Tuesday, December 23, 2008

An Amusement (VI)

This picture, of a gigantic wave breaking against the rocks at Hook Head, was taken last Sunday on a very blustery and misty walk in that most beautiful of places. You might notice, to the left of centre, a small cowering brown shape: that is our dog, who ran into the shot just before I took it. I yelled at him, as I was quite nervous that a wave would take him or he'd slip near the edge and fall into the sea; under these conditions rescuing him would have been extremely dangerous. He's about the size of a Labrador, which might give you an idea of just how large the wave is. When it struck, he bolted in panic and didn't stop running until he was back up on the grass verge about thirty feet behind us. The poor hound! It makes for a nice photo, though (I apologise because it's so small but I don't know how to insert it in such a way as to allow viewers to enlarge it).

I probably won't be blogging a whole lot over the next two weeks, due to the holidays, but if you've just arrived to this site please feel free to root around in the archives, and if you find anything you approve (or disapprove) of, please leave a comment. And best wishes to all! To sign off, here's something entirely unrelated to Christmas...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

An Amusement (V)

I've been a big fan of Elisabeth Esselink, otherwise known as Solex, since I first heard Solex vs The Hitmeister several years ago, and I recommend a trip to her MySpace page if you ain't familiar with her music (see here). She constructs tracks out of samples (often from records out of her own secondhand shop in Amsterdam) before singing over them, and her lyrics are inspired slices of everyday musing, like the pages left over in a personal diary when you've extracted the emotional, dramatic stuff and used it elsewhere. In other words, it's great: quirky, intelligent, exciting pop music that's a lot of fun, and well worth checking out (I especially recommend the abovementioned album (her first) and Low Kick and Hard Bop (her third); her second, Pick Up, is good but lacking somehow (in my opinion), and I've been unconscionably remiss in not acquiring a copy of her fourth, The Laughing Stock of Indie Rock, released four years ago (!). This oversight is soon to be rectified, especially after hearing this track). The video is by some guy called Mumbleboy (aka Kinya Hanada) and while it's achingly trendy (in an old-fashioned kind of way) his overloaded, junkyard aesthetic is well suited to Solex's DIY musicianship, and I quite like it. And that's reason enough to put it here. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Something about Priorities

It's good to see that Martin Cullen, our Minister for Sport, Sport, and ... er, Other Things, has been out there fighting for that most neglected and underfunded of sports, golf. Last weekend the papers proudly announced that mobile phone company 3 were going to sponsor the Irish Open in Mount Juliet next year. The Irish Times (full article here) reported on Saturday that:
"Cullen ... insisted the Government, through his Department, were committed to ensuring the tournament's future. Credit where it's due, much of the behind-the-scenes dealings in finding a sponsor were conducted by the Minister, who made contact with 3's board of directors in Hong Kong when he was in China for the Olympic Games. The loose ends were tied up yesterday at a meeting in Dublin between the European Tour's Richard Hills and James Finnegan with 3's Robert Finnegan ... Of 3's involvement, Cullen - a member of Waterford Golf Club - said: "They are going to be very committed to it. It is a big commitment from them. They are not half-hearted. It is a big title sponsor. It is a big step." Part of Cullen's philosophy in putting so much time into securing a sponsor was that the tournament is a strong marketing tool in attracting tourists."I felt it was the right thing to do. We don't have that many natural resources, and golf is one of them."
Which is fair enough, I suppose, and I'm not knocking the need to attract tourists and bring revenue into the country. (Although when did a leisure pursuit become a natural resource? Surely natural resources are things like forests, oil, copper, arable land, and suchlike? Seeing as golf tends to impact heavily on wild habitats, as they're manicured into social clubs for the bourgeoisie, while being surrounded by large fences to keep out the proles, one could question the use of the word "natural", but then again, it is Martin Cullen we're talking about here, once described by a Waterford-based friend of mine as "Ireland's greatest waffler".) But it's a shame that Mr Cullen's clear enthusiasm for this aspect of his Ministry doesn't communicate elsewhere. For on the same day, in the same paper, it was reported here that:

"The Arts Council is still stuck in a ridiculous limbo, with more than half of its places having lain vacant for four months, and no sign of the appointment of a chairperson or six other members this side of Christmas. The department and Minister for Arts, Martin Cullen, dragged their heels initially in making appointments that were well signalled in advance, and now seem caught in the ever-escalating crises besetting the State, from the tottering banking system to the current pork pie. Piggy in the middle, indeed. Imminent crises in arts organisations are less visible, but a Budget cut that threatens to destabilise funding and a barely quorate Arts Council that has long-fingered funding decisions have made the entire arts sector apprehensive about creative work next year. But the attitude among many is that, while bad news is coming, arts organisations will make the most of it and try to find creative ways to deal with recession."

Hmmm ... perhaps Cullen was so bedevilled by the philosophical dilemmas inherent in this decision that it paralysed his ability to act; like one of Monty Python's football-playing thinkers, he was pacing his office until the small hours, waving his arms and anguishing over the decision that was his. Endless possibilities crowded his mind as he struggled to pick out exactly the right person to steer the arts through this difficult time. Does that seem likely? Hmmm ...
(In breaking news (ha! I've always wanted to write that!) I've just discovered that six new members and a chairperson have been appointed today. After a mere four months! And Mount Juliet have decided not to host the Irish Open after all. Oh dear ... And, in fairness, perhaps Martin Cullen is a connoisseur of the arts and the endless delays in this decision can be explained by his notorious incompetence, which has led him to become one of Ireland's most despised Ministers (and he's up against some serious competition here).)
Anyway, after that it's a pleasure to get back to some more cosmic sounds. First up is the sounds of Ganymede's magnetosphere (more information here).
This is a radio emission from Jupiter. More information here, here, and here. (It sounds surprisingly like one of the tracks from Jessica Rylan's Interior Designs (see the labels to find my review.))

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Worth Seeking (V)

I wrote yesterday about a fragment originally written by the Greek poet Sappho, who spoke of how the stars are harder to see when the moon is full. However, at the other end of the monthly cycle, when the moon is hidden, the stars blaze forth in their glory, and to view them on a clear night down the country is a wonderful, vertiginous experience. But, with the right kind of ears (essentially ones that could convert radio waves into audible sounds) the night sky would be a deafening tumult, a wall of roaring noise that would force us to have our houses hermetically sealed against the external cacaphony, making sound-proofing technicians the best-paid professionals in the world. In fact, as the sun and planets also emit radio waves and the stars are still present during the day (if not visible), the protection would need to operate around the clock and we'd have to wear ear-plugs constantly if outdoors...
Alright, so I'm getting a bit fanciful here (and there's nothing wrong with that) but it is accurate to say that celestial bodies do produce, if listened to with the correct equipment, a rather delightful dissonance. Joni Mitchell once sang that God must be a boogie man; on this evidence, it's fair to say that His preferences are closer to Karlheinz Stockhausen and Sun Ra!
(A disclaimer: not all of the celestial sounds to be found on the net, especially on YouTube, are to be trusted, as they may have been distorted or fabricated. The following are ones which I'm fairly sure are accurate (in that they've been sampled from NASA or some such authority). Also: these sounds must undergo considerable processing (such as lowering frequencies and so forth) before they can be made audible, so they are not totally authentic. But you sonic purists needn't slam the desk with your palms and yell "charlatan!" at me; if the radio waves were played as transmitted they'd be inaudible, and what's produced through such processes is amazing!)
First up is the sound of the Earth from space (its Auroral Kilometric Radiation (AKR) to be precise). See here for more information.
Next up on our interplanetary journey is that most sinister and beautiful of worlds, Saturn. If you listen to nothing else here, listen to these: they are startlingly eerie and unsettling! More info here and here.

Here's a link to some different sounds from Saturn, this time from its rings. More information here, with lots more celestial noises. But now we're heading much further out, into the gulf of deep space, to listen to that most terrifying of interstellar objects, the Black Hole.

