Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An Amusement (X)

Seeing as I just received my first spam comment, I've decided to enable comment moderation, but as I'm not sure how it works it's going to block everyone. My sincere apologies to regular commenters, and if anyone can tell me how I can alter the moderating process so as to allow certain users through, whilst keeping out the unknowns until I've had a chance to check whether they're bona fide or not, I'd be grateful! Anyway, by way of apology to regular commenters, I have something interesting for you here. I found this short film fascinating, and I love the soundtrack! More information on the filmmaker can be found here. Enjoy!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

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

I really don't have anything to say about the following piece, except that some of Laura Nyro's music, like that of Miles Davis or Stevie Wonder, has made life a little bit better at times when not much else did. I hope you like it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Worth Seeking (VII)

As an appendix to my previous, very long post, I'd like to share with you the following film from the YouTube archives, a wonderful clip of John Cage performing a piece called 'Water Walk'. Cage died on August 12th, 1992, yet is still an extraordinarily divisive figure in the arts. An astonishingly prolific and hard-working composer, writer, printmaker, performer, and mushroom enthusiast, Cage is still most famous (or notorious) for the silent piece, 4'33" (which can still send musical conservatives into frenzies of rage) and once stated that the ultimate aim of music should be to "introduce us to the very life we are living and that we are able without scores without performers and so forth simply ... [to] sit still [and] listen to the sounds that surround us and hear them as music." (A Year From Monday, p.46). Interestingly, one can easily picture a contemporary audience and presenter reacting as those in the fifties did. Enjoy!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Them Bleedin' Artists...

(Author's note: this article is ridiculously long, as I got carried away writing it. So be warned if launching into it in one sitting! It may also be repetitive and verbose, so my apologies, but it is, after all, a blog post, not a college dissertation, and closer to a set of notes on the subject rather than a finished, polished argument. Any comments and criticisms are welcomed (as well as typos, as I'm goggle-eyed after writing and then proofreading all this. For ease of consumption, sections are numbered and Parsons' assertions are in bold, while my responses follow in bullet-point form. I'd also like to point out that while this Irish Times article is dismissive of modern art, the same paper regularly publishes Aidan Dunne and others whose opinions are fair, open-minded, and intelligent.)

I wrote the following after reading an article by Michael Parsons about modern art in The Irish Times (published on March 25th, 2008). What inspired me was the fact that this article is a wonderful encapsulation of every idiotic rant I’ve ever heard about contemporary and modern art, and as such is worthy of a lengthy and prolonged dissection. Mr Parsons’ fundamental assertion is that a work of visual art should be little more than a competently executed, pleasing decoration to “brighten up your home”; that such forms of expression as installation art exist solely because the artists are unable to master basic drawing; and that the international art market (and contemporary art in general) exists solely to enrich a handful of talentless charlatans (which, in Parsons’ view, means being unable to draw or paint a competent still-life or portrait). One could argue that he’s being ironic, but whether he is or not (and I see little evidence to support this view) the noxious theory he espouses is one which has a depressingly large following, especially in the UK and Ireland.

1) In the opening paragraphs, he starts by discussing the international art market and the astronomical prices paid for paintings and other works, calling it a “speculative frenzy” in which works are sold for “dizzying millions”. He states that ‘Number 5, 1948’ by Jackson Pollock sold for $110 million dollars, the highest price ever paid for any painting ever.

