Monthly Archives: August 2011

King Jeremy the wicked

Thanks to a timely and thought-provoking reminder from Adam at Infantile Disorder, I didn’t miss the twentieth anniversary of the release of Pearl Jam’s Ten.  And while it is never easy to realise that the soundtrack to those once-so-heartfelt teenage rebellions is drifting towards the status of golden oldie, still I am glad to be able to mark the occasion.

Pearl Jam and Nirvana have gifted me my own time machine, as every time I want to feel 15 again a listen to Ten or Smells Like Teen Spirit will transport me straight back.  Back to the frustrations and anger of those years but also the self-belief that somewhere along the way I might have lost, were it not for the music.  Ten still calls to mind the days when this hung over my bed:

Adam’s article rightly pegs grunge as more than music for grotty teens to sneer along to, instead noting that it was

the product of a society that had been through the Reagan-led ruling class counter-offensive of the 1980s, and was now seeing his successor, George Bush Snr, deepen the chasm between rich and poor. The anger of hardcore punk had given way to some despair…

At the time, I seem to remember the grunge scene being derided as not political enough, far too self-absorbed, the product of a generation so dulled by therapy that it could do little more than whine.  All quite possibly true.  Yet the music was also a perfect expression of the unsettling fear that life wasn’t quite turning out to be all it should have been.  The Cold War was won, the upward trajectory was assured, but it didn’t feel all that great, instead there seemed to be little cause for optimism as the end of the century also loomed.

Perhaps the best expression of a similar feeling from a British band came a little later, from those who you maybe wouldn’t initially associate with the great unwashed of Seattle – Pulp – when they sang in Mis-shapes, Mistakes, Misfits:

the future that you’ve got mapped out is nothing much to shout about

Like Jarvis Cocker, both Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder were clever kids, out of place at school and home and wearing their differences heavily.  The so-called ‘cool’ kids at my school hated Pearl Jam and Nirvana, while the rest of us probably loved them even more because of it.  These bands offered a way out of everyday thinking, an escape from cultural cul-de-sacs and seemed the best chance for victory over the forces of ordinary, at least until Kurt turned the anger inwards, like Jeremy in Pearl Jam’s song.

But that would come later.  For now, enjoy this trip in my time machine:

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The ‘man’ for Japan: CGI PM?

Given this story and this story, I think the next step for Japan is obvious:

CGI PM.

You know it makes sense, in these troubled financial times the savings in salary and pension alone would be worth it.  Not to mention the benefits from reduced costs for security, diplomatic visits, official cars and the like.

And given the AKB48 success, it would be all too easy for Japan to improve on Britain’s earlier attempt to make a 3D image Prime Minister, which convinced nobody:

Vote CGI PM!

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Starlings by Erinna Mettler

Every night at dusk the starlings flock around Brighton like a great black wave, swarming through the sky, swooping around, over and under at lightening speed, yet miraculously never crashing into each other.  Erinna Mettler’s first novel, Starlings, brilliantly connects the birds to the people of the city, as the stories within start off miles apart and gradually swoop closer and closer.  The main difference is the humans are not so adept at avoiding bumps and crashes.

She lay there, listening to her wheezing breath, trying to figure out if she really needed to put herself through the trauma of moving or if she could sleep, just a little longer, to ease the pain.  Then she heard it – a sound so clear and beautiful she thought she’d imagined it – a single constant note, high-pitched, otherworldly.  Others followed it, a melodious warble, a flickering scale of perfect chirps and whistles, building note for note into a crescendo of harmonious non-human voices.  The dawn chorus.

All of Brighton is here, the jazz funk yummy mummies, the dealer with his pit-bull and the stoner rich kids who make his fortune.  Yet the story also moves through the generations, drawing in the history from the Booth Museum’s Victorian collectors to the 60s beach-side battles between mods and rockers.  Along the way Mettler also deftly handles the storms the gay community has weathered, from the persecution of Keith by a vindictive police officer to Gary planning to ask his wayward fella Giuseppe to marry him.  She also offers a pretty credible recreation of  the setting of the West Pier fire…

There is much to enjoy here for anyone who has spent any time in the city and who knows how it can feel large and impersonal and yet also like a small village.  In the same way friend groups link and often overlap, so that sometimes it seems everyone knows everyone and their business, so characters are at one time the centre of the tale and later barely glimpsed on the edge of someone else’s.  Central to many of the stories are neighbours Andy, a paedophile who from the slow revealing of his own tortured past becomes more than a one-dimensional note of evil and May, a woman who has lived her whole life without luck, until the final chapters where she is able to perform heroics that belie her little old lady’s frame.

Upstairs in her flat, May watches the starlings flit around the Pier.  She loves these birds in particular, probably because they’re not here for long.  They stay for a few weeks brightening the skies and then they’re off to wherever they go to live their exciting foreign lives.  Nightly she watches their dance from her window, she thinks it’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen and her heart is warmed by their beauty.  After all the things that have happened to her – and all the things that should have happened to her but didn’t – she is amazed that there are still such things in the world to make her smile.

This is a cracking first novel, I really enjoyed it and hope there will be many more to come.  Essential reading for anyone who enjoys good storytelling, whether or not they know and love Brighton!

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Home strange home

I have been back in the UK for eight days and so far I have been unable to listen to any soundbite or speech by any politician all the way through.  It is a sad state of affairs for a political junkie.  Maybe I could blame the dulling effects of the jet lag, or maybe it is the vacuum where the moral authority should be that renders their words so jarring.  It is difficult to stomach a bunch of people who got the taxpayer to fund their plasma TVs and duck-houses when they start blethering about zero tolerance for criminality.  It is even harder to take from former members of a club with a reputation for smashing stuff up:

Presumably the main error the rioters made was in not being able to pay for the damage at the end of the evening.

Eight days ago, Southern England looked so English from 20,000 feet up.  The fields, houses and shopping centres were so resolutely un-Asian.  Everything looked so big – people included – it all felt familiar and alien at the same time.  We sat in the garden amongst wildflowers with wine and talked it all through, concluding that a complex mix of genuine grievance, political incompetence and the desire to get new stuff had driven the riots.  That there would be no easy, knee-jerk solution seemed obvious.

So it is also difficult to believe, as Caitlin Moran wrote on Saturday in The Times about the decision to close public libraries, that my country has taken a decision to be more stupid.  But that is what it feels like when any attempt to try to understand what has gone on is painted as a justification.  The shrill hysteria of the nightly news leaves me bewildered.  And I’m left to wonder, through a head foggy with tiredness and tea, if this will ever feel entirely like home again, this fractured, fractious country of mine.

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It’s been a long time…

…now I’m coming back home.

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Where everybody knows your name

The lure of the perfect bar, like that of the perfect writing cafe, keeps me searching through the city streets.  A place for rowdy celebrations with friends, knocking back drinks while sharing gossip and laughter, or for sitting not saying much at all, with book, glass and lover close at hand.  A space that is good for reading yet never too bright, both cool in summer and soothing in winter, when dogs stretch lazily by the fire and the humans sleep off their Sunday lunches.

My dream is to find the bar where I will be so well-loved that when I go, this happens:

I know their favourite songs. I want to reopen and play each of the songs in their honour.

Maybe one day I will find it – like those who have left behind memories of their songs in Iwate – or maybe I won’t ever be so fortunate.  It is possible that my perfect bar only exists in my head.  Perhaps the answer will be to open one myself, to stand behind the counter playing my favourite songs and hope that others enjoy the atmosphere enough to share it with me briefly.

Until the day I get there, at least I can enjoy the search.

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Imagining the future

Even in a normal year, a lot of news can happen in 10 days.  Unfortunately for someone with intermittent internet connection, 2011 has been far from a normal year, so the last 10 days have seen almost too many events to process.  The US debt deal was cobbled together at the 11th hour, a flat-out Mubarak went on trial in Egypt and things took a further turn for the worst in the Horn of Africa as sensitivity-deficient columnist Liz Jones was sent to cover the disaster by the Daily Mail.

With the attention being constantly prodded in the manner of a TV remote control button by a bored viewer – Libya! America! Syria! Greece! Egypt! Britain! Somalia! – one country which doesn’t like to shout too loud might have slipped from your field of vision.  Yet help is still needed for those living in Japan’s 2,559 evacuation centres as the five-month anniversary of the earthquake approaches.  That their lives have been altered forever is beyond doubt, but how to make a new start remains unclear when the basics are lacking.  Temporary housing is slowly being built, but water supplies are contaminated and the economic future of many small towns is uncertain.  While survivors such as Jun Suzuki are hopeful that they can rebuild:

I wish I can stay in my hometown.  This is where I was born.

Such hopes may not be easily realised.  The affected areas of Japan were not in a position of strength even before the earthquake, as outlined by Christian Dimmer, an urban design specialist, in this article on Imagining an Alternative Future for Japan.    He notes that,

the Great East Japan Earthquake hit hundreds of kilometers of coastline in mostly rural regions with a population of nearly 7 million, 22% of whom were older than 65.

Even before the catastrophic events of March, many of the younger inhabitants of the area had left for jobs and study in Tokyo, leaving the traditional economic bases of agriculture and fishing diminished.  For some communities, rebuilding may prove an impossible task.  Many may never recover.  For others, the immediate need to provide temporary solutions may crowd out attempts to plan for long-term survival, as it is understandably impossible to try to imagine the future when you are living day-to-day.

Faced with such huge questions, alongside so much additional trauma being inflicted worldwide, it is easy to feel powerless.  However, an alternative view is that many of these problems are the result of a delegation of too much responsibility to politicians and vested interests.  If we are going to find a way around them it will take billions of small efforts, made by each one of us, to try to change our futures for the better.  This is something I want to give more consideration to on ten minutes hate soon, so please let me know what you think in the comments below.

In the meantime, you can also donate to projects like Quakebook, which are supporting the work of the Japanese Red Cross to assist those living in the disaster areas.   The DEC page for donations to East Africa is here.

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