Sunday, April 30, 2006

"The point about the Eighties is that they have never finished, really"

The beauty of the Sunday papers is that they last you all week. Here I am, technically it's Sunday and yet I'm still digesting last Sunday's Observer.

Plenty of interest in Observer Music Monthly as usual (including a good James Brown piece on Primal Scream which almost - almost - makes me eager to hear their new stuff), but the article that really caught the eye was Tim Adams's reflections on the 1980s, inspired by Andrew Davies's forthcoming TV adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst's Booker prize-winning novel 'The Line Of Beauty'.

It's a fascinating perspective on the decade, one which begins with the personal but which gradually progresses - through consideration of the ways in which it is reflected and refracted through Hollinghurst's book - towards a wonderfully pithy overview with which it certainly seems hard to disagree:

"After about 1983, it seemed, you no longer found a decent place to live, you invested in property. Ideas often seemed worthwhile only if they could be exploited commercially: politics became an extension of marketing, books became important if they were in the bestseller lists, and there was a general feeling that if someone had made a lot of money, he or she had to be taken seriously (cue Richard Branson, Madonna). The option, a refusal to go along with some or all of this, was increasingly a kind of redundancy, not quite an opting out, but a sense, somewhere along the line, that you were a sucker".

As Adams points out particularly emphatically, it was a time of lines in the sand. You had to take sides - and those sides were generally drawn along class lines. It was much more black and white. (Adams's article was accompanied by another shorter piece from Matthew Holehouse, who, born in 1987, declares "My generation misses the unabashed villainy in politics" - the absence of any larger-than-life Thatcher-esque bogeyman in British politics is surely a contributory factor to public apathy, though Blair seems to be doing his level best to audition for the role.)

In the course of his article Adams touches on other novelists to have immortalised / dissected the decade in print, including Martin Amis, author of the superb 'Money': "it was an irony too far to point out the fact that many of the writers savaging the Thatcherite economy were themselves splendid beneficiaries of it; Amis for one famously decided to ditch his publishing loyalties and offer his work to the highest bidder. 'This one time in my life,' he suggested, 'I wanted to see what I was worth....'". Strangely enough the name of Ben Elton springs to mind too...

Anyway, all of this has whetted my appetite for the TV adaptation, which begins on BBC2 on 17th May. Having heard many very good things about the novel (and from Mike in particular), I'm hoping that I might be able to coincide reading the copy that's been sat on my shelves for the past six months with the televised version. Whether it'll happen is another matter, of course.
Keep Restore the faith

Doing the Saturday slalom along a packed Queens Street this afternoon, I was handed a card for a Christian organisation called Victory Outreach:

"NOW OR NEVER

Choose a life free from drug abuse, alcoholism and crime

We are here to help you find: hope, dignity, respect, purpose, restoration
"

"Restoration"? Really? That conjures up images of being polished and re-upholstered and appearing on 'Antiques Roadshow' in the company of Middle Englanders with pound signs for eyes. No thanks.

Incidentally, I'd like to think that I wasn't singled out by the bloke just because I was making a very undignified and disrespectful job of eating a Gregg's peppered steak bake.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Complimentary, my dear Watson

"You look great!" "That was delicious!" "Love your work!" Sick of paying people the same old hackneyed compliments? Then why not try The Surrealist Compliment Generator!

"Optical delusions still themselves when you pass by in convexing pomp and sacral trance."

"Seven donkeys and a concubine cannot compare with the tarnished sheen left in your path of combustion."

"Your dashingly coloured toupee twists my right boot into a state of ennui with the speed and dexterity of many lemon meringue coated conquistadors."

(Thanks to Ian for the link.)
Quote of the day

"Ice skating is a kind of torture for the ankles rendered attractive by the reward of feeling the earth move beneath your feet in an entirely uncontrollable manner ... I suspect these junior slideywizards are really only little Wily Coyotes who do not yet realise that there is nothing between them and the canyon bottom three zillion feet below, and when they do they will fall over, get a bleeding nose and some other skater will run over their ickle hands with razor sharp metal blades. Anyway that's how it seemed to me as I tottered round the edge of the arena, holding on desperately to the hand rail - the one element in my environment that didn't seem to have a malicious hidden agenda of its own".

Robin on the perils of trying new things.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Wandering Scribe: sitting duck

You may recall that I've linked to Wandering Scribe a couple of times recently (thanks in the main to Swiss Toni). It's the blog of a law graduate left by circumstances to live in her car somewhere in London.

Well, following on from an interview for the New York Times, she has now been the subject of a piece on the BBC site.

As might be imagined, the feature has directed an enormous amount of traffic her way, and many of those who have visited as a result of it have left comments. Many are empathetic messages of support from people who have at one time or another found themselves in a similar predicament - but there are also several commenters who have accused her of being a fraud and her blog of being a symptom of a lazy self-obsessed culture, the implication being that her time could be better spent in other ways.

Now, the thought that it might be a media hoax never even crossed my mind and, given my usual cynicism, that's something to be noted. But these commenters are just spiteful and aggressive.

Almost equally unsettling, though, are the many visitors to the site who have felt the need to admonish Wandering Scribe for her behaviour and / or lecture her about how she should feel and what action she should take. Those who have been with her from before the media storm blew up (and yes, I count myself in that number) know that the last thing she would want is to be lectured or pressurised. Or judged.