a) It's a fair point. It’s true that the art market (like every other market) has seen prices skyrocket as a result of the enormous wealth generated by the recent global bubble (something which I imagine is reversing rapidly even as I write this) and that this has done art few favours (Robert Hughes recently made a very interesting programme about this very phenomenon, which, among other things, has meant that museums, the best custodians of art, have been priced out of the market). But before I get to the rest of his article, where the philistine nonsense that he peddles begins in earnest, I’d just like to make a point in regards to art and money.
Simply put, the value that the market places on a work of art is absolutely, totally irrelevant to its aesthetic value. Whether a painting sells for 20p or £20 million matters not a jot! I cannot emphasise this strongly enough, as it’s a concept that a lot of people seem unable to grasp. The value put on a painting by the art market is only what someone is willing to pay for it. An excellent analogy is the housing market: fifteen years ago a house in Dublin may have been worth £75,000; two years ago it may have been worth £750,000, and today it might be worth £500,000 and sliding. But it’s the same house; it wasn’t ten times larger when the price was ten times greater. It’s just that, at the height of our housing bubble, there was no sane limit to what people would pay for property in our capital city. But, to extend the analogy, if you grew up in that house, lived all your life there, raised your children there, and never had any intention of selling it, the house has a meaning and significance for you that is outside of any price. And that kind of value is an echo of the value of a great work of art, which gains its significance from its profundity, from its beauty, from its emotional power, not what some investment banker with money to burn is willing to pay for it.
b) Another interesting feature of this obsession with the price of art is that while Damien Hirst, for example, is excoriated for the fact that someone bought a work of his for £50 million, this outrage (characteristic of the red tops in particular) doesn’t seem to extend to other arenas. For example, millions of pounds are routinely spent in professional football, average Hollywood stars are paid obscene sums of money to appear in often worthless movies, rock musicians rake in a vast income from royalties and spend enormous sums touring, yet nobody seems to take umbrage at such excesses. In the worldview of the average tabloid, if a golfer earns $50 million for wandering about in a field hitting a ball with a stick, he is feted as a modern-day Achilles; if a painting by Jackson Pollock sells for that, there’s something profoundly out-of-kilter in the world. What this seems to suggest is that the general public doesn’t mind colossal sums being squandered on things, as long as it’s things they like, and approve of.
But let’s get back to the article, and start dealing with some of Mr. Parson’s more outrageous (and idiotic) notions! While the primary thrust of his argument is against the YBAs (such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and the like), his hostility seems to be considerably wider in its scope.

2) Parsons: “[Jackson Pollock’s] so-called “drip painting” was created by the artist pouring oils on a canvas. He had experimentally dispensed with brushes. They’re not much use if you can’t paint. His innovative style – which had art luvvies swooning – results in the sort of picture that prompts people to say, “Sure, my two-year-old could do better than that”.”

a) “They’re not much use if you can’t paint.” This comment alone reveals the amount of research that Parsons has done here. It seems redundant to point out that while Pollock wasn’t a natural draughtsman, he could draw, and did realistic paintings under the influence of Thomas Hart Benton before progressing to his mature style. But Parsons is also, by inference, attacking any artist who uses a seemingly simple or experimental style, as if they only adopted such a style to cover up a basic lack of craft (I’ve had the same nonsense said to me about Piet Mondrian and Sean Scully, to mention just two). Obviously, even the most cursory examination of art history will show this to be utter rubbish, yet it’s a slander which, depressing, is obviously widespread enough for Parsons to repeat here.
b) “which had art luvvies swooning” Not exactly. Pollock’s work may have them swooning now but, outside of small coterie of supporters, it was roundly derided by the media and art world of the time. Note use of the contemptuous phrase “luvvies” here.
c) “Sure, my two-year-old could do better than that” Oh, if I had a euro for every time I’ve heard that! That old chestnut, the mating call of the philistine. Well, to this I’d like to say: prove your point, Mr. Parsons. And not your two-year-old, either. You, personally, execute a drip painting that matches one of Pollock’s, and I’ll eat my computer. I saw a retrospective of Pollock’s in Tate Modern a few years back, and it was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. His best paintings are alive with grace and energy, and I sat before ‘Lavender Mist’ for twenty minutes, mesmerized by its shimmering, cloudy beauty. And if Parsons can’t see what it is that makes Pollock’s best paintings so extraordinary, then I must say I feel sorry for him, because his world must be a dreary place indeed.

