’ and certainly more impressive than the present day of the 8th century:

“The work of the Giants, the stonesmiths,/ mouldereth…
And the wielders and wrights?/Earthgrip holds them – gone, long gone”

The Ruin, (Translated by Michael Alexander, The Earliest English Poems, Penguin Classics (3rd edition, 1991, p. 2)

Even closer to home (for me), the earliest literature of Scotland, the Goddodin of the poet Aneirin, dating from anywhere from the 7th to 10th century and originally, it is presumed, written – or at least passed down – in the ancient British language now called Old Welsh (which it is of course, but it is also, geographically, old English and old Scots, since it seems to have been spoken in a far wider area than modern Wales). The Goddodin is a series of elegies mourning the loss of the warriors of eponymous ancient kingdom (which spread roughly over what are now the modern Scottish regions of Lothian and Borders) in battle, and with them the heroic culture of the era.*
To say that nostalgia as opposed to fear may be mankind’s oldest emotion is problematic, both logically (chicken/egg innit), and because for all of its obviously dominant ingredients – sadness/regret and happiness –  a large component of nostalgia can be fear, and, specifically, Lovecraft’s ‘fear of the unknown’ (in this case the always unknowable future). This is problematic for many reasons; in the examples noted above, the glamour (not intended to have its old, magical meaning, but actually that is probably even more appropriate) attached to the past is partly because it can’t come again. If the people of ”now” are as noble, heroic etc as the people of “then”, then somehow the past – and the ancestors, a vital component of the values of most non-Christian and pre-Christian cultures – is not receiving its due reverence.

*this theme even crops up in a very similar form in the Fortinbras subplot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, preserved at one remove from the earliest known version of the story, Saxo Grammaticus’ elemental/mythological 13th century version from his Gesta Danorum. But even this is assumed to be derived from an earlier, lost source, probably Icelandic. 

Although it seems almost incomprehensible to someone of my generation, there seems to be a similar, ‘don’t disrespect the ancestors’  unease nowadays in the unwillingness in some circles to condemn wholesale the expansion/existence of the British Empire. And really, it’s not complicated  – it is entirely possible to be impressed by and/or grateful for the innovations of the Victorian era – flushing toilets, railways and whatnot – while seeing the culture and times for what they were; repressive, oppressive, misogynistic, racist, ignorant. It shouldn’t be difficult, because it’s happened before, more or less. Christianity made it easy for previous ages to condemn the pagan empires of Rome, Greece, Egypt and co (and indeed the ancient Arabic civilisations) without abandoning the inventions and innovations of those civilisations. Indeed, even at the height of Christian belief in Europe, interest in the cultures of the pagan empires remained high, even if Christian scholars felt the need to inflict a version of their own value system onto their researches. There’s no reason that people now shouldn’t be able to do the same with the ages we have left behind, or are hopefully in the process of leaving behind. Yes, good things come from bad, but not because of the bad, but because (most) human beings are extraordinary.

In 2017 there seemed to be – as I suppose there always must be – an ever-increasing number of warring nostalgias and counter-nostalgias, the latest being for the Russian Revolution in 1917 – a violent event, with vast and oppressive consequences and therefore definitely negative, but like most revolutions, born of aspirations and ideals which are hard to dismiss. In fact, Dickens’ famous opening to A Tale Of Two Cities seems uncannily prophetic, because Dickens – as he explicitly realised – could see that human nature and human actions remain fairly constant:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only”

I think it’s probably true that it’s always the best of times, for somebody, in some respect, it’s certainly always the worst of times for others; which sounds complacent or at least fatalistic, but only if one doesn’t try in some way to improve things. This kind of impersonal nostalgia – for ‘better’ times – is, necessarily selective. (in fact, all nostalgia is, because perception is selective – hmm, it seems like this just started copying the thing about realism I wrote recently, but bear with me) and relies to a large degree on ignorance and/or self-deception in order to be nostalgia at all.