The BBC feature and the New York Times feature before it have both had the welcome effect of bringing visitors flooding to the site, thereby giving people an insight into a form of homelessness that doesn't make it into the statistics and which is therefore practically invisible. However, it's also made Wandering Scribe a target, whether for abuse or for heavy-handed advice and moralising. I just hope it doesn't result in her abandoning the site, but at the moment I fear that's exactly what will happen.
Blogwatch

Welcome...

Well, welcome back, more like. Washing Up is the new home of a long-time blogroll friend.

Congratulations...

Betty, whose Utility Room is two years old - and, thankfully, no less sarcastic and acerbic than it was when it started.

Meanwhile...

Reluctant Nomad posts photos from Mike's stag do in Manchester on Saturday here and here.

Elsewhere...

ByTheSeaShore tries to write about St George's Day but instead can't stop himself "thinking what life would be like if Aerosmith and Run DMC shared a flat next door to Anthrax and Public Enemy. I guess the Aerosmith and Run DMC parties would be better, that the sitcom 'Dis Thy Neighbour' is best left unwritten and that I've had enough medication for one day".

The Flaming Lips and The Go! Team leave Del feeling ecstatic - "They sing about love, death, politics, happiness, sadness, everything. And it's just great! Everyone's jumping around. It's the sound of being glad to be alive, and hoping that together we can overcome the problems in the world. Few other bands, if any, can pull such a thing off, but then The Flaming Lips aren't like other bands".

JonnyB is the recipient of a wildly inaccurate comment in Asda - "'Well she's better looking than you', he remarks in a matter-of-fact way, before turning back to his shopping".

And finally...

Pete contemplates changing his name from Peter to Pete. Yes, you read that right - now read the post.
"I'm Rick James, bitch!"*

I've often been known to complain that the comedy we import from across the pond is by and large shite. My recent appreciation of the brilliance of 'Frasier' has offset that somewhat but the impression remained - and was strengthened by being exposed to both series of Comedy Central's 'Chappelle's Show' at the weekend, a show I'd never heard of. Bizarre, given it's the biggest selling DVD of a TV show ever.

As the name might suggest, it was a vehicle for comedian David Chappelle (not to be confused with David La Chapelle the photographer) and very amusing it was too - childish at times (the episode of 'Kneehigh Park', a 'Sesame St' spoof, featuring Snoop Dogg and the discussion of hard drug use and STDs - cue the dancing crabs!), edgily satirical and potentially controversial at others (the 'What If President Bush Was Black?' sketch, the 'I Know Black People' gameshow). Particularly on the issue of race, Chappelle goes where others fear to tread.

Chappelle walked out of the show when the third series was in pre-production - curiously enough after an episode in the second series had been based on the premise that Chappelle had walked out to be replaced by Wayne Brady. So that was pretty much that. A shame. It's good.

* If you want to know what this title is all about, click here and scroll down.
Feel good hits of the 26th April

1. 'Snakes' - Autons
2. 'Man' - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
3. 'Fear Of Sleep' - The Strokes
4. 'Mudwig Bahnoff' - You & The Atom Bomb
5. 'The Rat' - The Walkmen
6. 'Penelope Rose' - The Invisible Clock Factory
7. 'Into My Arms' - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
8. 'My Face Isn't Sally's' - Project: Venhell
9. 'God Only Knows' - The Beach Boys
10. 'Gravity In Crisis' - The Longcut

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know 'Man' isn't on Show Your Bones, which I've been listening to a lot lately - but it's just been going round in my head incessantly. A bad sign as regards the merits of the newie? Perhaps - it's going to take me a bit longer to get to grips with it, I think. If I had to pick a stand-out at the moment, it would be between 'Gold Lion', 'Phenomena' and 'Turn Into'.

There'll be more on The Invisible Clock Factory here shortly, so watch this space (as they say), and as for Autons - congratulations on their first appearance in NME. It's unlikely to be their last.
S express

Skiffle, Steeleye Span, Sarah Records - "unfashionable" subjects perhaps, but take a peek at this week's installment of the Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music feature and you may be pleasantly surprised. An even better week than normal, even if I do say so myself.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Animal magic?

My review of Mogwai's Mr Beast is up now on the Vanity Project site - perhaps a bit harsh, and live it certainly made more sense, but it still feels like they've stagnated a little since Happy Songs For Happy People.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Heaven knows I'm not so miserable now

AUTONS / MY PASSION / YOU & THE ATOM BOMB, 22ND APRIL 2006, ISLINGTON BAR ACADEMY

A performance poet appearing between sets. A raffle and tombola. A square of astroturf for picnicing on. Autons just don't do your average gig.

Feeling Gloomy is the weekly club night brainchild of two individuals going under the names of Leonard and Cliff, and the Gloom Aid festival at which Autons are playing today is a pre-club night event in aid of Depression Alliance.