3) Parsons then goes on to round up the usual suspects of contemporary art, and in particular attacks Damien Hirst. “[A diamond encrusted] skull is apparently on sale with a price tag of £50 million. Instead of being horsewhipped through Piccadilly, Hirst is feted as a genius and regarded as a “celebrity” – the new term for a charlatan.” He then goes on to berate Mark Wallinger (who won the Turner Prize in 2007 with a video piece called Sleeper), Mary Kelly (who exhibited black and white photos of herself cutting her toenails), and Tomoko Takahashi (whose piece involved drinking 48 bottle of beer, then walking across a balancing beam).

a) Isn’t it interesting that when guys like Parsons attack contemporary art, it’s always the same tired names you hear dragged into the argument? Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Martin Creed, the Turner Prize and whatever happen to win it that year, et cetera? And, like all conservative commentators who know bugger-all about modern art bar what they read in the tabloids, Parsons takes the most extreme, outré examples of contemporary art and holds them up as entirely representative, in the same way that those attacking, say, feminism will take those on the extreme fringes and present a caricatured version of the same as wholly representative (“castratin’ lesbians in dungarees, the lot of ’em!”). But such sensationalist art exists, to a large degree, because conservative commentators excoriate it with such gusto, thus giving it ample space in the national media and bringing it to the attention of millions. Damien Hirst must rub his hands together with glee every time an article such as Parsons’ appears in print (along with a large picture of the aforementioned skull) as such publicity keeps his name in the spotlight and cements his bad-boy-of-art reputation. Parsons writes: “The British media have reported that a painting by fashionable artist Damien Hirst was, in fact, "thrown together" by the artist's two-year-old son and a 10-year-old playmate. No one seems particularly dismayed by the revelation. After all, Hirst, who is famous for pickling sheep and sharks in formaldehyde, and recently for decorating a human skull with diamonds, has also cheerfully and unashamedly admitted to using production-line methods and employing a large staff to produce his "works of art".” Does it never occur to him that perhaps Hirst is baiting the media by doing this? That perhaps he has a sense of humour? Or that, by challenging preconceptions about what constitutes art, he is getting a debate going about that very subject? As for production-line methods, has Parsons never heard of Peter Paul Rubens, who did precisely the same thing to capitalize on the demand for his painting? (I must point out that I’m not an admirer of Damien Hirst’s art, and consider him as primarily a provocateur whose work has little significance beyond that). My point is that there are hundreds of serious, intelligent, exciting artists working today who produce innovative work either by transforming old styles into new forms, or by using new forms of media, but these are rarely mentioned in national newspapers, as they will not excite a scandal and sell copies. Which gets more attention: “£50 million for Hirst-sculpture shocker!” or “Serious, intelligent installation art excites no controversy whatsoever!”? In the end of the day, the whole Damien Hirst controversy works in three ways: Hirst gets rich and gets his name in the media a lot; a small group of attention seekers in London get to feel they’re on the cutting edge; and the general public gets their opinion confirmed that all art that’s new and unfamiliar is rubbish. Meanwhile, real art goes on elsewhere, and is there for anyone with intelligence and discretion to find. And it’s a shame that guys like Michael Parsons can’t be bothered going in search of it.

4) Parsons states, astonishingly, that “the current fad is for “installation art”, which is what art students produce when they discover – as most do – their inability to draw or to execute even a passable still-life apple.” Let’s deal with some of the inferences from this philistine statement, shall we?

a) He implies that the only reason art students (and by implication, artists in general) are drawn to installation art is because they can’t draw or paint. Obviously, the fact that there now exists a whole world of new technologies (computers, digital cameras and so forth) which can be utilized to create art is irrelevant. Parsons’ obviously wants art students to ignore all this and only use media that were available to the Victorians.
b) Why should an installation artist who works primarily in video and sound need to know how to draw? Should a draughtsman know how to use an editing suite?
c) The fact that the work of most art students is poor is not a reflection on the medium. The majority of art in any era is poor, whether it’s someone drawing a Greek statue or someone filming swans on the Liffey. Being able to draw to a technically competent standard is no guarantee of artistic excellence. Imagination, intelligence, discernment, style; all these play a part. Anyone can draw, with enough practice, but only a true artist can draw well. And an intelligent, thoughtful artist will always bring out the best in whatever medium he works in. But intelligence and thoughtfulness in art don’t interest Parsons. Substituting the word “artist” for “composer”, Karlheinz Stockhausen said: “I demand two things of [an artist]; invention, and that they astonish me”. Parsons says: “Can you draw a good apple?”

