Monday, 16 September 2013

Sebald’s Natural History

On the back of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn the book is classified as Fiction/Memoir/Travel, which must make it hard to locate in the small number of physical off-line bookshops that remain. The puff on the back cover claims that ‘a desperate intensity of feeling is thrillingly counterpoised by the workings of a wonderfully learned and rigorous mind’. I get the learned and rigorous mind bit; I’m less sure about ‘a desperate intensity of feeling’. Or perhaps the desperate intensity of feeling is a sort of low frequency, reflexive attention: a sort of low-intensity intensity. I would imagine that for many readers it is the mood of the book that is its most compelling achievement.
It is the travel aspect of the book that organises the account as the narrator or author-avatar travels around parts of Norfolk and Suffolk and spend time in such uncanny landscapes as Shingle Street. Sebald’s book is endlessly digressive and along the way we learn all sorts of historical facts, some of which are primarily concerned with human affairs while others connect to the history of fishes and landscape. We learn that at some point in time ‘vast shoals of herring were brought in towards the beaches by the wind and the tides and cast ashore, covering miles of coast to a depth of two feet and more’; and we also learn how during a drought in the late 1870s, which killed millions of people, ‘parents exchanged children because they could not bear to watch the dying torment of their own’. The eerily distant echoes across time and across species are not meant to ride over dissimilarities between fish and humans, but is designed I think to set up a situation whereby the catastrophic history of human beings is seen as natural history: that is the sort of weird species humans are, finding more and more complex ways of negotiating misery. So much for Darwin and Dawkins. 
There is one place in the book where the narrator physically leaves England and finds himself in the Netherlands. In the description of Schiphol Airport Sebald undertakes a vivid and characteristic manoeuvre whereby the incidental and trivial is apprehended as something with eternal significance:

… the airport, filled with a murmuring whisper, seemed to me that morning like an anteroom of that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns. Every now and then the announcers’ voices, disembodied and intoning their messages like angels, would call someone’s name. Passagiers Sandberg en Stromberg naar Copenhagen. Mr Freeman to Lagos. La señora Rodrigo, por favour. Sooner or later the call would come for each and every one of those waiting here. I sat down on one of the upholstered benches where travellers who had spent the night in this place of transit were still asleep, stretched out unconscious or curled up.

In his soporific, but always concentrated prose, Sebald allows the glimpsed possibility to be realised:

Outside, on the tarmac, the summer heat was shimmering, tiny trucks were beetling to and fro, and from the runway aeroplanes with hundreds of people aboard rose, one after another into the blue air. For my part, I must have dozed off for a while as I watched this spectacle, because presently I heard my name from afar, followed by the injunction Immediate boarding at Gate C4 please.

The trivial is our gateway to eternity: but once there, once facing the absolute there is only the trivial. Even if you are a frequent flyer please listen: your nearest emergency exits may well be behind you.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

It is always now

In 1970 when I was nine years old I was faced with a dilemma: I wanted to buy a chart topping single, but I wasn't sure which one. I wasn't sure which song I preferred – Freda Payne’s Band of Gold or Deep Purple’s Black Night: a soul classic or a three minute burst of long-haired, testosterone-fuelled heavy metal. In the end my sister was on hand to point me in the right direction (the direction that would make my decisions intersect with her interests): I bought Band of Gold. I still love the song – an overblown, gothic tale of a woman who gets left with her wedding ring on her wedding night after marrying someone who either won’t or can’t sleep with her. It would be sad in an overly melodramatic sort of way, but the singing and the soulful lilt of the song is so uplifting that the subject matter is never given a chance to set the mood. And anyway, anyone in their right mind would be up and dancing rather than worrying too much about the lyrics (which I now assume suggested that the husband was gay but heavily closeted). I think if it had been a few years later I’d have probably opted for Deep Purple, sibling pressure or not. Nine year olds don’t often have the sort of streamlined taste obsessions that will often emerge when kids hit their teenage years. The period in which music taste is so severely and strictly policed is not always long (13 to 23 is probably the time when it is narrowest) but it is the period when music seems to matter most, when it has the most sonic intensity. Young children and the middle-aged are often fairly catholic in their tastes allowing themselves to like show-tunes, country and western, punk and gospel. Teenagers and young adults are often puritans, listening exclusively to either skiffle or hip-hop – you can’t imagine them liking both soul and heavy metal.
There is an album format that is much maligned but is manna for youngsters who have yet to hitch their ears to a particular style of popular music – they are called things like Now that’s what I call music 7 or more economically Now 82. Often the release date seems to be a seasonal affair, popping up ready for Christmas stockings or as a supplement to an Easter egg or for the start of summer. They represent a sort of bargain bonanza of the latest pop fare, representing all aspects of what is selling in record shops or being downloaded from the internet. The reason they are maligned today is probably due to the chaotic mix of styles and seriousness: one-hit-wonders and established artistes; venerable voices and angelic upstarts.
In the 1970s they were maligned for other reasons too: for reasons of profits – prepared to pay author rights but not performing rights – all the songs were cover-versions recorded by anonymous studio session musicians eager or desperate to earn a crust. I loved them and often preferred the cover-version to the original. Actually that’s not quite right: I got to know a lot of the hit parade through these cover versions and then when I eventually heard the originals they were different which in itself meant that they didn't feel quite right – they weren't my originals. The first example I bought was a seven-inch single that you played at 33 rather than at 45. It began with some spoken words: ‘This is the letter T in your Tesco treasure trail’. It was a promotional record by the supermarket Tesco released in 1970 as part of a competition to win an exotic holiday. I think you were meant to collect 5 records and then you could compete. As far as I can recall the records stopped with this first one (no ‘this is the letter E…’) – but I was 9, what did I know? The Tesco record had covers of Andy Williams, Status Quo, and T-Rex. I loved the Tesco version of Ride a White Swan.
But the compilation of cover versions got serious when the record publishers Music for Pleasure (not to be confused with all those publishers of Music for Pain) entered the fray with the Hot Hits series. I bought the first one, and perhaps a couple after. At only 15 shillings (this was the eve of decimalisation) it meant that for about 75p you got a dozen top hits played adequately by some of the most anonymous session musicians around. The Hot Hits record was a temporary respite for me in 1970 allowing me to refrain, if only for a while, from having to choose my musical identity (as if on the seafront at Brighton, hurling deckchairs – are you a mod or rocker, for god’s sake, whose side are you on?).