By the time we arrive shortly before 8pm, we've unfortunately already missed several bands. Bristol foursome You & The Atom Bomb have not long taken to the stage, and it's not long before I'm very glad we didn't miss them too. They're a splendidly chaotic band that call to mind The Go! Team in the sheer number of different ideas they pack into each song, but musically they're more reminiscent of the dearly departed Dismemberment Plan, a post-punk energy and effervescence allied with a playfulness, an eagerness to experiment with form and a post-modern pop sensibility. A mini-album called Shake Shake Hello?! is coming out on Sink & Stove at the beginning of July, and if you, like me, were a sucker for Travis Morrison's crew then you'd be well advised to check it out.

After the performance poet's last slot of the night (he goes under the moniker The Bro's Grim, appropriately enough), Hertfordshire's My Passion set about depressing most of us further, if only because their youthfulness reminds us of our own age. Currently rather more of a concept than a fully-formed band, the quintet have the name (a bit gothy, a bit angsty) and the look - Duran Duran for the teenage Kerrang! reader of 2006 (think perfectly triangular fringes, make-up and black ties) - but the songs are lagging a little way behind. Not that their bevy of bouncing ballgown-clad young ladyfans are bothered (or the legions of people to have found their way to their MySpace page), and as other bands have proven, exquisitely chiselled cheekbones can get you a long way - though perhaps only so far.

By the time headliners Autons appear, the Sixth Form Leaver's Ball directly in front of the stage has by and large dispersed (though some stay on to shake their thang), and the crowd forms something of a semi-circle. I feel rather like a cricketer in a fielding cordon, Portsmouth's finest smashing out corker after corker for our ears to catch.

Like You & The Atom Bomb, drummerless electro-rock trio Autons come with the Steve Lamacq and Rob da Bank seal of approval and possess (or are possessed by) something of the same maverick spirit. 'Conspiracy Theory' is a risky opener, building as it does slowly though inexorably to a tremendous finale - "Don't wanna go to hell! / Don't wanna go to heaven! / Don't wanna end my life on a 747!" are lyrics that are crying out to be hollered by more than just the three Autons. To then plough straight into the short sharp shock of airwave-bothering genius single 'Snakes' so early into the set is also potentially risky, but in the event it simply marks a confidence in their material, and the possible lull never materialises.

Instead, the beats get faster and more frenetic, David Jones's serene falsetto juxtaposed incongruously and yet somehow perfectly over the top. 'Class Traitor' and 'Ice Major' sandwich 'Shine Tester, Shine Tester', before 'What She Said' brings things to a premature close. Well, I say premature, but it's perfectly judged if the old adage "Leave 'em wanting more" is to be believed.

Watch out for Autons' first appearance in NME this week (in the Radar section, I think). During tonight's gig one song is dedicated to Matt Taylor whose late, late penalty earlier in the afternoon gave the band's beloved Pompey a vital win in their fight against relegation. It seems like it's promotion to the Premiership that Autons have got to look forward to.

The night doesn't end there, either. In fact, it's yet young. Plenty of time for the raffle to be entered (first prize: a signed Moz poster - I'm still waiting to hear), the 'Rock Profiles' DVD to be won on the tombola, the DJ to take over, house "air band" (ie not just air guitar, air everything) The Miserabilists to take to the stage and much more hideously overpriced Grolsch to be drunk. Jolly good cheer, all told.

Links:

Autons interview for R*E*P*E*A*T fanzine

Autons' MySpace page

Monday, April 24, 2006

Too twee or not too twee

Just noticed in catching up on some blog reading that Feeling Gloomy has Inspector Sands's seal of approval, as does Holloway Rd indiepop / soul / Motown club night How Does It Feel, on whose site I discovered the Twee Test. Questions include: "What's your favourite Belle & Sebastian song", "Have you ever worn your pajama top to the pub?" and "Do you throw like a girl?"...

And while I'm on a music links tip, I'll stick these two in here, both bands whose sites I've stumbled across on MySpace and whose songs I've quite enjoyed:

Project: Venhell - noise rock from Aberdeen a la Les Savy Fav, Shellac and Lightning Bolt

Magdalena - an art rock band from Glasgow who feature an aspiring writer among their number

If you're looking for a site that regularly sorts the wheat from the MySpace chaff, then check out the regular Chart Of Darkness feature on Sweeping The Nation (most recent recommendation: Franz Ferdinand approved art-poppers The 1990s).

Also well worth a look on STN at the moment: an interview with Fyfe Dangerfield of Guillemots and, following the announcement that a line from U2's 'One' is the UK's favourite lyric, Simon's suggestions of forty arresting opening lines (the opener to Nick Cave's 'Into Your Arms' - "I don't believe in an interventionist God" - gets a mention, and rightly so).

Friday, April 21, 2006

Achosion I Laweni #3

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

#3 - Splott street art

I'm not talking about the off-yellow walls of the Old Illtydian club at the junction of Splott Road and Tin Street, which appear to function as an enormous messageboard for spotty Splott teenagers. Every single one of the hoodie-wearing BMXers that loiter around outside the front of Costcutter must pack a marker pen with which to sign their name brazenly on the club's increasingly cluttered external canvas. Oh well, I guess it's good to know that txtng hasn't entirely displaced every other mode of communication in the affections of the yoof of today.

No, what I'm talking about is much more subtle and charming - not the bald, bold declarations of love or sly insinuations about sexual preference or parentage that remain day after day upon the Old Illtydian, but the vivid representations of houses, landscapes and rainbows in pastel shades of chalk which appear on the pavement outside one of the houses on Railway Street but which are ephemeral works of art thanks to the inclement Cardiff weather (seriously, it's rained so much here since the start of March that I've thought about going to IKEA and asking if they do a flat-packed ark).