5) Parsons: “Hirst - and his growing band of fellow-traveller con-artists - are gleefully milking a gullible, greedy and, apparently, insatiable public demand for art "investments". Their success is a devastating indictment of an art market cartel propped up by a cabal of gallery owners, auction houses, curators, critics and academics who encourage the truly dismal work being pumped out by graduates of art schools everywhere.”

a) “Con-artists” The phrases “con-artist” and “charlatan” have usually been directed at any artist in the last 100 years who produced work that falls outside the mainstream view of what constitutes “art”, especially by those who see art as, first and foremost, a commodity defined by its monetary value rather than by its aesthetic value. It’s a slur that has been leveled at practically every school of modern art, most enthusiastically by totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany. In Parsons’ case, although his argument is directed against the YBAs, he includes Pollock and Louis le Brocquy in his band of “charlatans”, which makes it difficult to know exactly which artists he is objecting to, and leads one to suspect that his net is cast as wide as possible. This vagueness, I would imagine, is deliberate, as the conservative reader is invited to include whoever they happen to have a dislike of. But on the subject of Pollock, let us point out that, when he created his drip paintings, Pollock had no idea that they would sell in the way they did, and the biggest prices were achieved long after his death. To claim that it was some conspiracy to defraud the public, as Parsons does, is idiotic. But let’s let Darius Milhaud do the talking here: “I have never been able to fathom why sensible beings should imagine that any artist would spend his time working, with all that agonizing passion that goes into the process of creation, with the sole purpose of making fools of a few of them…” (Notes Without Music, p. 107)
b) “are gleefully milking a gullible, greedy and, apparently, insatiable public demand for art "investments".” Public demand? What public demand? Art is bought by the very wealthy, not by the public. Do the great unwashed line up in Sotheby’s to spend their weekly paychecks on Francis Bacon drawings? While it is true that such art is bought as “investments”, it may also be bought because the buyer actually likes it. And rich people’s money is theirs to do with as they please. Have artists and their agents muscled their way into the homes of the rich and dragged them protesting to galleries? And a point I made earlier is worth repeating: if a rich man buys a football club, nobody bats an eyelid; if he buys a work of art that the general public disapproves of, it’s a “disgrace”.
c) “an art market cartel propped up by a cabal of gallery owners, auction houses, curators, critics and academics” Oooh, the conspiracy! The evil masterminds pushing through their plan to destroy traditional values while enriching themselves! Where’s James Bond when you need him? Actually, there’s a certain truth in this phrase, but if you want to see it explored in a more thoughtful and intelligent fashion, I again recommend watching Robert Hughes’s programme on the subject (which has the added advantage of being made by a man who actually knows what he’s talking about, and whose Shock of the New is a vital text on modern art).
d) “who encourage the truly dismal work being pumped out by graduates of art schools everywhere” As opposed, of course, to the truly dismal traditional work one can see in the average commercial gallery, which is usually mediocre, unimaginative, bland representational dreck, executed by people whose grasp of the human figure, of colour, and of creating space, leaves an awful lot to be desired (for all of Parsons’ talk about traditional artistic values). Now, I’d like to point out at this juncture that there’s nothing wrong with liking, or buying, work from such establishments. I remember once going around Merrion Square (where commercial artists hang their work on railings for sale) with my father, and being decidedly unimpressed by the work on show. My father stopped at a particular piece and looked at it for a while, then said he really liked it. I asked him why, as I saw nothing special about it (a landscape with some figures of children). He said that it really reminded him of when we were young and he used to take us down to Kerry on holidays. If this painting appealed to him in this fashion, who am I to say “no, you shouldn’t like it?” However, if my father turned around to me and said that, not only did he like this painting, but that it was a great work of art and set the standard by which all visual art should be judged, I would have to object in the strongest possible manner (actually, I would have been gobsmacked by such an uncharacteristic outburst, but after I’d recovered my composure I would have responded in the above manner). One of the most important things anyone ever said to me in art college was: “Remember, there’s sometimes a difference between what you like and what’s good art.” It’s a shame Michael Parsons is unaware of this, judging by his enthusiasm for dismissing anything that falls outside of his personal preference.

