Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Numerous circles near Mere

Two different types of circle formations on fields can be seen near the little town of Mere in Somerset. Last week at the bottom of Whitesheet hill a stunning crop circle appeared (top). Whitesheet Hill is a beautiful area, consisting of chalky ground and rare flora and fauna, as well as a dozen neolithic burial mounds, a causeway camp and an iron age hill fort (so Wikipedia tells me).

A few miles away is the CD Sea (bottom). Local artist Bruce Munro has created (with help from volunteers) an ocean of 600,000 CDs that shimmer in the sun. Take sunglasses if you're going: it's positively blinding.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

You are a burglar

The lock on the door of the house does not work. It hasn’t worked for a while. You know this, so you enter. You do not knock because it is 3am. You are drunk, but your heartbeat soon sobers you up. Yes, you’re nervous. You are a burglar. You feel like one. But you know every woman in the house. One is a very good friend, one is a friend, one was your first true love, and one is Laura. It is Laura’s room that you stumble into in the dark, a blind drunk, but you know the layout of the house oh so well and you open the door to her room. She must be here asleep. You’re knackered, you just want to climb into bed with her and fall asleep in her warmth. But she’s not here, no. Her small cramped room is actually well-lit in this darkness. It’s upstairs and the window faces out onto the street. The near-by street light is bright and gives an almost moonlight-type glow to the room. You’re a burglar, but you’re no thief. She’s not home. Clothes scattered over the bed, she must have popped in, changed, popped out. You know where she is, you do, you knew before you entered the house but you still got that punch in the face, that sickness in your stomach, that hard heart-beating (like when you have your first cigarette in the morning with a hangover) upon entering her room. You leave quietly, like a burglar. You've taken nothing but perhaps lost something.

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Farce

At 11:30pm John and I are standing in the middle of Leicester Square with nothing left to do. A light drizzle of rain is in the air, and what with being short of money and the pubs having all closed, we go our separate ways. As I’m walking towards Piccadilly Circus I see Grace and her friends. I call out, ‘Grace!’, and she stops and looks at me but doesn’t recognise me. I’ve just recently had a skinhead. Then she recognises me. She’s wearing a pin-striped suit and a red bandanna in her hair. She says she’s going for the gypsy look, and I say 'What – with a pinstriped suit?', and she almost smiles.

I’d first met Grace two weeks ago with Louise, who John and I had known in Sydney. John had met Louise in the Farrah trouser pressing factory when they both temped there, and then introduced her to me, and we’d gotten on fairly well. There was nothing sexual, and she gave me lots of muffins, and even bought me Bourbons and Cokes, one night along Oxford Street in Sydney.

Last time Grace and I hadn’t got on so well. I had made a derogatory comment about Tottenham, where Grace now lives, and I think she taken an instant dislike to me. But she likes my new haircut. Last time she met me, she tells me, with my long hair, I looked like a middle class wanker. I like Grace’s bluntness. She’s glad we met again. They'd been in Tiger Tiger and had a lousy time. In fact, they were hoping John would phone Grace’s mobile. But John had already phoned Grace three times that day, and wasn’t going to phone a forth. There’s only so many times a man should phone up a woman, and John drew the line at three in one day.

Grace is with her friends Richard, a photographer; his girlfriend with bleached blonde hair, whose birthday it is; Allyce, a lovely Australian girl who’d I’d met with Grace a few weeks back; and another girl. Grace was calling the whole thing a ‘farce.’ We have all been standing around in Leicester Square for about fifteen minutes now. Then Richard comes over and says everyone’s going to Wimbledon, to some nightclub. That just about does it for Kelly. She’s now mighty pissed off.

A skinhead with a tear tattoo below his eye comes up to me, Grace and Allyce with an A4 pink notebook in his hand. He stands there a while. Then he hands me his notebook, and tells me to read something from it. I find a page and start reading what seems like a poem, but is in fact lyrics for a song. Death and despair kind of stuff. He’s getting a band together, which so far consists of ‘Weller [as in Paul], and Noel and Liam [as in Oasis]’. He likes the line-up so far, but needs a backing singer and asks Grace if she’s interested. She says she is, but then she starts going on about some coat she wants to buy. The skinhead looks intense and crazy and tells us if we live in Manchester, Coventry or London, we’ve sold out, and if we wear suits, we’ve sold out. I notice his shoes; red, white and blue, and then he leaves us, telling us he’s always been a mod.

We decide to go to Soho for coffee but get lost on the way. Grace and I have only lived in London for twenty-seven years after all, so it’s down to Allyce to show us the way. She’s been here two weeks.

Grace had played the guitar and sung at the barbecue John had been at last week. John had liked Grace’s voice. It had moved him. I told Grace this and she lit up. ‘Tell me more’, she oozed. I told her as much as I could and she said she knew how to move people. ‘I like moving people’, she said, somewhat devilishly.

