Thursday, August 31, 2006

Party, fire and theft*

BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE / LOS CAMPESINOS!, 29TH AUGUST 2006, CARDIFF POINT

Tonight very nearly didn't happen, but fuck me I'm glad it did.

Having stupidly failed to buy a ticket in advance, I find myself confronted with the dreaded words "SOLD OUT" on the Point's website. Fortunately, above is another sentence suggesting that there will be a limited number of tickets available on the door. I arrive at the venue at 7.15pm, later than planned, my attendance an as-yet unrealised possibility.

I needn't have worried. I'm one of the first in the queue, and there are quite a few tickets left. As it turns out, the ticketed are forced to queue up with the ticketless, the doors not opening until after 8pm (having been scheduled for 7.30pm) because some local opportunist thief has pilfered Broken Social Scene's tourbus, making off with an assortment of mobile phones and laptops, and there are ramifications to deal with. Welcome to Cardiff, eh?

While we're queueing, a slipper-wearing local turns up to gripe about noise, and is given comically short shrift by the security staff. "He's over here every fucking time", mutters the doorman.

Eventually we're inside, and a tremendous venue the Point is too: a small converted church down at the Bay barely a stone's throw from the larger Coal Exchange, with a sizeable and very accommodating stage and a reasonably priced bar.

I'm still marvelling at the quality and atmosphere of the venue when support band Los Campesinos! take to the stage. All seven of them. The Cardiff-based students have been the subject of much MP3 blog excitement recently on both sides of the pond, and it was Simon of Sweeping The Nation who first pointed me in their direction. A good thing, too, because they're bloody great - think a more excitable and shambolic Shins, with added elements of Pavement, Sonic Youth and power-pop plus a twist of tweeness.

In that respect, the opening five minutes of their set is misleading to anyone who hasn't heard them before. A decent start, to be fair, but they shouldn't feel they have to go for an Arcade Fire / My Latest Novel style epic simply because one of their number is a violinist. Their real charm lies in what follows, a set incorporating all four songs currently available to hear for free on their MySpace site.

'Death To Los Campesinos!' comes early, frontman Gareth having difficulty believing the response they're getting. "Since we went major league", he says, tongue-in-cheek, "we've had to start tuning guitars between songs. Which means you have to listen to me talk shit". He confesses that they've not practiced much in preparation for tonight's show, and when they did they soon got bored (appropriate enough for a band whose music skips and flits along giddily like it’s got ADHD) - but then in their case tautness and rigour would dull much of their appeal.

'It Started With A Mixx' (a song about creating and using mixtapes as instruments of seduction - you can't get much more indie than that) and 'Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks' conclude the set, but the inevitable highlight is the preceding song, which poked the internet beehive into a buzzing frenzy in the first place. After a deceptive introduction, 'You Me Dancing!' bursts into life, inducing a mass of jigging bodies and grinning faces. It namechecks Cardiff indie club night Twisted By Design, at which Los Campesinos! are due to play on 16th September. I might just be there.

So, to the Toronto indie supergroup that is Broken Social Scene. I’ll readily admit I’m here more in hope than expectation. Of their three albums to date, I only own one (You Forgot It In People), and am still no more than mildly impressed by it. In fact, having only bought it on the strength of countless rabidly enthusiastic reviews and much positive word of mouth, it still ranks as a major disappointment – and certainly, for me, pales by comparison alongside Funeral by The Arcade Fire, the next Canadian band to garner a comparable amount of critical acclaim. But I’m here on word of mouth again, having been told they’re a different proposition in the live environment.

And, from the moment they begin, it’s clear they are. Hard to describe exactly why, but this is in a different league altogether. There’s suddenly a force, a power, a spark, a life to songs which have previously failed to rouse me to much more than cursory appreciation.

But just who are we watching tonight? Broken Social Scene have comprised of more than twenty members since their inception, including Leslie Feist, Metric’s Emily Haines, Ohad Benchetrit of Do Make Say Think, and Amy Millan and Evan Cranley of Stars – none of whom are present tonight. Instead we have:

Kevin Drew – founder member, formerly of KC Accidental (now the title of a Broken Social Scene song)

Brendan Canning – bass-playing founder member and Steve West lookalike, formerly of By Divine Right

Charles Spearin – moustachioed guitarist / trumpet player with jazzy avant-space-post-rock outfit Do Make Say Think and co-collaborator with Drew in KC Accidental

Andrew Whiteman – beret-wearing Julian Barrett lookalike and guitarist with Apostle Of Hustle

Justin Peroff – drummer and actor

Julie Penner – violinist with FemBots and The Hylozoists

Jason Tait – of The Weakerthans, FemBots and The Hylozoists

Lisa Lobsinger – remarkably-coiffed vocalist with Reverie Sound Revue

… and a chap called Alan making occasional contributions on trumpet (apparently they had a full horn section for Reading and Leeds, so we’re a bit unfortunate to have missed out on witnessing an even fuller stage).

What is most remarkable is that despite their being formed from fragments of other Toronto contemporaries (a fact reflected in the band name), they manage to cohere in perfect harmony. What we’re witnessing is evidently a whole host of incredibly talented musicians at work. But there’s none of the virtuosity and self-indulgence that that might imply, and there’s no room for chinstroking amongst the crowd – this is a party!

It’s great to see the likes of Spearin cutting loose (during ‘I’m Still Your Fag’ he wanders among the audience playing the trumpet), while Whiteman is a pleasure to watch throughout, throwing shapes and pulling moves like a teenage boy living out his rock band fantasies in the bedroom mirror.

But for the most part it’s Drew who’s the focus of attention. Fuelled by continual gulps of red wine, his onstage banter is relaxed and often hilarious. On being robbed: “Someone’s smoking crack on us tonight, ladies and gentlemen”. On it being Spearin’s first visit to Cardiff: “He was telling me that he played Newport with Do Make Say Think, and when they came out of the venue there were lots of little men beating each other up. And enjoying it”. On The Rolling Stones (who are busy playing the Arena): “This one’s for Keith Richards. I’d like him to live forever. Not the others, though. I don’t give a shit about them. Well, maybe Charlie Watts”.

By the end of a two hour set which leaves us and them exhausted (returning for one of the encores Peroff says into the mic “You won’t break…”), Drew is desperate for a joint, and his inability to remember how to play a solo song indicates that the wine has taken its toll. One final hurrah and then we’re out into the night, the clock having ticked past midnight.

Without a doubt the best £12 I’ve spent for some time.

But will I go back to You Forgot It In People? Well, I have, and it doesn’t sound much better than it did BG (Before Gig). Perhaps best just to put it back on the shelf and dwell on the memory of the lives the songs took on in concert.

* OK, OK, so there was no fire – but it was bloody hot in there…

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Feel good hits of 30th August

1. 'You Me Dancing!' - Los Campesinos!
2. 'KC Accidental' - Broken Social Scene
3. 'Fear Of Sleep' - The Strokes
4. 'Losing My Edge' - LCD Soundsystem
5. 'Fall On Me' - REM
6. 'Reena' - Sonic Youth
7. 'A Warm Room' - Envy
8. 'Origin Song' - Semifinalists
9. 'The False Husband' - Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan
10. 'Yeah Is What We Had' - Grandaddy

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Blogwatch

Welcome...