6) Parsons: “If you're looking for a nice painting to brighten up your walls, you might consider trying Woodies. The DIY and garden store with branches nationwide is selling canvases to brighten up your home. Mass-produced, vaguely abstract, modern art is, in fact, now widely available at most hardware shops and department stores. Art purists may shudder, but the pictures are not bad, are eminently affordable, fit neatly into your trolley along with tile adhesive and chrome towel rails and, even better, you won't have to deal with a snooty, merino-turtlenecked gallery assistant with a stroppy "attitude", protruding cheekbones and glacial smile.”

a) “If you're looking for a nice painting to brighten up your walls” Then you’re not looking for art, you’re looking for decoration. Big difference, Michael!
b) “Mass-produced, vaguely abstract, modern art is, in fact, now widely available” But mass-produced is the key word here. The reason a Pollock painting sells for so much is not simply because it’s by Pollock; it’s because it’s a one-of-a-kind item by a man who’s now deceased, and therefore in extremely limited supply. Mass-produced posters of Pollock’s work, by contrast, are for sale at reasonable prices in most modern art galleries. Compare like with like, Michael!
c) “the pictures are not bad” Is this the standard by which art should be judged? Did Vasari stand below the Sistine Chapel and say “Well, it’s not bad, Michelangelo, but does it go with the chrome bathroom handles?”
d) “even better, you won't have to deal with a snooty, merino-turtlenecked gallery assistant with a stroppy "attitude", protruding cheekbones and glacial smile.” I’ve been in lots of Dublin modern art galleries, and found the gallery assistants (and owners) to be helpful and accommodating. Of course, there are aloof and unhelpful ones too, but unfriendliness is not, as a trait, confined simply to galleries, as a trip to any retail shop will quickly reveal. Of course, Parsons here is peddling the stereotypical art gallery inhabitant to people who’ve probably never been in one, but imagine that’s what they’re like based on such stereotypes that they’ve seen on the telly.

7) Parsons: “If tat such as Tracy Emin's unmade bed, video "installations" by artists who really should be sectioned, or "limited-edition prints" by Louis le Brocquy qualify as "art" then, logically, why not that nice, colourful Chinese-factory-made picture (which goes great with the curtains) for just €40 from Dunnes?` Why, such an acquisition could even be described as wittily provocative and demonstrative of a thoroughly postmodern, deconstructionist approach. The Surrealists would surely have approved.”

a) “video "installations" by artists who really should be sectioned” What about freedom of expression, Michael? Earlier, he talks about whipping Damien Hirst for his affronts to art, which makes me wonder why he is getting so worked up about it. Why is it that conservatives love violence so? (The tragedy is that in totalitarian regimes artists did actually suffer violence, and die, for creating art which contravened politically sanctioned views of what was acceptable. Would you approve if Hirst was arrested and publicly beaten for “crimes against art”, Michael? Would you approve if contemporary artists whose work you disapprove of were institutionalised as insane?)
b) “"limited-edition prints" by Louis le Brocquy” My eyes popped when I saw le Brocquy’s name there. This is one of Ireland’s most significant living artists, a man who has done his country proud on the international cultural scene for decades now, and whose work is quite accessible. I lost a lot of respect for le Brocquy after seeing his dreadful portrait of Bono, but he still remains a figure who deserves respect. And Parsons believes his work to be “tat”, and in the same category as “nice, colourful Chinese-factory-made pictures”? Then Parsons is a philistine and an imbecile, and it is he who deserves “horse-whipping” before being “sectioned”. (I don't really mean that, by the way! Just getting carried away again...)
c) “The Surrealists would surely have approved” The Surrealists celebrated shock and iconoclasm, but they also knew quality when they saw it and demanded the same from the art they viewed. So I don’t think they’d approve at all. Quite the opposite, in fact.

And that's it. Congratulations if you made it this far, and let me know what you think!

