Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Top ten films featuring photographers

1. Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1956)
2. Blow Up (Antonioni, 1966)
3. Salvador (Stone, 1986)
4. High Art (Cholodenko, 1998)
5. Uzak, pictured above (Ceylan, 2002)
6. Momento (Nolan, 2000)
7. Proof (Moorhouse, 1991)
8. One Hour Photo (Romanek, 2002)
9. City of God (Meirelles, 2002)
10. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Stiller, 2013)

See also:
The Bridges of Madison County (Eastwood, 1995)
Kodachrome (Raso, 2017) 

Previously on Barnflakes:
Top ten photographers

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

I know I'm back in Brixton when...

I'm standing outside the pub for five minutes having a smoke and get offered a carrier bag full of steaks for £10; home-produced music CDs with hand written labels; three people trying to bum cigarettes off me; an elderly, well-spoken old lady asking for 40p to get back to Slough ("You'd have to pay me not to go", quipped my Catalan – "not Spanish!" – companion; and an elderly black woman asking me if I'm having a good evening.

I was actually rather offended not to be offered any drugs. When I was younger, I was constantly being offered them down Cold Harbour Lane. Either Brixton has become too gentrified and the drug dealers have moved away, or I'm just looking too old to score drugs. Maybe a bit of both.

Previously on Barnflakes:

Monday, April 23, 2018

Random Netflix TV Reviews

Lost in Space
Many years ago my brother and I used to watch the original black and white TV series from the 1960s and find the professor, Dr. Zachary Smith, very amusing. Then there was the dull, forgettable 1998 film with William Hurt, Matt LeBlanc and Gary Oldman. Now comes – and I feel like I've been bombarded with ads about it online, on the radio, in print and on billboards – the Netflix 2018 reboot. And you know what? It's so bad it's unwatchable. We couldn't get through episode two.
– 1/5
Stranger Things
What's so risible about Charlie Kessler suing the Doobie Brothers, I mean the Dust Brothers, no – I mean the Duffer Brothers for plagiarising his idea for Stranger Things is that's there's not more people doing the same thing. Such as John Carpenter, Steven King and Steven Spielberg (and that's just for the credit sequence!). Oh, I get it – it's a homage, not a rip off. Nevertheless, if you're of a certain age, i.e. you were a child of the 1970s/80s, it's hard not to feel like you've seen Stranger Things many times before, from the typeface of the titles, to the music, the characters and the plot. I'm thinking, like, The Goonies, Stand by Me, E.T., Carrie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Indiana Jones, The Evil Dead, Poltergeist and even Pretty in Pink, to name just a few (here's an entire A-Z of films referenced in the series). It's not even just films from that era: I thought the sequences where Eleven ('El') goes into the black 'void' were uncannily similar to scenes from Jonathan Glazer's extraordinary Under the Skin (2013).

Now, I don't mind film or TV directors being influenced by previous films or filmmakers: from the French New Wave directors affection for Hitchcock and Hawks, to the ultimate film geek Quentin Tarentino being influenced by, erm, virtually all cinema, there's a fine tradition of directors wearing their influences on their sleeves; doffing their caps, if you will. But when every frame of the series is a mash-up of Spielberg, Carpenter, De Palma, John Hughes et al, and drenched in clichéd, retro nostalgia for the 1980s, it's quite hard to take anything else from it.

It's like the difference between recent films Super 8 (2011) and It Follows (2014). Like with Stranger Things, Super 8 is set in the same period (1979 to be exact), is a mash up between films such as The Goonies, Stand By Me and E.T., but adds absolutely nothing to them or the genre. On the other hand, It Follows, whilst quite obviously influenced by John Carpenter, only takes his films as a starting point, and ends up with something stunningly original, and terrifying. Another 1980s-set film, Donnie Darko (2011), uses the trope of the American high school and music of the time, but to original effect, exploring diverse themes such as time travel and mental illness.

If you're a child, however, watching Stranger Things for the first time and thinking it's great, scary and original, that's fine. But if the first time you hear The Clash, Joy Division or New Order is on the soundtrack, I don't know, there's something wrong about that (Guardians of the Galaxy is another one retreading old retro ground with a mixtape of 1970s songs – featured previously in other films such as Reservoir Dogs and Boogie Nights – and storylines out of Star Wars). It's like – and this is just a shot-in-the-dark theory – they're purposely trying to hook in both children and adults alike. Nothing wrong with that of course, but it's the clichéd, unoriginal, cynical way they go about it that gets my goat.
– 3/5

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Recent Barngains

Bookbinding: The Complete Guide to Folding, Sewing & Binding by Franziska Morlok and Miriam Waszelewski
Crystal Palace charity shop, £3, sealed (RRP: £30)
'Bookbinding is a unique and essential reference guide for designers, explaining industrial bookbinding techniques with a focus on the design and conception of print products', so says the Amazon blurb. It also says the book isn't actually released for another week or so.

The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog, typeface memory game
Sydenham charity shop, £2 (RRP: £13.95)
Yes, I know how to have fun.

Read This if You Want to Take Great Photographs 
by Henry Carroll
Clapham Junction charity shop, 50p (RRP: £8)
Handy, simply-explained guide for taking photos using an DSLR, something I've never quite mastered.

The BARNGAINS page of this blog (just below the masthead at the top of the page) has had a recent, much-needed redesign and update, and now contains a list of select barngains from 2007 to the present day.

Previously on Barnflakes:
London Through Its Charity Shops

Monday, April 16, 2018

We're all pretentious now

There was a time, many years ago, when we'd laugh and scoff at pretentious descriptions of wine that contained, say, 'aromas of rich dark currants, nectarine skins, gushing blackberry, but lots of fragrant tobacco, rich soil, white flowers, smashed minerals and metal' (actual review). Now that such descriptions are commonplace, meaningless and we ignore them completely, other products have got on the bandwagon. Nothing can be just what it is any more – it has to stand for something else, something more, something usually pretentious.

Coffee is the new wine. My pack of Taylors of Harrogate ground coffee, Rare Blossom Ethiopia, is a 'dazzling riot of honeysuckle, mango, blossom, whisky and spice' (what, no 'echoes of a Bach fugue in the background'?). It's been some years since I've been able to go into a coffee shop and ask for something as simple as a white coffee (it doesn't seem to exist any more); it would be easier asking for an Austrian goat milk double-half-caf-half-decaf-soy milk cappuccino – extra hot – with a dash of Madagascar cinnamon and half a tablespoon of caramel-latte-frappa-mocha.

A list of 'guest beans' on a coffee shop menu (handwritten chalk on blackboard, obvs) includes those from Brazil, Papua New Guinea, Guatemala, Colombia and 'Coeur D'Afrique' (a place or a state of mind? The name evokes Conrad's anti-imperialist Hearts of Darkness, set in the Congo; despite being a slightly dangerous place to hunt for speciality beans right now, the Democratic Republic of Congo is the 'future of coffee', according to the NY Times. The aforementioned Coeur D'Afrique bean contains huckleberry, violet and sugar cane, but might as well also give off a whiff of, say, earth freshly dug up by Fairtrade slaves). The list of exotic (yet poor, obvs) countries conjures up colonial images of seventeenth century explorers returning from the New World with plundered treasures such as gold, tobacco, spices, chocolate and, indeed, coffee.

If coffee is the new wine, chocolate is the new coffee. In the 1980s, Ferrero Rossier and After Eights were the ultimate pretentious chocolate but that's nothing compared to the new breed of brands where 'lemon, poppy seed and baobab' is an actual flavour. Chocolate from Ecuador is apparently 'flowery and fruity'; from Madagascar it's 'intense red fruit with cherry notes', whilst Southeast Asia has 'smoky and earthy flavors'.

(When it comes to hot beverages and chocolate, sorry, but I'm so happy with a Sainsbury's Red Label cup of tea and regular Kit Kat I can't even put it into words.)

If products such as wine and perfume were the precursors of this pretentious parade, nowadays many other once-average and taken-for-granted items such as coffee, chocolate, craft beer, vinyl records and bikes are revitalised as specialised and authentic, artisan products with the intention of making the buying public feel like connoisseurs. Niche has become mainstream. I mainly blame advertising and hipsters.