Indexed - a witty and clever blog consisting entirely of hand-drawn graphs and Venn diagrams. (Thanks to Mike for the link.)

The Daily Growl - a music-centred blog which currently features a report on the Summer Sundae shindig. (Another report can be found on Parallax View.)

Meanwhile...

Jonathan offers some detailed thoughts on the debut full-length album from one of my personal Summer Sundae highlights The Young Knives - "Anyone who spends three quarters of an hour with Voices of Animals and Men will attest that riotous good fun and existential angst are handed out in roughly equal, and equally satisfying measures".

Elsewhere...

Alan continues his quest to take in as much of the Edinburgh Festival as possible, with reviews of shows by the established (Richard Herring, veteran of 21 Festivals) and the youthful (Best Newcomer nominee Josie Long).

Betty surveys some of the "untold treasures" on her Kentish doorstep just ripe for a Bank Holiday visit - "BURSTED WOODS near Barnehurst Station. The last time I went for a ramble around here, I saw a rat the size of a pig being chased by a swooping kestrel. It epitomised the terrifying brutality of nature. Marvel also at the detrius strewn about - syringes, old petrol canisters, condoms, porn mags, the occasional corpse left there after an altercation between gangsters. What is more healthy than a walk in the countryside?".

And finally...

JonnyB has a flash of inspiration, but finds the LTLP less than enthusiastic.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Stuff

Incredibly busy this week (ie doing a normal person's normal week of work...) so until the weekend you'll have to make do with a list of stuff in no particular order:

* I've finally seen an episode of 'The IT Crowd'! It wasn't worth waiting for. In fact, it was mostly awful - incredibly so, given the people involved (Graham Linehan, Chris Morris and Richard Ayoade among them). At least Armando Iannucci and 'Time Tunnel' can be relied on, eh? I'm currently earworming the theme tune to 'Rape An Ape'. (Incidentally, did anyone else notice that the only word that Stewart Lee contributed to this evening's installment was "Wool"?)

* Congratulations to Josie Long, nominated in the Best Newcomer category for the if.comEddies (formerly the Perrier Comedy Awards - what a fucking stupid new name).

* The award for most moronic line of any advert ever goes to Melanie Sykes for her current Head & Shoulders ad: "The things I do to hydrate my skin!", she says, pouring herself a glass of water. FOR FUCK'S SAKE...

* Having been at first wary of SendSpace, then rabidly enthusiastic about it, it's now edging towards being crossed off my Christmas card list. There are at least two albums sitting in link form in my email inbox (Rufus Wainwright's Want One and a Tindersticks album) which the arsing site won't let me download. Grrrr.

* By his own admission, satellite-dish-faced choirboy and Keane frontman Tom Chaplin has got a drink and drug problem, and is undergoing rehab. Someone should tell him that Horlicks and Calpol don't count. And sorry Tom, you're still not remotely interesting.

* My favourite news story of recent days, from last week's Cardiff Post: "Welsh-speaking cyclists have been left baffled - and possibly concerned for their health - after a bizarre translation mix-up. For instead of a road sign telling them to dismount, the Welsh translation informs them that 'bladder disease has returned'".
Word of the day

Courtesy of my desktop diary, as usual...

"WRITE: In Old High German, the verb 'rizan' meant "to scratch" or "to tear". In Old English, this developed into the very 'writan', which literally referred to the act of forming letters by carving. There is a similar link between carving, scratching, or cutting and the term for writing in some other European languages."

Monday, August 21, 2006

Sundae best

With the fields and cows of Worthy Farm getting a break from the regular June festivities this year, what better way to get my fill of the cheerily diverse and uncommercial Glastonbury vibe than by going to Summer Sundae, the festival put on in association with BBC 6 Music that’s been labelled its grandson by Steve Lamacq?

What follows is a very personal account of the weekend, recollected as usual from jottings on grubby scraps of paper – the jottings themselves having generally been made significantly under the influence. In other words, you’re better off going elsewhere for a clear-minded and accurate review (Sweeping The Nation, for instance), but if it’s impressionistic ramblings you’re after you’ve come to the right place…

Friday 11th August

11am
After a supermarket shop which sees me attract attention by buying nothing but two boxes of wine, a box of cider, some crisps, two packets of custard creams and a bag of pork scratchings, Birmingham disappears in the rear view mirror.

1pm
We park the car immediately outside the site, where it can stay all weekend long for little more than £10. There is no queue for those of us collecting tickets, nor is there one to exchange tickets for wristbands. Beaming staff direct us to our campsite, where there is plenty of space for us all to set up camp together. For someone accustomed to hour-long treks from car to Pennard Hill, this could just be the least hasslesome festival ever. Summer Sundae 1 Glastonbury 0.

2.30pm
Fed on tasty but suspiciously undercooked sausage and bacon hoagies, we relax at the tents with cider in hand. Looking around, it seems bizarre to see three tall blocks towering over the small enclosed festival area – but we are right in the heart of the city, after all. Festival-goers of all ages wander past and pitch tents around us. Everything seems very placid – there’s no madness. We’ve not been approached with drugs once yet.

4pm
Excuse me”, says a young chap clad in a Libertines-style military jacket, “this might be a cheeky question but I’ve heard someone round here is selling pills…” He’s almost as polite as the steward showing people to spaces in which they can camp. What is normally an undignified free-for-all is here an orderly process.

5pm
JAMES MORRISON (Outdoor Stage) kicks off this year’s festival in earnest, at the end of the week in which his debut album (the now ironically titled Undiscovered) hit the #1 spot. That fact would have been enough for other festivals’ organisers to bump him up the bill, but I’m not complaining. I give him as wide a berth as possible, but unfortunately the size of the site means his mewlings are clearly audible from the campsite too. Alison labels him a Powter, but I prefer to call him a Blunt.

6pm
Morrison gone, it’s time to venture into the arena (or the “amphitheatre”, if you will). Any plans of paying close attention to the new (the latest?) Badly Drawn Boy LIAM FROST AND THE SLOWDOWN FAMILY (Outdoor Stage) are soon jettisoned in favour of hooking up with Kenny and Simon, amongst others. Well, that and marvelling at the sheer range of delicious beers and ciders and even cocktails on offer in the real ale tent. A real ale festival – at a music festival! What with keeping Morrison in a lowly spot and this, I’m already willing to nominate the organisers for sainthood.

7pm
RICHARD HAWLEY’s expansive pop (Outdoor Stage) is enjoyed from the steps outside the Victoria Bar. “I’m so vibing my tits off, they’ve fallen off”, he informs us. He may be drunk.