It’s raining lightly as we sit down under the canopy of a coffee shop and Grace orders us cappuccinos. A black raster busker starts talking to us, he sits down next to me and his guitar is out of tune so Grace tries to tune it but breaks it instead. The guy bitches about London people, the price of the yellow rickshaws, and stuff like that. Then he asks us for money, which we don’t give him, and he leaves, after winking at me.

Our cappuccinos arrive in paper cups. Next to us a group of European-looking young people are drinking their coffees in nice pastel-coloured mugs. Grace wonders why they get china and we get paper. I suggest it might be because they’re Europeans. The girl next to me says she’s not European. I ask her where she’s from and she says Milton Keynes. I say to Grace it may as well be Europe and she smirks, without humour. Allyce says nothing, and although beautiful, she is dull. Grace’s still complaining about the fiasco, the farce of the evening and says she can’t believe she’s in this cafe at midnight. The only time she’s usually here is at 6am. A farce.

Allyce goes home and Grace invites me back to her place in Tottenham. I say sure, having nothing else to do. It takes half an hour for a night bus to arrive. When it does it is packed and hot. It rushes past all the bus stops which are also packed with people but there’s no more room on the bus.

We get off at Finsbury Park, along Turnpike Lane, and a taxi to Grace’s.
Tottenham scares me. There’s police cars everywhere and a row of vans outside a council estate where people stand watching. The estate is cordoned off with yellow tape and I’m tense.

But Grace’s house is nice and the rent is cheap and that’s the only reason she stays in Tottenham. Her big black dog jumps up and greets us as we enter. I don’t like dogs and both Grace and the dog can tell. When I wake up in the morning the house is empty. I help myself to tea and leave. There’s a few bagel shops in the area and I get a cream cheese and salmon one.

(London, 1999)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Exit off Cannon Street

‘You’re a waster,’ he bellowed. I smiled, swallowed, looked the other way, thought of something else, someone else. I saw Laura, she was good enough, bad enough, right, wrong. Later I ate an apple and smoked a cigarette, like a newly discovered perfect combination. Tasted almost healthy.

(London, 1999)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Biloxi Blues

At night in a casino in Biloxi, Mississippi are two young men, one short and stocky, looking like a poor Orson Welles with a mad look in his eyes and a large mole on his neck. He’s wearing shorts, a white vest, with a striped short-sleeved shirt undone, and a baseball cap on the other way around. He takes off his 70s style sunglasses and surveys the domain. The other, tall and skinny, greased back straight hair, handsome as if a 70s porno star, black trousers and short sleeved shirt. Black Converse sneakers. There’s something wrong with one of his eyes. They walk around the tables slowly, the stocky one occasionally muttering something to the tall one and he just nods. They look like a pair of beautiful losers; geeky but cool. All the time looking suspiciously around them.

They enter the toilets to discuss their game strategy. They check the cubicles, making sure they’re all empty. When they come out with their plan sorted they lose all their money in less than thirty minutes.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Happy Birthday Trees

The first time I met Chloe she wouldn't let me leave until I memorized thirteen words of Korean. No, that's not strictly true. That was the second time I met her. The first time she was very drunk and she didn't remember when I told her about it the second time. So for her it was our first meeting, but for me, it was our second. I don't suppose it really matters.

I was sitting on a bench on the veranda of the Original Backpackers on Victoria Street in King's Cross, Sydney, one late Friday night. I was talking to an English girl. We had long run out of things to say to each other. We'd talked of cigarettes, the weather and other boring things I find myself only talking about with English people.

Then along comes a funny-looking Asian woman holding a huge teddy-bear. She comes along like a vision in a bright red bathrobe, stocky legs and pink fluffy slippers. She's from South Korea but for some reason prides herself on her large and round Mongolian-looking face with its small nose and mouth. I think she's just peachy. She asks me if she can lie on my lap and rest. I tell her she's welcome to, so she sits down on the bench and puts her head on my lap and is unconscious in a matter of seconds.

The second time we meet there's a touch more conversation. The night is cold and we're sitting outside in the courtyard of the backpackers. It's late, and everyone has gone to bed, except myself and Chloe. To make conversation, I ask her to teach me some Korean. She says she could, but I have to take it seriously.

Chloe was in Beijing for ten weeks and learnt fluent Mandarin. 'I had a good teacher,' she says. She says if I really want to learn Korean I have to practice every day. I assure her I will. And with that we start.

Ne Joha yo.
Ch'an don.
Myut, shi ip ni ka?
Kap ni ka?
Wae yo?
Otto kai hai?
Ke nyang.

It was fun and Chloe was a good teacher. By profession she is a maths teacher, and Ilanit (Israeli, beautiful, intelligent, I love her, and her birthday is on the same day as the Jewish birthday of the trees celebration. It took me weeks to pronounce her name properly, by which time she'd left) and I secretly know she is a genius. Most people don't like Chloe. Ilanit and I think she's just fabulous. In particular, the three English girls who share Chloe's dorm with her don't like her. Chloe is aware of this but doesn't care; she hates skinny bitchy English girls. I'm on Chloe's side.

