Sunday, February 04, 2018

John Wyndham – ‘The Day of the Triffids’

Talking of apocalypses, here’s one from 66 years ago, before the Cuban Missile Crisis, but after Hiroshima, and very definitely of the modern technological era. Rockets have led to satellites, and these, thirty-odd years before Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ project, led to speculation:
From time to time there would be a panicky flare-up of expostulation when reports circulated that as well as satellites with atomic heads there were others with such things as crop diseases, cattle diseases, radioactive dusts, viruses, and infections not only of familiar kinds, but brand-new sorts recently thought up in laboratories, all floating around up there.
Factor number two feels more contemporary still:
Every year we were pushing the northern limit of growth for food plants a little farther back. New fields were growing quick crops on what had historically been simply tundra or barren land. […] For food was then our most pressing problem, and the progress of the regeneration schemes and the advance of the cultivation lines on the maps was followed with almost as much attention as an earlier generation had paid to battle fronts.
It is technology which allows this expansion to happen, and the novel’s narrator, Bill Masen, is a biologist working in a related area. His speciality is triffids, tall walking plants with lethal stings, but also source of a new wonder oil which has replaced fish oil on the food market. They have been around since his boyhood, when he was stung by a small one, and are, he says, ‘the outcome of a series of ingenious biological meddlings’ (Russian meddlings, he hints). The impetus behind triffid farming is commercial rather than existential, though: it is the fact that triffid oil can undercut fish oil that brings it to dominance, and brings about all the triffid nurseries which cause so many problems when it happens.

I was surprised that it – the moment when the world stops functioning – is not caused by the triffids at all. Green lights are seen in the sky, and for everyone who does see them they cause blindness. The blind are easily picked off by triffids, who can feed on the bodies once they have decayed sufficiently. There is also a mysterious plague which wipes out a large proportion of those who escape the triffids. For a monster talking over the world, the triffids are having an awful lot handed to them on a plate, I thought. This, though, is the point: technology creates many dangerous things, manageable under normal circumstances, but take away that crutch, and they can get out of control. Bill suspects that both the wave of blindness and the plague (a bit like typhoid, but with a shorter incubation period) are the result of the weapons satellites malfunctioning. The triffids simply take advantage.

Within a very few weeks, England (and we are to presume the wider world) is reduced to a skeleton population of scavenging survivors, who live initially on supplies raided from cities, but later move to the countryside to avoid the plague. While Bill is still in London, he faces a dilemma to either help the blind to scavenge, and prolong their lives by a short while, or desert them with an organised group of mostly sighted people, with the idea of setting up a community than can survive long-term. He chooses the latter, but is kidnapped with the rest of the party in a raid organised by Wilfred Coker, who forces them all to look after a group of the blind, handcuffed to minders. Once forced, he has enough humanity to continue to look after his group even when free of the minders, abandoning them only when plague gets them and it is pointless to stay. Coker realises the error of his hard-line tactics, but there is another group which continues militant, using Brighton as its base, and intending to build up an army in order to conquer other depleted countries at the first opportunity. This is the real cynicism of the book: not that technology can go wrong, but that even reduced to a stump, the human race would still contain that contingent (about 5%, Bill reckons) convinced that it knew best and was entitled to stamp its authority on the majority.

In London, Bill meets and falls in love with Josella Playton, notorious author of ‘Sex is My Adventure’ (perhaps the most modern touch of all – that, and the gentrified farm house in the commuter belt), but loses her during Coker’s raid. Much of the rest of the book is the story of his search for her, but late on comes this description of a blind man taking a walk to the village shop, which is the most effective account of triffid terror in the book:
Most of the next day Dennis devoted to contriving a kind of helmet for himself. He had wire net only of large mesh so that he had to construct it of several layers overlapped and tied together. It took some time, but, equipped with this and a pair of heavy duty gauntlet gloves, he was able to start out for the village late in the day. A triffid had struck at him before he was three paces from the house. He groped for it until he found it, and twisted its stem for it. A minute or two later another sting thudded across his helmet. He could not find that triffid to grapple with it, though it made half a dozen slashes before it gave up. He found his way to the toolshed, and thence across to the lane, encumbered now with three large balls of gardening twine which he paid out as he went to guide him back.
There is plenty that is daft here: not least, mobile plants that kill for food but can’t actually eat it until it has decayed, by which time they are probably somewhere else (though Bill does say that in common with insects, ‘Separately they have something which looks slightly like intelligence; collectively it looks a great deal more like it’). People committing suicide on a mass scale immediately they realise they are blind. The blindness, caused by looking at the sky at the wrong time, affecting quite such a large proportion of the population (weren’t any of them inside?) There is definitely something in this, though:
My first tentative trip [to London] I took alone, returning with cases of triffid-bolts, paper, engine parts, the Braille books and writing machine that Dennis so much desired, the luxuries of drinks, sweets, records, and yet more books for the rest of us. A week later Josella came with me on a more practical search for clothing.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Onion Club – ‘American Apocalypse Now!’ at Hospitalfield Arts, Arbroath, 27th January