I had intended on putting in more cosmic racket for your listening pleasure, but for some reason my computer is seizing up as if afflicted by a form of cyberparalysis. So I'm going to leave it at that for the moment, but I may post more in the future if the mood takes me, and if my delicate machine returns to robust health.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

This Week's Blinding Thought (IV)

There are few experiences in life as pleasant as a nocturnal walk on a moonlit beach in winter (pleasant in a quiet and contemplative way, as opposed to an ale-fuelled, red-lit, damn-I’ll-be-sore-tomorrow way). It’s also very hard to write about; even as I type these words a pushy and unruly mob of clichés are pounding at the flimsy wooden door of this article, yelling “Use me! I’m soooo poetic!” You know the sort of adjectives that inevitably muscle their way into any rhapsodizing about the Moon (especially by a sensitive, blushing soul such as myself): ghostly, mysterious, cold, eerie, silvery, pallid, bone-white, or that old Gothic favourite, gibbous. This is immensely frustrating, because even with their assistance my language simply isn’t capable of communicating just how beautiful the experience is, unless, of course, I was to get all Finnegans Wake on its ass and start combining words into arresting new juxtapositions, but I lack both the linguistic skill and the verbal range to do that. So I’ll take the advice of a greater authority than myself: “…what barbarian would go bawling into the night to welcome the moon? We tread softly; look and think with caution; as if to be in keeping with this stealthy and motionless lustre.”
Anyway: there I was, wandering along the (ghostly) moonlit beach, pondering (and trying to keep an eye on the red bicycle light attached to the dog’s collar, which bobbed erratically in and out of sight as he bounded through the darkness). There is something of eternity in such an experience; at any time in history, any human being, just like me, could have wandered along such a moonlit beach and heard and seen precisely what I did (minus the bicycle light, obviously...). As I watched my dog gambol away into the distance, he was visible only for a few minutes, then an indistinct smudge on the charcoal sand, then gone; I'd be calling him for five minutes at a time, only to discover that he was right beside me, padding along in the shadow of the dunes. Listening to the noise of the surf and the wind, I started thinking about Sappho, who may be (and I’m guessing here) the first poet to write about the beauty of the moon (or at least the earliest that’s still survived). Sappho is such an elusive, opaque figure (we know next to nothing about her) that her presence can be felt most strongly on a bright moonlit night, when landscape is at its most spectral and uncertain, like a chill dream. (I strongly recommend the books by Reynolds, Carson, and Balmer listed below for more information about this most well-known yet unknown of poets). Here are several translations of Fragment 34, a scrap of a poem in which she sings of how the stars retreat when the moon shines at full brightness. Pick out your favourite (mine is Carson's) and, if you're sufficiently capable, take them as a template and make your own translation!
(I'd just like to comment that the following section was an appalling pain in the face to format - when I put the text in block quotes spaces were removed and added arbitrarily, and lines were jumbled together or spread out at random. I don't think Blogger is designed for poetry! So I've put it in as normal text, which is irritating because it ignores where the poets have words or lines starting in the middle rather than at the edge of the page, and thus my apologies to all. With most it's not a major problem, but in Carson's poem the two last lines should start under the "e" in "whenever" I recommend writing it out by hand on a blank sheet of paper, or (better yet) buying her book!).

Stars above their faces in awe are hiding,
While the Moon, with beauty the world adorning,
At the full, with silvery beams delightful,
Shines from Olympus.

(Percy Osborn, 1909)

Stars around the luminous moon – how soon they
hide away their glitter of diamond light, when
she floats over, and at the full, refulgent,
glamours the landscape …

(John Frederick Nims, 1990)

(Both from The Sappho Companion, by Margaret Reynolds, Vintage 2001)

The stars around the lovely moon
hide their brightness when it is full
and shines the clearest over all
the earth

(Josephine Balmer, from her book of translations, Sappho: Poems and Fragments, Bloodaxe, 1992)

stars around the beautiful moon
hide back their luminous form
whenever all full she shines
on the earth

silvery

(Anne Carson, from her book of translations, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, Virago, 2002)

The gleaming stars all about the shining moon
Hide their bright faces, when full-orbed and splendid
In the sky she floats, flooding the shadowed earth
with clear silver light.

(Edwin Marion Cox, 1925. The rest of his translations, if you're so inclined, are here)

Planets, that around the beauteous moon
Attendant wait, cast into shade
Their ineffectual lustre, soon
As she, in full-orbed majesty arrayed,
Her silver radiance pours
Upon this world of ours.

(John Hermann Merivale)

The stars around the lovely moon
Their radiant visage hide as soon
As she, full-orbed, appears to sight,
Flooding the earth with her silvery light.

(Felton?)

The stars about the lovely moon
Fade back and vanish very soon,
When, round and full, her silver face
Swims into sight, and lights all space.

(Edwin Arnold, 1869)

Stars that shine around the refulgent full moon
Pale, and hide their glory of lesser lustre
When she pours her silvery plenilunar
Light on the orbed earth.

(JA Symonds, 1883)

(All of the above are taken from Henry Thornton Wharton's collection of Sappho fragments from 1895, including translations by the above writers and others, which can be found here.)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

I Haven't Felt This Way Since "Funky Town" (IV)

This song probably needs no introduction, but I'd like to say that this version gains, I think, from the crowd noises in the background. If ever a song was an inspiration to get up and do something, this one is it! And I know I always say this, but it really deserves that extra bit of volume and bass... (It also contains a wee bit of strong language and verbal abuse towards Elvis, if such things bother you.)

Saturday, December 6, 2008

This Week's Blinding Thought (III)

Some more from William Cobbett (see here), this time on the subject of potatoes. He is discussing how the 'umble shpud has come to replace bread as the staple diet of labourers in the early 19th century. While I find his style of writing amusing (if one ignores his contempt for the Irish), when taken in its historical context it actually makes a certain amount of sense. After all, unlike workers of that period, how many of us are wholly dependant on food we grow ourselves? However, he neglects to mention that Ireland's dependence on potatoes (along with Scotland, which also suffered greatly from the blight) was caused by widespread deprivation rather than innate laziness; they were the only crops which would grow in abundance on the tiny patches of land the Irish had for their own use. (Click here if you wish to see a mighty crop of these evil tubers. Mr. Cobbett must be rolling in his grave at the thought that the UN declared 2008 to be the International Year of the Potato.)

"Many labourers, especially in the West of England, use potatoes instead of bread to a very great extent. And I find from the same evidence, that it is the custom to allot to labourers "a potato ground" in part payment of their wages. This has a tendency to bring English labourers down to the state of the Irish, whose mode of living, as to food, is but one remove from that of the pig, and of the ill-fed pig too...
"Leaving out the slovenly and beastly habits engendered amongst the labouring classes by constantly lifting their principal food at once out of the earth to their mouths, by eating without the necessity of implements other than the hands and the teeth, and by dispensing with everything requiring skill in the preparation of the food, and requiring cleanliness in its consumption or preservation; leaving these out of the question ... we shall find, that, in mere quantity of food, that is to say, nourishment, bread is the preferable diet...
"Suppose a bushel of potatoes to be cooked every day in order to supply the place of the bread, then we have nine hundred boilings of the pot, unless cold potatoes be eaten at some of the meals; and in that case, the diet must be cheering indeed! For it must be a considerable time before English people can be brought to eat potatoes in the Irish style; that is to say, scratch them out of the earth with their paws, toss them into a pot without washing, and when boiled turn them out on a dirty board, and then sit round that board, peel the skin and dirt from one at a time and eat the inside. Mr. Curwen was delighted with "Irish hospitality" because the people there receive no parish relief; upon which I can only say, that I wish him the exclusive benefit of such happiness...
"I trust that we shall soon hear no more of those savings which the labourer makes from the use of potatoes; I hope we shall, in the words of DR DRENNAN, "leave Ireland to her lazy root," if she choose still to adhere to it. It is the root also of slovenliness, filth, misery, and slavery; its cultivation has increased in England with the increase of the paupers...
"This was written in 1821. Now (1823) we have had the experience of 1822, when for the first time the world saw a considerable amount of a people plunged into famine, at a moment when the government of a nation declared food to be abundant! Yes, the year 1822 saw Ireland in that state; saw the people of whole parishes receiving the extreme unction preparatory to yielding up their breath for want of food; and this while large exports of meat and flour were taking place in that country. But horrible as this was, disgraceful as it was to the name of Ireland, it was attended with this good effect; it brought out, from many Members of Parliament (in their places), and from the public in general, the acknowledgement, that the misery and degradation of the Irish were chiefly owing to the use of the potato as the almost sole food of the people."