(November 1996, Sydney, Australia)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


The sandwich girl is from Gisborne, New Zealand. This is the first time we’ve spoken: I’m muttering about logos, she gets a text message and exclaims, ‘My friends have just arrived in Thailand. They say it’s paradise.’
‘Paradise? What, Bangkok?’
‘No – they’re on an island now.’
As she’s leaving, I’m like, ‘So I guess you didn’t spend 2000 in Gisborne. Wasn't David Bowie there?’
‘There’s nothing in Gisborne – it’s all beaches, mountains... it’s boring.’
Me (sarcastic): ‘Yeah, it sounds boring!’
‘Well, I’m past all that. I’m on a higher plane.’
What? As a sandwich girl in South Wimbledon? I thought but didn't say it.

(Early 2000, South Wimbledon)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Proud to Serve

"You'd never find Satre in an English cafe for two reasons. A: No Satre. B: No cafes."
– George Steiner (quoted in The English by Jeremy Paxman)

In much of Europe, the States, North Africa and other places too, a waiter is a respectful job. Go to Paris, Portugal or New Orleans. Go to Barcelona and have some tapas with your Rosé (and not be called a poof). Being a waiter isn't an embarrassing job. You can meet people who have been waiters for forty years and they're proud and dignified. Here in England, the job of waiter or barman is largely seen as menial, and now, mostly, Polish. In England, the culture of binge-drinking in pubs followed by a kebab prevails. Other countries are so much more civilised – and life is on the street. Life in England is a series of frustrating boxes – home, work, pub, home.

In Tangier, Morocco, we had freshly grilled sardines (free) with every beer we ordered. Or even just some nuts. But it makes all the difference. For most of the world a drink and a meal go hand in hand. But not England. Drink as much as possible in a short a space as possible. Have a kebab afterwards. We're so uncivilised. The English eat to get full and drink to get drunk. Period.

Cafe society doesn't exist in England like it does in, say, Paris. There's no sitting around to watch the world go by – it's boring here, and besides, there's no time. We have a lot of coffee shops – but the word shop gives the game away. They're places to drink milky coffee as fast as possible and go. In Europe you could spend hours nursing a single espresso or glass of vino, discussing Dostoevsky or Steve Reich (say). In England, it's guzzle down that mucafuckachino as fast as possible to make your next PowerPoint(less) presentation.

Never admit to being an intellectual or artist in a pub (or anywhere, for that matter). I tried playing chess with a friend in a quiet Wiltshire town on a Sunday afternoon. We were (literally) chased out by stoned skinheads with grudges to bear. Yet I've played chess in cafes all over the world – Egypt, Spain, Bali, Sydney – where it seemed perfectly natural. The skinheads in the Wiltshire pub had never seen chess played in a pub before (this was one of their grudges).

I quite like the little cafe in Battersea Park, over-looking the boating pond. It's an Italian family run place, with the head waiter proud and jovial. Okay, the food isn't great and it's overpriced but it has a nice family atmosphere.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Start

There was nothing he could do. The room was shitty but he was stuck there for at least another two days, maybe even three or four. Five at tops. But after five he had a feeling he would go mad, maybe even die. He flinched and turned. A sound caught his eye. No, it was nothing. Just a moth.

6,000 miles away, she paused. She saw a butterfly and thought of him. Just like that. She hadn’t thought of him for weeks and now a butterfly settles on the beer bottle in front of her, and she thinks of him.

Where do they start? A grey day, a rainy day, or a sunny day? A sunny day, though it didn’t last. It turned grey, then it rained. She looked at him, then something caught her eye and she turned suddenly. Look, a squirrel, she said, and he said so what? She frowned and looked up. A cloud passed over the sun. They found a café, and then two cups of cappuccino. The cappuccinos smelt bad, he remembered that much. They both stirred for almost a minute, losing themselves in the rhythm of stirring, not even realising, then looked up at each other and laughed spontaneously. Then they smiled at each other, naturally and pleasantly. She took his hand and smiled, sweetly. He put his other hand over her hand, then it goes to her hair where it stays until she gently took it off. He can’t quite recall but thinks it’s then that she kisses him. They leave their cups almost full and walk. Another squirrel runs on by. It's raining. They stand under a tree, slightly wet. They kiss again. They share a cigarette and dream a million dreams, living a million lifetimes of a million lifestyles. He suddenly felt drained. She’s drained him. Her eyes looked hard, her pupils dilated as if she were on heroin, or in love.

They both have fond memories of the park, though both with different people. She remembers rowing with her best friend Laura, when they were children. He remembers his parents and the swans. Swans can kill you, he remembers his dad telling him one day. One whack of their wing and it’ll break your back. He didn’t believe something so beautiful could be so strong, or nasty.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Random Film Review: The Pelican Brief

Dir: Alan Pakula | 1993 | USA | 141 mins

In normal circumstances I’d say decidedly average but it must have been the mood I was in: I found it sublime. I didn’t want to see it at first. But when I saw it was directed by Alan Pakula I was curious, until I remembered Consenting Adults (dreadful).