What's the next product to get the pretentious treatment? Speciality industrial-strength bleach sourced from uranium mines in Namibia? With shades of deadly nightshade, aromas of Agent Orange and the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now in the distance...

Previously on Barnflakes:
The agony of choice
Now serving flat white
Not for all the tea in China
Proud to serve

Sunday, April 15, 2018

In St Pancras Old Churchyard

Supposedly one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in Europe, dating back to the fourth century, St Pancras Old Church is located five minutes away from St Pancras train station in Somers Town on Pancras Road. The churchyard is a curious place, part park and dotted with ancient trees and interesting tombs with fascinating stories.

The most striking aspect of the churchyard is the famous Hardy tree (pictured, top) – named after the Wessex writer Thomas Hardy – where hundreds of gravestones are piled around an ash tree in a circular pattern with the tree roots intertwined around them. As a young man, Hardy trained as an architect in London, and one of his unenviable tasks was to dig up and relocate body remains in the churchyard to Finchley to make way for the expansion of St Pancras train station. With the remaining gravestones, the young Hardy made a rather artful arrangement of them around a tree in the churchyard.

Also in the churchyard is architect Sir John Soane's mausoleum (pictured, bottom) for himself and his wife, Eliza, who died, according to Soane, after the shock of discovering their son's negative reviews of his father's work. Soane never forgave his son, and never got over the death of his wife. If the design of the tomb looks familiar, that's because it was supposedly the inspiration for architect Giles Gilbert Scott's iconic red phone box.

Though her body has been moved (to Bournemouth), the tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, remains. When her daughter, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, was planning an elopement with poet Percy Shelley, they used to meet at night to discuss their plans at her mother's grave.

Charles Dickens used to wander around the churchyard, and it's mentioned in A Tale of Two Cities. It also features on William Blake's mythical map of London. Somewhat later, in 1968, The Beatles posed for publicity photos in the porch of the church whilst promoting their White Album.

Previously on Barnflakes:
William Blake's vision of angels in Peckham
Notes on Gilbert George Scott

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Random Animal Animated Film Reviews: Paddington 2 and Isle of Dogs

Paddington 2
Dir: Paul King | UK | 2017 | 103mins.

Paddington 2 has had the best reviews of any film ever. It's had a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes (their highest ever), five stars in all the papers including the Guardian, with even the usual cynical and sarcastic comments section reduced to mushy praise of the film.

I thought it was dire, natch. Reuniting two of the cast members of the equally offensive Notting Hill – Hugh Grant and Hugh Bonneville, whilst tossing in other TV-friendly actors such as Peter Capaldi, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent and Joanna Lumley – and also being set in Notting Hill, it has the feel of a Richard Curtis film; it peddles a vision of London full of nostalgia (which presumably never existed) and friendly neighbours. The one good scene – a fun choreographed dance number in a prison with Hugh Grant – is unfortunately not revealed until over the end credits. A recent Guardian article compares Paddington 2 to the films of Wes Anderson. I can't quite see it myself.

– 1/5 

Isle of Dogs
Dir: Wes Anderson | USA | 2018 | 101mins.

First things first: Isle of Dogs is not set in London's East End, but 'twenty years in the future' (from when?) in Japan. I wasn't that bothered about the film until I queued for an hour in the rain (listening to the young Brazilians behind me, talking of being first ADs on the latest Spielberg film) with my daughter to see a wonderful exhibition of the original film sets and puppets. My daughter, aged 11, definitely hadn't wanted to see Paddington 2, and I had to physically drag her to see Isle of Dogs.

It was well worth it, both charming and moving* – more emotional, in fact, that Wes Anderson's live action films. Anderson is everywhere right now (and perhaps always has been), as the Guardian will be the first to tell us. All of Instagram is a tribute to the filmmaker's formal and colourful compositions, with Accidentally Wes Anderson being the most obvious paean (helpfully, pretty much anything can be Accidentally Wes Anderson – phone box, park, train station, hotel, lighthouse).

Wes Anderson making films is like a baby boy playing with his posh dolls house in the attic of his parent's house. Apparently the epitome of an American auteur, he makes what films he wants on his own terms within the Hollywood system, casting which actors he wants (usually Bill Murray and Owen Wilson but also the likes of Bruce Willis and Harvey Keitel). But actors are like pawns in his game. I don't mind deadpan acting – in the films of Aki Kaurismaki and Yorgos Lanthimos, for example, it's used to great effect. But compare the emotional intensity of Killing of a Sacred Deer to, say, the lack of any emotion in Moonlight Kingdom.

It seems – though not on purpose – that I've seen all the films of Wes Anderson. I also come to own three of the soundtracks to his films on CD. But I'm not his biggest fan (my favourite would probably be The Grand Budapest Hotel, a souffle of a movie, mainly due to Ralph Fiennes' performance). His formality and quirkiness, his contrived fastidiousness (reminding me slightly of Kubrick), those flat, symmetrical compositions – all leave me cold, and usually bored. Wes Anderson is the success of form over content.

The techniques that he's used in his live action films – those flat compositions, those 'overhead tableaux' shots – but mainly the complete control he obviously craves from every frame of a film, means animation is probably his forte (or adverts). Though he's only made two – Fantastic Mr Fox along with Isle of Dogs – with those he's able to control every element of the production, from the weather to the actors.


*I know, I know, I feel your frustration. You came here looking for a proper film review, only to get half a dozen bland words about the actual film.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Three recent coincidences

1. R had been telling me about Unit Editions, ‘a progressive publishing venture producing high-quality, affordable books on graphic design and visual culture’, that I’d never heard of, the day before. The next evening R popped round the flat (a rare occurrence btw, being allergic to my cat, Casper). A parcel was waiting for me in the doorway. I opened it up and it was a beautiful book called Letraset: The DIY Typography Revolution (with ‘free’ poster), published by, yup, you guessed it, Unit Editions and costing £55 (I must take umbrage at the ‘affordable’ claim in their blurb). I hadn’t ordered it; it was sent by an old friend I hadn’t heard from for years, completely out of the blue. He thought I’d like it.

2. S and I were sipping our Greggs coffees on a bench behind a church in Greenwich. We were talking about Krautrock, Can and Stockhausen, then onto atonality and minimalism; then came Carrie and Brian de Palma, followed by Dario Argento and Italian giallo films which led on to Peter Strickland via Berberian Sound Studio and the Duke of Burgundy, then vampire films and finally, somehow, the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Fear Eats the Soul is one of my favourite films, ever). Five minutes later we were strolling around the secondhand market across the road, and S spotted a DVD box set of Fassbinder films. What are the chances? S didn’t want it, so I snapped it up immediately. 9 Fassbinder films! For £5! Barngain.

3. I was moaning on the phone to H about many things, including this very blog. 12 years I’ve been writing it, I said, and virtually no comments, no feedback, nothing in return (I blame social media for the death of blogs). Why do I bother writing it, I asked her. She didn’t know. I didn’t know. Anyway, just as I said no one ever leaves a comment, I was checking my emails and a notification came up that C (for Caspar; different spelling to my cat, so, no, they're not one and the same) had left a comment on a recent post. Faith in mankind was temporarily restored.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Myanmar days

I went to college with two students who changed their names. One changed both his first name and surname, and his whole image – from clothes to hair colour. Of course it's common for celebrities to change their name... Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan, Reginald Kenneth Dwight became Elton John, Maurice Joseph Micklewhite became Michael Caine (not a lot of people know that), Lana Del Rey is actually Elizabeth Woolridge Grant.

Countries and cities also change name, usually for political reasons. From Ceylon to Sri Lanka, Persia to Iran, Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, Abyssinia to Ethiopia. Burma became Myanmar (pronounced 'me an ma') in 1989. The government also changed many of its city's names, as well as the location of its capital. So Irrawaddy became Aveyawady, Pegu became Bago and Rangoon (which ironically translates as 'end of strife') became Yangon. Yangon was the former capital; Myanmar's capital city has changed about thirty times in the last thousand years. The latest capital, Naypyitaw, is a very new city indeed; construction didn't start on it until 2002. Which all makes for much confusion. 

(I imagined a businessman at the time of the changes having a meeting in the capital only to discover it's changed location; or a government official, not being told of the changes, going to work on a Monday morning to discover he's in the wrong city; or a tourist asking for a ticket to Rangoon only to be told it doesn't exist any more. Can you imagine if the capital of the UK suddenly upsticked from London to Bath, or Birmingham?)