In the week that Mark E. Smith died, we ventured out for (I think) our third winter Onion Club show of recent years, at the best venue they play, a sort of mini-castle with a chandelier and a huge oil painting (or at least its frame) visible through a first storey window, and rooms with curved walls which snuggle together to make a courtyard. The room where they play, on the ground floor, has a low ceiling and tastefully lit stone walls. I imagine they probably live there all the time, playing non-stop, and every so often have the public around to see how they’re getting along. Which era they’ve reached, what spin they’re putting on things. As previously reported, their touchstone era is the 1920s, and they interpret songs from other times and places as though all times and places were the Weimar Republic. I am reaching the end of my historical tether here, but a quick search throws up:
Like few others, the names Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht are synonymous with the radical politics and cultural innovation of the Weimar Republic. Most famously with their hit Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), but also with numerous other collaborative pieces, the duo represented everything that the Nazi regime declared its enemy. The Jewish Weill and the Marxist Brecht were thus some of the earliest and most obvious targets of Nazi cultural oppression. (From holocaustmusic.ort.org).
In taking on the State Of America And How It’s Going To Kill Us All Before Trump’s First Term Is Up, via a cabaret show, The Onion Club are connecting with a powerful moment of twentieth century history. When the public got to choose between glitter and gold, and chose the wrong one. Clearly the public has not learned a damn thing, in the intervening years.

Opening with a mournful, shattered take on Rufus Wainwright’s ‘Going to a Town’ (‘I’m so tired of you, America’ the dominant refrain), they embarked upon a more sombre apocalypse than might have been expected. Much of the tone of the show, though there were plenty of fun moments, was quietly regretful, the big surprise for me how beautiful they made Radiohead’s ‘Lucky’: I’m not a fan, but it was great, funereal, lost, delicate as dew. And, as, S. pointed out, ‘pull me out of the aircrash’ works as a retrospective 9/11 reference. I’m also not a fan of Depeche Mode or The Doors, but wonders were done with ‘Personal Jesus’ and ‘The End’, for the first of which Pauline became a hectoring preacher, here’s a bit of her intro:
The bad news is you are all damned to eternal hellfire and perpetual torment on account of making diabolical deals with the devil who is walking among us on this earth, who is among us this very evening in the so-called hallowed halls of the arts, which as we know is a breeding ground for lefties, liberals, lesbians and pinko faggots [delighted yelps from the audience here]. The good news is, ah can save you. […] You just need to form an orderly line and get your CREDIT CARDS READY, ALRIGHT!
Stephen pared back his piano playing to thumped notes, and added some extra bass fizz with the Microkorg at his elbow. The preacher bluesed it up for all the cash he could charm or scare out of his congregation. Meanwhile ‘The End’ was a plink plonky vamp with a chilling interlude in which New York was glimpsed, after the bomb. No, wait, after the Martians’ death rays. Of course.