7.45pm
A visit inside to catch this year’s token folk nominee for the Mercury Music Prize, SETH LAKEMAN (Indoor Stage), proves to be an educational experience when one of my companions wonders out loud what the difference is between a violin and a fiddle and someone next to us answers that there isn’t one and that the latter is simply the Irish name. So, an educational experience, but not a particularly entertaining one. I get the feeling that this is considered remarkable only because it’s young men playing old men’s music (as if to emphasise his youthfulness and distance himself from Fair Isle sweater wearing bearded folkies, the double bassist / banjo player has a key chain…). Is Lakeman to folk what Jamie Cullum is to jazz? I half suspect so. That said, I’m intrigued enough by the unusual percussion to stay until the end, as does Miriam, though for rather different reasons: “He’s boring but he’s got good arms”…

8.15pm
The weather hasn’t been particularly clement but the grey clouds wait until the appearance of THE DELAYS (Outdoor Stage) to deposit their load upon our heads. Perhaps it’s a passing comment from the gods on a band that has more than a malodorous whiff of Britpop about them, but it’s not heavy and doesn’t last long. ‘Nearer Than Heaven’ is the closest they come to distracting me from devouring my tray of delicious veggie pakora and tempting me out from under the protective wing of the stall’s awning.

8.45pm
A bloke playing some records never makes for much of a spectacle, so thankfully DJ FORMAT (Indoor Stage) not only has visuals but, more importantly, gets a crowd swelled by the drizzle outside dancing with an expertly blended mix of funk and soul. I don’t recognise any of the songs, but then that hardly comes as a surprise and it doesn’t take long before I too am shifting awkwardly from one foot to another, almost as much Maypole’s Wellow Gold slopping on the floor as has slipped down my throat.

10.15pm
This is the first time ELBOW (Outdoor Stage) have ever headlined a festival – apparently they’ve been waiting for the right offer to come along – and Guy Garvey is clearly relishing the experience. His introduction to the title track of third album Leaders Of The Free World goes something like this: “There are some terrible things going on in the world, and the people doing them know they’re doing them. And I’m not talking about Cud reforming…” The song itself, and particularly the chorus about “little boys throwing stones”, brings a wry smile to my face, knowing from Jenni that Garvey was just such a little boy playing soldiers where they both grew up in Bury. Unfortunately the song is typical of Elbow’s material in general, in that it’s worthy but dull and just doesn’t match up to Garvey’s engaging between-song wit. That said, one song featuring just Garvey and keyboardist Craig Potter has me momentarily spellbound and, after the induced chants of “Lasting peace in the Middle East!”, old favourite ‘Newborn’ rounds off the encore and the evening in suitably rousing fashion.

10.45pm
One significant advantage of there being an indoor venue is the access to regularly cleaned proper plumbed-in toilets rather than Portaloos, mud-smeared shit-splattered devils’ Tardises that they are. It also makes for more of a communal experience, and allows for the possibility of lighthearted banter. “Why’s there a queue?” asks one voice with a very familiar accent. “Is this Leicester? This wouldn’t happen in Newcastle”. Another bloke delivers a running commentary when his phone rings: “I’m urinating. Well, I’m about to urinate. I’m commencing urination”.

11.30pm
The bands may finish around 11pm, but the Victoria Bar stays open for another hour of drinking. Rather more civilised than sitting on a bin bag round a campfire gulping down Scrumpy.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Saturday 12th August

8.15am
What ungodly hour is this? Why haven’t other people got hangovers?

10am
A bacon and egg roll and a coffee returns me to something like normality.

10.30am
Shouted from a nearby tent: “SHOULDN’T HAVE BEEN DRINKING LAMBRINI ANYWAY!

11am
Claire has somehow got her bottle of water wedged fast in a bright pink welly, but continues to drink out of it. Meanwhile Miriam, suffering from a severe case of alcohol-induced memory loss, ponders quite how she managed to obtain a staff wristband the previous night, and where she’d ventured with it: “I feel a bit like I’ve been abducted by aliens, tampered with and then returned to earth”.

12.30pm
Alison and I play a few hands of poker, that troubling first large glass of wine in hand. Andy really is irrepressible. Unable to stop singing the ‘I Like Monkeys’ song from Howard Read’s Little Howard children’s show that morning, he’s now placing a banana skin on the path between the tents and then crouching behind a bin to see if anyone will slip over. I think they call it “high on life”.

1pm
Into the arena. Most of the group disappear off into the mysterious Polly’s Garden (some kind of strange multi-sensory experience, I gather later – I’m too interested in chatting to Kenny and ploughing on with the wine), but not before Polly has positively ID’d Jim as the bloke who was drunkenly rambling on at her the previous evening. Summer Sundae is a small world.

3pm
Our paths have never quite crossed before, much to my annoyance, but now, finally, a chance to catch HOWLING BELLS (Indoor Stage) live – and they don’t disappoint. “They look great”, says the compere (oh yes – cowboy hats and scuffed boots for the boys, a short floaty dress and black tights for Juanita Stein), “they sound even better” (damn right), “their debut is being hailed as the album of the year” (I’d find it hard to disagree)… ‘Blessed Night’ is the opener, and between that and a fiery ‘Low Happening’ we get all bar four tracks from the aforementioned record. Occasionally there’s that sense of mystery demystified, of seeing how a delicately flavoured and lip-smackingly delicious meal has been rustled up in the kitchen, but there remains something obscure and enigmatic about them, the dark space of De Montford Hall ideally suited to their exquisite gothic blues. Stein’s voice, it gives me great pleasure to report, is as arresting in the flesh as it is on record, and she and her guitarist brother Joel are magnetic presences on stage. The real highpoint of the set – and, for me, of any set I’ve seen so far this year – is ‘A Ballad For The Bleeding Hearts’, when I get goosebumps on the goosebumps on my arms. Sublime.

3.30pm
The gauntlet’s been well and truly thrown down, and TUUNG (Outdoor Stage) certainly aren’t able to pick it up. What I catch of their (warning: journo’s self-constructed pigeonholing term to follow) folktronica is pleasant enough, but a load of bearded blokes performing slow quiet songs whilst sat down is unlikely to get anyone to their feet. The percussionist merits a mention, though, for the sheer array of bizarre instruments at his disposal, including what looks like a small sheaf of wheat…

4pm
Fish and chips to die for from The Sea Cow stall, for a fiver. Seriously, the fish is the best I’ve tasted anywhere for years. Never thought I’d say this, but I’m glad the Thai spiced fishcakes had run out.

4.30pm
After the lull of Tuung, THE YOUNG KNIVES (Outdoor Stage) are mercifully on hand to inject a bit of much-needed life and energy into the afternoon. One glimpse of the local heroes (well, almost – they’re from Ashby-de-la-Zouch originally) and Alison’s smitten – particularly with bassist The House of Lords, who’s looking somewhat streamlined, presumably as a result of this year’s punishing touring schedule. There’s more than enough from their forthcoming debut proper Voices Of Animals And Men to suggest that it’s going to be an essential purchase – the singles in particular (‘Decision’, ‘Here Comes The Rumour Mill’ and closing duo ‘She’s Attracted To’ and ‘Weekends And Bleak Days (Hot Summer)’) are marvellous, as is ‘Loughborough Suicide’ (HoL: “I had a letter from the Loughborough Echo this week saying ‘You can’t call a song that’. But have you been there?”). That said, none of the B-sides aired – ‘Elaine’, ‘Guess The Baby’s Weight’, ‘Current Of The River’ – signal a drop in quality. Having seen them back in March, this time around I’m even more struck by the Futureheads parallels – but, with the Mackems apparently having lost their sense of humour for second LP News And Tributes, there’s more than enough room for The Young Knives to thrive. And thrive they certainly deserve to.