Coming out of Yangon airport I was immediately hit with the unmistakable sensation of being back in Asia. It was a nice feeling – the heat, the smells, the bustle, the poverty, the temples. It was 6am and the sun was rising, birds were chirping. It was already hot. My last visit to SE Asia had been... disastrous (see my book Gullible Travels) so I was a tad apprehensive, mainly about the heat and the food, neither of which had agreed with me last time (fifteen years ago).

The traffic and pollution in Yangon was horrendous. H had been working in the country a few weeks; I was driven to her hotel, picked her up, then we were driven to the Golden Rock by a driver plus an "English speaking" guide. This would be our routine for the entire holiday – picked up at airports (there was a lot of internal flights), then chauffeur driven around with a guide (at one point two guides and a driver).

H had organised the entire trip for us. Every inch of the way. The only thing missing, which I'm glad I insisted on, even though it wasn't on the itinerary and would involve going there as soon as I got off the plane, was the Golden Rock at Kyaiktiyo pagoda – one of two dreamlike, mythical images of Myanmar etched in my mind; I'd probably first seen them in National Geographic magazine over twenty years ago – the other being the pagoda at Mingun with the huge crack running down the middle (both pictured, above).

The gravity-defying large golden rock (the pagoda is on top of it), perched on the edge of a cliff and the huge crack in the pagoda caused by an earthquake (symbolising to me the folly of man and the destruction of a kingdom) were impossible, beautiful and surreal images so alien and exotic I never imagined seeing them with my own eyes.

The Kyaiktiyo pagoda, the third most important pilgrimage site in Myanmar, was a beautiful and relaxing place to hang out in. We watched families picnicking and monks praying; in particular we were charmed by the 'pink nuns' – girls with shaven heads wearing their pink robes. Everyone seemed happy and relaxed; it was hard to imagine Myanmar being a country cut-off from the west for decades, ruled with an iron fist by a military dictatorship. Though Myanmar was finally opening up to tourism, in other parts of the country systematic genocide was taking place against the stateless Rohingya Muslims, many of whom were fleeing the country into Bangladesh.

I bought some gold leaf and pasted it onto the rock along with other men (women weren't allowed). It felt quite a profound and spiritual task, being part of a process that thousands had done over hundreds of years. I'd forgotten what it was like to be in a Buddhist country – Buddha statues, temples and stupas were everywhere we went. So it was a surprise the next day stumbling across a small Hindu temple in the countryside next to a small lake. further along in the fields were Monet-style haystacks. We went off-piste and were invited in for tea in a little hut by some rice fields. Everywhere we went – both of us tall and pasty white – people would take photos or ask us to pose for a photo with them. They'd giggle and stare and made us feel like movie stars.

Our favourite meal was in the Bago region where our driver stopped at some roadside stalls of dried fish. We crossed a wooden bridge over a river into a village which obviously didn't get a lot of tourists – we were stared at wherever we went and invited to lunch in the courtyard where they were preparing for a festival. We were handed plates which were filled with rice and soup. It was delicious and though obviously a poor village, they wouldn't accept any payment for lunch. Well, we were the entertainment after all: even though conversation was rudimentary, the locals found us fascinating and took more photos of us than we did of them.

Also in the Bago region we visited a village with a small snake monastery – that was fine; a monk had a dream that the snake now in the monastery was the reincarnation of a Burmese spirit (nat). (We were used to seeing such things – the Buddha's toenail is buried under a pagoda; next to a temple, the shape of a tree root is the Buddha's big toe.) No, what got me was the village itself. What should have been a pleasant country village (we'd seen plenty) stank, quite literally, of poverty. The village lake was filled with plastic bags and bottles, which children collected for money. There was no running water. Heaps of rubbish (mostly plastic) were everywhere (if I ever won the lottery, I wouldn't go for yachts or fancy houses, I'd like to think I'd try and sort out shit like this). Religion, huh? All the gold temples, pagodas, stupas and Buddhas we'd seen were immaculate. They all had stacks of offerings: money, flowers, gifts. Yet the surrounding area was invariably poor and filthy. Obviously it's not just Buddhism. All over the world I've seen the same thing.

It was sometimes nice getting away from the big tourist sites; at the Golden Rock there had been hardly any tourists but in Bagan, ancient city of a thousand temples, there were plenty. Yet wandering around the old city felt like being Indiana Jones; we'd stumble across over-grown temples wherever we looked in the dusty and tree-lined plain. Walking is one way to do the 26-square mile area of temples and pagodas; there are also bikes, hot air balloons (too expensive for us), taxis and coaches. At the main temples, children would follow us around, trying to sell us souvenirs and books. Burmese Days? I've read it. How about The Glass Palace? I've read that too. Okay mister, you buy From the Land of Green Ghosts? Haven't read it, but don't want to.

In the evening, hundreds of tourists would climb the temples (an activity now banned) for amazing views over the hazy landscape of temples and trees to catch the magical sunset. Any notion of it actually being a magical or romantic moment was unfortunately ruined by all the tourists (I know, I know, we were also tourists) and a thousand phones and cameras going off at once to capture the event. And sunsets are over-rated (which I've mentioned a few times in the past).

Disasters have long plagued Myanmar – earthquakes have destroyed temples; fires have ruined cities, including Mandalay, which I romantically imagined to be wooden shacks and bicycles but has been rebuilt – largely by the huge influx of Chinese – into a bland, modern city. Kipling would turn in his grave. Luckily, there's other stuff to see around the city: Mandalay Hill and Palace; loads of temples and pagodas, including Kuthodaw (which contains 729 stupas and is regarded as the world's largest book), the Shwenandaw Monastery (beautiful 19th century wooden building) and the aforementioned Mingun Pahtodawgyi, my mythical incomplete (on purpose) and cracked (by earthquake) monument stupa. We chartered a large boat, just the two of us, to see this, sitting on deckchairs on deck, sipping on Sprites and eating nuts, to travel the 10km along the river from Mandalay. This, perhaps, felt like the biggest extravagance of the trip; other boats the same size contained about thirty tourists.

It was around this time we first encountered The Pest. After seeing him once, we saw him everywhere. There was a daily ceremony at a monastery where loads of young monks would wait in line for breakfast. It was a visual feast with hundreds of crimson robes lined up with their bowls. The Pest was a Japanese tourist dressed like a fisherman or photographer (there's a fine line – pardon the pun – between the two: geeky body warmer with lots of pockets, combat trousers with lots of pockets, stupid hat... but the Nikon camera costing the GNP of a typical Burmese village gave the game away).

We speculated that he worked for National Geographic. And this is how he got his good shots – by being a pest. He walked in front of everyone. He ordered monks around. He took about a hundred photos a minute. He was everywhere all the time, taking photos and annoying everyone.

We went on to the iconic U Bein Bridge, in time for the iconic sunset, naturally. Over 1km long and built in 1850, the teakwood bridge is believed to be the longest and oldest of its kind in the world. Next there was Inlay Lake, a beautiful, serene expanse of water with fishermen, marshes, floating gardens and houses on stilts. There were two types of fishermen there: one type who actually fish, and the other who pose for tourists for $1 (these are the fishermen one sees in all the guidebooks).

Amazingly, this time in Asia, the heat and food had been fine. The December heat wasn't overwhelming, and we'd eaten a lot of vegetables and noodles (every day in fact). We'd drunk green tea, Sprites and Cokes, and the occasional latte when we could. In fact, the only time I got a dodgy tummy was, typically, the only day there were no toilets around: we were on a boat all day on the lake. H had bought a small bottle of lethal Mandalay rum the night before (for about 70p) and we drank some with Coke. I warned her against it – I'd had Mekong whisky in Thailand and suffered the consequences, which were severe – but she didn't listen and didn't admit the alcohol was the cause of my stomach troubles until the following day – when she'd had some rum again the night before (and I hadn't). I was fine the next day, H had the upset stomach. We poured the rest of the rum down the sink.

There had been horse and cart rides, boat trips, planes, taxis, gigantic Buddha statues, temples, pagodas, stupas, caves. It was non-stop for over a week. From dawn to dusk. And then there was Ngapali beach, voted the best beach in Asia, for a few days of R&R. It was Christmas after all. We got cocktails and mingled at the bar. No, we didn't actually – one reason being there was hardly anyone around. No, mingle at bar was how we remembered saying 'Hello' in Burmese: min-ga-la-ba.