History isn’t a subject, history is everything; people, peoples, cultures, societies, but, necessarily “history” as taught, or absorbed through popular culture, filters and simplifies, to the point where some people in Britain still talk nostalgically about ‘Victorian values’ without (usually) intending any reference to the exploitation and subjugation of untold millions of people, child prostitution and child labour, the life expectancy of the average Victorian person etc etc etc. And, as always, history is more complex than its popular image. The era may be symbolised for British people by the building of railways or the expansion of the Empire, or by Jack the Ripper, or Queen Victoria being unamused, or by the establishment’s treatment of Oscar Wilde; but it was also the era that produced and shaped Jack the Ripper, Queen Victoria and of course, Wilde himself, as well as the whole decadent movement. Interestingly, Sigmund Freud was only two years younger than Wilde; an apparently value-free but perhaps significant observation…

This kind of complexity is what makes history more interesting than it’s sometimes given credit for; the Scottish Enlightenment was a wonderful, positive, outward-looking movement, but it coexisted in Scotland with a joyless, moralising and oppressive Calvinist culture. Time and nostalgia have a way of homogenising peoples and cultures. The popular idea of ancient Rome is probably one of conquest, grandeur and decadence, but what is the popular idea, if there is one, of ‘an ancient Roman’? Someone, probably a man, probably from Italy, in a toga or armour; quite likely an emperor, a soldier or a gladiator, rather than say, a merchant, clerk or farmer. Even within this fairly narrow image, a complex figure like the emperor Elagabalus (Syrian, teenage, possibly transgender) defeats the obvious school textbook perceptions of ‘Romanness’ (as, perhaps, it did for the Romans themselves). Even in our own time, the fact that older generations from the 60s/70s to the present could lament the passing of times when ‘men were men & women were women’ etc is – to say the least – extremely disingenuous – presumably what they mean is a time when non-‘manly’ men could be openly discriminated against and/or abused and women could be expected to be quiet and submissive.* Similarly, throughout my life I have heard people – and not exclusively right-wing people – talk about the economic success that Hitler brought to Germany; but you don’t have to be the chairperson of a financial think tank to see that a programme of accelerated militarism that requires war in order to function isn’t really a viable economic model for anyone who doesn’t also espouse the ideology of Nazism. But a strange kind of nostalgia dictates that if it wasn’t for all those pesky Nazi faults he could have been a great leader. He couldn’t, though, because he was a real person, he did the things he did and therefore he wasn’t a great leader.

*throughout this article I have been referring to ‘people’ and ‘humankind’ in what is intended to be an inclusive kind of way, referring to people of all races, genders or indeed lack of gender. I admit I have probably referred to gender in a binary sense, partly no doubt through laziness. However, I do have a tendency to  not use the term ‘cis’, unless necessary – for me personally, the word ‘women’ includes trans women and the word men includes trans men. I don’t intend any offence by this, but I also don’t really mind if anyone is offended. I think it’s a shame that something as basic (if not simple) as a person’s gender should be a matter of opinion, but so it seems to be. My own view is that the contents of someone’s underwear is none of my business unless they explicitly make it so.

As I’ve said at least one too many times, history is complex,  but nostalgia, despite being impossible to sum up in a single word other than itself* has a simplifying quality. Nostalgia is safety – political reactionaries always look to the past for ideas of stability – but that is only because the past itself is stable, in the sense of being unchangeable. As we see daily, though, although (until the invention of the time machine) it is unchangeable, history, through endless re-interpretations and re-evaluations and new points of view, isn’t really ‘stable’ at all –  and I think it’s fair to assume that (as Dickens implied) every ‘golden age’ masks a dark age. And although it mainly seems otherwise, people are, by and large, fairly positive, they want to look back with fondness, even if it’s a melancholy fondness. There’s a quote from the great Scottish singer/songwriter Alex Harvey that strips away the soft-focus effect that the distorting lens of nostalgia imposes on history:

“Nobody ever won a war. A hundred thousand dead at Waterloo. No glory in that. Nobody needs that.” (quoted in Charles Shaar Murray’s Shots From The Hip, Penguin Books, 1991, p.71)

This is, I think, indisputably true; but evidently I am wrong – people are entirely capable of being nostalgic about almost any negative event. ‘The Blitz Spirit’ is remembered fondly in Britain because the blitz ended  years ago and all of its bombs already fell and lots of people survived it. It’s hard to make a film about the past without an element of nostalgia, especially when the film is played out as a thriller or adventure of some kind. But even leaving aside war movies and the old fashioned western film, there is and has been in recent(ish) times a whole sub-genre of ‘elegiac’ Western movies which, by and large, focus on the dying days of the ‘old west’ while barely acknowledging the genocide and horror that is the historical backdrop of the period. In a way, that’s fair enough – those stories are not about that subject – but when there are not only no (or very few) films about that subject, and it is barely even acknowledged by ‘official’ narratives of taught history, it’s a stark and telling omission.