As well as the Microkorg, there was another synth stage left, just past the angel wings, used for helicopter noises after ‘Crack of Doom’ and in the run up to ‘Lucky’. This was quite a radical departure for a group that is usually hard line piano, singing and dressing up. That, and the fact that none of the songs in the set (as far as I could tell) pre-dated the 1960s felt like a shift of approach: facing up to a more modern world, perhaps. After the heavy stuff, and the religious stuff (‘God is in the House’ and ‘God’s Away on Business’ remained from previous sets) Pauline donned an American flag and a big gold star for Randy Newman’s ‘Political Science’, its jokey tone horribly close to the actual political discourse of Trump:
We give them money, but are they grateful?
No, they’re spiteful and they’re hateful
They don’t respect us, so let’s surprise them
Let’s drop the big one and pulverise them
What followed as an encore was anything but jokey: John Grant’s ‘Glacier’, a stately and defiant unravelling of the order of things (specifically, the straight, theocratic order of things), a plea not to blindly follow, to trust your own convictions. The personal a rejection of the political (at least, as politics is now). The image of the glacier as pain, ‘carving out deep valleys / And creating spectacular landscapes’ is beautiful. I didn’t know it, clearly I need to listen to more John Grant. In a prolonged instrumental section at the end, Pauline handed out some felt pens for people to write on her arms and back with, bringing the audience in directly at the end of a vulnerable song. I guess this was a counter to its individualism: once the ‘fuckers’ of the lyric have been rejected, it’s important to rebuild too. After the rejection, or after the apocalypse.

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Appendix

Links accumulated writing this review: The Tiger Lillies – ‘Crack of Doom’, Kurt Weill bio, Laurie Anderson – ‘O Superman’, Allen Ginsberg – ‘America’, Father John Misty – ‘When the God of Love Returns There’ll be Hell to Pay’ (lyrics), ‘Pirate Jenny’, Randy Newman – ‘Political Science’ (lyrics), John Grant – ‘Glacier’ (lyrics), ‘Glacier’ (Guardian piece & video).

Misgivings: Is it fair to pile on the links to Weimar when there were no songs from that period, and their sound has moved on? Probably not. But also, in the opposite direction:



Goodnight, Mark E.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Motorpoint Arena, Nottingham, 28th September

My sister and her husband went to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on Thursday. She and I were always fans, and the way she describes the concert, it sounds like practically a religious experience this time around. The videos below (not by her, but of the same concert) look like nothing so much as a huge gospel gathering. It looks intense. It looks amazing. Over to her:
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We went to see Nick Cave last night, R. and I, in Nottingham and it was just the most incredible experience. It was at a large arena, similar to the NEC. Browsing the merchandise before the show, which consisted of the usual ‘Loverman’ tea towels, some recent records and a selection of accessories including a rather hideous Nick Cave doll, R. purchased a leather backed Bad Seed keyring to replace the fabric O’Neill one he’s had for the last decade or so. Wow, I thought.

We sat waiting in our plastic seats with trays of chips that cost four pounds each. I was on the end of a row, which meant I could swing my legs over the side of my chair and perch my feet comfortably on an aisle step. We were quite far back but happy enough with our spot. Why would you, when you’re over a certain age, want to stand up for two hours, hot and uncomfortable, we mused? I’ll tell you why a bit later on.

It was dark. The stage lit up. The Bad Seeds took their places. Warren Ellis’ violin started screeching ominously. My hero was coming.
Here I come now, here I come
I hear you been out there looking for something to love
        (‘Anthrocene’)
There he was. The sharp tailored suit. The hair combed back like a raven’s wing. He sat briefly for a few gentle piano chords but then he went straight to his crowd. And there he remained for the majority of the night, leaning in to the fans and holding their outstretched hands.

People shouted to him, wanting to engage him in conversation, but he said very little. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said genuinely. ‘I’m shy.’ A group near the stage broke into the happy birthday song. A quick Google search later and we realised that six days ago Nick Cave had turned sixty, which was hard to believe. He accepted a card from a fan, opened it and put it on the piano. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘That’s very kind.’ He wasn’t shy in his stage performance though. During ‘Stagger Lee’, he stage dived into the crowd arriving nose to nose with a group of burly men just in time to scream: ‘I'll crawl over fifty good pussies just to get one fat boy's asshole’! A different skill set, I suppose.

It must be a wonderful thing to look back at such an expansive career and pick out songs for your set list. R. had said to me before the show that Nick Cave is one of the only musicians he can think of who has got better and better. I take his point and when immersed in the beauty of ‘Distant Sky’, with stillness across the arena like a collective quiet intake of breath, you know that this is as good as it gets. But then, it can’t get any better than ‘The Ship Song’ or ‘The Mercy Seat’ or ‘Tupelo’ either. Old songs, new songs, violence and tenderness: an eclectic mix of brilliant music that flowed seamlessly.