The beach was beautiful, with golden sand, warm water and huge shells washed up on the shore. We weren't really beach people, but made an exception this time. It was paradise. The restaurant shacks on the beach served me chunky tuna steaks cooked on the barbie with rice and avocado salad. Washed down with a glass of watermelon juice, the total cost was about $3 (about the same price as a latte, when we could find one). Christmas Day is all about context: out here, we didn't really think about it. The hotels had half-hearted Christmas trees and lights in their lobbies but it wasn't convincing.

I didn't see any tourists going as far as the working part of the beach, about half a mile away from the hotels, where the local fishermen and women did their thing, but I loved it there, despite stepping on hundreds of discarded fish heads, the best and biggest shells were to be found there, amongst the nets and anchors. The men did the fishing and the women did the sorting and dying of the fish. Presumably the same way they'd had done it 500 years ago.

We returned to Yangon and had a day seeing the sights. I was keen to see any remains of colonial architecture, and there was plenty of it, crumbling away gracefully. Lunch was awful, at this tourist trap of a restaurant with a garden setting. You know what? It was probably okay but I'd had it with our English speaking guides, most of whom couldn't speak English that well at all, and definitely couldn't answer any questions if they went off-script. We usually tried explaining that we only wanted to eat in local places, not horrible tourist restaurants. The food was usually better, and cheaper, in a local place, and, you know, we did want to see how the locals lived, not be surrounded by other tourists all the time. I was trying to avoid and ignore our guides half the time. They'd drone on about the history of a temple which we would have forget instantly if we could even understand their English.

So, all this time – apart from the beach – we had a guide and a driver, and they were different each place we went. The driver's were usually fine – they'd just drive. But there was this one driver H really didn't like the look of. He was a bulky, shaven headed thug, but I didn't mind him all that much. But H couldn't stand him, his arrogance. She said he looked ex-military and had a nasty look about him. H found out from our guide that he was indeed ex-military and used to be a sniper in the army. He was the only one who didn't get a tip from us.

I'm being unfair; some of our guides were very nice, bought us lunch, gave us gifts of green tea (which I bought back but still haven't used). But things reached a head in the evening when we went to the gold Shwedagon pagoda, Myanmar's most holy pilgrimage site, which we'd seen in the distance at various times, dominating the skyline. There was a lift up to the pagoda which I'd got in first with a bunch of other people, and H and the guide had to wait for the next one. When I got to the top I saw the sun was about to set and rushed off to photograph the pagoda with the sun setting behind it (I know, I know, when am I ever going to learn about sunsets?). Then I went back to find H and the guide. I couldn't find them anywhere, and there were hundreds of people milling around.

When I eventually found H, maybe an hour or so later, she was furious. She'd been on her own with the guide, who'd not only been harping on about the pagoda, but also in a state about having lost me. I found him waiting by the entrance, in a panic, saying this had never happened before, he'd been sick with worry. To tell the truth, I'd had enough of the English speaking guides.

Nevertheless, it had been an incredible holiday in a beautiful country, with friendly people and extraordinary sights. Yes, the poverty jars. Yes, knowing there's a genocide happening upcountry as we laze on a beach jars. At least H, who had been working there, was trying to make a difference. She said it was the first country she'd worked in where she could also have a holiday. On the internal flights we read the newspaper New Light of Myanmar (published by the Orwellian Ministry of Information), who singled out the UK's Guardian for spreading false news about the military's persecution of Rohingya Muslims. Freedom of the press is non-existent, with two Reuters journalists currently clocking up 100 days in jail for reporting on the genocide. Aung San Suu Kyi has faced widespread criticism for not speaking out over the crisis.

In the last few days, Myanmar's President Htin Kyaw has resigned, apparently due to ill health. Former general and Vice-President Myint Swe takes over until a new president is chosen (Aung San Suu Kyi, who had a loyal ally in Htin Kyaw, is exempt from taking the position, due to having children with an English husband, a clause in the constitution seemingly introduced with her in mind). The future doesn't look great for Myanmar.

We took separate flights home (H's had been organised by the company she worked for). I stopped off at Doha airport, in Qatar, with branches of Harrods and WH Smith everywhere; it could be anywhere except for the chic sheiks in their flowing white robes – how do they keep their whites white? Prayer rooms, quiet rooms and smoking rooms reminiscent of a smoky English pub circa. 1994. The men wear white; the women black. A video and a Daily Mail article inform me it's the most luxurious, expensive airport in the world but all I saw was a giant sculpture of a teddy bear – apparently art.

Flickr photos here.

– December 2016

Friday, March 16, 2018

Top ten fictional bands

The Carrie Nations
1. Spinal Tap
This is Spinal Tap (1984)
As mentioned some years ago, a fictional band who then released an album and toured in real life.

2. The Carrie Nations
Beyond The Valley of the Dolls (1970)

3. Autobahn
The Big Lebowski (1998)

4. Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes
Star Wars (1977)

5. Wyld Stallyns
Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)

6. The Folksmen
A Mighty Wind (2003)

7. Stillwater
Almost Famous (2000)

8. Marvin Berry and the Starlighters
Back to the Future (1985)

9. The Paranoids*
The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon (1966)

10. The Fool*
Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon (1973)
An English rock group who has Tyrone Slothrop appearing on one of their album covers.

*Yes, two Pynchon bands make it in the top ten. And yes, I know it's difficult to gauge how good a fictional band is in a novel, as you can't actually hear them, but imagination is a powerful tool.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Anvil vs. Spinal Tap
Top 10 Films about Musicians

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Top ten prequels

In the beginning there was...

1. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)
(Original: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, 1847)

2. The Godfather Part II, Dir: Francis Ford Coppola (1974)
(Original: The Godfather, Dir: Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) 

3. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire (1995)
(Original: The Wizard of Oz, Dir: Victor Fleming, 1939)

4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Dir: Gareth Edwards (2016)
(Original: Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, 
Dir: George Lucas, 1977)

5. Twin Peaks: Fire Come Walk With Me,
Dir: David Lynch (1992)
(Original: Twin Peaks, Creators: David Lynch/Mark Frost, 1990-1991)

6. Star Trek, Dir: J. J. Abrams (2009)
(Original: Star Trek, Creator: Gene Roddenberry, 1966-1967)

7. Monsters University, Dir: Dan Scanlon (2013)
(Original: Monsters, Inc., Dir: Pete Docter, 2001)
8. Skagboys by Irvine Walsh (2012)
(Original: Trainspotting by Irvine Walsh, 1993)
9. Havisham by Ronald Frame (2004)
(Original: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, 1861)
10. Finn by Jon Clinch (2007)
(Original: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1884)

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Pylons in the snow

Ljubljana, Slovenia

I noticed an eerie silence at East Croydon train station – maybe due to cold weather, maybe something else. Then H noticed trains weren't running to Gatwick; there was a bus replacement service from Redhill to Gatwick (a six mile journey). I immediately sensed potential mayhem. The train to Redhill arrived – completely over-packed with passengers and suitcases. I did some quick maths: 12 train coaches, each requiring a whole bus at Redhill. There would need to be a whole fleet of replacement buses waiting for us. Needless to say, there were none. No buses, no information, just complete chaos with hundreds of people filling the train station platform, the entrance hall and a long queue outside snaking up to the place where there were non-existent buses. By the time we made it to the entrance hall, we had an hour to go before our flight. There were still no buses, no information and hundreds of people ahead of us.

We had to make a decision – quick. H said to leave the station and find a taxi. Amazingly, not many people had the same idea, and after running halfway down a road to stop one, we shared a taxi with three others to Gatwick – at the extortionate cost of £10 each (one of the others was so outraged, he wasn't going to pay, and the driver stopped. No, no, we shouted, keep driving!). We arrived at the airport with minutes to go before final boarding, ran along the endless corridors and got on the plane with about 30 seconds to spare.