*though interestingly, its original Greek meaning ‘homecoming pain’ is more specific than the word itself has come to be in English, and most of the European languages tend to use variations of the word ‘nostalgia’ rather than having their own word with the same meaning) 

It’s my personal feeling that nothing good is produced by adversity; which is not to deny that people are amazing, resourceful, resilient and inspiring; they are. When I said before that every golden age masks a dark age, it’s probably true too that every dark age is shot through with some elements of positivity, although I won’t scrutinise that statement too closely. Countries which were colonised by the British Empire (or indeed any empire) manage to grow and assert and define their own cultures; but we can never know what was lost. I love blues music (and indeed the whole phenomenon of western popular music which mostly grew from it), but again; we can never know what would have been, had these energies not been re-directed by a couple of hundred years of slavery and exploitation. Individuals achieve almost superhuman feats of bravery and resourcefulness etc when facing adversity; escaping from abusers, kidnappers etc. But no-one in their right mind would – I hope – recommend that all young people undergo these kinds of ordeals in order to fully achieve their potential. I don’t think it’s particularly useful for individuals (although governments and institutions are a different thing) to feel guilty about the deeds of the people of the past (or proud of the achievements of the past, really), I also see no need to pretend that, because India has a big railway network, the British Empire did something positive by oppressing the country’s people and culture and stealing its resources. Nothing good came of the British in India. India survived anyway, just as people survive catastrophes everywhere and achieve amazing things in doing so.

Lou Reed and Rachel in 1977 (Mick Rock)

So much for impersonal nostalgia – the personal kind is in many ways very similar, if less destructive. I’ve always been a nostalgic person; both for things I don’t remember, or that were long before ‘my time’ (you name it; silent movies, the 1960s, the Weimar Republic, Hong Kong cinema of the 70s, the Northern Renaissance, the Scottish Enlightenment, 80s teen movies) and, more naturally perhaps, within own experiences. One of the things that initially made me write this was a reference in Anthony DeCurtis’ biography Lou Reed – A Life (John Murray, 2017)* to Reed’s 70s partner/muse Rachel, a fascinating figure who seems to have vanished into history. In googling her I discovered various sites about vanishing/vanished aspects of New York and, because old photographs are endlessly fascinating, somehow segued from that to the vanished Jewish East End of London and the vanished and vanishing everything of everywhere. But as irretrievable as Jewish East London of the 60s and the underbelly of 70s New York are, one’s own childhood is equally as irretrievable, not that one wants to retrieve it, exactly.

* An excellent book, but one which illustrates some of my points; while Lou Reed spent most of his adult life complaining about his conservative 1950s childhood, DeCurtis himself has a more rose-tinted view of the period, saying “In stark contrast to the identity politics of today, assimilation was the order of the day…and none of Reed’s friends, Jewish or not, recall incidents of anti-Semitism or bias” (p.14) – fair enough, except that he also says, ‘Richard Mishkin was a fraternity brother of Allan Hyman’s in Sigma Alpha Mu, a so-called Jewish fraternity because at the time Jews were not permitted in many other fraternities.” (p.36)

Most of the polaroids etc that make up the ever-browsable Internet K-hole appear to be American, but any child of the 80s will recognise the texture and aura of the era we grew up in. When George Orwell wrote (I think in The Lion and the Unicorn, but I might be wrong; I’ll check) – “What have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person” he was putting his finger on one of the strange paradoxes of culture, heritage and nostalgia. The memories I have of the 80s are made up of a distorted, child’s-eye view of events and culture which is truly mine, plus things I know now that I didn’t then, other peoples’ memories, TV, films. The most potent sources of nostalgia seem to be – as the makers of shows like Stranger Things and Dark, and films like Super 8 and (too many to list) are very aware –  the things you didn’t notice that you had noticed, the most ephemeral details; jingles from adverts, fonts, packaging, slang.