Friday, December 5, 2008

Put the Needle on the Record (IV)

Frederick May: String Quartet in C Minor (Claddagh Records, 1974)
(Author's note: There’s very little information on Frederick May available on the internet, and acknowledgement is due to David Wright's invaluable article here.)
There were only three people present when Frederick May was lowered into his grave in 1985, one for every decade since he had written any music. May hadn't enjoyed an easy life. An embittered alcoholic afflicted by a dreadful hearing disorder and a victim of his nerves, he came across as an often truculent and difficult man, suffering the indignity of having his inheritance spoon-fed to him by a solicitor, as if he were a child, to prevent him frittering it away on strong liquor. His lonely death in a psychiatric hospital in Portrane was a melancholy end to a career which began with so much promise decades previously, in the 1930s. A talented student of music from Dublin, he travelled to London to study with Vaughan Williams before winning a scholarship to continue his studies in Vienna with the great Alban Berg (who, tragically, died of blood poisoning on Christmas Eve of 1935, before May could meet him) and Egon Wellesz. On his return from that troubled city, at a time when Europe was in a state of heightened dread and anticipation over the ambitions of Der Führer, he wrote his 'String Quartet in C Minor', a radically advanced piece for an Irish composer which was described by James Plunkett in his liner notes as "superb music; fluent, authoritative, and immediate" and by Brian Boydell as "[May's] finest work".
I found this LP, like so many in my collection, in a jumble sale on a spot of waste ground outside Wexford, mixed in with the usual dreck that one unearths at such affairs. I had never heard of Frederick May, but I was intrigued to discover an Irish composer of undoubted ability and intelligence whose work was utterly unknown to me. I didn't realise at the time that this was one of the only recordings, not just of this particular piece, but of any composition at all by this unjustly neglected composer (it is, thankfully, available on CD now, on the Naxos label). Not that May was a prolific writer; his hearing problems, combined with his increasing frustration and alcoholism, not least inspired by an ambivalent (to put it mildly) attitude to his country of origin, means that his collected works could probably fit in a single box set. However, it does seem a shame that, regardless of his personal foibles, one of the few Irish pioneers of what he called "art music" (to distinguish it from the traditional forms of music in which Ireland excels) is so little known, and entirely unrepresented in publication outside of sheet music. But, in a country where art, sport and tourism are covered by the same ministry, as if they were of equal standing (and no prizes for guessing which one matters more to most Fianna Failers), and where the connection hasn't been officially made between the arts, heritage, and the Irish language (all portioned out in separate ministries), it's not overly surprising that a man who tried to bridge the gap between Ireland and Europe as regards music ("It is doubtful if any nation with such a wonderful storehouse of traditional music has made such a negligible contribution to art music as we have, and it is high time we set about redressing the balance") should have been overlooked in this fashion, especially in Ireland of the rare ould times. Whether the neglect led to the personality, or vice versa, is another question, but one has to hope, in our more enlightened times, that a generous soul would commission a recording of his complete works for posterity. After all, if they're erecting statues of Joe Dolan (a figure of utter insignificance as regards culture) surely someone could fund a retrospective of Fred May's major works? (I must point out that I'm uncomfortable with May's differentiation between "traditional" and "art" music, which suggests that the former is somehow not "art", but it's a problem of labelling rather than anything else.)
But what of the music itself? To be honest, it's not entirely my cup of tea, as I like my classical music considerably more abrasive and experimental, but it's fine work nonetheless, with many beautiful passages. Part of the problem for me with this music is that I'm simply not familiar enough with May and his contemporaries (such as Vaughan Williams) to be able to comment authoritatively on its strengths and weaknesses - after listening to this I put on a Pierre Boulez CD and immediately felt on more recognisable terrain - but let's allow Raymond Deane to do the talking here: "[T]he Frederick May [String Quartet], while in some ways it's fairly traditional, in other ways represents an amazingly individual approach to the kind of things that were in the air at his time, the mid-1930s - the twelve-note system and so on - and blending that with tonality. It's an amazing piece." (New Music News, September 2002; full interview here.) Or James Plunkett, from the LP's liner notes: "[In this piece] there are darker elements present to torment a natural innocence and lyricism, which he constantly struggles to contain. If he surmounts them, it is not by exorcism but by acceptance - the conscious act of resignation. The Quartet in C Minor, completed ... at a time when the first hints of the affliction of deafness were beginning to threaten him, exemplifies this struggle and gains enormously in power ... because of it." That says it all, really, except that I'm delighted to have it in my collection and hope that further jumble-sale investigation will uncover more of his legacy.

An Amusement (IV)

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Some Thoughts on "Changeling"

[Author's note: DO NOT READ unless you've seen Changeling, as it contains major spoilers.]
I went to see Changeling last night, which was mildly watchable, if not very interesting. The problem with this film, like so many Hollywood productions based on true life stories, is that the filmmakers are intent on pummelling any unsightly ambiguities out of the events that might interfere with its adaptation into a prefitting narrative mold. In this process, the characters and events are simplified into good/bad stereotypes so that the story can be spoon-fed to the audience, whom the filmmakers assume are unable to handle any kind of moral uncertainty (Walk the Line is another very good example of this). I also thought Angelina Jolie was miscast (for one thing, she's much more glamorous than the real Christine Collins), and simply wasn't strong enough to carry the film by herself. This is a great shame, as many of the omitted elements have the potential to make the film considerably more interesting and complex. Although the credits arrogantly state that it's "A True Story" (rather than "Based on...") the creators omit some major features of the case, which I'll list here. (One could also point out certain anachronisms, like the use of the phrase "serial killer", or the fact that electroshock treatment was first used until 1937, nine years after the events here take place (I don't mind that too much as it's in keeping with the ethos of the mental hospital; if they'd had the equipment, they would have used it in the fashion shown!)) It's interesting to speculate on why the screenwriter and director felt it necessary to remove the following facts (all culled directly from Wikipedia, except where stated):
1) Walter [Collins] went missing ... after having been given money by his mother to go the cinema.
2) [Christine Collins] was a single mom whose ex-husband sat in jail for helping to run a speak-easy. She was also a professional woman who worked at the telephone company and apparently prided herself on maintaining a nonemotional, businesslike manner when dealing with men in authority ... [After the disappearance, the] boy's father, Walter J.S. Collins, floated the theory that some of his former inmates kidnapped his son, perhaps out of revenge. (Source of this quote here)
3) The police faced negative publicity and increasing public pressure to solve the case, until five months after Walter's disappearance, when a boy claiming to be Walter was found in DeKalb, Illinois. Letters and photographs were exchanged, before Collins paid for the boy to be brought to Los Angeles.
4) During Christine Collins' incarceration [in the madhouse], [villainous policeman] Jones questioned the boy [imposter], who admitted to being 12-year-old Arthur Hutchens. A diner at a roadside café in Illinois had told Hutchens of his resemblance to the missing Walter, so Hutchens came up with the plan to impersonate him.
5) Clark [the young boy in league with the serial killer] claimed that Northcott had kidnapped, molested and killed several young boys with the help of Northcott's mother—Sarah Louise Northcott—and the forced participation of Clark himself. [My emphasis: this is a very serious alteration of the facts!]
6) In the hope of saving her son, Northcott's mother initially confessed to the murders, including that of Walter Collins. She later retracted her statement, as did Gordon Northcott, who had confessed to killing five boys.
7) During the trial Gordon Northcott learned that Sarah Louise, who he had thought was his mother, was actually his grandmother. Sarah Louise stated that Gordon was the result of incest committed by her husband, Cyrus George Northcott, against their daughter Winifred. She also stated that Gordon was sexually abused as a child, by the entire family.
8) Collins went on to win the second of two lawsuits and was awarded $10,800, which Jones never paid. The city council welfare hearing recommended that Jones and Chief Davis leave their posts, but both were eventually reinstated.
9) Arthur J. Hutchins, Jr. wrote in 1933 how and why he fooled the police, the real missing Walter's closest friends, and even Walter’s dog and cat in 1928. Hutchins's biological mother died when he was 9. He pretended to be Walter Collins to get as far away as possible from his stepmother, Violet. Hutchins had been living on the road for a month when DeKalb, Illinois, police brought him in and began asking him questions about Walter Collins. Originally, he stated that he did not know about Walter, but changed his story when he saw this as a means to get to California. After Hutchins confessed to the hoax, he was placed for two years in the Iowa State Training School for Boys in Eldora, Iowa. Eventually, he expressed remorse for what he had done to Christine Collins and wrote, "I know I owe an apology to Mrs. Collins and to the state of California."
10) Straczynski [the screenwriter] originally wrote a shorter account of Collins' incarceration. His agent suggested that the sequence needed more development, so Straczynski had to extrapolate events based upon standard practice in such institutions at the time. It was at this stage he created [the] composite character Carol Dexter, who was intended to symbolize the women of the era who had been unjustly committed.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

I Haven't Felt This Way Since "Funky Town"! (III)

Come with me on a journey to the mid-nineties, when a young Doubtful Egg had first moved from the country to the Big Smoke of Dublin and was hearing a kind of music unlike anything he'd ever experienced before. This song instantly brings me back there, to that sense of wonder I felt at hearing a whole new type of music emerging from the underground of UK cities, full of energy and excitement, and which fascinated me unduly (before its promise, like all flesh, withered away over time). I first heard this track on Kenny Ken's excellent A History of Hardcore, which provides a comprehensive and brilliantly edited overview of the evolution of drum 'n' bass, and is a must for anyone interested in dance music in the nineties. It's hard to believe that the following is over ten years old now (cue crinkly-voiced droning about the sands of time, it's a long way from May to September, and similar drivel). Turn up the bass as high as your speakers will allow, and play it loud. (The name of the track doesn't appear on the video, so if you want to know what it is, leave a comment and I'll reveal all.)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Worth Seeking (IV)

The details of this particular item are shown in the first few seconds of the video. The whole piece was recorded and is available here, if you're so inclined (and Lord knows I'm champing at the bit to get my copy). I recommend turning the lights off (one candle is permitted if you're easily freaked out) and turning the volume way up. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Them Bleedin' Critics...