But I saw it anyway and at its best it had shades of The Parallax View or All the President’s Men (both directed by Pakula in the 1970s, along with Klute, making him one of the key American directors of that decade). Written by John Grisham who penned The Firm, which I read (good) and then saw (good too), the plot and characters aren’t interesting or stimulating. There’s a lot of good actors not acting that good: Densel Washington, John Heard, Sam Shepherd and John Lithgow. A lot get killed but not the De Palma way, for this is a twelve certificate. But still it manages to be exciting and heart racing, without sex or violence.

I thought the music and images were beautiful. To me, the film was an abstract essay about: objects, buildings (insides mainly, the most beautiful shots recalling The Parallax View, but not as cold, just more complex), cars, light on cars (in car parks), the relationship of people to their environment (ie buildings).

The scene where the man in the baseball cap is killed and the crowd all run away, is unrealistic, abstract, surreal and beautiful with the camera situated overhead, miles away. The fast zooms and pans and sweeps work so well not just for technique sake, like a De Palma*, but for a feeling of paranoia, movement and surveillance. There’s so many long shots and close-ups.

It’s about having to be polite when you want to get some information.

It’s about Julia Robert’s magnificent facial expression when Sam Shepherd’s car blows up (“I don’t know what face to pull so I’ve come up with this one I don’t really understand,” she says to Pakula, and I’m speechless).

Julia Roberts hardly smiles her trademark smile until the end of the film. Magnificent!

* This must have been written around the same time as seeing Mrs Doubtfire and Carlito's Way, which was directed by Brian De Palma. I started off quite liking his films – I'd watched his early student films Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970), both featuring an unknown Robert De Niro, and quite liked De Palma's playful, experimental style. But by the time of De Palma's Dressed to Kill (1980), I found his Hitchcock homages hollow and his excessive camera movements made me dizzy. De Palma's work is definitely a case of style over substance.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Versions of Covers

Ever notice how an album cover stays the same no matter how many times it's re-printed or re-released but book covers seem to change every couple of years? Even classic books with iconic covers don't stand the test of time (Penguin books, in particular, seems to change many of theirs on a yearly basis. They even introduced a series with blank covers so you could design your own, above. They also sell their famous iconic book cover design – not actually used on books any more – on random objects including tea towels, deckchairs and tea cups). Book covers also change according to format (hardback to paperback) and country (American and British covers tend to be quite different).

But there seems to be something sacred (and international) about an album cover. Even when covers have changed format – from LP to cassette to CD, say – its design has stayed the same (with a very few exceptions). The song remains the same.

Perhaps music is more fundamentally tied to its cover than a book is. After all, writers have no opinion at all in what their book cover will look like, but generally musicians have a say in how their cover will appear. I guess I like to think an album cover reflects the music within somehow, but wouldn't necessarily say the same thing about a book (eg, don't judge a book by its cover).

(And, as noted in a Guardian blog I stumbled across after writing this (I promise!), album covers are referred to as artwork, whereas book covers are 'mere' designs. Maybe it's just a question of semantics.)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Tintin never went to Cambodia

We can never recapture the wide-eyed excitement, that pure innocent joy and wonder felt as children on Christmas morning, waking up at 6am to open presents, or trying to catch a glimpse of Santa. When we get older we encounter other excitements: sex, drugs, music, films and lots of other things besides which try to emulate that innocent wonderment again.

Travelling’s not a bad one to add to the list. As I go, I unwrap cities, foreign tongues and alien landscapes and almost feel like I am a little boy again, or like Tintin – invincible and fearless, without a care in the world.

There is a beautiful simplicity about travelling. Not the missed buses, the upset stomachs, the language difficulties, being ripped off or any of the trivial things. No, I mean the way of life. And it does become a way of life. One lives day by day, for the day, just as most of the natives do in the countries you're visiting (assuming you're travelling in developing countries). One has no diary, and no real plan. The furthest you can think ahead is a day. Of course it's a fantasy. Money, work and a place to live are of no concern. Hotels are cheap, money is cheap and in fact the only nagging feeling is this is not going to last forever, and it doesn’t.

A friend of a friend had sold everything he owned to go to India. He spent nine months there and when he returned to England, with nothing, he killed himself. That is rather an extreme example. But after travelling extensively, how can you ever be satisfied with what life has to offer at home? Just like in a movie or a soap opera, where a week of events in the characters lives is the equivalent of a year in our time, so it is with travelling. All television does is edit out the boring bits, and likewise it is with travelling.