The encore was incredible. It started with ‘The Weeping Song’, in which Cave encouraged rather ridiculous fast hand clapping from the audience and then stopped and started it like a conductor. He disappeared from view several times, diving into the crowd. He finally reappeared like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, leading hundreds of fans onto the stage by the power of his music. He then performed ‘Stagger Lee’ which, of course, they all went crazy for. That’s why it was a good idea to buy a standing ticket!

The very last song of the night was ‘Push The Sky Away’. He abandoned the fans on the stage at this point and, to my delight, came our way. He leapt around the arena from empty chairs to steps. Could this man really be sixty years old? The standing area was quite empty towards the back, especially now that there were a good many folk on the stage. ‘C’mon, c’mon,’ he beckoned urgently, gathering a new crowd at his feet. I jumped up of course and rushed down to him. I looked up and it was the closest we had ever been. He stood above me, his arms outstretched singing:
And some people say it’s just rock and roll
Oh but it gets you right down to your soul
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Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sarah Bakewell – ‘At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being & Apricot Cocktails’

As is well known, Martin Heidegger was a Nazi for part of his life, and refused to issue a categorical renunciation after the Second World War. Given that, it is amazing what he was against:
By ‘machination’ he meant the making-machine-like of all things: the attitude that characterises factory automation, environmental exploitation, modern management and war. With this attitude, we brazenly challenge the earth to give up what we want from it, instead of patiently whittling or cajoling things forth as peasant smallholders or craftsmen do. […] Moreover, we rarely use what we take at once, but instead convert it to a form abstract energy to be held in reserve in a generator or storehouse. […] When something is placed ‘on call’ or in ‘standing-reserve’, says Heidegger, it loses its ability to be a proper object. […] If we are left alone ‘in the midst of objectlessness’, then we ourselves will lose our structure – we too will be swallowed up into a ‘standing-reserve’ mode of being. We will devour even ourselves. Heidegger cites the term ‘human resources’ as evidence of this danger. (pp. 182-3)
He was interested in experience at a very basic and individual level (the craftsman hitting a nail with a hammer, the moment when the nail bends and things go wrong), but he wasn’t so interested in people. Rather than ponder this (yes of course it’s a contradiction in terms), I’ll just point out the similarity of the above to the argument Naomi Klein makes in This Changes Everything about the move from water mills to steam power during the industrial revolution, which is precisely about human resources. Coal and steam were initially a ‘tough sell’, she says, as water was free and the larger wheels produced more energy than a steam engine could. The deciding factor was that coal powered factories could be situated in cities, ‘where there were gluts of willing industrial workers, making it far easier to fire troubleshooters and put down strikes.’ She argues that energy production needs to become geographically determined once again, through solar, wind and other renewable sources: not, it is true, in order that humanity can save itself from objectlessness, but, more straightforwardly, so that humanity can save itself. Which is about as existential as you can get.

Objects interested Jean-Paul Sartre too, in a slightly different way:
Sartre knew very well that we can lose sight of the sense of things. […] Many such moments occur in Nausea, when Roquentin finds himself flummoxed by a doorknob or a beer glass. But for Sartre, unlike for Camus, such collapses reveal a psychological state: they are failures of intentionality, not glimpses into a greater truth. (p. 151)
Camus sees a great emptiness, and Sartre a call to action; but he, like Heidegger, was drawn to a political ideology (Marxism, in his case) which denies individuality: ‘For Marxists, human beings are destined to progress through predefined stages of history towards a final socialist paradise’ (p. 256). Sartre struggled to reconcile Marxism with existentialism, particularly following the Soviet put-down of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, but for Camus it was more straightforward:
he did not think that history led to a single inevitable destination, and he did not think that there was such a thing as perfection. As long as we have human societies, we will have rebellions. Each time a revolution overturns the ills of a society, a new status quo is created, which then develops its own excesses and injustices. Each generation has a fresh duty to revolt against these, and this will be the case forever. (p. 257, a summary of The Rebel)
Sartre’s journal Les Temps modernes ran a review of The Rebel criticising it as ‘an apology for capitalism’, and he also wrote Camus a long letter about it which ended their friendship. Bakewell is scrupulously even-handed in her account of this, just as she is on the importance of Heidegger’s philosophy versus his Nazism. She points out that Camus’ essay came at a very sensitive time politically (it was published in 1951), and was clearly intended to be anti-Communist, when the re-making of the world in the wake of the Second World War hung in the balance of two ideologies.
The world had fallen to pieces, but for that very reason almost anything could now be done with it. (p. 165)
Going back to Klein again, this is exactly what her ‘shock doctrine’ idea consists of: smash everything up, grab the pieces for profit. Sartre’s fury at The Rebel was due to its undermining of the alternative scenario: grab the pieces for the social good.