And this is right, I think. The fleetingness of things remembered has nothing to do with their power as memories. I have no idea what the first horror film I saw was, but I do know that a scene on some TV show where skinheads (or possibly a single skinhead) glued a man’s hands to the wall of a lift/elevator scared me as a child and stayed with me for a long time; maybe because I used to see skinheads around on the streets (you had to watch the colour of the laces in their Doc Martens to see if they were ‘bad’ skinheads or not – though they were probably kids too, I now realise). I also know now (but didn’t then) that these were the second wave of skinheads, which is why I also saw Oi! written on various walls around the town; at the time I don’t think I ever made the connection. Again, when one thinks of the impact of very small occurrences it shows how impossible a really objective view of history is. I no longer bear any high school grudges, but without really thinking about it,  many small and/or random sneers and insults from my youth have stayed with me in vivid detail, along with the people and places involved. Similarly (but nicer) I will eternally feel grateful to two beautiful black girls in Camden in (I think) 1990 or 91 who made remarks to me which, even at the time were, at best ‘not politically correct’ but which pleased me immensely; it is among the very few teenage memories that boosted rather than eroded my confidence; a tiny thing, barely even an ‘incident’, but a big deal to a painfully shy adolescent. What to make of such a minor, slightly embarrassing (especially at the time; I can still vividly remember – although it was not a rarity – my whole face burning when I blushed. People often remarked on the redness of my blushes. I remember – not even slightly nostalgically – being compared to a tomato, being told I looked like I would ‘burst’ etc) episode? Nothing, except that real nostalgia, unlike the nostalgia industry (“it was the 70s; Buckaroo!”, to quote Alan Partridge) is particular, not general. The Camden episode may include references to youth, gender, race etc, but it has nothing to do with those factors really, and I doubt if the two girls remembered it even days later. These are not the kinds of details which are worthy of a biographer’s attention;  but they define my youth every bit as much as the music I listened to, the sweets I remember that no longer exist, or the clothes I wore.

To me, 80s nostalgia  has less to do with “the 80s” in the sense it that it appears in TV shows and films as it does a litany of gloomy-sounding things: the urban decay of 60s and 70s council estates, indoor markets, army stores, arcades,  brutalist churches that harmonised with the concrete towers  that the fire brigade used for practise. This is a kind of eeriness as nostalgia; reflected in my liking for empty streets and art that represents empty streets: Algernon Newton, Maurice Utrillo, Takanori Oguiss , the photography of Masataka Nakano and taken to its extreme, Giorgio de Chirico, where the emptiness isn’t empty so much as  it is pregnant , reminding me always of  – nostalgia again – the ruined city of Charn in CS Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew (by far my favourite Narnia book) – which made a huge impression on me as a child – and may be where my liking for such things (including ‘urbex’ photography, like that of Andre Govia, and of course, The Ruin, quoted way back in the first paragraph) comes from.

The Red Tower by Giorgio de Chirico
Street scene by Takanori Oguiss

“The passing of time and all of its crimes, is making me sad again” – sadly, one of those crimes is that when I first heard that line (from Rubber Ring by The Smiths) in 1989 or thereabouts, Morrissey seemed to be on the side of the downtrodden and marginalised, whereas now he seems to be one of that increasing number of people who pretends that the mainstream of British culture is itself somehow being marginalised; which is patently ridiculous. And nostalgic, of course. And there’s a whole culture industry with its own cultural shorthand, to bolster the standardised view of any given period; especially now, when a decade can be summed up by a b-list cultural commentator or celebrity who clearly isn’t old enough to remember some of what they are talking about, saying “‘e were mad, weren’t ‘e?” about some figurehead of the era. Not so great of course, when said figurehead turns out to be Jimmy Savile or Rolf Harris, at which point even nostalgia, like history, has to be revised.  But, as endlessly mentioned above, the beauty of all nostalgia is that it’s selective. The 70s that Morrissey seems to  feel nostalgic (in the true, mixed feelings sense) about (witness the whole of Viva Hate, which I love) wasn’t ‘better’ than nowadays, but the writer of its songs was young then. He isn’t now. There are younger people who are also nostalgic about the 70s, or the 80s, because they see the partial versions of the era(s) preserved by those who were there then, or who pretend to have been. The people who mourned the loss of the blitz spirit mourned it because a) they were younger then, and b) they survived it, and told people about its spirit. The people who are nostalgic for the Empire will (hopefully) never have to deal with being in charge of a mass of powerless, subject people whose resources they are stealing (or be the subject of the same), but they can enjoy the things it brought to all of our lives; the wealth of the Empire which, like the mythical ages of Greece and Rome, and the giants that the Anglo-Saxon poet pondered over only exist now as the faded, distorted memory of a faded, distorted memory. Like the 70s, like the 80s, like 2017, like yesterday, they are wonderful and terrible because they can never come again.

Happy New Year!

Tea-table Books 1: Dust & Grooves by Eilon Paz

 

Tea-table* books is an occasional series devoted to the best books for casually enjoying while relaxing with a hot beverage. Usually large format and illustrated (yes, just like ‘coffee table books’), the best tea-table books are of course just as good when read from cover-to-cover, but their real charm is their ‘dip-into-able’ quality. But enough preamble: onto this particular example – 
*don’t like coffee

Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting by Eilon Paz (Ten Speed Press, 2015)

As fans of the excellent website Dust & Grooves will know, photographer Eilon Paz is fascinated with record collectors and their collections. The site grows ever bigger, and is a home to some great journalism as well as hundreds of beautiful photographs, but there’s still something special about this book. Necessarily more focussed than the site, if not exactly more portable (enjoyably big and heavy) it’s pretty simple: Paz photographs collectors in their record rooms, surrounded by their vinyl and (along with various writers) talks to them about the music they love and how they collect it. In the second part of the book there are great in-depth interviews with some serious collectors, including Sheila Burgel, Rich Medina, Gilles Peterson, Questlove and Jonny Trunk, among others.