Our taxi driver to Gatwick was from Kashmir where he told me it was -15 in the mountains right now. It was hard to imagine that coldness – though we found out a few hours later. Slovenia was experiencing its coldest winter in a decade with snow a foot deep (as was much of Europe; even the UK would get its fair share). I've probably never experienced – not even in Iceland – the icy shock of coming out of the airport late at night to be greeted by -15 C. A taxi took us to our hotel in the centre of town, along the banks of the willow-lined river that winds through the city. Unsurprisingly, given the temperature, there was no one around, and nothing open. We found one restaurant, called Paninoteka, and I had beef goulash with polenta and a pint of local beer. Bliss. One of the best meals I'd ever had.

(We returned to the same restaurant a few nights later to try and replicate the experience – never a good idea. There was a different waitress; I stupidly ordered a different meal, with wine instead of beer. We were sitting on the other side of the restaurant. I don't know, nothing felt the same. And it wasn't very nice. I always say never return anywhere – whether it be a country, city or restaurant – it's always a disappointment.)

The first thing we did in the morning was buy woolly hats. Then breakfast. We found Le Pitit cafe, a charming place a little away from the river. I don't know what was happening to my taste buds but everything tasted amazing (even the tap water in the hotel tasted like it had just melted off the Julian Alps, which it probably had), a simple breakfast of eggs on toast, coffee and orange juice, tasted fresh and lovely.

Our hotel was not only perfectly situated next to the river in the centre of town (which blissfully is all pedestrianised) but next to wonderful, geeky shops: we were next door to TipoRenesansa, a letterpress workshop and shop (where H talked me into buying a lovely notebook for – ahem – €18), a couple of record shops, a photography gallery and shop, and several bookshops. Retail heaven was on my doorstep.

(Everywhere H and I have been together we invariably: 1) Want to move there; 2) Think it's nicer, prettier, greener, friendlier, more efficient, cheaper and more interesting than London/England; 3) The only good thing about London is its free museums and galleries (we never fail to forget that museums and galleries are closed on a Monday everywhere in Europe, and charge an entrance fee when they are open); 4) Being oh-so-well-travelled, everywhere reminds us of somewhere else we've been – in the case of Ljubljana, it was Helsinki meets Venice.)

Despite the -7 temperature during the day, Ljubljana is a lovely city to walk around (even nicer in the Mediterranean summers, where open air restaurants, bars and markets line the riverbanks). There's plenty of pretty Art Nouveau buildings, lovely bridges, a castle perched on top of a hill over looking the city, numerous museums and galleries including a puppet theatre, cobbled roads and a tiny population, most of which seem to be students on bikes. Metelkova is a former army barracks (like the Venice Biennale Arsenal, H noted) turned autonomous alternative arty district, holding exhibitions, events and gigs. Everything in the city is within a 15 minute walk.

Slovene architect Joze Plecnik was responsible for much of the modern look of Ljubljana (as well as Prague and Vienna), designing many of the city's notable buildings, including the lovely, iconic Triple Bridge. But architect Milan Mihelič, still alive aged 92, designed a bunch of estates on the outskirts of town and a cool 1960s petrol station near the bus station, which I took more photos of than any other building in the city.

The sloping Tivoli Park sits on the outskirts of the city and contains landscaped gardens, statues and fountains. H spotted a small creature on the edge of a lake. It looked like a cross between a squirrel and a rabbit. The poor thing was staring at us, shivering. Will it be okay? I asked H. It will be fine, she reassured me, and we went on our way.

We spent a day at Tito's former holiday retreat, Lake Bled. If it sounds like something out of a vampire film, rest assured it is quite the opposite: a fairytale setting with a medieval castle on a cliff, pine forests and the Julian Alps all overlooking the glacial lake, on which sits a tiny island with a chapel on it.

Not to be confused with Slovakia (which I did numerous times), Slovenia was the first country to leave the former Yugoslavia in 1991, and saw a lot less fighting (just a Ten-Day War, in fact) than its former-Yugoslavian neighbours. It created a democracy and soon joined the EU. I was slightly disappointed at the lack of Brutalist Communist architecture but the petrol station, goulash, cool shops and Art Nouveau architecture made up for it.

– February 2018 

Flickr photos here.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Warren Oates' Rolled Oats

The estate of Warren Oates, legendary cult actor of classics including Two-Lane Blacktop, Badlands, The Wild Bunch and Bring me the Head of Afredo Garcia, has released a new range of breakfast cereal. Warren Oates' Oats is what it says on the packet: oats for making porridge. It's hoped Oates will do for oats what Paul Newman did for sauces and marinades.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Rocky's Rockland Road Rocky Road
Gravy Juice
Top ten Prince food songs
Top ten road movies

Friday, March 09, 2018

Notes on Kent

It took a while for Kent to grow on me, having long thought of it as either bland – The Garden of England, National Trust properties and places like Ashford and Maidstone – or pretty rough end-of-the-world towns like (the clues are really in the names) Gravesend (where Pocahontas died) and Rainham (voted 7th worst place to live in the UK last year; Dover – also in Kent – came first).

But dig deeper and Kent's beauty, uniqueness and quirkiness reveals itself. The most interesting aspects of Kent are along its coastline. I've always liked Margate, years before it started trying to regenerate with its Turner Contemporary gallery, hipster shops and Dreamland (though I like all of them too). A little further south, Broadstairs, Charles Dickens' favourite holiday spot, and Ramsgate, where Wilkie Collins gets two blue plaques (one for where he lived; the other where he was having an affair) and Van Gogh lived and taught briefly, couldn't be more different to still-slightly-seedy Margate. The three towns make up the isle of Thanet.

Many towns in Kent have a literary or artistic connection. Tracey Emin hails from Margate, and Turner spent some of his childhood there, and would visit the county throughout his life, the coast inspiring many of his seascape paintings. Mary Tourtel, creator of Rupert the bear, and Richard Dadd, the artist who killed his dad, were born in Kent. William Caxton, inventor of the printing press, was also born in the county. You can't go far in Canterbury without coming across Chaucer. And novelist William Golding worked as a teacher in Maidstone.

Dungeress is one of my favourite places in the UK. It has an eerie, post-apocalyptic feel with its unique shingle beach (containing hundreds of rare insects, birds and plants), fisherman's cottages painted black and nuclear power station in the distance. Famously the home of Derek Jarman and his garden, the cottage is still lived in by his former partner, and the garden still tended.

Remnants of war feature heavily along the Kent coastline. The giant concrete sound mirrors (acoustic early warning systems soon made obsolete by radar) near Dungeress in Denge are like the beautiful ruins of an ancient civilisation. Seven miles off the coast are the striking Maunsell sea forts, looking like rusty aliens in the sea. Nearby is the sunken SS Richard Montgomery, the masts of which can be seen just above the water. Filled with explosives which can't be touched, the ship could apparently explode at any time, causing a tsunami. Quite a few Martello towers survive in Kent. Built between 1805 and 1808 to guard against invasion by Napoleon; in the event, after the Battle of Trafalgar, they were never used.

Other notable Kent towns are Dover, of course famous for its iconic white cliffs (talking of iconic, one of my favourite things in Kent are their oast houses, very distinctive buildings once used for drying hops); Chatham, where the important naval docklands no longer function as such but remain open for the tourist industry; Whitstable, famous for its oysters and beach houses; Herne Bay, a beautiful seaside town where last year someone was beheaded with a Samurai sword; Deal, yet another lovely seaside town, has lots of bric-a-brac shops and Sandwich has a Roman fort and amphitheatre (I'm sure it's been done to death, but I've always wanted to do a business deal in Deal followed by eating a sandwich in Sandwich).

The tiny Isle of Sheppey is a weird place – there are people who live on the island their entire lives without ever leaving it. Although not even really an island (an island on an island, if you will) – there's a bridge connecting to the mainland – it has the isolated feel of one.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Art of the seaside
Margate's Shell Grotto
Sound Mirrors

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Top ten Nicholas Cage films

The nephew of director Francis Coppola can't act (his style is often called "operatic"), isn't good looking and has weird hair in every film he's in but you know what? I like him, and, unlike many other actors of his generation – Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp spring to mind – Cage has actually been in some decent films. And there are times – I can't say why – when I'm just in the mood for a Nicholas Cage movie.