[Author's Note: This piece, inspired by a comment in last week's Irish Times, is rather long, so be warned if you plan on reading it all in one sitting. I thought it was amusing to write an immensely lengthy article about a throwaway comment of only four sentences. If you agree or disagree with anything I say, please let me know.]

"Film critics (1) tend to be (2) a tad stuffy (3) about adaptations of video games. It is, they like to say (4), no wonder the movies are so dreadful when they are derived from such trivial diversions (5). Surely, directors would be better off making films out of Greek tragedies (6) or Byzantine icons (7). You (8) know how these rants (9) go." Donald Clarke, reviewing Max Payne in The Ticket section of The Irish Times last week.

1) "Film critics" Is Donald Clarke not a film critic? Come to think of it, isn't anyone who emerges blinking from a cinema and says "that was good/bad/the greatest experience of my life/worse than a foamy weekend with Kevin Myers/a profoundly moving examination of interpersonal relationships disguised as a tale about gun-toting local TDs taking on a irradiated 50-foot-high Willie O'Dea moustache" or whatever, essentially a film critic? Surely, giving any form of opinion on anything at all means that you're engaging in some form of criticism (even if you're the guy from The Fast Show who thinks everything is "brill-yaaaaaaaant!")? This is not, however, what Mr. Clarke is implying here.
You see, "film critics" is being used here in a pejorative sense, in the same way that the Plain People of Ireland will use the phrase "media", "liberal", "environmentalist" or "feminist"; it is referring to an imaginary group which the disapproving speaker is not a part of (even when he is, as is the case here, similar to when Eoghan Harris or John Waters castigate the "media" in a newspaper column or on th'telly (why doesn't Clarke write "we film critics"? Or "certain film critics" if he's deliberately excluding himself?)). The description is of course deliberately vague, but is pretty easy to decode: what he means by "film critics" is essentially "snooty, joyless, boring elitists who sneer down from their ivory tower at anyone who dares to watch films that aren't ten-hour-long black-and-white epics about Norwegians living in swamps and having existential crises". It is an excellent defensive tactic when you (meaning the hypothetical Irish Everyman reading the paper) come up against someone whose values seriously question yours: slap on a label which identifies them as different and therefore excludes them from “just reg’lar folk” like yourself, and then you can cheerfully disregard everything they say from that point on (“ah, but you’re one of them liberals/eco-warriors/feminists/lefties/critics/Druids, aren’t you?”). Some friends of mine have a tendency to say to me, when talking about a film or whatever, that "of course, it probably won't meet your high standards..." in a tone which suggests that having standards is something similar to scabies, to which I reply that, well, yes, I do believe that the majority of contemporary mass culture is basically worthless, not because I go out of my way to pick fault, but because no matter how I try, I cannot bring myself to enjoy the bland, pandering, unimaginative drivel which passes for entertainment these days. And while the purpose of a good critic is firstly (and most importantly) to praise the worthwhile, it also falls to him to excoriate the innumerable talentless, empty hucksters who spew out vapid garbage, and to point out that standards of excellence should be applied to all forms of communication.
A personal digression: a few years ago I was living in England and only crossed the channel back to the ould sod on rare occasions, and on one such I stayed with an old friend of mine in Dublin before heading west to visit my family. After dinner and a few drinks she went to bed while I stayed up watching TV as I couldn't sleep. At about 12.30 her flatmate, who I'd never met before but who I knew from others was a Drunken Oaf, came stumbling in. He asked me what I was doing in England, and I said that I was working, but that I wrote a bit of film criticism on the side. He instantly responded: "Film critic? So you think your opinion's better than mine, eh?" Being naturally polite and diplomatic, I pointed out that this was not the case, that I was only interested in expanding my knowledge, that everyone's entitled to their own opinion, no one opinion is "better" than another, and so forth. But he kept banging on and on insistently, no matter how I tried to argue the point, about how I must think myself superior, how dare I rate my opinion above his, blah blah blah, until (after half an hour of this horseshit) I told him quite bluntly that we were wasting our time with this conversation and that I wanted to get some sleep, at which he became all offended and left me alone.
It was the most blatant example of another attitude I have repeatedly come up against while living in Ireland: that if you profess to have standards which differ from those of the masses, especially if they question the quality of popular taste, you are only doing it out of intellectual snobbery, because you want to mark yourself as superior to the hoi-polloi, and that, when all alone, you toss your copy of Persona or Last Year in Marienbad on the fire and snuggle up with Podge and Rodge’s Christmas Special (or some such horror). Now this holier-than-thou attitude does exist in Ireland (the Catholic Church practically invented it), especially as we as a people are obsessively elitist and cliquish in most aspects of life, but it's never one that I've shared. I've spent the last twenty-five years of my life trying to hone my critical faculties in order to better appreciate great art (in any form), and it would bring joy to my blackened little heart if more people shared my enthusiasm for same, if only because it would mean that there would be somebody to talk to (aside from my partner, whose passion for art matches mine) about the things I care about. But I have found that the majority of people that I have met in Ireland simply don't care about such matters, which is fair enough - it's not compulsory - but they will react with outright hostility (usually hidden behind a mask of insouciant mockery, the dismissal I spoke about above) towards anyone who dares to even suggest that perhaps, for example, Killinaskully might not be quite as hilarious as they make it out to be, or that No Country For Old Men might be a heap of pretentious twaddle, a B-movie masquerading as high art. Of course, the main benefactors from a public perception which decries criticism are those who slurry out shoddy, lazy, mindless junk (Epic Movie, anyone?), because the lower the bar is set the more successful they're likely to be.
Now I’m sure Mr. Clarke, judging by his reviews, knows the difference between a good film and a bad one (and in fairness he does give Max Payne (one can accurately rate that film based on its title alone) a good thrashing), but all to often he seems to make his judgements based on the trendiness of the subjects under discussion rather than their objective merits, looking fearfully over his shoulder and thinking “If I’m too critical too often, especially about stuff that’s popular, I’ll probably get fired,” and writing his reviews accordingly. Which is understandable – I’m sure he has a mortgage and such – but I occasionally find myself wondering if he (in his heart of hearts) really thought Dark Knight (to give one example) was actually worth five stars, or if he was terrified that the hip young things who love it would march on Dublin and tear him limb from limb. Who knows?

2) "tend to be" Why not "are"? I personally would have said "Discerning film critics are, unsurprisingly", but that's just elitist old me. I think that "tend to be" is used because it's a little more relative, in that it suggests that, rather than being a point of principle, it's simply an affectation, put on in order to seem superior. Again, although I'm tweezing bits out to examine individually, the overall tone of the paragraph also suggests this interpretation.

3) "a tad stuffy" I love this phrasing! Let us go back to our snooty, joyless, boring elitist, sneering down from his ivory tower; isn't this description just so apt for him? It is being used here with our hypothetical Irish Everyman in mind; like any self-respecting son of the soil, he imagines himself to be good "craic", a bit of laugh, unpretentious, easygoing, et cetera, and the last word he would ever use to describe himself or his chums is "stuffy", which brings to mind crusty old professors, librarians, and accountants. This is one implication of the phrase; the other, of course, is that it suggests that our "film critics" dislike adaptations of vidjo games not because of any well-thought-out argument, or as the result of an intellectual process (in which case stronger, more judgemental phrases like "dismissive" or even "contemptuous" could be used), but because they are simply too dry and fusty to be "down" with "the kids", being the sort of desiccated old prunes who wouldn't know fun if it jammed a funnel into their mouths and poured a litre of Blue WKD down it.

4) "It is, they like to say" Again: why not just "they say"? Or, better still, "they argue"? But, as pointed out in previous points, this phrasing is strengthening the idea that these "film critics" have adopted their attitude as an affectation to prove their superiority rather than as an intelligently thought-out argument (which, Heaven forfend, would suggest that a defender of such entertainments would have to argue back, using such examples as Silent Hill, Resident Evil, or Mortal Kombat).

5) "trivial diversions" This is the nub of the matter, isn't it? And all this talk about stuffiness and tending to say can't get away from the central fact that, unfortunately for Mr. Clarke, video games are entirely trivial. They are essentially a way for (I would guess primarily male) teenagers and college students to pass their time in fantasy-based problem-solving shoot-'em-ups rather than doing anything useful with it. They may have a level of sophistication and intelligence far removed from the Space Invaders of my youth, but any adverts that I have seen (I don't, and never have, played video games) suggest that behind it all is still the childish fantasy of some big guy with a big gun blowing stuff up. A stronger, and more persuasive, argument that our stuffy old film critic could make is that the entire point of a video game is its interactivity; the player controls the central character and therefore "creates" the narrative as he goes along (within the confines of the game's overall structure), and such interactivity cannot be translated to a cinema screen (and is suffocatingly boring for anyone not playing; I lived with a video-game fan for a while and can tell you that watching someone else play (which seemed to consist of wandering around a lot of virtual corridors for hours searching for clues to the next level) is about as exciting as watching security camera footage in an empty office block at 3am). This could be seen as the reason why so many video game adaptations, deprived of this one-on-one interaction, have to rely solely on their hackneyed plots and come across as bad science fiction or horror. Case in point: last night I watched a bit of Resident Evil: Extinction, which, aside from its obvious deficiencies in plot and acting, and its ludicrously improbable and unpleasant fight scenes, came across as a blatant rip-off of Day of the Dead and the Mad Max movies (and, in an entirely unrelated digression, where do they get all that petrol in their post-apocalyptic future? Do Shell and BP hire the Walking Dead to pilot their tankers?) And no matter how much that gamers go on that the source material for these movies is really deep and intelligent (y’know), in order to appreciate its nuances (if any) I have to buy a gaming console, learn to use it, and then spend hours of my life actually playing the bloody thing (which, with my hand-to-eye coordination, means I’ll still be at it in 2010). To be honest, I’d rather use the time to read a book.