5pm
I’ve been saying to anyone who’ll listen that the cover of her most recent album, the Mercury nominated Ballad Of The Broken Seas, is the best I’ve seen this year, so I feel I really ought to go and see ISOBEL CAMPBELL (Indoor Stage). The fact that many of those lured in by the knowledge of her past in Belle & Sebastian soon wander off speaks volumes about the nature (but not the quality) of the material. It’s light years away from her former band, darkly ethereal stuff that instantly beguiles me. Back to the album cover, which depicts Campbell arranging her hair in a hotel room mirror in the foreground, while in the background an out-of-focus Mark Lanegan reclines vaguely threateningly on a bed, his shoes on. As Simon puts it, that tells you all you need to know about what the album sounds like. The problem is that Lanegan isn’t here today, and that means we don’t get to marvel at the former Screaming Trees vocalist’s inimitable rumble (truly one of the finest voices in rock) intertwining with Campbell’s elfin coo. His stand-in gamely tries his best, and has wisely opted to dress in black to play Lanegan’s night to Campbell’s day, but I come away not enthusing about a spellbinding set but imagining how the songs would sound with Lanegan’s input – and drooling at the prospect. The album’s on its way in the post.

5.45pm
Rumours circle that Leicester fans, fresh from victory over Ipswich at the Walkers Stadium, are set to try and storm the site. Well, makes a change from the usual “Have you heard, [enter C list celeb here] has died?” The Leicester score is announced on stage by Whiskas of FORWARD RUSSIA! (Outdoor Stage), whose frontman Tom then sticks his neck on the line by declaring that “football is shit”. Forward Russia! (the name has an upside-down exclamation mark at the start too, but I can’t find the symbol to insert it – the awkward bastards) are a band I’ve not heard before but really should like: matching T-shirts, bundles of energy, numbers instead of song titles, a sound that draws equally upon Bloc Party and At The Drive-In. But somehow it isn’t quite working for me – perhaps it’s that they’re by far the rowdiest and noisiest band on the bill, and Isobel Campbell wasn’t exactly the ideal preparation. Worth further investigation, though, to be sure. Steve Lamacq certainly thinks so, scampering around for a better viewing position.

6.15pm
Howling Bells guitarist Joel Stein, pacing around by the Rising Tent looking a little edgy and lost, has the misfortune to make fleeting eye contact with yours truly, who takes the opportunity to gush about their performance. Stein is eager to find out when Vashti Bunyan and Calexico are playing, and it’s only in the course of trying to ascertain times from the schedule tags around my neck (handmade and laminated by Alison) that I realise quite how drunk I am. Best cut my losses, I think, shaking his hand again and allowing him to wander off in the direction of the indoor stage.

6.30pm
Jenni, who has insisted on referring to Forward Russia! as Go Russia!, is now approaching comatose levels of drunkenness. When the arrival on stage of NOUVELLE VAGUE (Outdoor Stage) is announced, she mutters “Fuck off you vague people” while lying on her back and then promptly passes out. Loungecore / bossa nova covers of punk and new wave (hence the name) classics? OK, so Nouvelle Vague (and yes, Andy, it’s pronounced “Vag” because it’s French) are a novelty band, but you can’t argue with their versions of ‘Ever Fallen In Love’ and ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ – and especially not with their splendidly jaunty take on The Dead Kennedys’ ‘Too Drunk To Fuck’. Could have done without the dull slump into performance art in the middle of the set, though.

7.45pm
On the way back from another trip to the real ale tent, Henry and The House of Lords from The Young Knives are spotted with their parents. Mindful of having embarrassed myself earlier with Joel Stein, I opt for a quick “Really enjoyed your set” before moving on. Good job Alison didn’t see them – The House of Lords could have found himself with a proposal of marriage, which I doubt was what he’d bargained for when they signed up to play the festival.

8.30pm
As dusk gradually falls we’re transported from inner city Leicester to the desert plains of Arizona, courtesy of CALEXICO (Outdoor Stage). Like Wilco, they take “classic” rock down new more experimental avenues, their sound infused with rather than simply influenced by folk, gypsy and Mexican music. Affable vocalist / guitarist Joey Burns, whose floppy black fringe makes him look like Paul Smith of Maximo Park, clearly enjoys seeing that what they do can have mass appeal to an audience consisting mostly of the uninitiated - despite having played with Giant Sand and Iron & Wine and being beloved by the likes of Stephen Malkmus, they’re not just a bands’ band. Burns also knows how to raise a cheer, dedicating a cover of Love’s ‘Alone Again Or’ to the late Arthur Lee and John Peel. ‘The Crystal Frontier’ is a rollicking finale, even without the full mariachi band they sometimes employ.

9.15pm
Another trip to the real ale tent, where there’s very little left. On my way out, a bloke stops me to impart an urgent message: “Clapping’s out! Howling’s in” I’m allowed to go on my way once I’ve promised to spread the word.

9.30pm
Every festival needs a nadir to throw everything else into relief, and this is it. THE VOOM BLOOMS (Rising Tent) hail from Loughborough and are evidently the sort of NME-believing pricks who think The Libertines were the greatest band ever to live. The vocalist / guitarist, a Johnny Borrell / Carl Barat lookalike, strips off his shirt while everyone else goes through the moves. No inspiration, no originality, no wit, no talent, no songs. They are fucking rubbish.

10.30pm
The Voom Blooms are as bad as the concept of Chas ‘n’ Dave meets funk rock sounds – but against all the odds THE BLOCKHEADS (Indoor Stage) really make it work. Having packed out the Musicians’ / Acoustic Tent the previous evening, they’re now filling in for the absent X-Press 2 in a headlining slot and doing so with aplomb. 6 Music DJ Phill Jupitus joins them on vocals, and for a bunch of ropey-looking old pub rockers they certainly have the songs to get us jigging around like loons. ‘Sex ‘N’ Drugs ‘N’ Rock ‘N’ Roll’ is second, followed soon after by ‘Billericay Dickie’, and the set’s wrapped up by ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ and ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful Part Three’. After The Voom Blooms, cheerfulness has been duly restored.

11.45pm
It’s pissing it down outside, so more pints in the bar seem like the sensible course of action. Jim tells us that he’s been walking into the real ale tent with his empty cocktail jug and before he’s even got to the bar they’ve poured him a fresh jug of “the usual”. Truly this is a marvellous festival.
Sunday 13th August

8.30am
I feel distinctly strange. Outside it’s drizzling, and the tent is taking a real buffeting in the wind.

11am
We venture offsite to meet friends for a fantastic fry up at Jones’s on Queens Road. Just the job.

1pm
It’s still drizzling intermittently as we pack up the tent and take our things to the car. It’s all over far too soon.