It becomes a drug. Like being an alcoholic or a drug addict, once you start you find it hard to stop, and even if you do stop it will always be in your blood. It may destroy your life, leaving you rootless, lonely and troubled, with a lack of motivation and direction. Certainly there's no enlightenment or answer for us ‘out there’. Certainly it's not a better way of life, but maybe it's the only way of life.

And so it becomes like a 9-5 office job or smoking; it becomes a habit and a routine. You do it, but you're not sure why. You start to take travelling for granted, where seeing amazing temples, climbing mountains, exploring deserts all becomes commonplace – and even boring. It's not until you get back home that you realise what it was all about, hopefully. Then you have to put a little bit of it into your life at home and hopefully you've learnt something.

Thirty years ago it was the hippies who ‘found’ Ibiza, a poor little island off the coast of Spain. Then the developers took over. And the rest is history. The same happened with all those islands off Thailand – 'found' by hippies, ruined by big business and mass tourism. I feel like I've been to every place I've been to at least thirty years too late. San Francisco, New Orleans, Tijuana, Prague, Tangier, Bangkok, Paris. Even London. It's all over now. Now is the easiest and cheapest time to go travelling which also makes it the most boring. Everything’s been done, everywhere’s been seen, photographed, written about, and ruined. Everyone has been everywhere. Every inch of the globe has been mapped out.

Julian was telling me about his travels in the sixties and seventies. Afghanistan, Vietnam, Thailand, San Francisco. He was where it was at, when it was at. Time and place go hand in hand. I’ve been in the right places at the wrong times. Or like my aunt Sally going to Afghanistan in the 1970s. I mean how cool is that? You can’t go anywhere interesting now and survive. It's just not worth it.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Top 10 Greatest Missed Barngains

These are barngains I've either just missed by seconds, or have gone back later to buy and – surprise, surprise – found they've been bought, at car boot sales or charity shops in the last year or so.

1. Beatles White Album LP – £6
Oxfam, Trowbridge
Low stamp number means it could be worth £1000+.

2. 24 Boxed Sets Seasons 1-6 – £10 the lot
Crockerton Car Boot Sale, Wiltshire
At least £17 each new online. Season 1 was sealed.

3. Tina Print by JH Lynch (glass front and framed) – £5
Frome Car Boot Sale, Somerset
Sells for £50+ on eBay.

4. Sylvanian Families Tree House (boxed) – £10
Local Fete
Ridiculously expensive toy animals. House would cost at least £60.

5. 'Vintage' Playmobil Circus (boxed) – £5
Ashton Common Car Boot Sale
My daughter would have loved it.

6. Fat Mattress LP – £2
Local Charity Shop
Formed by Noel Redding (of the Jimi Hendrix Experience). £20+ on eBay

7. Flight of the Concords DVD – £3
Frome Car Boot Sale
Very funny.

8. Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls Print – £1
Bockett's Farm Car Boot Sale
Possibly not worth much, but a great poster.

9. Amon Duul II – Phallus Dei LP – £2
Local Charity Shop
Sells for around £20 on eBay.

10. Herzog's Nosferatu A1 Poster – £2
Bockett's Farm Car Boot Sale
Again, a great poster.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Multi-coloured Braces

A sixteen year-old beautiful Russian gypsy palm reader with multi-coloured braces on her teeth and big dark brown eyes which never stay still and they look crazy.

‘Do I look like a gypsy?’ She asks me.
I look her up and down. She’s wearing a tight black dress and black stockings. Her hair is straight and long and black and shiny.
‘You look too clean and smart,’ I say.
‘People don’t know. Gypsies are clean people.’
‘Is that right?’ I say. ‘Is it hard being a Russian gypsy in London?’
‘I hate London. I loathe it,’ she says with a passion.
I know what she means. She has dirty fingernails. All in black, and with her hair and eyes, I tell her she looks more like a witch than a gypsy.
‘I am also a witch,’ she says.
‘Oh yeah? A good or a bad one?’
‘I’m a bad witch.’
‘Why are you a bad witch?’
‘Because it’s more fun. I put curses on people.’

She reads my palms: she informs me I'm going to die before the age of thirty unless I change my way of life. I look at her palms after and they’re really lined, mad criss-cross patterns all over them. I ask her if she’s worked hard in her life; if they’re lines of work.
‘No, I’ve never worked. I’ve only read lots of books. Books about magic.’

She likes me because I’m nervous and a little scared of her. She doesn’t let me smoke and I say I need to because I’m scared of her.

Sometimes the only interesting person you meet at a Mexican-themed party in North London is a sixteen-year old Russian gypsy. We arranged to go on a date to see Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame but it never materialised.

(London, 1996)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

James Murphy: The Emperor's Old Clothes

James Murphy, aka LCD Soundsystem, can do no wrong. His third, and final album as LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening, has had great reviews. He's just done the soundtrack to hip indie flick Greenberg (see yesterday). He is, in the media's eye anyway, the epitome of cool. How this has come about, I'm not exactly sure. To me, he looks the epitome of average. This is an almost overweight middle-aged man who looks like his natural domain would be working in B&Q*. He's often to be seen in photo shoots wearing wacky/cool outifts, such as large white sunglasses with a mod-style suit. Sorry, he looks like an idiot in fancy dress.