So, to the young Splott resident who regularly brightens up my walk home - thanks.
R you experienced?

Rrrroll up! Rrrroll up! Up now on The Art Of Noise - the latest installment of the A-Z Of Music feature, which this week focuses on the letter R. And that means everything from the Reading Festival to regional accents, and everyone from Roisin Murphy to Ronnie Ronalde.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

A pat on the back, a slap in the face

So, there I was, feeling the love of the Times Online, which picked out The Art Of Noise as its blog of the week (the A-Z Of Music feature coming in for particular praise - "a simple idea, but compulsive reading"), when referral stats revealed a rather less favourable opinion of Silent Words Speak Loudest, and in particular of the Dan Antopolski / Ben Schofield stand-up review I posted last month. Turns out the latter had discovered it and was none too chuffed:

"I suppose that it was only a matter of time before my predilection for googling my own name would turn around and bite me on my egotistical arse, but this nearly made me spit my tea out.

Ah well, I should show the dog the rabbit I suppose. Be sure to check out the comments at the bottom of the review

[Link]

What is especially interesting is that I had a perfectly good gig on the night in question (which, unsurprisingly, is not mentioned) which brings a wonderfully twisted image to mind of him screwing his face up in distaste and scribbling disapprovingly into his notepad as the crowd around him fell about laughing.

The c*nt.
"

This post initiated a thread on the Manchester Comedy Forum about bad reviews, and so I thought I'd respond there, diplomatically (I think):

"Hi Ben (and other posters)

The c*nt writes.

I decided it would be childish just to post a response to this thread on my site (or blog, if you prefer), so thought I'd venture into the lion's den, so to speak...

I guess what follows is self-defence and justification - I stand (predominantly) by my comments.

Let me begin by saying, though, that I have a lot of time and respect for stand-ups for the simple fact that they have the balls to put themselves in the firing line. Having to make a roomful of strangers laugh for a living (or even a hobby) must be a pretty daunting task.

That said, as a performer you ARE putting yourself in the firing line. Not all reviews are going to be positive - getting shot at occasionally is part and parcel of the business. And of course it's no different to me writing reviews and publishing them online - I've stood on a virtual stage / soapbox and made my opinions public, and so I'm there to be shot at too. You're perfectly entitled to disagree with my review, just as I'm perfectly entitled to write the review in the first place.

As for it being your worst review ever - well, you say you haven't had many (if any) bad reviews and I can well believe it. I've read (and written) much harsher reviews. I made sure I focused on your act and avoided saying anything personal - which is why being called a c*nt rankles a bit.

I imagine, though, that - as you say - it's easy to take even criticism of this kind personally. All I can say is that it wasn't meant as such, and that being thick-skinned surely has to be some kind of prerequisite.

One thing I hoped I had made clear in the review was that you were very unlucky that I'd seen Stewart Lee performing stand-up the previous Friday. I don't want to cause further offence, but hope you might agree your act is more conventional than his. The comparison I was making between you and Lee (and between Antopolski and Lee) was unfavourable to you - and perhaps unfair because I took your act as representative of a type of stand-up I don't much care for. Put simply, if I hadn't seen Lee so recently, you (and Antopolski) would probably have fared a little better. In this respect I apologise - you were in the wrong place at the wrong time - but that's just the way I saw it.

It was also arguably wrong not to give some indication of the audience response you got. For every person like me, there were probably at least two who were laughing. But, even then, I didn't think it was an extraordinarily enthusiastic reaction (it wasn't for Antopolski either) and in any case it was a record of personal feelings on a personal site. It doesn't pretend to be anything else.

And on that note I agree with the commenter who describes blogs as 'just a load of noise in the wilderness'. Most (if not quite all) certainly are, my own included (my tag line drawing attention to the fact: 'Sound and fury signifying nothing'). But if I'm a lone voice shouting in the wilderness, then feel free just to ignore me. After all, it's not like the review appeared in the Guardian or on Chortle.

Anyway, thanks for reading and linking.

Cheers

Ben (we might not share a sense of humour, but we do at least share a name)
"

This follows hard on the heels of February's little contretemps with the chap from Delta Red, of course - my first experience of someone upset at a review I'd written. I'd ask if other reviewees want to have a pop, but then that would just be to encourage this line-in-the-sand "us and them" mentality which is all a load of nonsense - I want to be on YOUR side, I really do. Just give me something to work with.

And, lest we forget, thus speaks a lone voice in the wilderness. Let's get things into perspective, eh?

Update

I didn't intend for this post to be a transparent attempt to fish for support, but I guess that's what it was - thanks for all your kind comments.

As you'll see from the comments box, and from recent posts on the original forum thread that the two of us have discussed it all maturely and, in agreeing to disagree, made our peace.