The first Hot Hits record had a fantastic array of musical styles that pointed in a number of geographical directions (you have to ignore the cover image to get much idea that there could be anything progressive here). If you didn't like Mungo Jerry’s In the Summertime – and what’s not to like with all that huffing and puffing percussion – then there was the classic 70s reggae-lilt of Love of the Common People by Nicky Thomas’s (later covered by anti-anti-smoking campaigner Paul Young). You had versions of songs by the Welsh-Nigerian singer Shirley Bassey and the Greek-Cypriot-Swedish-British Cat Stevens (to become Yusuf Islam later in the 70s). For me the stand out track was the version of Vehicle, originally by the white funk group the Ides of March. It was a stonking funky drive track and if Starsky and Hutch had existed in 1970 then I’m sure that both would have had it on their eight-track in-car stereo turned up to maximum.
The versions offered by Music for Pleasure either exaggerated musical ticks (a particular way of singing – great for any Shirley Bassey wannabes) or smoothed out anything that might seem a bit spiky. By offering a single production of a panoply of musical styles Hot Hits revealed similarities and differences that weren't always apparent when listening to the charts on the radio. In one sense Hot Hits was one long stomp – it was a grove stomp – but a stomp nonetheless. And from here it seemed that the skanking stomp of skinhead reggae was the same stomp of more mod inflected stomps of Mr Bloe. Purple tonic Harrington jackets or hooded Parkers might well amount to the same thing when finding a rhythm for the time. But the differences were equally interesting.
The German philosopher Ernst Bloch in his writings on utopia, hope and the lack of it, used a phrase that translates as ‘non contemporaneous simultaneity’. He was writing about Germany at the time when the National Socialists came to power and he had a sense of the crucial importance of how society can simultaneously support radically different experiences of time and history. For Bloch the 1930s witnessed the ‘blood and soil’ of an atavistic imagination that pointed simultaneously backwards and forwards to a thousand year Reich, while also evidencing all sorts of futuristic fetishes.
The Hot Hits of 1970 is only a tiny fragment from a cultural moment – and that moment is clearly not similar to 1930s Germany. But in offering a synchronic slice of hits we are made aware of a vast temporal unevenness. The gender uncertainty of Cliff’s Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha is a moment of transition, whereas Hotlegs Neanderthal Man offers a perspective from pre-history. The sounds too point to archaic rhythms and futuristic noodlings – survival is mixed with arrival (I Will Survive was originally recorded by Arrival). Hot Hits might have been ‘music for profit’, it might have spawned a sequence of increasingly dire record covers, yet there was – in the bringing of all these hits under the same baton – a tiny shard of a ‘now’ made out of multiple folds of time and space.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Year Zero in the Big Brother House

This morning I was listening to the news on the radio and heard that the National Trust was going to open the Big Brother House to the public – just for one weekend. As a news item on BBC4’s Today programme it was framed as something to incite the indignation of middle England. The Today crew wheeled out Anne Widdecombe (former Tory politician and Strictly Come Dancing contestant from 2010) as the voice of disbelief – for her the BB House can’t be part of our heritage because it hasn’t stood the test of time – oh and also because it is tawdry. Widdecombe – who manages to be both a ‘national treasure’ (for some) and an old-fashioned high church hang-em and flog-em Tory – suggested that a much more suitable building for the Trust would be the BBC’s recently vacated Broadcasting House – which led the interviewer to ask if Widdecombe wasn’t just desperate to get back into the ‘Strictly’ studio. The defence was taken, unsurprisingly, by Ivo Dawney, London Director of the National Trust who claimed that the Big Brother house was ‘a stately home for the digital age’ (a phrase, no doubt, that is a crucial part of the promotion, though it sounded like it just slipped off his tongue) and that we shouldn’t think of heritage as being comprised solely of eighteenth century aristocratic taste.