At the Existentialist Café is a tale told in a personal, engaging way, with frank opinions on the readability of the texts concerned. It weaves together philosophy with biography and historical context (cafés, jazz and zazous, the smuggling of unpublished papers from occupied territories), and follows How to Live in its attractive use of illustrations amongst the text. Bakewell despairs of Sartre’s abandonment of editing in later life, though his first novel Nausea is something of a key text, as is Being and Nothingness. In contrast, Simone de Beauvoir remained readable throughout her life, and The Second Sex ‘can be considered the single most influential work ever to come out of the existentialist movement’ (p. 210).
She showed how choices, influences and habits can accumulate over a lifetime to create a structure that becomes hard to break out of. Sartre also thought that our actions often formed a shape over the long term, creating what he called the ‘fundamental project’ of a person’s existence. But Beauvoir emphasised the connection between this and our wider situations as gendered, historical beings. She gave full weight to the difficulty of breaking out of such situations – although she never doubted that we remain existentially free despite it all. (pp. 215-16)
Finally, the book calls for a reappraisal of the existentialists for the purpose of ‘breaking out’: it is tempting to think of ourselves, in our increasingly computer-networked world, as ‘out-of-control mechanical dupes of our own biology and environment’ (pp. 318-19). Is this an excuse not to act, to abdicate from ethical choice and responsibility? You can swim with the tide, you can (as per Quentin Crisp) swim faster, you can tread water, you can drown. Or you can make another metaphor up, and go your own way.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

The Pastels and Ela Orleans, The Glad Café, Glasgow, 1st September

There was a song I half-wrote once, which never got any further than:
I took a long vacation
In the wilds of the outback
And I may be mistaken
But I don’t think I’ll be coming back
’Cause there are birds and a sky
And a blue in your eye
And a truck on a trail
And a wind to set sail
So fuck these corporations
That last line capsized it, I must have had a particularly rubbish job at the time. The ‘truck on a trail’ bit was a Pastels reference, of course, and last night Stephen took a swipe at the indie rules of old by congratulating the audience for being enthusiastic about two slow songs in a row, in contrast to ’80s audiences, who would heckle even one slow song and demand ‘Truck Train Tractor’, indignant that they may not get a saleable high-octane bootleg out of the occasion. Tascam recorder in hand, obviously I had to shout out for ‘Truck Train Tractor’, but a slow, gentle ‘Boats’ demonstrated how bad an idea that would have been. The most extreme point of The Pastels’ journey into gentleness and calm was probably the 2007 set of ‘quiet music’ I wrote about for Tangents, best represented on record by the Two Sunsets LP. Since then there has been a definite re-introduction of a rock element to their music, with songs like ‘Night Time Made Us’ (an all-time favourite, and amazing last night) and ‘Wrong Light’. In the small back room of the Glad Café, they sounded fantastic, particularly on a rejuvenated and extended ‘Frozen Wave’, with Ela Orleans contributing some wild vocals (and, between songs, a hilarious non-apology about ‘coming over here, stealing your Pastels’). Another nice surprise was Katrina singing ‘Thru Your Heart’, her own song, but one Stephen usually sings.

Ela’s own set was beautiful too and, aside from ‘In The Night’, deliciously crisp and devoid of rock. In tone it was most like her Lost album, which is to say, song-based, rather than taking in the sonic tendrils and detours of her two double LPs. Her approach to sampling reminds me a little of Bill Wells, in that a repeated fragment can take on all kinds of colours and intonations from the sounds going on around it. It can also be far more sophisticated, but when used simply like this it is often at its most affecting, entwined with delay-heavy, plaintive vocals. It’s a great balance, and you wouldn’t want to be without either the intricate, curious explorations or the directness of a line like ‘I am lost without you’. It is going to be fascinating to see which direction she takes next.

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I didn’t take any photos, but plenty of other people did.

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