6) “Greek tragedies” I’m sorry, Mr. Clarke, but this is pure philistinism. Obviously, referring to Greek tragedy brings us back to the image of the stuffy, joyless, boring elitist, harrumphing his disapproval at these youthful inanities before burying his head in his Sophocles (no doubt while dust softly covers him like a snowfall). But firstly, how many films have actually been made of Greek tragedies? Are filmmakers lining up to make The Orestia or Oedipus Rex? And what’s wrong with Greek tragedies anyway? “They’re, like, so boring!” shouts the Voice of Youth. Well, they’ve only been around for a couple of thousand years and profoundly influenced the whole of Western culture, providing inspiration for generations of artists, writers, and anyone who cares even in the slightest about art or literature, but I guess we should toss them overboard because they just aren’t hip any more. They are, after all, seriously lacking such crucial elements as giant weapons, babes, car chases, and zombies, I suppose … But don’t video games, with their over-muscled heroes (and heroines) battling their way through hostile environments on life-saving quests have their roots in Greek myth? Isn’t the average quest game just a debased pop version of, say, Theseus battling the Minotaur or the Twelve Labours of Hercules? It’s food for thought (in fact, I’m sure someone’s done a thesis on the matter somewhere). Mr. Clarke is simply using them to bolster his dismissal of those stuffy old film critics; I personally feel his sentence would read better as thus: “Surely, directors would be better off making films out of challenging and stimulating subject matter, which reflects the real world and personal issues therein, rather than a bunch of adolescent fantasy shoot-’em-ups.” But that’s just me (again).
(You must forgive me for another personal digression, but a few years back I was working as a waiter in a Dublin restaurant and serving a middle-aged Oaf and his wife. She was very pleasant, but he was a bearded, red-faced loudmouth who insisted on subjecting me to his witless banter. Like so many middle-aged Irish customers, he had an obsessive need to know where I was from (I don’t know why; I certainly didn’t care where he was from), so I told him that I hailed from the much-maligned and underrated city of Limerick. The moment he heard this, his face broke into a grin and he said “Bet you’re lookin’ forward to tomorrow, eh?” “Why?” I asked him. “Ah, c’mon!” he replied, clearly taken aback, as if I’d taken out an electric razor and started shaving onto his dinner plate. “You can’t tell me you don’t know about tomorrow!” “I’m sorry, but I don’t,” I confirmed, ever so politely. My ignorance seemed to turn his world upside-down. Eventually, after several repetitions of surprise, as if he thought I was feigning ignorance as a joke and if he kept asking me often enough I’d admit that I knew what was happening “tomorrow”, the Oaf relented and told me that Limerick were in some hurling final. “Oh, really? I don’t follow sport,” I told him. This provided more explosions of disbelief, as he simply couldn’t grasp that I had no knowledge of the upcoming event. “But you’re from Limerick!” he exclaimed, no doubt holding on to reason as his world crumbled from under him. “Are you from another planet?” I tried to explain that I never read the sports section of the paper, never listen to sport on the radio, and, to be honest, if someone had told me about the match ten minutes previously, I’d have forgotten it nine minutes previously (the fact that I come from Limerick doesn’t mean I give a toss about their sporting exploits in any field). Finally he sneered: “I suppose you’d prefer to read poetry or something!” Of course, if I wasn’t a waiter and therefore at risk of being fired for rudeness, I’d have called him an ignorant tosser, and explained (while pounding his head off the table) that I’d much rather explore the rich and beautiful world of poetry than watch a bunch of guys with sticks knock a ball around a field. (Also, he was considerably larger than me, another reason to bottle up my rage.) But the jokey way he delivered his coup de grace, hiding the real contempt he felt for anyone who’d rather read poetry than watch sport, was clear to see. The same attitude, bizarrely for a critic, seems to be at work in the above article. It probably wasn’t Mr. Clarke’s intention, but I can easily picture somebody in a pub, after hearing me give out about films like The Fast and the Furious (or whatever) snarling out the line about Greek tragedies.)

7) “Byzantine icons” Huh? How do you make a film out of an icon, even if you wanted to? Is Mr. Clarke alluding to Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, a lengthy Russian epic about a medieval icon painter? Is he really suggesting that filmmakers should be taking their inspiration from Cannibal Death Warriors IV (Extreme Babe Version) and producing films based on that rather than working towards life-affirming masterpieces based on the experiences of a great artist? If this is the case, then I am compelled to call him an unholy arse. (There’s no holding back with this writer!)

8) “You” Obviously, Irish Everyman; and not a film critic, or anyone stuffy.

9) “rants” This is chosen rather than, say, “arguments” because ranting suggests that it’s simply an unreasoned diatribe by someone whose not fully in control of themselves rather than an intelligent point being made by someone who has actually considered the matter. After all, in the thesaurus “rant” is listed in the section “empty talk”, along with claptrap, guff, and prattle.

So, if you’ve made it this far, let’s take the points above and rewrite that paragraph!

“Discerning film critics are, unsurprisingly, dismissive of adaptations of video games. It is, they say, no wonder the movies are so dreadful when they are derived from such trivial diversions, especially seeing as the interactive nature of such games cannot be translated to the cinema screen. Surely, directors would be better off making films out of challenging and stimulating subject matter, which reflects the real world and personal issues therein, rather than a bunch of adolescent fantasy shoot-’em-ups. Or at least this is their argument.”

Now isn’t that a little better (if a little clunky)?

But there’s more, just a little more (I promise). At the end of The Ticket section there’s another little bout of critic-bashing, this time from Brian Boyd.
“It is de rigueur for music critics to sneer at Dido (and it's usually the sign of a bad one), a shibboleth that displays a fundamental ignorance of the power of melodic pop music. No, Dido isn't Iggy Pop and The Stooges or The Manic Street Preachers.”
Them bleedin’ critics, eh? And their bleedin’ shibboleths! This little comment also sent me into a frenzy of rage, largely because of its sweepingly patronising tone (“there’s no emoticon for what I’m feeling!” as Comic Book Guy once said). So you’re a bad critic if you sneer at Dido, eh? Why? Because, as Boyd states, she’s sold 22 million albums? Or that one in three Irish households (God help us) own one of her albums? So what? The Spice Girls’ first album sold over 23 million copies, and it’s musically worthless tosh. Hell, Los Del Rio’s ‘Macarena’, possibly the most insanely irritating slab of sing-a-long stupidity ever recorded, sold 11 million! But not only that: if you dislike Dido, it’s nothing to do with the fact that her music's as dull and functional as unvarnished pine, the tiresome puling of a startlingly uninteresting woman, but because you’ve “a fundamental ignorance of the power of melodic pop music”. Yeah, that must be it; I can’t appreciate Dido because I burned out my eardrums (and brain cells) at Napalm Death concerts! Well, I’d like to point out that, in addition to a wide selection of experimental noise, electronica, free jazz, and raucous rawk 'n' roll (including Iggy Pop (and The Stooges) (but not the Manics, who are pompous drones)), I also have the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Dionne Warwick, Laura Nyro, Duke Ellington, Beth Orton, Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell, Frank Sinatra, a whole lot of Motown, Nanci Griffith, Hoagy Carmichael, Fats Waller, Astrid Gilberto, and loads more “melodic” music, quite a bit of which is “pop”. And I once spent a whole summer listening to Dido’s first album when I worked in a restaurant whose manager played it incessantly, and by the end I thought I’d stick my whole head in the deep fryer if I heard “and I-yi / want to thank you / for giving me the best daaay / of my li-iy-ife” once more. (By contrast, I never got tired of listening to Stevie Wonder...) So I think I know just a wee bit about the power of "melodic pop music"; I also know the musical difference between "mellow" and "lifeless".

Gosh, sometimes it just ain’t worth openin’ the paper… Anyway, here's something a little bit "melodic" for y'all...