1. Wild at Heart
2. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
3. Leaving Las Vegas
4. Raising Arizona
5. Adaption
6. The Rock
7. Con Air
8. The Weatherman
9. The Knowing
10. National Treasure

Cage used to own various properties in and around Bath, including a castle in Somerset and a town house in Bath's historic Circus, but has sold them in recent years due to debt. One of my favourite performances of his was when he turned on the Bath lights in 2009. More recently he was spotted in a Frome pet shop.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Lookalikes #40: Terry Riley and Terry Nutkins

Terry Riley, born 1935, American minimalist composer, and Terry Nutkins, 1946-2012, much-loved presenter of The Really Wild Show, where Chris Packham got his break in 1986.

I love the liner notes on Riley's A Rainbow in Curved Air, released in 1969:

And then all wars ended / Arms of every kind were outlawed and the masses gladly contributed them to giant foundries in which they were melted down and the metal poured back into the earth / The Pentagon was turned on its side and painted purple, yellow & green / All boundaries were dissolved / The slaughter of animals was forbidden / The whole of lower Manhattan became a meadow in which unfortunates from the Bowery were allowed to live out their fantasies in the sunshine and were cured / People swam in the sparkling rivers under blue skies streaked only with incense pouring from the new factories / The energy from dismantled nuclear weapons provided free heat and light / World health was restored / An abundance of organic vegetables, fruits and grains was growing wild along the discarded highways / National flags were sewn together into brightly colored circus tents under which politicians were allowed to perform harmless theatrical games / The concept of work was forgotten

Ah, the dream of the 1960s. It all seems pretty reasonable to me, but appears further and further away.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Lookalikes #1-40

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Beauty and the Brutalist – Private View

My private view was last Saturday at 7:30pm. We thought we wouldn't make it. We were supposed to have left London last Thursday but couldn't because of the heavy snow; the same on Friday. We were all checking the weather every half hour throughout the day and starting to panic. Saturday morning came and we decided to give it a go, and left at 10:30am, battling through snow, ice, fog, rain and wind to finally arrive in Cornwall – once over leaden Bodmin moor, the sky cleared, the sun came out and it was a glorious evening of sunshine. The exhibition was hung in a couple of hours, and nibbles and wine were being served by 8pm. A good time was had by all and, the owner told me, more works were sold in that one evening than the last six exhibitions put together!

Many thanks to my parents, Helen and Lucy, without whom it wouldn't have been possible. Thanks also to those who turned up and bought stuff!

Special remembrance to my lovely uncle Bryce – my last ever conversation with him was about the exhibition; he told me to go bold – and I did.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Beauty and the Brutalist exhibition

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Beauty and the Brutalist exhibition

Despite – or because of – only getting a handful of Instagram likes or Flickr faves, I am having a one-man show of my photography, illustrations, collages and ‘unmotivational slogans’ (otherwise known as Barnacles) in St Ives, Cornwall, throughout March. No, not at the Tate St Ives, but round the corner, by the bus station, opposite the cinema, at:

Café Art
The Drill Hall
Chapel Street
St Ives
Cornwall TR26 2LR

The private (though public!) view is on Saturday 3rd March, 7:30-9pm.

Large posters, smaller prints, postcards and more for sale from 50p to £50.

See you there!

Previously on Barnflakes:
Barnflakes goes Cornwall
Notes on Cornish fiction
Celebrating Cornwall's mining heritage

Friday, February 23, 2018

Notes on...

A compendium of bit posts I’d been working on intermittently for months, none of which really got off the ground (mostly linked, it seems, now that I've put them all together, by my frustration with modern life and technology).

Hip hop and slow mo in the movies
Take a modern comedy – from The Hangover Part II to any Seth Rogen film – and you will find a perfectly ordinary, maybe even boring sequence of, usually, someone (mostly Rogen) getting out a car, or maybe some guys walking in an airport. The guys have to be white, geeky and mostly uncool. The de rigueur thing to do is put the scene in slow motion with some bangin’ hip hop on the soundtrack. The effect is one of high irony.

Now, don’t get me wrong, slow motion + music in a movie is one of my favourite things, ever, but this has been overdone to death. Does Seth ever do it in real iife? Have hip hop blasting out of his stereo then get out of his car, like, really slowly? It would be hilarious! What I’d like to see in a film, though, is the natural opposite: presumably, a bunch of cool black dudes, sped up, with classical music on the soundtrack.

Smart and perfect
To me, the world is less perfect and possibly dumber than it ever has been, despite or more likely because of huge technological advances, most of which are a waste of time. So why am I hearing the words 'smart' and 'perfect' everywhere? Is it because we're all idiots?

I'm naturally wary of anything with the word 'smart' placed in front of it, such as smart cards, smart phones, smart motorways, smart meters and smart water (confusingly, smart water may refer to a pointless energy drink or a traceable liquid and forensic asset marking system, applied to items of value to identify thieves and deter theft). Before they all got so smart were they stupid?

I've mentioned office jargon – which exists in a world of its own – many times, and for the past year, the word 'perfect' has been bandied around in the office; it may have even taken over 'literally', and its meaning is literally just as pointless. I realise lots of words are said just to fill the air.

Traditionally, older siblings used to hand clothes down that no longer fitted to the younger sibling in the family – hence hand-me-downs. This was usually done with large families without much money – and before the days of Primark. Nowadays, the opposite is happening – parents and grandparents are being given their children's or grand children's technological hand-me-ups – in the form of smart phones and tablets, as youth abandon theirs on a yearly basis for newer models.

We want information now
There is nothing more annoying than being stuck on a train which stops in the middle of nowhere and not being told what the problem is by the driver or conductor. Nine times out of ten it's waiting at a red signal but whatever the problem is – leaves on the line, person on the line – we need the information immediately. It gives us a small sense of being in control of our lives, being informed, having knowledge, making sense of our wasted lives. Being ensconced in the digital age, this now applies to many aspects of our day-to-day living; we demand constant updates from our phones, tablets, TV, internet – be it from friends, work or the media. A major disaster, such as a terrorist attack, demands instant information and updates. Live BBC news updates ping on people's phones every few minutes, as if they're personally being notified (which is the point, of course). We must know, say, the number of victims, the makes of the vans, the nationality of the attackers. Similarly, the friend who is late to meet up gives a blow-by-blow account of their lateness via text: soz, train delayed; soz, just buying coffee, be there in 5 mins.

National Lonely Day
Nowadays there's a day for everything – aside from traditional celebrations such as Christmas and Easter there's also everything from Self-injury Awareness Day (1st March) to Dr. Seuss Day (2nd March). Mostly they're money-spinning, commercial enterprises (part of me thinks Christmas was invented by Coca-Cola) masquerading as good causes.

These are all well and good if you're popular, but what's worse than being single on Valentine's Day or being billy no mates on your birthday or having no family at Christmas? All these are terrible days for those who have nothing to celebrate all year round – their lives are on repeat, getting nowhere, dead end jobs, no friends or family – and there are a lot of them out there. We need to celebrate these unfortunate souls.

What I'm suggesting is National Lonely Day. Those who are popular have to spend it on their own to see what it feels like; those who are lonely get to, erm, spend it with other lonely people?

Doing It Yourself
Having recently read the complete short stories of W. Somerset Maugham, it dawned upon that if you were an English gentleman or lady of even limited means, up until the 1930s anyway, it was normal to have servants to wait upon you. One of Maugham's stories concerned a single man with a slight job in the civil service, living in a small flat in Westminster; he nevertheless needed a cook, charwoman (who he slept with, naturally) and manservant to function.

In the old days, rich and even not so rich people used to have everything done for them by servants, butlers and cooks. Some still do today. But generally, today more than any other time, despite – or because of – technology and so-called leisure time, we have to do virtually everything ourselves (though I realise there are apps to control every aspect of our lives – to open and close blinds; control the thermostat, turn lights on and off etc, all saving approximately, oh, about five seconds of our precious time). Dress ourselves, get the train to work, buy clothes and food and pointless consumer items, cook, fix stuff, go out, read self-help books, work all day and all night on computers. Everything now is about the individual – by which I mean it's selfish. We like to own things – books or DVDs, say, whereas in the past watching a film was a collective thing: it wasn't owned, it was experienced.

It sometimes seems like technology is taking over our lives. But on a day-to-day basis, my life is pretty similar to what it would have been like fifty years ago. I walk to the train station, get on an over-crowded train, walk to the shops, read, watch TV, cook, eat etc.