2.30pm
Except it’s not, of course. There’s another full day of band-watching in store. And what better way for it to kick off than with THE LONG BLONDES (Outdoor Stage)? The Sheffield quintet are an impeccably cool art school wet dream of a band hell-bent on teaching the indie kids to dance again, sounding like a Pulp for the post Franz Ferdinand set while also referencing Blondie and 60s girl groups. ‘Weekend Without Make Up’ – a serious contender for SWSL Single Of The Year – is brilliant mid-set, while its arch B-side ‘Fulwood Babylon’ open up and the singles ‘Giddy Stratospheres’ and ‘Separated By Motorways’ also feature. Snake-hipped frontwoman Kate Jackson, wearing extremely high heels and matching turquoise neckerchief and socks, is a cross between Karen O and Mick Jagger. Can you tell I’m in love? If you haven’t heard of them yet, don’t worry – you soon will, as soon as their Steve Mackay produced debut album hits the shelves.

3.15pm
How to describe M CRAFT (Indoor Stage)? Well, it’s not easy – but it’s certainly not your usual Blunt / Powter / Morrison singer-songwriter fare. Main man Martin Craft is backed by a conventional band consisting of guitar, bass and drums, but the four blokes are flanked on stage by two women who shimmy slowly along while contributing soft vocals and additional percussion. Musically Craft deals in folk-flavoured torch songs, set closer ‘Love Knows How To Fight’ being a very good example. An unexpected surprise, then, and his recent album Silver And Fire could be worth investing in.

3.45pm
After songs of subtlety come the big broad brush strokes of MORNING RUNNER (Outdoor Stage). From my vantage point on the steps by the Victoria Bar I’m not paying a great deal of attention, admittedly, but then that’s because their amateur dramatics aren’t exactly compelling – Coldplay with added welly, appropriately enough, given the accompanying downpour.

4.30pm
At last! Something the organisers have stuffed up: putting a twee Scottish indie band in a small tent on the day that Belle & Sebastian headline. Such is the clamour to see CAMERA OBSCURA (Rising Tent) that, like Simon, I’m queuing outside the tent for at least half the set before finally getting inside – only thanks to departing punters saying things like “They’re not worth the bother”. But I’m glad I do bother, and that they’ve managed to borrow their instruments from the neighbouring stall after their own were stranded in Copenhagen. A C86 band that’s been cryogenically frozen for twenty years, they’re fey and lightweight but not offensive with it, and, while I’m not as rabidly enthusiastic about them as Kenny and Alison are, I’ll be doing a Poirot and investigating further.

4.45pm
Late afternoon and a lot of wine down the hatch, and that can mean only one thing – time to accost some band members. Long Blondes drummer Screech and bassist Reenie are the poor unfortunates approached by a drunken Geordie blathering about how marvellous they were.

5.15pm
A bloke on a stool”. That’s Jim’s succinct comment on JOSE GONZALEZ (Outdoor Stage), who’s as dull as that implies, even with a cover of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ to close. Much less interesting, certainly, than harassing Camera Obscura guitarist Kenny McKeeve and bassist Gavin Dunbar into posing for photos. They’re quiet sensitive types who probably shit themselves about the prospect of leaving the house, so it’s hardly surprising that they both look positively terrified.

6.30pm
As far as rock star names go, Fyfe Dangerfield is a definite winner. Dangerfield’s band GUILLEMOTS (Outdoor Stage) have a Mercury nominated debut album under their belt (Through The Windowpane) and do a fine job of livening things up with something that could be justifiably labelled a real performance. Recent single ‘Made Up Love Song #43’ has grown stealthily on me and I’ve been expecting a set of slow, measured and sophisticated pop – but what we actually get is completely different, very heavy on the distorted guitar. Dangerfield himself is like Rowlf from ‘The Muppets’, a hairy blur of energy thrashing away at his keyboards while sat on a wooden chair.

8pm
STEPHEN FRETWELL (Outdoor Stage). As you would expect with a lone singer-songwriter who’s toured with Keane, general boredom with onstage goings-on (such as they are) returns.

9pm
This is more like it. Like The Voom Blooms the previous night, LARRIKIN LOVE (Rising Tent) are very definitely a post-Libertines band, but, unlike The Voom Blooms, they don’t exist solely to ape what has gone before. That vital added ingredient is imagination, and certainly they’re an unusual prospect, purveyors of indie-gone-gypsy and what often sounds like a very odd type of reggae. Of course, the advantage of simply toeing the line and following in the footsteps of others is that you know there’s going to be a fanbase (or, more cynically, a market) for your music – but with songs like ‘Edwould’ Larrikin Love won’t have too much trouble in winning hearts and minds, strange though they often are.

9.30pm
Disaster strikes! I’ve lost my pen! Thankfully a girl in the Victoria Bar kindly helps me out by giving me a replacement on the condition that I note down the following for verbatim reproduction on the blog: “Emily, you’re NOT a tragedy”. There you go, Emily – thanks. (I’ve just discovered what it was all about – the chorus of the Stephen Fretwell single ‘Emily’ is “Emily, just look at you / You’re a tragedy”.)

10pm
Regular readers will be well aware of my antipathy for BELLE & SEBASTIAN (Outdoor Stage), so it will come as no surprise that before they take to the stage I imagine I’d rather be chewing on my own teeth like in that recurring nightmare than watching them. But, truth be told, the Glaswegians are actually less offensive / boring than some of the other acts to have played the festival. I’m not a convert or anything, though – Stuart Murdoch, tonight looking like a lost sailor, is still an irritating tit (Alison’s attentions are focused instead on Stevie Jackson, the House Of Lords seemingly a passing infatuation) and I remain immune to the cheerfully upbeat stuff like ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’ that is met with sheer glee by others among my party and most of the assembled throng in general. Most entertaining is the sight of Jenni and Kirsten bouncing around inside a large wire and paper tube “liberated” from outside the Rising Tent. Shortly after the tube is relinquished for the benefit of two new occupants, it’s confiscated by security – probably the only thing they’ve had to do all weekend.

11.15pm
We leave for the car park with a high-spirited Kenny, who, encountering a namesake, is told: “Us Kennys just keep procreatin’!”.

11.45pm
The journey home, usually a time of mourning, is enlivened by an album of power ballads. Is ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart’ one of the finest songs ever written, or is it just the wine talking? Hmm.

So, in summary: a small but perfectly formed festival, friendly punters and staff, good music, good beer (and cocktails), delicious food, reasonable prices, and all the conveniences of a city centre near at hand. Will I be going again? Hell yeah.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Feel good hits of the 18th August

With a distinctly Summer Sundae flavour:

1. 'A Ballad For The Bleeding Hearts' - Howling Bells
2. 'Loughborough Suicide' - The Young Knives
3. 'Incinerate' - Sonic Youth
4. 'News And Tributes' - The Futureheads
5. 'Separated By Motorways' - The Long Blondes
6. 'You Said' - Semifinalists
7. 'Too Drunk To Fuck' - Nouvelle Vague
8. 'Sex 'N' Drugs 'N' Rock 'N' Roll' - Phill Jupitus & The Blockheads
9. 'Love Knows How To Fight' - M Craft
10. 'Sao Paolo' - Guillemots

The festival report is on its way, I promise, but currently remains very much a work in progress with things elsewhere monopolising most of my attention. Apologies.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Back to reality

Back from a hugely enjoyable weekend at the Summer Sundae festival in Leicester. My liver hurts. Full review on the way, featuring (amongst other things) tales of rain, real ale, cravats, bloggers being sociable, drunken accosting of band members, loungecore covers of Dead Kennedys' songs and a large length of silver foil tubing. In the meantime, though, I'm afraid you'll have to put up with this holding pattern post.