Incidentally, Ben is himself a blogger - his site Welcome To My Electronic Lair can be found here.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Q here

Better late than never, eh? The latest installment of the Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music series is up online now - we've got as far as Q. A tricky one, so a bit of invention and imagination was required - contributors have written about everything from marching songs and rock hack cliches to singing supermodels and Barbra Streisand...
Feel good hits of the 16th April

1. 'Standing On My Own Again' - Graham Coxon
2. 'The Greatest' - Cat Power
3. 'Team Handed' - Mogwai
4. 'Apply Some Pressure' - Maximo Park
5. 'Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt' - We Are Scientists
6. 'Blessed Night' - Howling Bells
7. 'I See You, You See Me' - The Magic Numbers
8. 'Get It On' - T-Rex
9. 'The Hope Edition' - My Latest Novel
10. 'Steady As She Goes' - The Raconteurs

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Blogwatch

Congratulations...

Wandering Scribe, whose superbly written diary of being homeless has brought her to the attention of the New York Times.

The extraordinarily prolific Inspector Sands, whose excellent blog Casino Avenue recently celebrated its third birthday.

Meanwhile...

Be warned: bloggers seem to be prime targets for robbery.

Jonathan managed to disturb (yes, I'm pretty sure that's the right word) a would-be tea leaf trying to make off with his bike - "It took me a few seconds to assimilate that he wasn't really the postman, at which point I shouted out 'Hey, what the f*ck is this?' and advanced threateningly - or at least as threateningly as is possible, while in stocking feet and carrying a floral-design tea cup from Whitby market".

Less fortunate was N, who had his laptop nicked from his car. His reponse is measured: "I want them to spend life in the hole from 'The Shawshank Redemption'".

Elsewhere...

Del explains his excitement at the prospect of a new Blur album this year - "As absurd as it makes me feel to say it, they're my Beatles. I know, I know, but still it's true".

Speaking of excitement, Kenny's description of his enjoyment of Ladytron's recent London show is rather too graphic for polite consumption - "The way the rhythm coils itself around your celebral cortex is probably the nearest sonic equivalent to orgasm by proxy of near-asphyxiation - just when you feel the song will never let go it finally leaves you in a puddled jelly of your own excitement (we trust the cleaners get paid double time)".

Malcolm McLaren intrudes upon Mish's dinner - "His talk of agents and telling her of his contacts in New York he would introduce her to smacked of patronisation. Or of a chatting up line. I longed for her to go to the powder room so I could follow and ask her if he was boring her but to no avail".

ByTheSeaShore speculates about the BBC's new serialisation of the Robin Hood story - "As the programme is 'both modern and medieval' I'm looking forward to the episode where Robin and his Merry Men spend Friday night driving around Ye Olde Broade Marsh Centre on pimped-up horseback while happy-slapping rich landowners".

And finally...

Phill discovers someone with an even greater Bergerac obsession than himself.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Push it

At the weekend we welcomed our second set of house guests since moving to Cardiff. If I say that, in the course of their stay, bodily fluids of (nearly) all descriptions flowed freely you might get the impression that it was some kind of insane orgy of drunkenness and debauchery. But you'd be wrong - for one of our guests was a mere six weeks old.

A charming fellow he is too, though not a great conversationalist and prone to dozing off at regular intervals. Not entirely sure I can forgive him for the hour of my life I spent in a warehouse-sized Mothercare on Saturday, but at least it gave me an insight into JonnyB's world (albeit only a part of it - I didn't encounter Short Tony, the Methodical Builder or the Vegetable Delivery Lady there, or at least I don't think I did).

Much of the weekend's talk was, incidentally, about delivery. The proud parents had prepared a CD to play during the birth, but in the heat of the moment forgot to take it to the hospital. Republica's 'Ready To Go' featured, but there weren't any other "topical" songs. Salt 'N' Pepa's 'Push It' should definitely have been on there, but my favourite suggestion, 'Baby, It's Cold Outside', might not have had the desired effect, convincing Junior to stay put.

Any other suggestions?

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Paris in the spring: a barely coherent anecdotal diary

So, I came back from Paris last Sunday. What to say about the city? Glamorous, seductive, fascinating, exotic? Probably only to me, who very rarely ventures from these shores. But the fact that the reason for my visit was a conference on travel and cultural difference provides me with an excuse to write about the experience, one too convenient to ignore…

Wednesday 29th March

* Early afternoon, and my first sensation of genuine culture shock – and I’ve not actually made it out of London yet. £3.10 a pint! And, even more alarmingly, £3 for a single Tube journey in Zone 1 – when did that happen?!

* The departure lounge for the Eurostar is what us academics pretentiously refer to as a “liminal space”. Pass through the French border control and yet you’re still in England, despite feeling like you’ve entered a foreign environment. What’s the etiquette? Do we sit with an overpriced coffee and wait to be called before boarding the train? Are all these bilingual signs here just to help a Cardiff resident like me feel at home?

* The Eurostar seats have headrests with wings – a very good idea, in that they prevent you from slumping and dribbling upon the shoulder of your neighbour if you happen to fall asleep…

* "Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to enter the Channel Tunnel. The crossing will take around twenty minutes. The time in France is…”. Synchronise your watches – we’re going in…

* ... and, as if by magic, we’re in France! Gently undulating fields, low houses, small churches and the occasional war graveyard, the dazzlingly white stones impeccably regimented.

* I step off the train, disorientated, and promptly swing my oversize bag into the face of a small French child. His mother lets out an exclamation which I translate to be a mixture of surprise and disgust. I mumble a confused and classically English “Sorry”, before realising I appear to have turned into Hugh Grant (minus the mid-nineties centre parting, of course).