I think I watched the second series of Big Brother and then for about four or five years after that. I missed Nasty Nick at the time (caught up with him later of course) but I saw Jade Goody – twice – as both original, non-celebrity contestant and then again, on Celebrity Big Brother as a ‘celebrity’ famous for being on Big Brother. If this was TV eating itself it also seemed to mark a moment when TV was becoming a crucial part of how we experienced the seasons. We might not any longer, what with global warming and the infamous waywardness of the British weather, be able to rely on summer being sunny, but we seemed to be able to rely on Big Brother to start its broadcasting at precisely the time when it was meant to be summer. For a generation or so I imagine that Big Brother will be the Madeleine Cake of remembrance for that season rather than the sound of ice cream van’s jingle, just as I’m a celebrity get me out of here will replace the smell of mulled wine and real fires for winter.

But actually I imagine the media archaeologists of the distant future digging up the Big Brother House and finding a caché of old video tapes and a few DVDs and deciding that the house and the show was not a significant moment in the rise of reality TV but a continuation of a much earlier sort of TV – the public information film. Just as for years TV has shown us that we shouldn’t drink and drive, and that we should always ‘clunk, click every trip’ and that Alvin Stardust could tell us a thing or two about road crossing, so Big Brother was really teaching us something. It was a long elaborate lesson in how to live in public. On the eve of an era of social networks, an era that demands full disclosure of everything all the time Big Brother was part of a pedagogical avant-garde showing us how drunken snogs should escalate into national incidents and how every argument, every behavioural tick could be gist to the mill of the blether-sphere. Big Brother saw the future and saw its role as priming us for an age where shame is magnified and embarrassment is embraced, and where letting it all hang out was going to make or break a career. Today we can all live in a Big Brother house – every room is a diary room – we just need to fight for an audience who will care about the indiscretions we perform.  

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Feel the Noize

As a child of about eleven the little gang I hung out with must have felt that we didn't have enough presence in the world. It is all very well treading lightly on the earth but wafer-thin eleven year-olds need some material gravitas or they will float away. One of the many solutions we found to our lack of earthly presence was to intensify our sonic force – to make some noise. This was the early 1970s, a time when Noddy Holder and his Slade comrades were beseeching us to Cum on Feel the Noize (the spelling was designed to approximate the regional dialect of the Black Country area of the Midlands of England).  
One way of making some Noize was to fix pieces of card to the front and back forks of our bikes so that they caught the wheel spokes, producing a clattering noise. This was meant to sound vaguely like a motorbike revving, or the clatter of a football rattle, but sounded exactly like pieces of card being constantly whacked by wire spokes. We were, I'm sure, taught this technique by older kids.
The early 1970s must have been a time when people were worried about gravity and the lack of it as the fashion in shoes resembled the sort of weighted-boot required by deep-sea divers, or the build-up disability shoe needed to counter a disparity in leg lengths. The stacked shoe, the must-have foot ware for any youngster or man or woman-about-town was a weighty thing. Glam-rockers like Slade favoured the excessive soled and heeled boot, which often looked like a bovver-boot with additional soles and heels attached that had then been spray painted silver. High-street fashion could be just as whacky and there was a period, I'm pretty certain, when you were limited to buying varieties of stacked shoe from a quarter-inch sole (favoured by Clarks) to two inches and beyond. It is no wonder that the audiences to the Top of the Pops shows from the early 70s seem to shuffle about – their shoes must have been weighing them down.
My mother would buy my shoes a size or two larger than actually fitted so that I could grow into them (though they usually wore out before this thrifty wisdom came into effect). I must have persuaded her not to get my shoes at Clarks at some point and to opt instead for a fairly decent stack with plastic uppers. They were pretty heavy. For my comrades and me, though, just having a weighty stacked shoe wasn’t going to be enough – we wanted additional sound. So we regularly studded the soles and heels of our shoes with Blakey’s segs: these were little moons of metal that you could stamp into the heels and toes so that you could make the sort of clatter that an inebriated and inexpert tap-dancer might make. They could also produce a stuttering shower of sparks when riding your bike and using your shoes as a break – this worked best on concrete. When you walked down the corridor in school you could sound like your sonic presence was really being noticed by the world.

            One balmy summer night a bunch of us wandered about the cul-de-sac where we lived. We purposefully scuffed our feet as we went, not really realising that the segs we had attached to our shoes were designed to protect them from the wear that scuffing could cause. For us they were an invitation to insistently scuff – a way of learning to become life-long scuffers. Somehow out of nowhere we started to chant, to shout, one word. The word was ‘BOLLOCKS’ and I don’t think any of us knew what it meant – I certainly didn’t. We didn’t shout it with any venom or even disdain. I think we chanted it in a celebratory incantation – in the way that other people might give praise – it was our momentary Hallelujah. Each time we shouted it we grew louder, till the word started ricocheting off the walls and rooftops of the houses. Doors started opening and soon a parent of one of us ran up to us and told us to shut up. That was the end of the night as we all went back to our own houses to receive our own lesson about swearing and to learn our fate.