Friday, November 14, 2008

An Amusement (III)

This is what the internet is all about. I want a dog like that! (My partner laughed so much, she turned purple...)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

One of Those "No Way" Moments (II)

After I went to see The Dark Knight, which was, unsurprisingly, dreadful, I was so irritated by its lunatic disregard for reality that I made a quick list of some of the wilder improbabilities it depicted (the bits that made me go "oh, for f**k's sake!"). After all, this is supposed to be the gritty, non-comic-book Batman, and I find it astounding that anyone could take seriously a film in which the following is depicted (spoilers abound, and if there’s a logical explanation for one of my points, or I’ve misremembered something, please let me know):
1) In Gotham, nobody notices when a school bus in a convoy reverses through the wall of a bank, and then rejoins the convoy.
2) It's possible to wire up a hospital (and two ferries) for demolition without anyone noticing.
3) It's possible to drive a pencil into a tabletop (try this at home, folks!) with such force that it will stand upright. You can then kill somebody with it.
4) It's possible to jump (and throw people) through plate glass without injuring them (although, in fairness, this is standard in action movies).
5) It's possible to put a phone-activated bomb in someone's stomach.
6) Batman can fly, and see through walls.
7) Batman can bend a rifle barrel with one hand.
8) Batman can survive falls from any height unscathed. If he's holding anyone, they'll also be unharmed.
9) Batman leaves blueprints of his secret equipment on file in his office building.
10) Extremely dangerous prisoners are left unhandcuffed, with only one guard on duty, who (of course) responds to said prisoner’s provocations and allows them to escape.
11) Senior policemen will fake their own deaths to catch crooks.
12) DAs will pretend to be vigilantes to catch crooks.
13) Mobsters giving testimony in open court are not searched for weapons.
14) Criminal gangs can waltz into, and out of, the penthouses of the wealthy unmolested.
15) When transporting highly sensitive prisoners, the police won't bother with decoys, or routes with options for diversion if one way becomes blocked.
16) A threat of imminent death on a prison ship won't provoke a riot.
17) A senior mobster will have a dead body brought into his own house. He won't check if the body is actually dead before turning his back on it.
18) The most wanted (and visually distinctive) man in Gotham can wander around in front of a hospital with a detonator without any police seeing him, even though they're watching hospitals.
19) An American vigilante can kidnap a Chinese businessman from Hong Kong and fly him back to America without any diplomatic repercussions.
20) You can leave a hospital after receiving massive facial burns within a day or two, without any risk of infection.
21) It's better to cover up the truth if it's politically expedient to do so.
22) You can balance someone who's tied to a chair on a ten-foot-high pile of money.
23) A criminal gang won't be bothered if their leader burns a ten-foot-high pile of money.
24) A character called the Joker doesn’t have to tell any jokes, or be funny.
25) A police van being shot at (with a bloody bazooka!) by a large truck in a different lane, with a barrier between them and it, won't simply jam on the brakes and reverse at speed (ever tried reversing an articulated lorry in a tight space, really fast?)
I'm sure there's more intriguing facts about Gotham that have slipped my mind, but that's enough for now.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Wexford Sights (I)

While I was on my way into Wexford this morning on my own nefarious business (which, I hasten to add, is none of yours), I became stuck in the usual convoy of vehicles caused by a large van chuntering along at a leisurely pace. It didn't bother me in the slightest, as I wasn't in any hurry, but evidently the gentleman just ahead of me was not sharing my mellow mood. To my amazement, he proceeded to overtake, on a bend of seriously limited visibility, four cars and the aforementioned van. I was transfixed with horror as he hurtled forward on the other side of the road, pulling back to his own side in front of the van just as a small white car was approaching. If said small white car had been travelling at the same speed as our impetuous friend, you'd be reading about this in the newspapers as both cars (and occupants) would have been smashed to pieces. This reckless idiot (clearly being a member of the Jeremy Clarkson Fan Club who believes that Alpha Males like himself should never be bound by anything as petty as speed limits or girlish notions of "safety" and "consideration for others", because he's too much of a man to ever be in an accident (a certainty which only takes a dent as they peel some hapless pedestrian's remains off the road with a giant spatula when he's mashed them to puree after losing control of his car)) seemed to feel that his business was so pressing that he was willing to endanger other people's lives in its pursuance (a common enough sight on Wexford roads, and no doubt countrywide), so I was delighted to see, from two cars behind me, a police car suddenly pull out and, sirens blazing, set off in pursuit of this dangerous imbecile. It's a sight not often enough seen on these roads, where I drive with the constant fear in the back of my mind of such aggressive boneheads and their lethal disregard of things like sharp bends and approaching traffic when overtaking. (And by the by: anyone who states that slow drivers bear some responsibility for accidents should be forced by law to travel everywhere for a year on a sit-on lawnmower (a la The Straight Story) while being pelted with rotten vegetables; reckless overtaking is not acceptable under any circumstances, no matter how slow the person in front of you is driving, and if you have so little self-control that you cannot wait until the way ahead is clear, then you shouldn't be allowed to drive a car. Would you use that defense with the family of someone you killed or maimed? "There was this guy, like, drivin' really slowly, and it was doin' my head in, so I went around him on a blind bend coz I was, like, in a real hurry. I didn't mean to put your son in a wheelchair, y'know?")
Enough ranting! I stopped off in Castlebridge, a small town about three miles north of Wexford, and went to look at the famed conservatory there. Here are some pictures.
I know little about this remarkable structure other than what an information board in the village green told me. The house was built in 1814 and was owned at one point by WB Nunn, who supplied malt to the Guinness Brewery in St James's Gate (ah, the intoxicating smell of the brewery on the walk along the quays up to Heuston Station; it always reminds me of my college years!). The concept of the Guinness Book of Records was first mooted here, at a dinner party in 1951, following an argument over which was Europe's fastest bird (or fattest; the board says "fatest", an ambiguous misspelling which suggests that the gentlemen were out with calipers measuring wheezing, balloon-like birds barely able to support their own weight, let alone fly), which suggests that the house was still occupied at that point. The conservatory, made from cast iron by the well-known Pierce Brothers of Wexford Town and "regarded as being ones of the best examples of this form of metal work still existing in the country" is essentially "in ruins". Apparently, it is a listed building and (I think) is publicly owned, and there have been a number of attempts to have the conservatory restored but none have come to pass; whether it's due to inordinate expense or lack of interest from the powers-that-be, I can't say (I did look for information on the Interweb, but found very little). It is a terrible shame to have an edifice of such elegance and character slowly falling to pieces due to neglect and apathy, and one can't imagine that, in a recession, it'll have any chance at all of being restored to its former splendour. The fear would be that some ruthless pig of a private developer owns the site, and is simply waiting for the conservatory to collapse under the weight of years so he can tear it down and throw up (in both senses of the phrase) a village of bland, jerry-built shoeboxes that he can sell for a fortune (well, at least the collapse of the property market should have removed that worry for about a decade). We can but hope that in some enlightened day, when we as a nation can see our heritage as more than just something to sell to tourists, as more than just an irrelevance to be demolished when it stands in the way of some gombeen man making a quick buck, that it will shine forth again in glory.

Friday, October 31, 2008

I Haven't Felt This Way Since "Funky Town"! (II)

I'm very far from being a fan of contemporary R'n'B, but the following song, which I first heard in London quite a few years ago and which still brings me right back to those days, is a genuine pleasure. I'm not that interested in anything else this group recorded, and I can't really put into words why this particular piece means so much to me, but why should I bother? I just think it's a wonderful, life-affirming piece of music, and I hope you enjoy it too.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Worth Seeking (III)