* According to the detailed and colour-coded map in Paris Gare du Nord, the street on which my hotel claims to be situated doesn’t exist. And the Tourist Information office is closed. Oh dear. I try to explain the problem to the sympathetic man in the Foreign Exchange booth, but soon discover that my French is so rusty as to warrant a long whistle and a shake of the head from a garage mechanic.

* The hotel having been located successfully (the map seemed to have some kind of strange hotel-related Bermuda Triangle thing going on), I unlock the door to my room. Luxurious it is not. The walls are vomit orange, the carpet granny-esque and suitably dark-coloured to disguise any spillages of French plonk. Next to the small table is a plastic garden chair. A fully-fledged wardrobe would evidently have been a step too far. The smell of smoke lingers like, well, a bad smell. It'll do the job, though.

* It’s the little differences that matter: the fact that over here the directory enquiries number advertised by men with comedy hair and moustaches wearing running vests and shorts is 118 218; the fact that over here the magazine we know as Nuts features the same heady brew of females, footy and fast cars, but is instead called Guts.

* There’s an imported Jerry Bruckheimer series on TV, dubbed (badly) into French. Is it any wonder they get uppity about American cultural imperialism when this is what they have to put up with?

Thursday 30th March

* Rush hour on the underground is no different here than it is in London: sweaty, dirty, everyone silent and avoiding the looks of others by scrutinising every last article in the free Metro paper before barging their way off.

* I’m asked for directions. Do I look French?! (Not that there’s anything wrong with looking French, that is. If there is such a thing as a French look.) In my experience it is usually essential to know where you are to be able to tell someone else how to get from there to where they want to be. Hence I am frustratingly useless. Which makes a change, I can tell you.

* I really am trying, honest – and by that I don’t mean speaking English slower and louder than normal. It’s just that every time I make an attempt to communicate in French, people listen patiently before replying in English.

* Lunchtime, and il pleut les chats et les chiens. In recent weeks Cardiff must have been in danger of flooding, so severe has been the rainfall, so the elements are evidently doing their utmost to prevent any twinges of homesickness.

* You’ve got to love academic conferences. The last panel of the day features papers on the seaside, Captain Scott and jiu-jitsu. Elasticity of mind is a pre-requisite.

* Double decker subway trains! Wow! And the journey home is enlivened further by the sight of some riot police who, clad all in black and wearing enormous shinpads, look like evil cricketers. They’re only armed with brutal-looking truncheons, but at Gare du Nord there are machine guns on open view. Unrest is in the air all right.

* Danger of being mistaken for a protestor aside, I reflect that I’m starting to feel remarkably comfortable and at home after less than a day in Paris. Though the fact that I then realise I’m walking in the cycle lane directly in the path of an onrushing bike might suggest otherwise.

* After a meal out, I’m back at Gare du Nord – and someone else asks me for directions. I respond in French, and receive English back...

Friday 31st March

* Passing through the Underground tunnels, I’m impressed by the dedication and fearlessness of French graffiti artists. Beneath every wall-mounted light there seems to be an array of sprayed tags - cave paintings for the 21st century.

* So this is what it was all for: my paper seems to have been well-received. One of the more senior academics in attendance approaches the desk to introduce himself in soft but accented American English. As he shakes my hand warmly, I can’t help but think of ‘This Is Spinal Tap’: “Hi, Artie Fufkin, Polymer Records…

* I seem to recall that theories of crowd psychology suggest individuals’ natural characteristics are magnified and intensified when they congregate. Which would explain why academics form the most impractical and bumbling group imaginable when they coagulate. And why we spend the best part of five minutes stood on the wrong train platform on the way back from lunch.

* A genuinely French band is playing on the train. Well, at least I think they are genuine – the accordion is a major giveaway, though I’m suspicious about the lack of berets. None of us know whether the music is just for our benefit, and whether, if we were to offer them some change, they would be encouraged to go on playing rather than realising we wanted them to stop.

* Glasses of Leffe at a pavement table outside a bar followed by a marvellous conference dinner, and the gruelling afternoon spent in a stuffy conference room is soon forgotten.

* Protestors ahoy! Well, about four, clutching placards and rushing through the barriers at Chatelet Les Halles metro station. We resist getting swept up in the revolutionary fervour.

* There is a French version of ‘Newsnight Review’! The guests debate around a central circular table and are shot from all kinds of arty angles while the audience stands around the outside of the studio looking on. Think ‘Question Time’ meets ‘Top Gear’. Somehow I doubt you’ll hear Jeremy Clarkson mentioning Jacques Derrida in a review of the new Toyota Yaris any time soon, though.

Saturday 1st April

* I leave the hotel, walk past the drunks shouting their incomprehensible greetings and grab a quick espresso at the station. Amazing how quickly and easily you can adapt to a new routine. Just as I’m feeling settled, though, I notice the broken windows of the Western Union. All is not quite as calm as it seems.

* A superb buffet lunch to round off the conference – though my plate is filled only twice, quaffing the free-flowing red wine and champagne naturally being deemed more important.

* Back at the hotel, and more dubbed shite imported from America on the TV. Unsurprisingly ‘The Scott Brothers’ does nothing for the headache slowly gathering itself storm-like behind my eyes.