Random Film Review: Blade Runner 2049
Dir: Denis Villeneuve | USA | 2017 | 163mins. (i.e. 20 mins. too long)

First it was when we saw Gravity at the cinema in Marble Arch – it was a freezing night and there was no heating in the place and the seats were cramped – we felt like we were trapped in space with Sandra Bullock (can't think of anything worse).

Then last night, just before seeing Blade Runner 2049 at the lovely East Dulwich Picturehouse, the sky turned dark and red, and the wind turned blustery. It turned out not be some elaborate form of experiential advertising, but tropical air and dust from the Sahara, a remnant of storm Ophelia. Nevertheless, it got us in the right post-apocalyptic frame of mind for the film.

NB: The original Blade Runner film from 1982 is set in the year 2019 – who ever imagined that year would be just around the corner? Where the hell are the flying cars?

Random Film Review: Independence Day
Dir: Roland Emmerich | USA | 1996 | 145mins.

American foreign policy seems to be the same whether it's fact or fiction; whether they're up against Muslims, the Vietnamese, monsters, King Kong (saw Kong: Skull Island recently; against my better judgement, quite liked it) or aliens: it's always invade first, bomb first (even here in the UK last year, the public – i.e. The Daily Mail – were against Corbyn because of his pro-peace and anti-Trident views; the idea of peace bizarrely seems a sign of weakness). And so it is with Independence Day – which I saw on the day it came out, in Berkeley, California. It was frightening – the audience were yooping, cheering, standing up and applauding any time an American shot or bombed an alien... I'd never experienced anything like it. Feminist sci-fi (can we call that a sub-genre?) such as the recent Arrival or Contact suggests – even though they're from Venus – a feminine touch (though obvs not Ripley in Alien) is a more peaceful way to dealing with extraterrestrials.

But anyway – how is Independence Day not the Top Gun of sci-fi movies? No, I don't even mean Harvey Feirstein (the overly camp character in the first movie), or the gay couple in Independence Day: Resurgence, that's been well documented online. I mean Captain Steven Hiller (played by Will Smith), his buddy Marine Captain Jimmy Wilder (Harry Connick Jr) and their locker room antics. Wilder calls Hiller Big Daddy; Wilder gets down on his knees in front of him in the locker room, as if about to give Hiller a BJ – but, no, even better, he opens up a small box to reveal a wedding ring!

Anyway, I always identified most with Jeff Goldblum in the film – i.e. he reminds me of me; tall, geeky, into recycling, chess and cycling.
 And the only sane voice in a mad world.

Random Film Review: The Perfect Storm
Dir: Wolfgang Petersen | USA | 2000 | 130mins.

All the men wear baseball caps and stink of fish but are good-looking, rugged, sea-faring guys. Their women, by contrast, are ugly as sin and all look twenty years older than their menfolk, probably because they spend all their time worrying about them out at sea fishing, as they sit in the same bar every day listening to endless Bruce Springsteen songs on the jukebox.

Top ten heaths
1. Hampstead Heath
2. Heathcliff
3. Heath Ledger
4. Blackheath
5. Heath Robinson
6. Edward Heath
7. Heathrow Airport
8. Albury Heath
9. The one in Macbeth
10. Michael Heath

Every night, like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, I sit in my trailer with the trashed TV and hungry dog, pint of whisky on the table, gun in one hand, other hand holding my iPhone with my finger poised on the delete account button in Instagram, sweat pouring down my temples. What's the point of it all?

I spend a lot of time in the trailer thinking about photography and social media. What makes a good photo? What makes someone popular? What makes a photograph get lots of likes? The idea of the picturesque, the selfie and the snapshot (socially and historically, I think the snapshot is probably the most important photo genre but it's generally over-looked and not taken seriously by both amateur or professional photographers) overwhelm Instagram. Since the birth of photography, it has tried to emulate ideas of beauty as seen in painting, the dominant visual medium for a thousand years before photography. Landscapes, sunsets, still lives. Not much has changed in over a hundred years. We appreciate a beautiful photograph because it reminds us of something we've already seen, perhaps a million times. That photo of a sunset may look just like every other sunset photo we've ever seen, but that's the point; it reminds us of a sunset. It captures it. We don't like to see photos of things we can't relate it, or haven't seen before.

There used to be a phrase 'A picture tells a thousand words'. Now it seems an Instagram photo needs a thousand words to describe it. It's all about the narrative, the story. Mystery? Pah! If there's a picture of a landscape, the accompanying text will be something like, 'It was a beautiful, frosty morning. I walked up the hill early with so-and-so. The going was tough. We had some sweets on the way. We waited to get this amazing photo then went home' (accompanying photo of a bland landscape).

Though it's lost its popularity and coolness, I still opt for Flickr as photo app of choice; at least the pictures are bigger than Instagram. Either way, though, it's still all a popularity contest.

Alan Lomax: song hunter
It's embarrassing admitting it but my first introduction to the work of Alan Lomax was probably through Moby's Play album. We've all got to start somewhere. Folklorist, musicologist, archivist, writer, singer, filmmaker, photographer, DJ, producer (hundreds of radio shows, TV programmes, films, records and concerts), anthropologist, political activist, lobbyist and social theorist doesn't even come close to describing his lifelong (he started recording folk singers across the States in the car with his father as a child – why isn't there a road movie about this?) and ceaseless dedication to collecting and preserving folk music. Like his near-contemporary Paul Bowles, Lomax 'discovered', worked with, or came into contact with a who's who of American cultural giants including Zora Neale Hurston, Orson Welles, the Roosevelts, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Jelly Roll Morton, Margaret Mead, Pete Seeger, Nicolas Ray, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters and Carl Sagan.

Carmen updated
Carmen is a factory girl working in the cigarette factory in Seville. She falls in love with her boss, wealthy with a wife and two children. One of the children, aged 16, is in love with the factory girl. The wife has a terrible accident in the cigarette machine, where she loses all her fingers. Her fingers turn up some time later, intact, in packs of cigarettes.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Notes on

Saturday, February 10, 2018

When I'm cleaning records*

(*To be sung to the tune of George Formby singing When I'm Cleaning Windows, first heard in the 1936 film Keep Your Seats, Please.)

I don't usually advertise products on this blog, but for Christmas I was given a record cleaning machine called Spin Clean Record Washer MKII. It has mostly** good reviews online. It's pretty rudimentary, basically a plastic cleaning bath with two rollers on the ends; distilled or deionised water (£2 for a large bottle from Halfords; tap water can cause limescale build-up on records) is placed in the bath, along with the cleaning fluid; the record is then placed in the bath, in between two brushes; the record is manually turned a few times clockwise and anticlockwise, taken out and dried. That's it. Not exactly state of the art. I didn't even use it for weeks, afraid it wouldn't work.

But I did need one. Regular readers will gather that the majority of my four hundred records come from charity shops (and cost no more than £1 or £2). Most of them are covered in grime, dust, dirt and fingerprints from over forty years of (mis)usage.

Previous attempts at cleaning vinyl had been with a carbon filter cleaner and a Cambra Discmaster – both small, brush-like, anti-static and dust cleaners, and both completely useless. They'd get rid of static but the dust would just go round and round the record. And they didn't go deep. I had tried cleaning records in the sink, with warm water and washing up liquid. This was cumbersome and messy, but worked, until I was advised not to use tap water.

I had toyed with getting each record professionally cleaned at a record shop at £5 a record. But having only paid £1 for each record in the first place, this seemed a bit counter productive. A professional record cleaner can cost up to thousands of pounds to buy, as this list shows.

Anyway, being at a loose end these dark, cold, winter evenings, I embarked on the cleaning process with the Spin Clean (being just one of a variety of vinyl washers; other good ones include the Vinyl Style Deep Groove Record Washer and the Knosti Record Washing Machine). Aside from anything else, I was surprised to find a therapeutic reward in the manual process. It was extremely satisfying taking a manky record, spinning it round a few times and ending up with a lovely, shiny piece of vinyl.

But the sound? Well, I had albums such as Blood on the Tracks, Blue, Nebraska, Horses, Bitches Brew, Music for 18 Musicians and Kaya, to name just a few – all of which had previously sounded muffled and sometimes didn't play at all, the needle skipping over all the tracks to the end of the record with a kind of zzzwwwipppp sound (the kiss of death) – totally transformed after cleaning and sounding clear and crisp, just like new in fact. It can't perform miracles and remove scratches – Nick Cave's Murder Ballads will unfortunately always be heard with crackles and pops – but 95% of my records now sound fantastic.