*Other 'cool', 'sexy' famous people who chose the wrong career include: Justin Timberlake (true calling: McDonald's worker); Russell Crowe/Colin Farrell (true calling: dustmen); Colin Firth (true calling: accountant); Tom Cruise (true calling: motivational speaker); George Clooney (true calling: lawyer); Johnny Depp (true calling: bookshop assistant).

Monday, June 14, 2010

Sex and the City 2 Vs. Greenberg

Or: The Female Population Vs. The Film Critics. Sex and the City 2, released recently in the UK, has had the most atrocious reviews of any film in recent memory. Crass, embarrassing, tacky, ugly, racist, depressing – critics have really got their teeth into it (with Metacritic, which collates an average score from numerous magazines and newspaper reviews, rating it a 27 (out of 100) – one more than Garfield), and it hasn't mattered at all. Nothing, not even the Apocalypse, would have stopped Women Of A Certain Age flocking in their droves to see SATC2. I was at a cinema the other night (waiting to see Greenberg) and watched an endless parade of women in their 30s, dressed up as if going out in Manhattan (and not suburban Wimbledon), clutching strawberry daiquiris (yes, you can take alcohol into this cinema) ordered from the Sex and the City cocktail menu, go charging in to watch Carrie et al. SATC has become crass branding (even the acronym looks like an STD).

Coversely, Greenberg, the new mumblecore film from Noah Baumbach starring Ben Stiller, has had largely great reviews (76 on Metacritic). It's a sort-of comedy (maybe even a romcom), but with Stiller as an unlikeable, introvert, neurotic and possibly sightly crazy forty-something loser*. The humour is more Woody Allen than Greg Focker (or Carrie Bradshaw). In the States, popcorn-munching audiences started going to see it, and then promptly walked out mid-way. Then demanded a refund. It wasn't a usual Ben Stiller film. It wasn't funny. It wasn't gross-out. It was too depressing (delete as applicable). Audiences obviously hadn't done their homework and seen it was directed by Noah Baumbach, who made The Squid and the Whale, which although also funny, was somewhat neurotic, and dare I say it, intellectual, arty and indie.

So do professional critics, in this age of blogs and Amazon reviewers, have any sway any more? It would seem not. Now everyone's a critic, and everyone knows what they like (whether they like it or not), and whether it's good or not, doesn't matter at all. Just as long as it's fun.

(*There's a trend of lightweight actors attempting to expand their range and be taken seriously by taking 'daring' roles in films made by decent directors. The eternally over-rated Adam Sandler went arty in Punch-Drunk Love, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (audiences stayed away, though it may be the only half decent film he'll ever be in). Tom Cruise acted in Magnolia, also directed by Anderson, where Cruise shouted just as loud as he has in every film he's been in. Jim Carey gave an understated performance (for him) and possible career-best in The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir.

It's actually quite refreshing to hear Jake Gyllenhaal, star of indie cult hit Donnie Darko, express his wish to act in more lightweight films such as Prince of Persia: The Sand of Time. "I think it was about time I stopped taking myself so seriously", he says.)

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Random Film Review: Mrs Doubtfire

Dir: Chris Columbus | 1993 | USA | 125min

When we saw Carlito’s Way (1993) at the cinema, there was a man sitting in front of us who, when scenes of blood or guns or violence were on screen, would jump up, clap, laugh and generally froth at the mouth. I was so annoyed at him. I wanted to talk to him and ask him why such things turned him on. The film was meant to be exciting, but this guy was getting such a perverse kick out of the violence. He disgusted me. But my girlfriend restrained me talking to him, and said the man was mentally disturbed, and there was nothing I could do to help him. I wondered what happens to people's minds to make them the way they are.

Anyway, I saw Mrs Doubtfire last night and it was crap (there's really nothing more to say about it, but I will continue).

But I came out of the cinema wondering if there was something wrong with me. Everyone else in the cinema seemed to enjoy it: there was so much laughter that the dialogue could rarely be heard. A girl next to me and a man behind me had the loudest, most annoying laughs I’d ever heard. So what were they laughing at?

Surely not Robin Williams, one of the flatest, most insincere, hollow, unfunny, vain actors I’ve seen on the screen. Surely not the children, three of the most boring, annoying, ugly, flat, cliched brats to hit the screen. Why aren’t people sick to death of the sweet little girl who has all the cute one-liners and a sickly cute face and voice that makes you want to puke? The kids annoyed me so much.

Every time (and it was a lot of times) the camera showed their response to a person or comment it went: little girl first (easily convinced); the boy next (a little harder to convince); and finally the ‘young lady’ (hardest to convince).