* 4.30pm. I have to be across the other side of Paris for 8.15pm. How much of the city can I see on foot en route?

* As struck me in Prague, the window displays of Parisian bookshops are dominated by plain-covered and thick works of critical theory. The French take pride in their intellectual culture and heritage – whereas we seem to be ashamed of ours (such as it is), not so much hiding it under a bushel as burying it beneath the brightly coloured masterpieces of such transcendent thinkers as Rowling, Elton and Keyes.

* Place de la Republique, then Place de la Bastille, where, rather than coming across any signs of last night’s clashes between protesters and authorities, I encounter a man dressed as a penis. He is stood in the shadow of an enormous inflatable penis. Some kind of performance art, I guess.

* Notre Dame. The grin on my face is indicative not of an appreciation of the building’s admittedly impressive architecture and stature, but of the fact that Newcastle have ended a sequence of defeats with a very good win.

* Is this the Palais de Justice? I’m not sure. Several tricolor flags are flying, though, and there’s a conspicuous police presence.

* At the present moment I know about twenty people in a city with over two million inhabitants. And here I am bumping into two of them on a street corner.

* The Pompidou Centre isn’t quite how I remember it, though its prolapsed design – supporting structure and escalators on the outside – is no less remarkable than it was years ago. In the gently sloping arena surrounding the building, artists sketch airbrushed portraits, a couple of Chinese blokes lead a straggle of studenty types in a rendition of ‘Stand By Me’ and a chap gets his puppet to play guitar along to The Pixies’ ‘There Goes My Mind’.

* The relative absence of big chain stores even in and around Rue de Rivoli and Forum Des Halles is striking. But it’s noticeable that Starbucks seem to be getting some kind of foothold in a country for which coffee holds a vital significance. A reminder that cultural imperialism and commercial imperialism are now inseparable.

* But even capitalism goes on the defensive sometimes. Signs in the window of the shuttered-up Samaritaine department store declare that it’s shut “for security reasons”. Another indication that Paris is currently a volatile place.

* Suddenly I can’t move for flower shops. The pavement narrows and I’m trapped amidst foliage. And then there are the pet shops: twelve hamsters to a small glass tank, three puppies sharing a cage barely big enough for one. Stepping back into the street and the cooling evening, the queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach doesn’t dissipate as quickly as I’d have liked.

* The Louvre. Fuck me that must take some dusting…

* This may be Paris, but there are still giddy wine-suffused girls waving and shouting from white stretched limousines. I’d wager they’re all wearing pink cowboy hats, too.

* The Champs Elysees – so this is where the chain store sheep are grazing. The stench of money is everywhere. I wander absent-mindedly into the Peugeot vanity “shop” and marvel at the fact that it sells next to nothing.

* I arrive at my 8.15 rendez-vous point near the Arc de Triomphe with barely a minute to spare. The fact that it’s the sort of swish restaurant I never frequent is underlined by the air of suspicion and distaste with which the maitre d’ eyes me through the window.

* Well, that was expensive (I managed to smuggle my way in amidst my more respectable companions) – but bloody gorgeous. Pain, soupe de poisson, maquereau avec citron vert et aubergine, fromage, sorbet, all washed down with liberal quantities of kir and French vin blanc et rouge and topped off with a strong cafĂ©. I’m left feeling decadent – all that’s missing is a glass of absinthe and the recital of some Baudelaire poems.

* As if to prepare me for the experience of being back in Britain tomorrow, some thoughtful soul has deposited the contents of his or her stomach in a Jackson Pollock-esque splatter on the pavement near my hotel.

* * * * *

And so there you have it. The journey home on Sunday was without mishap (though I could have done without arriving into Cardiff at the exact moment that thousands of jubilant and full-of-themselves Swansea fans were leaving the Millennium Stadium). Apologies for the lack of effort in the gonzo journalism stakes – obviously I should have got myself involved in the protests / rioting, but I weighed it up and decided I was more concerned about keeping my skull intact. Dressing up as a penis didn’t appeal, either.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Seventh heaven

MOGWAI, 2ND APRIL 2006, CARDIFF COAL EXCHANGE

Another Cardiff gig, another new venue - this time the Coal Exchange. Situated somewhere down near the Bay (I wasn't paying much attention, just following someone else's lead), it is - as the name would suggest - the city's former coal exchange, and apparently the building in which the world's first ever million pound cheque was signed. It's easily the most impressive venue I've ventured to so far - a high-level balcony (not in use this evening), a huge fireplace in the entrance hall, wood panelling everywhere.

The fact that the amps on stage are adorned with Scotland flags can mean only one thing: Mogwai are in town, and we're in for a serious aural workout.

The Glaswegian noisemongers take to the stage, swelled from five to six with the addition of a touring keyboard player. All but Barry Burns are wearing bright green tracksuit tops, which - mercifully - are abandoned early in the set owing to the heat.

This is the seventh time I've seen arguably the most influential band in Britain, and certainly it's reassuringly familiar - bassist Dominic Aitchison is bearded, drummer Martin Bulloch peeks out from under a woollen hat, and diminutive frontman Stuart Braithwaite is also his usual self, a man of few words but curious bobbing motion when the songs reach towards climax.

The gently rising strumming that cuts through the crowd chatter? That'd be 'Mogwai Fear Satan', then. Shorn of its flute part, it's also curtailed but as such prepares the ground perfectly. Recent single 'Friend Of The Night' follows, then 'Killing All The Flies' and 'Folk Death '95'. It's all good, but it's just not quite taking off. 'Acid Food', probably the weakest track on new LP Mr Beast, and 'Travel Is Dangerous', which sees Barry Burns singing clearly rather than through an effects box, fail to change things. Almost there, but not quite.

But 'Hunted By A Freak', the gorgeous opener from 2003's Happy Music For Happy People, marks a significant shift in gear and suddenly we're in a different place. 'Summer' is its usual transcendent self, raw power and grace married to perfection, while '2 Rights Make 1 Wrong' is reworked in line with the tone of Mr Beast - in other words, the banjo and choir are dropped in favour of an excess of violently throbbing electronic bass that has the floor shaking, trousers flapping and sphincters loosening (as my companion remarks, "If I'd had a curry last night, it would be game over"...).

And then, either side of the brief break between main set and encore, we're treated to some of the heaviest and loudest riffs Black Sabbath never wrote. 'Glasgow Mega Snake' sets ears bleeding, and 'Ratts Of The Capital', even after three or four minutes when they're off stage, does nothing to staunch the flow. The set ends in the same way as Mr Beast, with 'We're No Here''s six minutes of absolute power.

Four members then leave the stage not to return, but Braithwaite and guitarist John Cummings aren't finished, instead conjuring up a fearsome racket of feedback and what sounds like a chopped-up and robotically repeated AC/DC riff accompanied by an ever-varying array of coloured strobe lights. I think it was Michael Gira of Swans who once said he wanted to play so loudly that it made people sick. Well, that certainly seems to be Mogwai's objective. We're a hardy crowd, though, and most of us stick with it, putting ourselves through the punishing closing stages of the evening in the knowledge that the inevitable tinnitus will be extreme.

And, sure enough, in the toilets afterwards, when one gig-goer announces "Best gig of the year!", another replies: "WHAT?!!". The first - if I heard him right - had a point, mind.
A P please Bob

Pavement, Billy Joel, The Proclaimers, Pato Banton, Portishead... It could only be the latest installment of the A-Z feature, up now on The Art Of Noise.
Promises, promises

A great feature on Stylus: Ian Mathers compiles his Top Ten Songs That Don't Live Up To Their Titles, including Belle & Sebastian's 'Fuck This Shit', Mogwai's 'You Don't Know Jesus' and the particularly splendidly titled 'Lady In Red (Is Dancing With Meat)' by V/VM.

Any suggestions? I can't think of anything at the moment, though I can think of one song that certainly does live up to its name: The Icarus Line's 'Up Against The Wall Motherfuckers'...
Feel good hits of the 5th April

1. 'Sister Sneaker Sister Soul' - My Latest Novel
2. 'Friend Of The Night' - Mogwai
3. 'The Jeep Song' - The Dresden Dolls
4. 'Snakes' - Autons
5. 'Lived In Bars' - Cat Power
6. 'Heart In A Cage' - The Strokes
7. 'Substitute' - The Who
8. 'Changing' - Witch
9. 'The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!' - Sufjan Stevens
10. 'Turn Into' - Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Monday, April 03, 2006

Autonomous

My review of Autons' debut single 'Snakes' is now up on the Vanity Project site (as well as my thoughts on a couple of similarly marvellous recent album acquisitions, Cat Power's The Greatest and My Latest Novel's Wolves).

There has been a real buzz building around 'Snakes' for a while now, and in the last week alone it's been played twice by Steve Lamacq (once on Radio 1 and once on Radio 6) and also by Huw Stevens, standing in on Rob da Bank's Radio 1 show (on which Autons were one of the two featured unsigned bands). Want to hear what all the fuss is about? Well, now you can by checking out their MySpace page, where you can give 'Snakes' and a selection of demo tracks a listen. But be warned: its bite is lethal...
Earth songs

The date: 13th April 2006.

The venue: The Point, Cardiff

The event: Friends Of The Earth - The Big Ask Live

This gig, which is one of several being held across the UK over the course of a couple of months, aims to raise awareness of the Friends Of The Earth climate change campaign The Big Ask.

The focus is squarely on up-and-coming Welsh bands, the bill consisting of the seriously promising Crosbi (Lamacq faves who've played with Happy Mondays and at Clint Boon's wedding), Camera (whose recent 'Out On The Water' video has been nominated in the public choice category for the British Animation Awards) and Halflight (who have been labelled "a new jewel in the crown of Welsh music").

Tickets are £7.50 a head and available from the Point's site, so get yer arse down there.

Cardiff Friends Of The Earth

The Big Ask
Quote of the day

"Nanotriumph: The length of time it takes before a new set of Venetian blinds don't quite work properly.

Standroid: A rail commuter who knows precisely where to position himself on the platform so the train door comes to a halt right in front of him.

Mockunormity: The sensation you get going into a restaurant that's much bigger than you expected, before realising you've been conned by mirrors.
"

Three of the neologisms essential to navigating modern life supplied by Armando Iannucci in his Observer column.