This Week's Blinding Thought (VI)

The following is less a thought than an anecdote, but as I found it utterly hilarious I felt it worth passing on. It comes from Ireland Sixty Years Ago, a compendium of rambunctious, disreputable, and criminal activity in Dublin and beyond, written by John Edward Walsh and published in 1847. It's well worth seeking out; Four Courts reprinted it as Rakes and Ruffians: The Underworld of Georgian Ireland, in 1979, and their edition is the one I have. This extract is from Chapter 5 (Drunkenness-Notions of Conviviality). I imagine it would take more than a fistful of Solpadeine to remove these gentlemen's particular hangover...
"[There was] a party given in an unfinished room, the walls of which were recently plastered, and the mortar soft. At ten, on the following morning, some friends entered to pay a visit, and they found the company fast asleep, in various positions, some on chairs, and some on the floor among empty bottles, broken plates and dishes, bones and fragments of meat floated in claret, with a kennel of dogs devouring them. On the floor lay the piper, apparently dead, with the tablecloth thrown over him for a shroud, and six candles placed around him, burned down to the sockets. Two of the company had fallen asleep with their heads close to the soft wall; the heat and light of the room, after eighteen hours' carousal, had caused the plaster to set and harden, so that the heads of the men were firmly incorporated into it. It was necessary, with considerable difficulty, to punch out the mass with an oyster-knife, giving much pain to the parties, by the loss of half their hair and a part of the scalp. Allowing all license for the author's colouring, in what other country on the face of the
earth could anything like such scenes have occurred?"

Thursday, February 12, 2009

No One Said It Would Be Easy

For a good healthy dose of superb contemporary music, chosen with unerring taste and variety, from dirty dubstep to dainty classical and all points between, you should head straight from here to here, and scroll down the page until you reach the podcasts of the above title. Every week Ger Coffey, a man with a vast knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, all kinds of experimental, unusual, and just plain brilliant music, compiles an hour's worth of fascinating tracks from his wide-ranging collection, and he does it just for you. Should such selfless generosity go unheeded? Of course not! So do your ears a favour and tune in to No One Said It Would Be Easy, and make sure to send Ger a message telling him A Doubtful Egg sent you.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Put the Needle on the Record (V)

The Best of Ambrose and His Orchestra/Ambrose and his Orchestra: Hits of 1931 (Music for Pleasure/EMI)
There is unintended irony in Brian Rust's sleevenotes for The Best of Ambrose, a collection of tunes by the British swing band of that name; he states: "Perhaps those vintage years are best summed up by the title of the first track: 'Free and Easy'. This was the impudent "theme-song" from a long-forgotten movie of the same name..." I think it's fair to say that "long-forgotten" could apply quite accurately to Bert Ambrose himself, along with a whole raft of British dance bands from the thirties and forties who are only remembered by cultural historians, the elderly, and the occasional individuals who, for whatever reason, collect such records. Although there are a fair few CDs available by him, I'd be surprised if anyone other than specialists sought them out, and I had never heard of him before discovering these two records in a secondhand shop in Waterford which, for some bizarre reason, stocks a startling amount of LPs by little-known British and American jazz artists (Jack Hylton! Geraldo! Orville Knapp! Waring's Pennsylvanians!). Of course, I couldn't resist, and have been slowly purchasing every obscure LP in the shop (I often wonder if anyone else buys them; I must ask the owner sometime, but as I see the same ones every time I pop in, I'd think I'm alone in my enthusiasm).
Now at this point I feel it's fair to point out that these British dance bands do not represent some kind of lost artistic treasure-trove, a kind of swing-band Renaissance that was unjustly tossed into the dustbin of musical history upon the arrival of rock and roll. Like most of his contemporaries, Ambrose wasn't some kind of UK Duke Ellington, or even a Benny Goodman. He was purely an entertainer; professional, easy-going, and tuneful. As Brian Rust points out: "No-one would suggest seriously that the "pop songs" in this album are of great depth; that is not and was not their function. They were meant to give pleasure to the ordinary people for as long as those people chose to listen." Sam Browne, the vocalist on most of the tracks, "sang unaffectedly to the listener, with clear diction and no prunes-and-prisms." I'm not precisely sure what he means by that, but it's a marvellous phrase nonetheless!
There is something quite charming and unpretentious about this music which makes it hard to dislike. It helps, of course, that the tunes are quite strong, the musicianship is impeccable, and the sound still has traces of the energy of the twenties, something which tended to be ironed out by a lot of performers as the thirties continued, leaving the music a little too smooth and respectable, closer to the nursing home than to the speak-easy. Not that Ambrose was ever disreputable; after all, this was a bandleader who received a personal request from the Prince of Wales to return to performing in London when he'd gone to New York, so he wasn't exactly a bad boy. The song lyrics might strike the contemporary listener as insufferably naive and romantic, but the fact that the lyrics were innocent doesn't mean the listeners were, and I'd prefer such gauche innocence (within reason: some of these songs can very rapidly cross the line into simpering, mushy drivel) to a lot of the coarse, lazy cynicism that's popular today (and which is equally shallow and naive, in my opinion). Of course, I'd prefer emotional intensity and inspiration to either any day, and in general it's Bessie Smith or Louis Armstrong that'll find their way onto my turntable faster than Ambrose, but the sheer sunny optimism and charm of this music means that, after a hard day's night of assaulting my eardrums with Hideous Rackets, I might pop on a bit of Ambrose just for a contrast (and my partner loves them; she says they always cheer her up, something I can easily understand). And seeing as most of these recordings were recorded during the Great Depression (there's even a song called 'I'm an Unemployed Sweetheart'!), it should strike a chord now as the Irish economy collapses into dust. So get an Ambrose record and face the recession the way your grandparents did (i.e. dancing!). There's more information on Bert Ambrose here, and the following is the man and his band in action (it might not be his finest tune and doesn't feature Sam Browne, but it's fairly representative of his style and I couldn't resist the title):