Four things I'd like to mention in a kind of Blogwatch redux, though:

1. Like Mike, I was delighted to see that Friday's Guardian and yesterday's Independent on Sunday both gave Girl a platform to speak out herself about the furore surrounding her "unmasking". You can read Girl's latest blog post on the subject here.

2. Mike's marvellous Which Decade Is Top For Pops? feature came to an end with a victory for the 1970s. Scroll down for a break-down of and commentary on the results for each decade.

3. Alan of Random Burblings appears to be spending every minute of the day taking in shows at the Edinburgh Festival. Click here and scroll down for a feast of excellent reviews of shows by Rich Hall, Andy Parsons and We Are Klang amongst others.

4. And last but not least, congratulations to Swiss Toni, who's got engaged.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Home cinema

Good films - they're like buses etc. Several passed me by in January, February and March, so a quiet weekend and cheap DVD hire presented the ideal opportunity to play catch-up.

First up was 'Goodnight And Good Luck', George Clooney's critically acclaimed black-and-white directorial debut. For his first venture into directing, Clooney's choice of subject matter was brave: the Communist witchhunt in post-war America and, more specifically, the confrontation between self-appointed Communist scourge Senator Joe McCarthy and CBS newsman Edward J Murrow. After all, "in the film industry alone, over 300 actors, writers and directors were denied work in the U.S. through the informal Hollywood blacklist".

What the film demonstrates (and explicitly states in the address delivered by Murrow which opens and closes the film) is the value of strong and independent news sources led by people who refuse to be bullied or bow to the pressures of censorship - whether from the state, from advertisers or from within the corporation of which they are a part. Murrow is vocal in his conviction that, at a time when TV is taking off dramatically and the schedules are in danger of becoming overrun by trivial frothy entertainment shows, news and current affairs programmes are vital to informing and stimulating the public. Little has changed - Murrow's point bears repeating.

No surprise that Clooney's film, and its robust defence of Murrow (and corresponding attack on McCarthy), has also been seen as a thinly-veiled attack on Bush's America, in which, if you don't agree with presidential policy, you're labelled "unpatriotic" and "an enemy of freedom".

What was particularly interesting, personally, was learning more about the actual events and atmosphere in America at the time, and seeing quite how sharp the political commentary of Arthur Miller's 1952 play 'The Crucible' (ostensibly about the Salem witch trials and the consequent hysteria) was. Miller later said: "The more I read into the Salem panic, the more it touched off corresponding images of common experiences in the fifties".

The situation also brought to mind Franz Kafka's 'The Trial', in the sense that once the finger had been pointed and the wheels of persecution had rolled inexorably into motion, there was no means of escaping your fate. Once pinned down with the Communist label, people struggled to rid themselves of it. Logic and evidence didn't matter.

It might not make for particularly fun viewing, but 'Goodnight And Good Luck' is enjoyable nonetheless, and a very auspicious debut for Clooney. It'll be interesting to see what his next move is.

... And I'm out of time. 'Capote' and 'The Constant Gardener' will have to wait until next week. In the meantime, I'm off here for the weekend - report to follow on my return. Keep your fingers crossed for good weather on my behalf, will you? Cheers.
Feel good hits of the 10th August

1. 'Show The Way' - Semifinalists
2. 'Skip To The End' - The Futureheads
3. 'Razorblade' - The Strokes
4. 'Mamma Mia' - Abba
5. 'Sleepin' Around' - Sonic Youth
6. 'The W.A.N.D.' - The Flaming Lips
7. 'Finest Worksong' - REM
8. '19th Nervous Breakdown' - The Rolling Stones
9. 'Presidential Wave' - The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster
10. 'These Boots Were Made For Walking' - Nancy Sinatra

I've got Mike's Which Decade Is Top For Pops? to thank for lodging a few of those in my brain - it wasn't all Mariah Carey, Lighthouse Family and Su Pollard...

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Girl, interrupted

I was disappointed to learn that Girl, author of the splendid Girl With A One-Track Mind whose book has recently been published, has been "unmasked" by a national newspaper. Disappointed, but not exactly surprised.

There was a certain depressing inevitability about it. A woman who writes anonymously and candidly about sex and her sex life and whose book has stirred up a lot of media interest? It was fairly obvious how the press would react. Her anonymity must have been like a red rag to a bull. It probably became something of a race, a matter of rivalry and pride - who could be the first to "name and shame" her? (The "winners" of the race will remain nameless here at least - not to preserve their anonymity but to avoid giving the toerags any more publicity.)

So, the race has been won, but what of Girl? From the high of being so highly thought of as to be published, to this. As she suggests in her own post on the subject, Girl's world has been profoundly shaken by the revelation. She's had to come clean to friends and family about the blog and the book, not because she's been "named and shamed" (she's not ashamed) but because of her explicit subject matter. And all for what? A fleeting moment of kudos amongst media types for the journalist and paper involved.

Of course, some bloggers will respond (and have responded) in that irritating "I told you so" voice that you shouldn't publish anything anonymously online that you wouldn't say in public normally. Which is bollocks, frankly. Anonymity online may be hard to preserve, but that's not to say it should be violated rather than respected. Girl wrote anonymously, deliberately giving away remarkably few personal details for a blog that was otherwise so candidly personal. She thereby implicitly requested that her right to anonymity be respected, and, until the book was published, it was. It's only the media's prurience that has led to this "unmasking" - the paper wasn't acting in the public interest. What does the general public care who wrote the book?

OK, so anonymity's not a legal right (unlike the right to privacy, which incidentally has very definitely been infringed in Girl's case), but it's a matter of principle. And, of course, principles are alien concepts to most journalists. (Scrupulousness? How quaint.)

The upshot of all this is that, for the sake of one trivial expose, Girl's life has been turned upside down and, on a selfish note, even if the blog continues it won't be the same again. A sad thought, and one that has me (and I imagine many others) wishing serious misfortune upon the journalist and paper in question.

Other bloggers' comments: Casino Avenue, Gordon McLean, Pete Ashton's Interweb Presence

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Full of characters

Down in London this weekend, we found ourselves in the vicinity of Whitehall and Westminster at the same time as the protests against continuing Israeli attacks on Lebanon and allowed ourselves to get caught up in the melee.

Outside Downing Street, who should we spy on the other side of the railings but tikka-tanned publicity-shy Respect MP George Galloway. Not everyone was quite sure who he was, though - we overheard the following exchange:

"It's George Galloway!"

"Who's George Galloway?"

"There, George Galloway!"

"Oh, the bloke off 'Big Brother'".

I was tempted to shout out "Do the cat! Do the cat!" but it didn't seem the time or the place.