The photographs are beautiful in themselves and are both revealing and extremely tantalising to pore over; what are all those other records on the shelves?  What does a launeddas sound like? (the internet can help with that; pretty cool as it turns out.) The people and their stories are hugely interesting and it’s nice that, whatever one’s own musical interests are, the people collecting country or hi-life records (or indeed Sesame Street ones) are just as fascinating as those whose albums and 45s one covets. Record collectors are interesting because people are interesting and music is interesting; and there are always more records to hear and more people to meet, so it is (hopefully) a very repeatable formula. Taste is a strange, illogical thing (I have a vast, unfinished article for this very blog that has so far failed to illustrate that point adequately, but may appear here eventually) and as the stories in this book reveal, for most collectors music has been a journey from one particular passion or field of interest to many, often barely related ones.

Though not a serious collector myself (more an unfocussed accumulator) this is a book that makes me want to collect records. And listen to them of course; it’s heartening that of the collectors in this book,all are first and foremost fans of the music they collect and not collectors and cataloguers of mere (if they are mere) objects.  So yes, it’s a good book.

droove

 

The Second Monthly Report: February 2016

 

A short month, but full of things, not least my own birthday! So plenty of stuff to discuss…

Unfortunately, David Bowie is still dead and in fact has been more productive than ever as a commercial entity, as music, magazines, TV shows, pop stars and books pay tribute to the great man.

One of the more unusual books to appear in the wake (sorry) of Bowie’s death is the (big even for a coffee table) book: produced by the personalised gifting website ijustloveit.co.uk:

David Bowie: A Newspaper History

meer

Published in a large (indeed, tabloid newspaper) format, but with an embossed leather cover, David Bowie: A Newspaper History is an extremely fascinating but mostly not at all heartwarming memento of a career of dazzling highs and normal human lows as seen through the distorting lens of The Daily Mirror; revealed here – in case you didn’t suspect it – as a sensationalist tabloid that never really understood anything about the man except for his fame and newsworthiness. Although there is some introductory scene-setting concerning the outrageously long-haired Bowie of 1965 (with a great full-page photo) and a brief snippet about his Man Who Sold The World man-dress, the book really takes off, as one would expect, in 1972, when Bowie became a household name after the Ziggy-era singles began to chart, to the bemusement of the older generation and, one assumes, the readers of the Daily Mirror.

For the next few years, the Mirror veers between the predictable extremes of fashion icon idolatry and ‘has-he-gone-too-far?’ tabloid outrage. So we see David and Angie, the toast of the fashion world, David and Lulu, the ‘odd couple’, ‘Bowie Goes Straight!’ as glam rock dies, depressingly muck-raking coverage of David and Angie’s separation (“ZOWIE: boy in the middle”), rumours about his love life, innuendo about his drug use, continuing surprise at the longevity of his career and good health. What makes the book so fascinating is that the Bowie stories are framed with whatever else was going on at the time; political scandals, murder, adverts for banks, cheap chicken, New Mirror Bingo, all giving a vivid and immediate contemporary context that a biography can only do justice through exposition and anecdote. It also incidentally shows how central Bowie was, and continued to be, to popular culture in the 70s and 80s; film and television, Live Aid, riots in Brixton, new advances in technology and marketing (‘Vote for the songs you want to hear on Bowie’s 1990 tour’); Bowie was there, leading, following, keeping his distance or taking part; it’s no wonder his absence is felt so keenly.