Mrs Doubtfire is so middle class it’s disgusting. When Robin Williams has just moved into his new apartment after divorcing Sally Field, his place is a mess. So when his children visit and see his apartment, they are disappointed. Worse still, when they are given Chinese take-aways for dinner, they are disgusted. They think their dad is a loser, because his apartment is untidy and all he can rustle up is Chinese takeaway.

But then when dad cleans up his apartment and gets a job: he’s Mr Wonderful, he’s back on track, his life is sorted, everything is okay.

And when Mrs Doubtfire comes onto the scene, what is it that convinces the kids she’s okay? Dinner: that’s all they care about. And then, surprise surprise, cut to the little girl first: smile, then the boy: smile, then the ‘young lady’: reluctant at first, but finally a smile. How many times were these boring, obvious, contrived, mundane shots repeated? I don’t know, but a lot of times.

Isn’t it a pity when Robin Williams (I have to refer to him by his real name because I just saw him playing himself, just like in Good Morning Vietnam, this is another showcase for his unfunny talents. I hated the jump-cuts of him performing for the camera. I just don't find him funny) has to ship and stamp cans of film for a living. An actor of his calibre and talent doing manual work. Why is this looked down upon in the film? This is a film about money and success. What is it the kids miss about Mrs Doubtfire (when she leaves)? Her sense of humour, her warmth? No. It’s the food and the clean sheets.

No one in this film has a personality or is in the slightest bit interesting. It’s so sickly sentimental and cliched. I apologise for the bad review, it’s just because Mrs Doubtfire is so bad I just want to scream and shout, rather than deconstruct and analyse. I just hate what it’s saying.

And the audience laps it up. You’ll say to me it’s just entertainment, don’t look into it, don’t be a film student. Okay, but all things apart I didn’t even find it entertaining. Nauseating, yes. If I want entertainment I’ll go and get drunk and laid.

Upon leaving the cinema I felt like the last human survivor in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Everyone’s been brainwashed, or turned into idiots, and maybe I should laugh when everyone else does just to fit in and be normal. Otherwise people will know and they’ll start pointing at me, screaming, shouting ‘Get him! He’s a film student!’*

*Written as a pretentious film student, 1993. I don't feel so strongly about the film any more; I must be mellowing in old age.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Billy the Kid: right or wrong?

Judged by the only surviving picture of the outlaw Henry McCarty, aka Billy the Kid, it was always thought he was left-handed. Paul Newman played him left-handed in the 1958 film The Left-Handed Gun (though Kris Kristofferson played him right-handed in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in 1973). Then someone realised the photo was a negative, so they turned it round the right way and discovered he was right-handed. Then someone decided he was probably ambidextrous. So, you can be left and right and right and wrong at the same time, and have it both ways.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Numberjacks & Wordsmiths

Numberjacks is a pointless, stupid, annoying and somewhat confusing CBeebies kids programme that has highly-contrived numbers-gone-wrong situations which talking numbers with irritating voices and bulging eyes try to solve, such as: the number six vanishing off a dice (it's usually the fault of a blob of green slime). It's quite possible it has no educational value at all.

What's really needed is a words-based programme: I'm calling it Wordsmiths. What with teachers and parents being unable to read, spell, write or use grammar correctly, it's hardly surprising our children can't either. Companies spend millions on advertising... and still have atrocious apostrophes (or lack of), such as Selfridge's recent press campaign: 'Lets Shop Online!' Likewise, CDs and DVDs, even on music websites, are usually listed as CD's and DVD's. There are millions of examples turning us into a nation of illiterate idiots.

Wordsmiths would address the problem by hunting down and weeding out the bad spelling, punctuation and grammar in the country. Visiting schools, offices, advertising agencies, government agencies, shops and greengrocer stalls – in short, anywhere notorious for bad spelling and grammar, our team of cuddly letters and punctuation, armed with dictionaries, pens, spray paint and assorted weapons, will forcibly correct any offending spelling and grammar irregularities.

Just for the hell of it, let's also have a Comic Sans Exterminator who burns all examples of the font Comic Sans.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Top 10 Rod Stewart Albums

God, and I thought compiling my top ten Billy Joel albums was tough. This is really impossible (without resorting to Greatest Hits or his work with the Faces). Rod hasn't made a decent album since 1976 (it's tempting to fantasise about, say, Rick Rubin producing a last, great album for him... apparently Elvis Costello has offered to produce one. He declined. Apparently The Faces asked him to join them for a reunion. He declined. The BBC wanted to use his Handbags and Gladrags for the theme tune to the Office. He declined – Stereophonics did a version of it instead. Will he ever do what's good for him?). And yet. What a voice! He's a great singer (he was also a great songwriter and a great interpreter of other singer's songs). My favourite vocalists – Dylan, Cohen, Young, Reed, Waits – quite possibly can't actually sing at all. But Rod can (or could) sing. That gritty, raspy voice, tender yet raw, honest and heartfelt yet almost throwaway. He. Can. Sing.

I'm not going to go on about how he's sold out/become an embarrassment. For better or worse (yes, I know: worse) he's always gone his own way and done his own thing: for that he should be applauded.

1. Every Picture Tells A Story (1971)
2. Gasoline Alley (1970)
3. Never A Dull Moment (1972)
4. The Rod Stewart Album (1969)
5. Atlantic Crossing (1975)
6. A Night on The Town (1976)
7. Storyteller: The Complete Anthology (1989)
8. A Nod is as Good as a Wink... to a Blind Horse (1971, Faces)
9. Five Guys Walk Into A Bar... (2004, Faces compilation)
10. Unplugged... And Seated (1993)

Rod Stewart is currently on tour. Even The Guardian gave him a not-all-bad review.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Random Film Review: Written on the Wind

Dir: Douglas Sirk | 1956 | USA | 99min

The leaves blow into the house like in a Paul Delvaux painting or a fairytale. The fights are bloodless but brutal, staged and poetic like in Bigger than Life. The oil rigs are menacing.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Top 10 Salisbury Charity Shops

Please note: I very rarely buy anything other than CDs, records, books, videos and DVDs in charity shops so this is a pretty subjective list which largely ignores clothes, bric-a-brac and jigsaws. Sorry.

1. Oxfam Books & Music
It would be number one: I work there. Aside from that, a good selection of, er, books, music and films. Slightly over-priced CDs, cheap records. Did I mention the great staff?
Barngain: Rolling Stones Rolled Gold 2CD Set, £2.99

2. Barnado's
A surprisingly good branch. Spacious and reasonable priced.
Barngain: Black Uhuru Liberation: The Island Anthology 2CD Set, £2.99

3. Oxfam
Handily located next door to Oxfam Books & Music.

4. British Heart Foundation
Average. Lots of videos.
Barngain: M83 Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts, £1.99

5. The Hospice Shop
Narrow but long, pretty cheap; CDs £1

6. British Red Cross
A recent 'makeover' means there's not much in there at all now.
Barngain: Blue Brothers OST CD, £1

7. Cancer Research
Quite small and not very interesting. Another dreaded makeover.
Barngain: Peppa Pig Train Set, as new, £2

8. Dogs Trust
Seems to specialise in, er, stuff for dogs. Nevertheless, quite good, cheap, if a bit twee.

9. Sue Ryder
A bit smelly.
Barngain: X-Ray Spex Let's Submerge: Anthology 2CD Set, £1

10. Scope
A bit dark and smelly for my liking. Poor book, DVD and CD selection. Never made a purchase.


Below the Fold: South Wilts Mencap
Most charity shops seem to be going through a makeover nowadays, which usually translates as more space and light (and hiked up prices), but less stuff. If you like your charity shop full of crap, like I sometimes do, this is your place. Unfortunately it looks and smells like a dead old person's jumble sale. I've only been in once; I'm too scared to go in again.

March 2011 Update
There's a new charity shop in town: a YMCA across the road from the British Red Cross shop. It seems pretty good. And Barnado's has had a makeover.

December 2011 Update
The YMCA has gone already. But a few doors down from the regular Barnado's is a new Children's Barnado's. It looks good.

2013 Update
It's difficult keeping up to date with all the charity shops opening and closing in Salisbury. Along from the Dogs Trust on the other side of the road (near the bridge) is a shiny, spacious Children's Society. On the corner of the High Street (if you're heading towards the cathedral) is the Trussel Trust which feels like a boutique with prices to match. Mainly clothes with some bric-a-brac. Opposite the Barnado's for children is one called Alabare (which I haven't been in).

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Electric Ladylands

Top: the original and controversial Electric Ladyland (1968) cover that Hendrix never liked; above, left: The re-released (and now standard) PC version; above, right: the photo, taken by Linda Eastman (who would become Mrs Paul McCartney the following year) of the band and children on an Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, New York, that Hendrix wanted to be the original cover. He never got his wish.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Robert Frank's Ridiculous Ratios

Jack Kerouac writes about Robert Frank in his introduction to The Americans, 'You got eyes'. As much as I love and admire Frank's seminal book of photos and appreciate its influence as an examination of postwar America (it was shocking on its release), I was just reading how Frank took some 28,000 photos in a two-year trip across the States. 83 photos got selected. What a nightmare editing job!

To me this seems a ridiculous ratio. That's one decent photo every 337. The average ratio for a photo journalist (in the old days) was one good picture per roll (36 photos).

But one every 337 – that's ridiculous. Anyone could do that. I could do that. A blind person could do that. Give a 4-year old a camera and you'll guarantee at least one every 337 photos will be great.

Still, at least it was before digital photography – with film you had to think a bit more about a shot as each one was costing money. Nowadays, most people going away for a week in Spain seem to come back with about 28,000 photos – with possibly somewhat less than 83 decent ones.

What we've learnt in the last week: we're still not allowed to watch Cocksucker Blues without being in the same room as Robert Frank.