A couple of hours later, outside Tate Modern, we came across another character. Don Crown, grey of hair and bushy of beard, is Budgieman, singing his own compositions (available from his website, along with T-shirts) while his budgerigars perform tricks. He's been featured in a recent issue of Chat magazine, don't you know?

With us having recently acquired a pair of budgies (christened Vic and Bob), we were naturally intrigued to see what he did. Sadly our two seem uninterested in being trained to perform even the simplest of tasks. Best leave it to the professionals, I suppose.

(All in all, it was a very good if pretty lazy day: picnic lunch in the park in the sun; cold pints overlooking the Thames outside The Morpeth Arms and then The Horniman; and a fantastic meal at Cantina Del Ponte.)
Quote of the day

"This is the tale of a smartarse Brit getting lost in the Philadelphia health system. The highlights—edited for shock value—include cockroaches, urine-drenched bathrooms, a crazed geriatric chip-sucker, a frenzied attempt to masturbate into a specimen jar while the chap in the next bed watches Patton at a libido-shattering 128 decibels, and nurses hiding their name badges while my wife screams, 'My husband's got cancer. Get off your arse and get him his fucking painkillers now!'

The story also features Kafkaesque data chases, a scrotal sac swollen to the size of a football, glimpses of oak-paneled $300-a-night posh-patients' rooms where protein shakes come in silver salvers, the horror of the catheter they stick down your cock (and this is legal, why?) and the nightmare foot-long scented candle of compacted fecal matter that was so hard to shift that I collapsed and had to be given oxygen the first time I tried.

Plus more love, affection and staggeringly efficient professionalism from amazing doctors and incredible nurses than you could possibly believe. And more really, really, really great free drugs than you could shake a shitty stick at.
"

From this article by regular Philadelphia Weekly columnist Steven Wells in which the inimitable former NME scribe writes about being diagnosed with and treated for lung cancer. It's an essential read.

(Thanks to Jonathan for the link.)
Rather chuffed

As you might have noticed from my sidebar, I've finally got my hands on the latest albums from The Futureheads and my beloved Sonic Youth, as well as the debut from Semifinalists. All thanks to eBay - a godsend given my current state of impecuniousness.

I'll hold off committing any judgements to blog for a while yet (not least because I only span Rather Ripped for the first time today), but suffice to say that they've gone a long way to making up for the sheer awfulness of most of what Mike's put us through for the Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? feature on Troubled Diva. (And if that hasn't put you off, there's still time to take part if you get over there sharpish.)
The return of The Hoff

Millions of years of evolution have brought us to this. Remarkable. Quite remarkable.

I sincerely hope this isn't the single I promised to buy to send him to #1.

(Thanks to Sioned for the link.)
Hello goodbye

Welcome to the SWSL blogroll to So Long, Dental Plan, the new home of an old acquaintance.

Friday, August 04, 2006

"A ball of rusty barbed wire"

A fascinating addendum to Ian's On Second Thought piece about Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation and my response to it: John Harris describes his attempts to get to grips with Captain Beefheart and the Trout Mask Replica album in particular, with assistance from Magic Band guitarist Gary Lucas, XTC's Andy Partridge and Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand.

Harris articulates perfectly what it generally means not to "get" a universally revered supposedly "classic" album: "When this kind of experience happens to a rock critic, it can easily bring on a chill feeling of inadequacy". But, rather than shrugging his shoulders and deciding he just doesn't like Beefheart, he persists and eventually breaks through to a better understanding and appreciation of his music.

Or does he? Has he just started to persuade himself into thinking he likes it? I'd argue that's equally possible. Repeated exposure to a record can wear you down like that. But there are also certain "classic" albums that I know I'll never warm to. That feeling of inadequacy may be natural, but it's unfortunate too - it's perfectly OK not to like something that everyone else hails as a landmark record. It's important that there are no utterly sacred cows - even if some cows are more sacred than others...

For the record, I've not heard a great deal of Beefheart, but got on OK with Trout Mask Replica when I heard it a year or so ago. But if I ever decide to do a Harris and investigate further, I know a couple of people who'll be only too happy to point me in the right direction.

On a tangential but still music-centred tip, there's an excellent new mp3 blog on the block. 17 Seconds has already featured tracks from Low, Yo La Tengo, The Concretes and Sons & Daughters, as well as Mercury Rev's cover of Bowie's 'The Jean Genie'.

(Thanks to Jon and Simon respectively for the links.)
The annual review

After a lull earlier in the year, we're currently being spoiled for new comedy - and, as usual, it's the BBC who are responsible.

No sooner has 'Saxondale' finished (with a surprisingly poignant though not particularly funny episode) than Armando Iannucci's new series 'Time Trumpet' (10pm, Thurs, BBC2) begins. The show is set in the year 2031 (when meat is a source of energy), with Iannucci and a panel of comedians including Adam Buxton, Richard Ayoade and the inimitable Stewart Lee looking back on the events of previous years.

Last night was 2007, which featured David Cameron copying everything Tony Blair does, a 'Dragon's Den' spoof with a pair of budding entrepreneurs trying to interest the panel in a cake cover, and Charlotte Church vomiting herself inside out after a night on the Bacardi Breezers. It seems as though Iannucci has been keeping all his surrealism bottled up to stop it from seeping into the scripts of 'The Thick Of It', and now the bottle's been uncorked. Not as good as 'The Armando Iannucci Show' or 'The Day Today', but then what is?

Rather less entertaining is 'Rob Brydon's Annually Retentive', in the midst of a run on BBC3. It's a panel show in the style of 'Have I Got News For You', but with much of the material coming from scripted behind-the-scenes footage.

Not only is the quiz itself unoriginal (something the writers gleefully admit), but I gather the whole concept isn't original either, American TV having already had a spoof chat show which delved behind the scenes. But the problem with this programme is that it just doesn't really work. All the funniest lines are in the "off-camera" footage (which, incidentally, marks it out as another post-'Office' comedy), so the clips of the panel show itself generally feel like irritating intrusions. Brydon's a funny man (see: 'A Cock & Bull Story', 'The Keith Barrett Show'), and this isn't the best vehicle for his talents. It's watchable for him, though.
Trashcan Sinatra

Walking down Queen Street today I was assailed by the familiar strains of Cardiff city centre's most famous crooner Toy Mic Trev. He really does belt out those songs.

Anyway, it seems I did him a bit of an injustice when I claimed a couple of months ago that he's not as legendary as Ninjah. After all, he might not be as outlandishly dressed and he might not proclaim his own genius as loudly - but he's got a fanpage set up on MySpace. There you can hear the man himself in action and read some of his fanmail.

Today Trev had some serious busking competition, though, in the form of a superb classical violinist. Wonder whether they combined forces this afternoon?
Boozy nights

Binge drinking "worst in north". That'd be Newcastle, then. Well, at least it's not something else Nottingham is bottom (or top) of the table for...

(Thanks to Marc for the link.)

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

In the footsteps of giants

(Please excuse the self-congratulatory nature of what follows...)

Writing online is all very well, isn't it, but the holy grail is getting into print. Physical rather than virtual. On paper rather than on screen.