If the tabloid culture of the 70s and 80s was deplorable but kind of fun in its eminent shockability, worse was to come in the 90s. The Mirror may(?) have been a cut above The Sun or News of the World, but its journalism epitomises the tabloid culture where anything private is ‘secret’, non-married partners are invariably ‘lovers’ and the language used is a bizarre mixture of pedestrian illiterate-friendly English, salacious puritanism and puerile baby-talk. From being the ‘bizarre pop phenomenon’ of the 70s and ‘pop chameleon’ of the 80s, Bowie now becomes just ‘rock star David Bowie’ and the Mirror wants to have its cake and eat it; being shocked and condemnatory where there is suspicion of drug use or disharmony between Bowie and ex-bandmates, shocked/amused by anything vaguely unusual that Bowie said/did/wore (We can be hairdoes..), but also devoting ‘heartwarming’ stories to anything that normal famous people do; a full page is devoted to the birth of his daughter (Daddy Stardust) and his recovery from heart surgery (I AM HUNKY DORY).

snobo

In amongst all this are a some genuinely interesting pieces; a fairly short and shallow interview with Alun Palmer in 2003 is fascinating because the Mirror wanted to know about things that NMEMojo etc didn’t; his health, his personal life, his smoking; everything in fact except the actual music he was making.

In more recent times it all becomes a bit reprehensible; Aladdin Retirement (2012) attempts to pry into his private life and quotes nameless ‘friends’ about his desire to avoid the limelight without the slightest sense of irony or self-awareness. Even worse are the frankly vile speculations by ex-music journalists who should know better concerning his flurry of activity in 2013 (DOES A TRAGIC REASON LIE BEHIND THE THIN WHITE DUKE’S RETURN?) which fizzle out as Bowie doesn’t die and the paper loses interest, instead satisfying itself as usual with photos of Bowie caught off-guard, looking normal and, sin of sins, his age.

And then, inevitably, comes Blackstar (Album of the Week no less; actually a very good review) and then the obituaries; the hypocritically respectful overviews of his life and career intercut with whatever snippets and details they could get on the state of his health during the final months of ‘secrecy’ while he fought cancer.

David Bowie: A Newspaper History is a fascinating, absorbing book. Fans, people who have followed Bowie’s career and work will find in it hundreds of photographs they may not have seen before, the kind of stories that don’t make it into serious biographies, but also a peculiar parallel universe where their hero is distorted into somebody that only unbelievers will recognise; David Bowie the ‘superstar’.

Highly recommended; in an odd way it’s a very fitting memorial to a life lived in public, even if it leaves a funny, slightly bitter taste in the end.

 

 

Some music that occupied the ears during February:

The reliably interesting Folkwit Records have a few excellent new releases:

RivsAstrophysics Saved My Life is the second album by folk-rock group Rivers of England and it’s a rich, accessible and pleasant album that wears its unorthodox aspects very lightly. The most audible reference point is less folk (let alone ‘folk rock’) and more the jazzy John Martyn of Solid Air, although Rivers of England’s sound is never quite as unearthly as that comparison suggests, not least because singer/songwriter Rob Spalding has a David Gray-like (though not David Gray-sounding) directness in his vocal performances that is very different from John Martyn’s allusive, intuitive delivery.  It’s a strong set of songs that seems set for mainstream success; they would be an eminently suitable festival band, so hopefully they should be on some main (or at least big) stages this summer.

 

 

jackanLess ‘normal’ and slightly more my cup of tea is Melody Cycle  by Jack And The’, the musical project of Edinburgh-based French multi-instrumentalist Julien Lonchamp.

The album presents, in beautiful widescreen clarity, a kind of incidental-TV-music-baroque-jazz-pop that has a breezy charm that veers towards twee-ness at times, but is so brilliantly orchestrated that its complexity never overwhelms its sunny, life affirming quality. If you imagine The Beach Boys’ immortal ‘Aren’t You Glad‘ being played by a French version of Cornelius’ old band Flipper’s Guitar aided by Roy Wood-era ELO on strings and woodwind and you are not only being weird but possibly getting close to the sound of Jack And The’; better just to listen to Melody Cycle though, that way you’ll know exactly what it sounds like.

 

 

Away from Folkwit, I fell in love with sound artist Lisa Busby‘s superb Fingers In The Gloss, lutenist Josef van Wissem‘s beautiful new album When Will The Bright Day Come and the Iggy Pop/Tarwater/Alva Noto Walt Whitman release Leaves of Grass and some great songs by awesome synth-punk/pop duo Sex Cells but as I’ve written about those in depth on the brilliant site Echoes and Dust I shan’t discuss them further here; but check them out though. Also great is the new Hexvessel album, When We Are Death, see the new issue of Zero Tolerance Magazine (issue 071) for more on that, including my interview with frontman Mat McNerney (also of Grave Pleasures, CODE, DHG etc)

 

arktis-2-01In a heavier vein than the Folkwit records, my favourite metal musician Ihsahn is preparing to release his new album Arktis. through Candlelight Records. Where Das Seelenbrechen (my favourite Ihsahn album to date) mixed avant-garde electronica, classic songwriting, Scott Walker-ish experimentation and rock and metal elements, Arktis. feels like a true successor to the first two Ihsahn albums, The Adversary and angL. It’s an unashamedly, exuberantly heavy metal album for the most part, and while it isn’t without experimental elements it feels like Ihsahn is concentrating more on songwriting, the riff and having fun; and it’s great.