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

'Swonderful, 'Smarvellous, 'Snow...

I've always been an admirer of David Hockney's wonderful joined-up photographs (some can be seen at his site here), and was inspired by the heavy snowfall (heavy by Irish standards, obviously!) to try one of my own. What I like about such photocollages is that they are really good at capturing the scale and detail of landscape in a way that's really hard to do in a single snapshot (at least for me they are). So here's my 'umble 'omage to 'ockney! (With grateful thanks to my partner for showing me how to join them up in Photoshop.)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Another Trinity of Inconveniences

A while back (in fact, it was the first entry on this 'umble blog, to be found here) I wrote about being visited by a Trinity of Inconveniences, an irritating and unwelcome triumvirate of nuisances which, although not especially threatening to person or property, were as bothersome as those drunken college chums who come pounding at your door at three in the morning when you have to be up at seven, reeking of cheap drink and sweat, carrying parcels of questionable "food", which they proceed to decorate your furniture and walls with in a vain attempts to negotiate it into their mouths. And this January, accursed, pestilent month that it's been, has seen another visitation by the said appalling Trinity, along with a few extra friends they picked up on the way (to extend the college chum metaphor, it's like the same friends if they'd extended your hospitality, unbeknownst to yourself, to a couple of dodgy partygoers with tattoos, facial scars, illicit substances and extremely dubious hygiene standards, and are arguing in drunken whispers at your doorstep while said partygoers lurk in the background and urinate on your flowerbeds ("Honestly, they're cool, they're Gary's mates..." "I don't care who they are, it's three in the bloody morning. Why can't you, and they, freeze to death under a bridge like normal dregs of society?")).
Sorry, I appear to have rambled off of the point there, getting carried away within the snug confines of the brackets (as I am wont to do), but for some reason we've had quite a number of such inconveniences turn up on our doorstep in the last month, and, since they have now (for the most part) been resolved, I'd like to present them (in a slightly fictionalised form) for your amusement (some have been alluded to in previous posts, but I hope to wring a few extra variations out of the unpromising material, so bear with me).
1) Returning from Cambridge in early January, after our first ferry had been cancelled and our second delayed for hours (nothing like sitting in a car for six hours, listening to the Irish people in the van beside you swear, discuss the minutiae of their drunken evenings, and give a running commentary on their hangover-induced flatulence, to instill you with a longing to return to your homeland!) we arrived home at ten o'clock on a freezing night to discover that the weird copper pipe poking out of the roof of our back toilet had split, and water was pouring out of it and down the side of the house. Not only that, but the water had frozen into a solid mass on the wall itself and encased the plants below in sheaths of blue ice, meaning that it had been running for quite some time. To stop the deluge, we had to turn off our pump until a plumber arrived to fix it, meaning that for our first two days home we had no running water or heating.
2) The following afternoon we went to collect our faithful (if over-exuberant) hound from kennels. It was a few days later that we realised that he had developed an infection in his testicles, most probably after scraping them on a hard surface. See here for more details, and a very cute picture (of the hound, I hasten to add, not the pustulent doggie scrotum).
3) The same day that we discovered the dog's unfortunate condition, the plumber installing our central heating was being driven to breaking point by the very eccentric nature of our house, which meant that the job was taking twice as long as anticipated and kept throwing up unexpected surprises (part of the job involved him crawling under the floorboards in our sun room, in a damp, dark, and cobweb-strewn space not more than a foot-and-a-half high, something guaranteed not to induce a sunny disposition). My partner decided to pop out to the shop and buy some Creme Eggs to restore the general good humour, but on opening our kitchen door was confronted by a rapidly rushing stream pouring down the side wall of our driveway and heading straight for our house. Immediate action was called for, and so the plumber and I spent two uncomfortable and exhausting hours in the sodden, semi-liquid mud in the field behind our house, furiously digging a series of ditches to divert the blocked-up stream causing the deluge. The crisis was averted, and a dry evening was assured in Chez Doubtful, but I spent the subsequent week, until a permanent diversionary trench was excavated with a digger, having panic attacks every time it rained and repeated nightmares about exploding dams and the Augean stables.
4) That evening, after giving the plumber a bottle of vodka for his heroic efforts and laughing myself sick at our moping dog and his giant bonnet, my partner and I decided to venture forth to the cinema. To be honest, at this point I would have sat through anything (well, maybe not Mamma Mia!, but anything else) so I flung a just-washed jumper into the washer/dryer to remove the last of the damp from it, as a prelude to donning it and strutting my stuff around Enniscorthy (and if you'll ever been there, you'll realise just how fragile my mental state was at this juncture). Half an hour later, I pulled it out and found that it was dripping wet, as our machine was full of water. We later discovered, after flooding the kitchen several times, that the pump had burned out (entirely unrelated to the plumber's work, I must add). We cancelled our plans to go out entirely, as by this stage we were so knackered and fed up that neither of us could be bothered driving, and I went out to do some blogging, only to discover that the Internet wasn't working. At this point, after the burst pipe, the dog's bollocks, the deluge, and the broken washing machine, a lesser man would have fallen on his knees and thrown a tantrum like a spoiled baby, but I just stood and stared in contempt at the unfeeling stars, my hands on my hips and a resigned, stoical smile on my lips, before uttering a short, amused laugh and heading back inside (because it was raining and I felt like an idiot standing out on such a cold, miserable night).
5) The following week, all had returned to (relative) normality. The heating was installed and instilling us with both warmth and wellbeing, the stream next door was diverted, the washing machine was fixed, and, while the dog still had his preposterous bonnet, his bits were healing up nicely and he was entirely accustomed to galloping about with a huge ring of plastic around his head. After a tasty dinner cooked by my partner, I was doing the washing up when the phone rang. After an lengthy conversation (much of which would have comprised what you just read, only with more profanity and repeated use of Fr Jack Hackett's phrase "feckin' water!"), I returned to the kitchen to discover that I'd left the tap running and the sink had overflowed. I was transfixed with horror at the quantity of water which had poured all over the floor, filled all the cutlery drawers to the brim, and was topped by a mountain of suds like detergent-flavoured cappuccino froth. The hound started sliding around in the slop, my partner's face took on a look which radiated both resigned patience and barely veiled homicidal fury (I noticed her eyeing both my head and the large axe we use to chop wood), while I got out the mop once again and began to wonder where on Earth has the least amount of rainfall, and how much a house costs there...
I think this following song gives an apt insight into my mood at this point (and is, in my opinion, much funnier than the regular version, but then again I'm a sucker for voices played backwards):
(Actually, while all of these disagreeable experiences were occurring I was reading about the pull-out of Dell from my home town of Limerick with hundreds of job losses, the entirely predictable yet still terrible economic collapse of my country, not to mention the horrors of the Gaza Strip, and being thankful I had such insignificant personal problems to worry about...)