So it gave me great pleasure to discover I could claim to be following in the footsteps of some of my blogging heroes (don't blush chaps) by getting a contribution included in this book. (I'm in good company, too, what with Paul and Jonathan also amongst the contributors.)

'Wor Al: A Fans' Tribute To Alan Shearer' doesn't officially hit the shelves until 14th August, but thanks to the nice chaps at the book's publishers Tonto Press I already have a copy - and very decent it is too.

So, the next target is the book contract. Er, yeah. Somehow I think it'll be a long time before I'm admiring the arses of members of the opposite sex who are in turn admiring copies of my book on display in Borders...
Eat your greens

48 Percent Cabbage is my brother's first foray into the world of blogging. Whether he'll keep it up for long after his current excursion to Thailand I don't know, but it's worth a read at the moment.

And no, I have no idea what the name refers to.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A glassy malignity

It seemed like such a good idea at the time: read Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning novel ‘The Line Of Beauty’ in conjunction with its three part BBC2 adaptation.

But then it struck me that I would have to read a third of the novel each week to keep up and avoid seeing what I hadn’t yet read. So I decided instead to concentrate on the novel and record the programmes for later viewing.

Which would have been fine, had it not been for the video mysteriously running out halfway through the final installment.

Oh well. The book, then.

‘The Line Of Beauty’ tells the story of Nick Guest, recently graduated from Oxford and living in Kensington with the family of his friend and undergraduate crush Toby Fedden, whose father Gerald is a Conservative MP.

But to say even that much is deceptive. For, as finely sketched as the characters are, the novel is not really about individuals at all. Rather, it’s the portrait of a decade in which the events are set: the 1980s. A time when consumption was as conspicuous as possible. When politicians craved "the accolade of a 'Spitting Image' puppet in [their] likeness". When, later, people could ruefully sip on cocktails called Black Mondays.

If ‘The Line Of Beauty’ IS about an individual, then that individual is Margaret Thatcher. For most of the book she exists only in talk: a possible guest at Toby’s extravagant 21st birthday party, a semi-mythical object of adoration for Tory MPs and entrepreneurs alike. But then, at one of the Feddens’ parties (one of several long set-pieces), she makes an appearance, and Nick too is sucked in and enraptured: "He gazed delightedly at the Prime Minister's face, at her whole head, beaked and crowned, which he saw was a fine if improbable fusion of the Vorticist and the Baroque". Whisking the Iron Lady off for a drunken dance, Nick arouses Gerald’s schoolboyish jealousy.

The “line of beauty” of the title is Hogarth’s term for a double curve or ogee, but it comes to refer to little more than the lines of cocaine that Nick and his lover Wani Ouradi snort almost incessantly. It’s no coincidence that high art should be set in debased and bathetic connection to the senseless and careless pursuit of pleasure. At one point, to underline that connection, Wani selects Nick’s copy of Mildred R Pullman’s ‘Henry James And The Question Of Romance’ from which to hoover up his line.

In the world of the novel, art is something to be bought, owned, flaunted – a status symbol and marker of wealth rather than something of intrinsic aesthetic value. The Feddens’ home is resplendent with expensive artefacts, while the book’s most vulgar philistine Sir Maurice Tipper disinterestedly regards the publishing company he owns as a mere possession.

(An aside: I remember reading Mike’s comments about the seemingly obsessive descriptions of furniture - “escritoires”, "repro Louis Quinze tables and chairs" etc – but, in these terms, such descriptions are defensible as a reflection of the obsession with possessions. Plus Nick, who acts as narrator throughout, is the son of an antiques dealer, and so is naturally drawn to noting furniture.)

But it’s not all vacuous hedonism and carefree excess; there are consequences. The novel follows the classic tragic arc (itself a “line of beauty”) - from the glorious hazy summer of 1983 and Nick’s first love affair with another man to the teetering precipice of 1986 and, ultimately, 1987 and the unravelling of it all in the third and final section entitled “The End Of The Street”.

If Thatcher haunts the novel, then so too (increasingly) does the spectre of AIDS and the fear, confusion and outright panic it precipitated. Catherine Fedden’s godfather dies of the condition, and both Wani and Nick’s first lover Leo contract it. Nick is horrified by an image of Leo: "He was in bed, in a sky-blue hospital gown; his face was hard to read, since AIDS had taken it and written its message of terror and exhaustion on it; against which Leo seemed frailly to assert his own character in a doubtful half smile. His vanity had become a kind of fear, that he would frighten the people he smiled at. It was the loneliest thing Nick had ever seen". Set against this are the uncomprehending and crude prejudices about AIDS, put into the mouths of the odious Tippers: "'I mean, they're going to have to learn, aren't they, the... homosexuals'", "'I just don't see why anyone's remotely surprised. The whole thing had got completely out of hand. They had it coming to them'".

The appearance of respectability – as of wealth and culture – being all, Nick’s gay Oxford friend Paul ‘Polly’ Tompkins has to marry to make himself electable, and Wani’s mother pays a girl to act as his fiancĂ©e to conceal her son’s homosexuality. And that is the comment ‘The Line Of Beauty’ passes eloquently on the decade: that it was shallow, all surface and no substance. That’s something Nick comes to acknowledge when presented with the first (and last) issue of the pretentious magazine he and Wani have been working on: “He took a copy upstairs to the flat, and opened it at random several times – to find that its splendour had a glint to it, a glassy malignity. No, it was very good. It was lustrous. The lustre was perfected and intense – it was the shine of marble and varnish. It was the gleam of something that was over”. As the portrait of a decade (albeit one side of that decade), ‘The Line Of Beauty’ is little short of a masterpiece.

So much for the subject matter. What about Hollinghurst’s style? Well, it initially provoked Mike into much mischievous mockery, and it is certainly sufficiently mannered and self-consciously literary to get up the noses of plenty of readers as often as cocaine does up the noses of Nick and Wani.

But many (if not all) of his sentences unfold gracefully with near-perfect weighting, and some of them stick in the memory for their fine blend of aesthetic charm and truth rather than their faint ridiculousness. Perhaps it says more about me than Hollinghurst to say that his descriptions of states of intoxication and their aftermath are particularly affecting. Here, for instance, we find Nick stoned at Toby’s birthday party: "[He] thought his way towards moving his left leg forward, he could coax his thought down through the knee to the foot, but it died there with no chance of becoming an action". And, later, following a night of excess: "Nick gazed at them with the patient surmise of the hung-over, a sense of mysterious displacement and slow revelation". That captures the feeling perfectly, I think.

One final very personal point of interest. Before being sidetracked by Wani and his vanity publishing / film company Ogee, Nick sets out doing a PhD in Henry James. It’s unsurprising, given what I’ve been up to over the last few years, that some of the comments struck a chord. Take, for instance: "It all sounded perfectly pointless, or at least a way of wasting two years, and Nick blushed because he really was interested in it and didn't yet know - not having done the research - what he was going to prove". Hmm. And, on the subject of Nick’s thesis: "He'd developed a reluctance that was Jamesian in itself to say exactly what its subject was". I know that feeling all too well…

So, can anyone tell me what the TV adaptation was like and how it compared?