 

 

holocaustSpeaking of unashamed heavy metal, an unexpected treat to (belatedly) come my way was the latest albums by Scottish NWOBHM legends HolocaustReleased through Sleaszy Rider RecordsPredator is 100% a classic metal album, displaying that the band have lost none of the fire or power that brought them to the world’s attention with The Nightcomers back in 1981. As with fellow NWOBHM survivors Saxon, the band’s approach bears little resemblance to the kind of nostalgic pastiches of 80s metal made by so many modern ’80s style’ bands, instead drawing on the same impulses that made the NWOBHM so vital in the first place; passion, skill, good songwriting and an absolute disregard for the dictates of fashion.

Predator isn’t only a great set of songs, it’s a heavy metal album for the twenty-first century and not just for ageing metal warriors longing for the golden age of their youth. They will like it too though.

 

 

RatatatcoverAway from current releases, birthday presents allowed me to overdose on the works of RATATAT, specifically their perfect debut album as well as LP3 and LP4. RATATAT are an interesting band to study chronologically, since their work manages to be both hard to label and surprisingly homogenous in itself. LP3 feels like the most experimental of the three (of all their albums in fact), but it’s a slightly deceptive perception, since LP4  was mostly recorded in the same sessions, so it’s mostly a matter of selection. It feels as though the duo are attempting to explore all of the possibilities within a fairly narrow range of sounds/styles and since their latest album Magnifique (2015) is perhaps their best to date, they hopefully still have plenty of exploring to do.

 

 

NationofMillionsGoing back in time, but never sounding more relevant than it does in 2016, Public Enemy‘s immortal It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back was being played probably too loud in my earphones for much of the month. Listening to Chuck D’s incredible delivery on songs like Louder Than A Bomb (to me one of the best rap performances I’ve heard) two things spring to mind; firstly that Chuck D has the perfect balance between power/authority/style and coherently getting his message across, and secondly that, from the perspective of Public Enemy in 1988, the USA in 2016 is probably both better and worse than they could have foreseen.

 

If all Public Enemy had done was to inform and warn though, they would certainly have been important, but they wouldn’t necessarily have been one of the great musical groups of all time; It Takes A Nation Of Millions… is also a superb album just as sound. Terminator X’s innovative sampling and superlative turntable skills and Flavor Flav’s irrepressible personality bring as much to the album as Chuck D’s more authoritative persona and it’s no surprise that the album was embraced by kids and critics, people of all races and nations; that’s what classic albums do.

 

lencoOlder still, Leonard Cohen‘s Songs From A Room is an album I knew but didn’t own and it seems as good a place as any to start with his work. Strangely, I mainly know the songs from trying to learn to play the guitar with them (I can’t remember why, but the songbook for Songs From A Room and a Songs of George Formby were the only two chord books I had for years; sounds like a charity shop purchase). Maybe it’s because I spent large chunks of late adolescence listening to Joy Division, Cranes, The Smiths etc, but I don’t find Leonard Cohen at all depressing; and really, if as people often claim apologetically, ‘he isn’t really a singer, he’s a poet’, then what is Bob Dylan, or even Lou Reed? Cohen’s voice may not be flamboyant, but it’s inherently musical, and it delivers his emotionally complex lyrics with perfect clarity. The musical sparseness of the album too is a plus, stripped of late 60s ornament, it is timeless and beautiful.

I read some books in February too.

 

grandAn extremely fun, quick, easy but not simple read was the first volume of Bryan Talbot‘s graphic novel series Grandville. Named in honour of the French caricaturist Grandville* the series consists of old fashioned ‘scientific romance thrillers’ that are part pointed steampunk satire, part Rupert the Bear; a very satisfying mixture as it turns out, and beautifully designed and drawn too. As it happens, Bryan Talbot had already drawn possibly my favourite ever steampunk comic art in his tenure as artist on Nemesis The Warlock in 2000AD comic. His ‘Gothic Empire’ episodes are beautifully atmospheric, some of the finest artwork from one of 2000AD’s golden ages.

*Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard; Freddie Mercury was also a fan, the imagery of his final Queen album Innuendo was influenced by Grandville

 

 

vvAnother book with pictures is the brilliant Viviavv2n Maier: Street Photographer edited by John Maloof and published by powerHouse Books. Another beautifully designed book, it collects the amazingly evocative street photos of Vivien Maier, taken from the 1950s onwards but not discovered until after her death in 2009. As a record of the minutiae of everyday life in big cities in days gone by, her photographs would be valuable enough; but they are also the testament to a genuinely remarkable photographic talent, a photographer who knew exactly what would make a good picture and how to capture it, both naturally and strikingly.

 

 

psychAs February ends, I’m reading Jon Ronson‘s now famous Theronso Psychopath Test. A superb and funny investigation into the nature of madness of various types, it retrospectively suffers a little from its own success, the ideas and stories having been widely disseminated since publication (Channel 4’s Psychopath Night etc) and on the whole I think I prefer his latest, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (recently published in paperback) which should be made mandatory reading for anyone who uses social networking sites or thinks that the world needs to hear their opinion. It’s genuinely one of the best books I’ve read in a long time and manages to say something new and meaningful about the ways the world has changed over the last few years while no-one was paying attention, except to their computers and phones.

Oh; here’s five minutes of your life you’ll never get back:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsBAmwSgX7w

 

Anyway, onwards: March!

The First Monthly Report: January 2016

 

Along with some tragic deaths, abysmal weather and so forth, 2016 began with lots of good stuff, some of it inevitably acquired at christmas, like for instance…

FREZNO by Tony Stamolis (Process Books, 2008)

frez

Frezno is great partly because photographer Tony Stamolis’ hometown Fresno is, or appears to be, pretty much anywhere. The great cities of the world have their special charm and character, their iconic structures and buildings, their famous associations. Fresno has wasteland, litter, housing projects, car parks, people, stuff. Most of us see this kind of stuff every day, but mostly we don’t really notice it. Tony Stamolis not only notices it, but records it. His eye for significant detail is unerring; this isn’t an accumulation of lowlife sleaze and slum glamour, it’s life as it is it is lived by people everywhere, the poetry of unglamorous everyday-ness; which was good enough for James Joyce after all.

Conny Ochs – Future Fables (Exile on Mainstream)

conny-ochs-future-fables

This is one of those surprisingly rare albums that is really all about the songs. Conny Ochs has worked in a variety of alt-rock and Americana-ish styles, but here style takes second place to classic, simple songwriting; catchy tunes with guitars/bass/drums that are the perfect vehicle for Ochs’ expressive voice and thoughtful lyrics. Not in the style of anyone, but if you like Elliott Smith or early Neil Young, check this out.

Charles Burns – Sugar Skull (Jonathan Cape, 2014)

burnsy

Charles Burns ends his utterly grotesque but beautifully drawn three part graphic novel with a typically enigmatic, but thankfully satisfying final part. The story is virtually impossible to summarise, but feels like an (autobiographical?) adolescent-becomes-adult rights of passage story told as a dream narrative by William Burroughs and HP Lovecraft and illustrated by Herge. The hard-edged drawing style and psychological horror makes for an uneasy but gripping mixture and if the trilogy is in the end less emotionally disturbing than Burns’ oddly anguished The Black Hole, it’s more readable and probably his most artistically accomplished work to date.

Richie Hawtin – From My Mind To Yours (Plus 8)

hawtin

Richie Hawtin returns, laden down with honorary doctorates, to demonstrate that techno, reduced to beeps, beats and peculiar noises, can be as expressive and unique as any music can in the hands of a master. Pristine sound, nocturnal atmospheres and abrasive textures make this a classic of headphones techno, although you probably can dance to it, if that’s your thing.

States of Decay – Daniel Barter & Daniel Marbaix (Carpet Bombing Culture, 2013)

states

Carpet Bombing Culture’s series of beautifully produced books on Urban Exploration and abandonment goes to the USA with this stunning collection of photographs of mysteriously abandoned and neglected theatres, railway stations, churches, industrial sites and hotels, captured in all their haunting, haunted beauty. As with most Urbex books, it’s the strange mix of nostalgia, sadness and disbelief that makes this so special.

Abbath – Abbath (Season of Mist)

abbath

There was every reason to expect something like a repeat of Abbath’s solo project I, whose Between Two Worlds (2006) was a good, fun metal album with some great moments. But the former Immortal frontman significantly upped the ante with this powerful (but still fun) collection of black-tinged metal anthems that proved that whoever won the name and wrote the lyrics, the spirit of Immortal resided in the man who gave it one of the most distinctive voices and faces in metal. Appropriately triumphant.

There’s definitely more; but this will do for now 🙂