(**Giving people a chance to voice their own opinion was never a good idea. It's called the internet and everyone has their belief. Reading online reviews for anything – a pub, vacuum cleaner, album or film, say – is utterly pointless, seeing as even reviewing something as seemingly objective as a vacuum cleaner, or indeed a record cleaner (as opposed to something more subjective such as a film or restaurant) results in a one-star review ("crap") next to a five-star review ("amazing") for the same product. Which do you believe? Neither, probably.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Top ten most difficult fiction books to read

1. Gravity's Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
Other online lists of difficult books to read contain such novels as The Metamorphosis, Catch 22, Heart of Darkness, Cloud Atlas, The Corrections, Midnight's Children, Vernon Little God and Lolita (all of which I read with ease). By comparison, Gravity's Rainbow makes these books the literary equivalent of Peter Rabbit.

I bought Gravity's Rainbow as a wide-eyed, innocent art student some twenty-five years ago. Like many, I'd started it a few times but never got further than a few pages in. Then about six months ago, I decided to read it. And yes, it took six months (I read other books in between, mind) but I finished it. I didn't say I understood it all. Or even half of it. Maybe it would have helped if I was more intelligent, with some knowledge of quantum physics, German, Latin, history, warfare, chemistry, maths and early German cinema. Helpfully, it also has lashings of sex and drugs, as well as nonsense poems, songs and limericks, and such an array of styles (making it difficult to imagine it was written by one person, like Naked Came The Stranger, the 1960s literary hoax that was actually written by twenty-four journalists) that if I didn't get one style, I might understand the next.

With a cast of over 400 characters (most annoyingly, though, the central character – well, who I thought was the central character until he vanished for hundreds of pages – Tyrone Slothrop, well, it wouldn't leave my head that Owen Wilson would be perfect to play him in the unfilmable film adaption of the novel), a prose style denser than lead, a convoluted plot that jumps backwards and forewords in time (without letting me know!), it's been understandably compared to Ulysses and Moby-Dick as one of the most difficult novels to read. (1999's Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson has also been compared to it, a Gravity's Rainbow for the digital age, or some such soundbite, which I adored and devoured in a matter of days. It has, you know, developed characters and a plot. In the 1970s, Gravity's Rainbow felt like the start of a new post-modern genre of fractured story telling, but this genre understandably didn't really take off, and books with traditional characters and plot continued to rule the day.)

It's a mostly fascinating read anyway. With some quirky facts, such as it was Fritz Lang in his 1929 film Woman in the Moon who invented the rocket countdown. Fact.

2. Naked Lunch – William Burroughs
Or anything by Burroughs. He didn't invent his cut-up technique for easy reading.

3. Under the volcano – Malcolm Lowry
Dense and fragmented. I can't remember why I went through a Lowry phase but I read all his novels (ie two, plus some short stories), and his biography (Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry), which was far more fun to read than Lowry's fiction.

4. Riddly Walker – Russell Hoban
This is written in English but not quite as know it, a mix of Joyce, Burgess, Chaucer and, er, Kent dialect, which takes a while to get used to, but it's well worth it.

5. A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Like Riddley Walker, this cult classic invents its own language, a mix of English slang and Russian. At least it's short. 

6. Captain Corelli's Mandolin – Louis de Bernières
A popular book and an awful film. I found the book hard to read and tremendously dull. 

7. The Ginger Man – J. P. Donleavy
One of the funniest books I've ever read, but pretty dense.  

8. Fifty Shades of Grey – E. L. James
Don't get me wrong; difficult books to read don't have to be pretentious, weighty, 1000-page long stream-of-consciousness affairs (but it helps). They can also be so bad it's impossible to get past the first few pages. With a prose style about as exciting as a shopping list, this was apparently quite popular. The film is meant to be even worse.

9. Bridget Jones's Diary – Helen Fielding
This one does start with a list (food consumed today). Couldn't get past the first few pages. In the 1970s there was The Female Eunuch; in the 1990s we have Bridget Jones. That's progress.

10. Auto-da-Fé – Elias Canetti
I can't remember much about this one. Canetti's short travel book about Morocco, The Voices of Marrakesh, which I picked up in a secondhand bookshop in Indonesia, is far more rewarding.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Battle of the Brutalists

There has never been more interest in brutalist architecture – numerous books are published on the subject; plates and tea towels are adorned with brutalist imagery; there are hundreds of websites and Instagram accounts dedicated to what the French coined raw concrete, béton brut (unfortunately we translated the word rather brutally). Brutalism is the new iconic (iconic once used to refer to Russian icons; now it's bandied around and any celebrity, building, artwork, film or photo can be instantly iconic), a word tossed around to describe any concrete monstrosity.

Its popularity has come at a time, paradoxically perhaps, when many brutalist council estates and buildings are being knocked down. In a 2016 speech former Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to spend £140 million demolishing or  regenerating 100 sink estates (which sounds a lot of money but to my rusty maths only equates to £1.4 million per estate). The speech coincided with a bill aiming to reduce the amount of social housing in the country.

Cameron went on to say: "Decades of neglect have led to gangs and anti-social behaviour. And poverty has become entrenched, because those who could afford to move have understandably done so... The mission here is nothing short of social turnaround... I believe we can tear down anything that stands in our way."

There are some brutalist success stories. Flats in the maze-like Barbican estate cost over £1m. The Park Hill estate in Sheffield had a recent award-winning overhaul. But generally what seems to be happening is council estates are being deliberately neglected and then demolished, residents are being moved out of London, and luxury, overpriced (and generally very ugly) apartment blocks are being built on the land, sold to Chinese/Russian/Arab investors for large sums of money and remaining empty most of the time. This is the bizarre solution to the housing crisis? When there's a waiting list of at least 1.5m people for social housing?

The mission here, it seems to me, is social cleansing and making as much money as possible at the expense of the residents of these demolished blocks. As as one ex-resident from the now-demolished Heygate estate said, "We have literally been sold out by our own council". That some residents had lived their entire lives in the area, had family and social networks and jobs in the community seemed to be of no consequence. Many of the residents were forced to move out of London (meaning they'll never be able to afford to move back) to cities as far flung as Birmingham. Of the 2,535 new homes built where the Heygate estate was, only 79 were allocated for social renting.

This doesn't seem to concern any of the brutalist websites, bloggers or Instagrammers. Brutalism is cool. Goldfinger and Le Corbusier are hip. On tea towels and mugs, in books, in moody black and white photos. When it was announced the Robin Hood Gardens estate was to be demolished, news that the V&A were to acquire a three-storey section of the block received far more press than the future of the estate's residents. Considering brutalism is usually public housing, it seems strange that the residents are usually completely absent from any imagery.

During consultations (which admittedly I'd take with a pinch of salt), 75% of residents in the Robin Hood Gardens estate said they wanted it demolished, whilst at the same time, the 20th Century Society and high-profile architects including Richard Rogers, the late Zaha Hadid, Toyo Ito and Robert Venturi petitioned to save it from the bulldozers. Britain's "most important" post-war social housing development, enthused Richard Rogers, presumably not having spent more than half an hour on the block (a half-hearted Twitter storm erupted when residents invited him to spent the night on the estate; Rogers said he would, but never did). Residents variously described the 'streets in the sky' estate as a "prison" and "not a home" as the Building Design website were calling it "seminal".

The brutalist debate is a tough one. The buildings have become trendy, but not for most of the residents who live on them and have to endure the crime and neglect. I'm never one to agree with demolition – once it's gone, there's no bringing it back. I certainly prefer most brutalist buildings to the hideous new luxury apartments springing up all over the UK. I say we should keep brutalist estates but invest in them, regenerate them, give them proper lighting, give them a lick of paint (or a mural of a dog)! I lived on one for years, the Alton estate in Roehampton. It wasn't that bad. And Grade II listed, so hopefully it won't be demolished, though the library, which isn't listed, may well face the wrecking ball.

Previously on Barnflakes
The regeneration game
Death of the high street
Modern architecture is rubbish
Alton blues

Elsewhere on the web is my favourite online architecture magazine.