Jessica Rylan: Interior Designs (Important Records, 2007)
It's one of life's minor pleasures to arrive home and finding new music in the mailbox, so when I returned to my hovel from th'office recently, wrapped in a green and pallid miasma of exhaustion and fit to do naught but sit down and stare vacantly at the television, I was delighted to find that a CD I'd ordered from the US of A ages ago was lying on the carpet in front of the door: Jessica Rylan's Interior Designs (there was also a phone bill, but my joie de vivre woudn't be quashed by such a trifle). I must say that there's nothing like the appearance of a honking slab of cacophonous blare to put a new step in my stride, so I skipped lightly to the CD player and put it on very, very loud while I waited for my dinner to cook.
Ms. Rylan is a singer/songwriter, sound artist, and noise musician who usually operates under the nom-de-plume of Can't and also builds her own synthesisers (including the brilliantly named Battery Powered Noise Generator; boy, I wanna get me one of those!). You can view her website here (oddly enough, there's no mention of this album there that I can find). Based on a musical interpretation of Chaos Theory (although I find her liner notes a bit glib and uninformative; it would be more salient to get details on how the pieces were actually composed, or generated) it consists of four roughly ten-minute-long tracks:
'extraordinary', the opener, starts with a harsh metronomic pulse before suddenly disintegrating into an eruption of sonic indigestion: fifteen minutes of whining, blurping, and surging electronic spurts and gurgles - the sound of R2D2's stomach after way too much curry and tequila - which is quite fascinating due to the sheer variety, and unpleasantness, of the squelchy, flatulent sounds she produces from her synthesisers (this is where the liner notes' deficiencies become apparent: Were these tracks composed or improvised, or a mix of both? Were they simply generated like cellular automata, where from a simple set of programmed instructions the track emerges organically like mould spreading on a loaf of bread, with the composer having minimal control over the results? Are they complete in themselves, or merely the most interesting snippets from much longer takes?). One also gets the feeling that the composer takes a gleeful pleasure in the scatalogical overtones of the noises that she is pulling out of her boxes, which is entertaining in itself as humour is something that seems lacking from a lot of noise/electronica (that I've heard, anyway).
The second track, 'timeless', is for me the most interesting: Rylan conjures up a fuzzy, grainy, monochromatically ruinous landscape, a desolate, rainswept beach in November or a crumbling city in Siberia, seen intermittently through bursts of hurricane-induced static, punctuated and disrupted by ambiguous sonic hieroglyphics. A harsh electronic wind blows throughout this particular piece, and the increasingly loud and aggressive nature of the gale she evokes brings to mind an elemental landscape being etched by ferocious forces; if you were a sea-stack of the coast of northern Scotland, battered by storm and sea, this is what your world might sound like. Unlike the other tracks on the album, which to me are entertaining but not wildly original electronica, this track has real force and intensity.
'phantasia' conjures up an electronic landscape of twittering, scurrying pond life in a rock pool, over which another churning storm blows its course. This track, while interesting, somehow lacks the intensity and excitement of the previous two, however.
The title track is a bit of an odd-(wo)man-out, a drum machine and acoustic guitar duet which has a certain down-home charm (the sound of someone practising, strumming, just enjoying themselves) but seems a little out of place with its wilder synthesiser buddies, and gives the impression of being stuck in there to allow the album a respectable running time.
I suppose the problem with this music is that, while it's not at all bad - indeed, some of it is excellent - it lacks that certain quality of brilliance which would distinguish itself from the countless other practitioners in this field. One gets the feeling that Rylan is being a little too self-conscious and restrained, a little too respectful of tradition, to let loose with some of the tougher, more abrasive elements of this kind of music, and this lack of nerve (and inspiration) holds the pieces back from achieving their full potential. The video posted below (which sounds a little like 'extraordinary') is considerably more fierce, and the better for it, than anything on the album above. But it's very promising, and certainly good enough to make me seek out some of her work as Can't, including New Secret, a 2005 album which comes highly recommended by The Wire magazine (source of all that is wonderful in modern music! and which is where I found out about Rylan in the first place). Anyway, here she is in action:

So what are you waiting for? Get thee to her website and do your bit to support the arts (and beat the recession blues) by purchasing some noise! Hell, buy a synthesiser and annoy your neighbours (their house will probably be repossessed anyway, or yours will, so either way it's not a long-term problem, and it'll take their mind off of their financial woes...)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

This Week's Blinding Thought (II)

The following is from History of Europe (Vol. II) by Sir Archibald Alison, first published in 1842. I've broken the text up into small paragraphs for easier digestion. Alison's 10-volume history is described here: "The general style is prolix, involved and vicious; mistakes of fact and false deductions are to be found in almost every page; and the constant repetition of trite moral reflections and egotistical references seriously detracts from its dignity. A more grave defect resulted from the author's strong political partisanship [he was a Tory], which entirely unfitted him for dealing with the problems of history in a philosophical spirit." Bear in mind that the edition I have (the ninth) was published in 1853, just after the Famine.)
Perhaps no two nations ever exhibited a more striking contrast in national qualities than the inhabitants of Great Britain and those of the genuine Hibernian race in the south and west of Ireland. Unlike their countrymen in Ulster, who are laborious, active, and steady as their progenitors of the Norman or Anglo-Saxon blood, their character is the very reverse of that of the British, and much more closely resembles that of the French, though with some important distinctions from them also.
Brave, both individually and collectively; kind, charitable, light-hearted, and grateful, they possess many virtues which, in private life, must command esteem or win affection. But they appear to be almost entirely destitute of those more commanding qualities which are necessary to success in the world, and which, for good or for evil, stamp a great destiny on nations.
Ever vehement, often impassioned, they yet want the regulated ardour which sustains great undertakings. Indolent and excitable, they seek gratification rather in taking vengeance on their enemies than in improving themselves. They are too short-sighted to see what is necessary to durable success - too volatile and inconsiderate to make the sacrifices necessary to attain it.
Ever since their conquest early in the twelfth century by Henry II, they have never ceased to nourish a feeling of hatred for the Saxons, which has frequently burst forth in frightful acts of violence; but they have never seen that it was only by adopting the arts and imitating the industry of the stranger, that they would be enabled to contend with him. Though possessing more than double the population, and quadruple the physical resources, of the northern neighbours of England, they were conquered with ease by eleven hundred English men-at-arms and two thousand archers, who followed the Plantagenet standard; while eighty thousand English soldiers have been repeatedly hurled back from the comparatively desolate and ill-peopled realm of Scotland.
They were for long after retained in subjection by so small a force, that even in the time of Elizabeth it only amounted to one thousand, and on emergencies to two thousand men. So true in every age has been the character given of them by Agricola: "I have often heard from [Agricola] that by a single legion and a few auxilaries Ireland might be conquered and retained in subjection." (Tacitus, Agricola, c. 24)
They have proved themselves as incapable of rivalling the British in peace as they were of resisting them in war. They have neither imitated their husbandry nor adopted their manufactures. Their noble natural harbours are desolate, their maginificent fisheries untouched, their rich mineral fields unexplored. Nay, so far has their animosity gone, that, like the American Indians, they repel or shun the approach of civilisation. If an English manufacturer, bringing bread to thousands, settles in their country, they burn down his factory; if a Scotch farmer appears, capable of quadrupling the produce of the soil, they shoot him through the head.
To maintain an idle and barbarous independence is their idea of freedom; to repel the first advances of industry their principle of patriotism. They have gained their object. Capital shuns their fertile and peopled shores; and the overflowing wealth of England seeks rather the risk of South American insolvency, or North American repudiation, than the certainty of Irish violence.
Equal, perhaps superior, to the English in genius, they have seldom directed it to any useful purpose; this want of steadiness in pursuit, this absence of a practical turn, has been their perpetual bane. Constantly complaining of evils, they have never suggested any efficient remedy for them; ever exclaiming against misgovernment, they have never given the remotest indication of a capacity to govern themselves. With the exception of numerous brave recruits which they have ever furnished for our armies, they have scarcely at any time contributed anything to the general support of the empire. Though treated with extraordinary, perhaps unmerited, indulgence in taxation, their national resources are hardly drawn forth; and the most fertile part of the British dominions is disgraced by two millions of paupers, in a land which might with ease maintain three times its present number.
A note on the above, which follows the comment on taxation, states in part: "In the famine of 1847, produced by the failure of the potato crop, ten millions sterling [author's italics] was given from the British treasury to relieve the distress in Ireland, with scarcely any prospect of repayment; while Scotland, albeit afflicted by a similar calamity, got nothing."

Sunday, October 5, 2008

An Amusement (II)

A Doubtful Egg is now on holidays and is going abroad. I can't imagine that, in between sightseeing, stuffing my face, and lounging about like a mottled slug, I'll have any time to get to a computer, so I won't be posting for a week or two. Feel free to root around in the archive and, if you like or dislike anything therein, please leave a comment. In the meantime, here's something interesting:

One of Those "No Way!" Moments (I)

[This was written a few months ago, then forgotten about until I unearthed it recently, and therefore doesn't refer to this month's issue of Mixmag.]
Every now and again an unaccountable urge seizes me as I loll by my fireside. For reasons that lie submerged deep in the disused basement of my junkyard mind (just underneath the damp, cobwebbed boxes of seldom visited school memories) I am driven to perambulate into town and buy a copy of Mixmag. It must be five years since I set foot in a nightclub, or “disco”, as my attempts at dancing brought tears to the eyes of strong men and I was much too shy and withdrawn to make any attempt at “chatting up” women who, in any case, strutted off in contempt at my awful clothes and complete lack of “cool”. Besides, seeing as my ideal woman is a sexy librarian who knows the date Constantinople fell to the Turks, it was clear that the local dish-co (as they say down the country) would not be furnishing me with such a person save in the most unlikely of circumstances. I do like dance music, but I don’t purchase enough to make it worth my while buying a magazine devoted solely to the subject (and the culture attendant upon it). It must be the free CD (even though this month’s looked, and turned out to be, dreadful), or perhaps it’s all those pictures of pretty young people a-dancin’ and a-laughin’, having a jolly old time in funky nightspots, that appeals to a sour, anti-social old freak like me, but whatever the reason, last Wednesday saw me slouched at my kitchen table with a mug of strong coffee, munching my way through a packet of caramel slices while flipping through my newly-purchased copy.
An article contained therein filled me with a sense of outrage and disgust, as it describes what I feel to be an affront to human decency. There’s a club for the super-rich in London called Movida, whose claim to fame is that it serves the world’s priciest drink, a concoction that costs £35,000. Yes, that's 35 with three zeroes following it! It has edible gold leaf included in its recipe and comes with an 11-carat diamond ring thrown in (presumably the waiters are trained in the Heimlich manoeuvre in case one of the more intellectually challenged celebs in residence swallows this particular item). The first thought that popped into my head was that this drink costs more than I, in common with two-thirds of the Irish population, earns in a year, and the second which quickly followed was whether the gold leaf is actually digested into your system, or does it emerge from the other end intact? I suppose if you’re rich enough to afford one of these drinks you probably aren’t the sort who’ll be evacuating onto a clean plate the next day and picking through your own excrement with a tweezers and a diamond cutter’s lens, shining a torch to pick out those tell-tale glimmers. That’s what your entourage is there for! It’s could be a 21st century form of panhandling; after a trip to Movida, the personal staff of the rich are kept on standby in the morning, waiting for the gold rush to start… As Douglas Adams once put it, such a tipple seems to exist for the singular purpose of allowing rich idiots to impress other rich idiots, but there is something pretty despicable about squandering so much money on a cocktail when there are people grinding their way through lives of misery and hardship over debts a fraction of that drink’s cost. At the best of times I always find it risible, contemptible even, to hear rich people (like Bono) gassing on about making poverty history, but it’s an absolute certainty that as long as people are wealthy enough, and callous enough, to waste their fortunes on a luxury such as this while others can barely afford to put food on their tables, poverty will always be with us, and indeed will flourish like a poisonous weed.
(There was also an advert warning of the perils of STDs - a picture of a naked woman’s back with a label stitched onto it bearing the legend 'chlamydia' - which I found strangely erotic. Does this make me a pervert? It’s not a whole lot different from a tattoo, to be honest! It could be a whole new form of advertising; having actual messages sewn onto your skin which you can display as you strut around the beach (or wherever you feel the compulsion to strut…))

Friday, October 3, 2008

Put the Needle on the Record (III)

Knuckles O'Toole Goes South of the Border (Grand Award Records, undated, prob. 1950s)
What image pops into your mind when you hear the name Knuckles O'Toole? Almost certainly, I would wager, it is a boxer, and not a very reputable one at that; a scarred, bullet-headed, broken-nosed lump of a man, mumbling about how he "coulda been a contendah" while dreaming about that one last shot at the big time. Or it's a gangster in a Damon Runyon story: the description, "a big wide guy with two large hard hands and a great deal of very bad disposition" could follow the name as surely as nausea follows Abrakebabra. This is largely because, with the exception of pummelling the pudding out of other people, there are no careers available in which the knuckles play a central role. So why a pianist, even a honky-tonk pianist such as Mr. O'Toole, would take on such an appellation is a little perplexing. Obviously, without knuckles the pianist couldn't bend his fingers and would be reduced to pounding the keyboard like a seal using his flipper, but it is the fingers which are primarily responsible for the sweet, sweet music that entrances us (or, in the case of Phil Coulter, makes us vomit). After all, other parts of the hand and arm play a part in the performance of music, but one can't imagine any instrumentalist, even America's #1 Honky Tonk Piano Man (as the record jacket boldly proclaims), going by the name of, say, "Elbows" O'Toole. Perhaps he had a reputation for battering critics who questioned his skills? It will probably remain a mystery (unless I bother to do an internet search and find out anything about him, something I'm far too lazy to attempt).
Of course, I had reasons other than the performer's peculiar name for buying this particular LP (not, of course, that I would have needed more), related to the record's design. The first thing you'll notice about the jacket is that down each side is written 'Grand Award: World's Greatest Music'. This, of course, will instantly pique the curiosity of any connoisseur; those of a madly impulsive nature may, before they know it, find themselves outside the shop with the purchased LP in their hands, desperate to hear the aural magnificence which deserved said award. A more sober individual will, before purchasing, flip the record over and discover that Grand Award is not an honour, but the name of the record company which issued the LP (and a cynic might see in this the same principle which motivates a couple of guys in a trailer, with a single camera and no money, to call themselves the Stupendously Colossal Film Company). But it's on the back of the LP that the hard sell begins in earnest.
The headline at the top trumpets "Grand Award: Acclaimed by Music Critics! Approved by Music Educators! Treasured by Music Lovers!" (I added a few exclamation marks to get into the spirit of the pronouncement.) But it's not just the World's Greatest Music by America's #1 Honky Tonk Piano Man, according to the copious liner notes; we are also being treated to the World's Greatest Art! I can feel my aesthetic fuses beginning to reach overload as this surge of sensory pleasure assaults it, and I haven't even listened to the goddamn record yet. The 'Art' referred to is the cover painting, an illustration by a gentleman called David Stone (of whom I know nothing bar what the liner notes tell me, and which aren't worth the bother of transcribing). It's pleasant and inoffensive, I suppose - one can easily see it for sale in Tijuana gift shops as a poster - but it hardly fits with Grand Award's description, "an authentic reproduction of the world's most famous art masterpieces, originals of [which] are on exhibit in leading Art Museums throughout the world." Somehow, I don't think that Willem de Kooning or Jasper Johns were measuring their excellence by a yardstick set by David Stone ...
We have a lengthy description of what makes this record so wonderful, of course ("a most exciting blending of Latin American rhythms with the swinging, riotous style of the honky-tonk piano"), which I'm rather dubious about; after all, it's a truism that any record entitled [Insert Name Here] Goes To [Insert Exotic Destination Here] is more than likely to be a cheap, shoddy rip-off featuring a talented musician sleepwalking his way through watered-down versions of hits in a particular theme, designed for people who know nothing about music except what they hear on the radio, are terrified of anything even slightly unfamiliar, and buy about two records a year (a modern equivalent would be the Best [Insert Genre Here] Album in the World Ever). At no point do the notes explain how Knuckles got his name, the only thing that interests me about him. They also inform me that this music is performed by O'Toole and his orchestra, but only lists four guys. Personally, I think you need to break into double figures before your band becomes an orchestra, but that's just me. Hell, by that logic, Simon and Garfunkel are practically an orchestra ...
(Everything on the back of this record strongly suggests that a door-to-door salesman went tramping around the endless suburbs of middle America with these LPs, using the liner notes as his sales pitch to bored housewives: "It's "an important addition to both your music collection ... and your art collection, providing you and your family [with] the undeniable advantage of possessing an eminent selection of fine music and great art"! Would the good people at Grand Award even think of selling you a shoddy product? It's made "under the supervision of Grand Award Research"! They "inspected and passed" it. It'll increase the value of your house! Now, you look like a smart young lady ... " and so forth.)
Of course all of the above, read as I stood amidst the mountain of worthless junk which the car-boot salesman had left in heaps around his battered old vehicle, filled me with a frenzy of enthusiasm and so, after palming the gentleman's hand with a princely €1.50, the LP was mine. I tore home, donned my huge sombrero and poncho, dug out my enormous fake moustache, grabbed a bottle of tequila, arranged some Mehican delicacies on a plate, and prepared to be transported to a sultry and raucous world of Latino extravagance. I slid the vinyl out of the thin, surprisingly papery sleeve (the Grand Award company would scarcely condone the use of second-rate paper for their inner sleeves, would they?), put it on the turntable, and placed the needle on the record. What emerged, unfortunately, wasn't muy picante at all; in fact, it was decidedly Gallic. I pulled it off and discovered to my shock that, while the jacket said Knuckles was going South of the Border, the actual record was Knuckles Goes To Paris! ¡Dios mio! Let this be a lesson for all vinyl hunters: always make sure the jacket has the right bloody record inside!
Once I'd overcome my disappointment, changed into a beret and a stripey jumper, replaced my huge moustache with a pencil-thin one, and my tequila with red wine, I put on the LP again. And after all that, is it no surprise to say that it was entirely bland and uninteresting? The sound of the honky-tonk piano, tinny and slightly percussive, is the only distinguishing feature of a record so artistically empty that it makes John Cage's 4'33" (the silent piece) seem dramatic and full of incident. The problem is that it's impossible to match the (admittedly pleasant) easy-listening fluff that one hears to the almost lunatic hyperbole of the liner notes (and yes, I'm aware that the notes are referring to a different record, but I imagine the principle was probably carried across all the label's releases). That being said, it is a mildly soporific background noise, has a strange Parisian ambience in the same way that a plastic Eiffel Tower on the dashboard of a tractor does, and thus is more tolerable than, say, a similar record by James Last. And I'm cheered by the thought that somewhere out there is someone with the jacket of Knuckles Goes To Paris and the actual vinyl of South of the Border (and if he/she reads this, I'm willing to take it off your hands and return these long-separated LPs to their proper homes).
You can read more about Knuckles here. In fairness to him, he was an accomplished ragtime pianist, as is demonstrated here, which gives the impression that the above record may have had more to do with paying bills than musical expression: