Computerless Ballard, the least technological of men, read humans as intermediaries for technology, saw the car as more than just a vehicle, as a pod for living and receptacle for extreme sexual fantasies.... "The amiable saunter of Frances Waring, bored wife of my partner, through the turnstiles of the local supermarkets, the domestic wrangles of our well-to-do neighbours in our apartment house, all the hopes and fancies of this placid suburban enclave, drenched in a thousand infidelities, faltered before the solid reality of the motorway embankments, with their constant and un-swerving geometry, and before the finite areas of the car-park aprons."
Chris Petit's tribute to Ballard, on the Granta site, pinpoints possibly the man's most important legacy: a philosophy, Weltanschauung or diagnostic insight, articulated, like that of, say, Balzac, through the most effective of media - popular fiction, as opposed to didactic theory - of the increasing (and, in some ways, liberating) dissolution of human personality and agency in the networks of technology and capital - a wholly necessary showing of how the supposed future of science-fiction was already infiltrating our own time. The mutated psychology of his 'apocalypse' novels - most particularly The Drowned World - are also beginning to look frighteningly prescient...
Graham Robb's article in the new TLS on Rimbaud is quite delightful, especially on the scholarship that underlay his poetry, but particularly the ravenous sense of learning he possessed:
My own copy of Rimbaud's Complete Works remains at home, largely unread. I suspect now that if I did read it, I could enjoy a lot of his work - the imagistic and imaginary advances he made were, in a certain sense, merely a cover for the linguistic and structural innovations he made in, say, the synaesthetic 'vowels' sonnet, or the knowing and deliberate mismatch of subject matter and form in work like the 'arsehole sonnet'. What I recognise most, though, is that hunger to learn: the need to know and investigate as much as possible. Oddly, when I first read Rimbaud, this is exactly what I associated with him, thinking him some kind of kindred spirit: the lower middle-class devouring and outpouring work, the 'guerilla intellectual' living 'on the edge' (of course, Rimbaud's career ended conveniently early - convenient for him, as no-one ever had to witness the possible descent in talent with age, and convenient for me, because I could assume my own 'career' (ha!) could end similarly early. I was not, as they say, a happy teenager.) The taking-up of Rimbaud by later, especially punk, artists - Dylan, Patty Smith, Crass, etc. - added a further frisson to it. Well, things change. Bohemia pales, and requires rejection. Rimbaud was in part responsible for the idea, still current among many of my peers in Creative Writing, of the artist as chaos: 'passionate', a 'rebel', drunkard, drug-addict, copulator, seeking a 'derangement of the senses' in order to to create. The kind traded in now is, of course, polite, well-dressed middle-class rebellion. As K-Punk has said, via Zizek, the very notion of rebellion, and passion has now become the exclusive property of the spectacle (cf. Steven Sonderbergh's recent Hollywood-glossy Che films. It can't be too long before someone takes out an option on the Rimbaud biopic). It is a matter, now, of finding a different kind of subversion: not simply seeking for the ever-more-underground - as some critics are wont to do - but championing a path that attaches to some more evanescent, more uncategorisable, and, for that very fact, more powerful. And the scholarship of those for whom learning was never to be part of their inheritance - the lower-class autodidacts, the self-taught - will have a lot to do with it.
There is something autodidactically earnest about almost all his projects. His first known letter, written to his favourite teacher at the Collège de Charleville, includes a list of books that would be “very useful to me”: “1. Curiosités historiques, 1 vol. by Ludovic Lalanne, I think. 2. Curiosités bibliographiques, 1 vol. by the same. 3. Curiosités de l’histoire de France, by P. Jacob, 1st series”, etc.
Even at school, he was devouring digests and dictionaries, gobbling up all the miscellaneous wisdom that would explode in Une Saison en Enfer: “Oh! la science! . . . Géographie, cosmographie, mécanique, chimie! . . .” Parts of Une Saison en Enfer sound like a cautionary tale of the boy who read too much. If one had to name a fault, says Guyaux, it would be his excessively intellectual approach to art. Arrayed on shelves, the books that Rimbaud is known to have read would easily have covered all the “flaking plaster” of the room in the family farmhouse where he wrote most of Une Saison en Enfer.
R.I.P. J.G. Ballard (1930-2009)Quite harrowing to think what this loss means. I've no doubt that future generations will consider him one of the most important writers of the 20th century - at least as important as Eliot and other 'big names', probably more so.
It would appear Zizek was right: neo-liberal capitalism really doesn't offer 'choice' to everyone. I noticed and deplored the same strictures in my hometown's bookstores: the placing of 'gay writing' in a section of its own, squirreled away first with the 'black writing' (another ridiculous appelation), then in the basement, next to the books on religion, then (after bigoted complaints), with the straight 'erotica'. The fact that the majority of the 'gay writing' (at least in the stores I knew) was stroke-novels does, I guess, mitigate it slightly. What is creepy about the whole 'amazonfail' phenomenon is the way in which queer authors were, in fact, 'disappeared': they ceased, to the searching consumer, to exist. It appears, more than a century after 'homosexuality' gained its name, that the fact of queer status, and the acts pertaining to it, still have to be made to vanish by society...
Probably the best review yet of the recently-published first volume of Sam Beckett's Letters is this one, by J.M. Coetzee in the NYRB, although John Walsh's in the Independent comes pretty close. What I find interesting is the concentration, in Coetzee's essay, on the crisis period of Beckett's life, after his father's death, when he underwent psychoanalysis in London and wrote Murphy. Some of the letters were also quoted by James Knowlson in his definitive biography of Beckett, Damned To Fame, which I read several summers ago, when I was with my family on holiday in Belgium. What I found most interesting was the emphasis, throughout the book, on the warmth Beckett's friends felt for him - his tendency, in company, to joke and laugh raucously, the openness he displayed to so many people, his abiding kindness towards friends and others (he was a supporter, until the end of his life, of political prisoners in the Eastern Bloc and South Africa). At the time I was trying to deal with the aftermath of a number of extended depressive episodes; the appearance of unrelenting bleakness in Beckett's books had been, as teenagers are wont to do, exagerrated by me, and had formed a kind of catechism for that state: "I can't go on I'll go on", etc. Re-reading parts of the Trilogy in the light of Knowlson's book, the sense of bitterness and cynicism was replaced by a feeling of genuine pain, and, oddly, tenderness. Reading biographically sucks ass, I know, but the knowledge that Malone's memories of the lights on a hill across the valley were Beckett's own, of the nocturnal gorsefires at Foxrock, or the images in later work of a man diving with a boy, or leading him, hand-in-hand, down the road, were memories of Beckett's own father, changed them. Even the photo of Beckett on the front of my Calder edition of the Trilogy - sat in a Paris cafe, face lined like a geographical feature, white hair caught with a shadow or black streak, like a skunk's fur in negative, his torso a black void except for the mass of scarf cutting down it - seemed different, the look now that of a man wearied with having seen too much of the world's suffering.
The period, from late 1933 to 1935, of Beckett's psychoanalysis, makes for similarly intriguing reading. His therapy had been precipitated by nervous tremors, heart problems, panic attacks (which I myself used to have), apparently causeless stabbing and aching pains. A letter from his friend and Trinity compatriot Thomas MacGreevy, advised him to "find comfort in 'goodness and disinterestedness', drawing on Thomas à Kempis's Imitation of Christ". Beckett's reply finds him making a concentrated attack on "his own deliberate immersion in self and isolation from others":
"For years I was unhappy, consciously and deliberately... I isolated myself more and more, undertook less and less and lent myself to a crescendo of disparagement of others and myself... The misery and solitude and apathy and sneers were elements of an index of superiority and guaranteed the feeling of arrogant 'otherness'... It was not until that way of living, or rather negation of living into such terrifying physical symptoms that it could no longer be pursued, that I became aware of anything morbid in myself."
I notice that in my copy, this section is so much read that it falls open at the page. In Knowlson's narrative, it represents a turning-point - "the first convincing explanation of how the arrogant, disturbed, narcissistic young man of the early 1930s could possibly have evolved into the man who was noted later for his extraordinary kindness, courtesy, concern, generosity, and almost saintly 'good works'". It would take another decade, and the experience of war, occupation and paramilitary resistance work, for Beckett to come out of his shell to the extent that he could get married and settle down to a life of continuous writing. As Coetzee puts it, he was "lay[ing] the artistic and philosophical—and perhaps even experiential—foundations of the great creative outburst that came in the late 1940s and early 1950s". That the transformation, and the vault into productivity, would take so long - a slow movement tailed the entire time by misery, a sense of futility as to his actions - in spite of his good intentions is, to say the least, perturbing. That it was not his learning, but a gradual surrendering to instinct, that finally moved him into the possibility of productivity and something resembling happiness, is not in the least comforting. (It's also somewhat depressing that it took being stabbed in the lung for him to find out that "he was not as alone in the world as he liked to believe", as Coetzee puts it). I personally think that the melancholia that afflicted Sam throughout his later life - bouts of depression that afflicted his writing, the remark he once made to a friend, reported by Knowlson, that he sometimes considered "Rowing out in a boat and just letting it sink" - have something to do with this: the knowledge that life steals away life, that the best years are gone forever, and the mechanisms of the human being are always turned against the man who wants to make and do good (the old mind/body split if ever we saw it - think of Molloy and Moran's legs inexplicably failing as they journey towards their goals). Nothing - not even the security of success that came after Godot - could repair it, the knowledge of this systematic fuck-up, this ontological deficiency, this grand cosmic joke. And hence, perhaps, my own bitterness, and lack of comfort at the knowledge that the future will come, whether we will it or not, and that the wait will have to go on.
The near-total relinquishment of political causes on this blog is as much a matter of concern to me as it is to everyone else, if its total abandonment by any readership it once possessed is anything to go by. I am currently very seriously considering total shutdown and junking. In the meantime, whilst I decide, go here and here and care.
Quarterly Stockholders' Report
With the first quarter of the year over, what does it say that the best thing I've heard so far this year was released in 2005? I'm very reluctant to go down the doom-monger route of claiming that all cultural activity is now moribund, but I find myself admitting that, of all the records I've bought this year (mostly new), almost nothing has struck me enough to stick in my brain the way Richard Youngs' The Naive Shaman has. Which in itself is somewhat ridiculous, seeing as there is more than enough music out there good enough for me to be willing to shell my increasingly dwindling cash out on. Increasingly, I get the perturbing feeling that nothing very much of this period, musically, will survive in memory - mine, or anyone else's. It's entirely possible that future generations will make myths concerning us - just as 'the Sixties' have lived on as myth far too long - but we certainly would never know it. It seems to me that the entire critical consensus, from musicians down to the print media, have their noses far too close to the canvas to make any sense of what is actually going on; there is simply too much activity carrying on in too many divergent areas; everything is now characterised by plurality, hybridity, the pull of multiple directions. This can, of course, be A Good Thing, except to the man poor in money and time (i.e. me), or anyone who doesn't use torrents or Spotify (i.e. me).
The first major excitements of the year, the Animal Collective and Antony and the Johnsons albums, seem largely to have been forgotten already. I meant to blog about both at the time, but never got round to it, and suppose I never will now. Oh well, no great loss. Both were, it should be noted, excellent pieces of work, save for the usual caveats about the oozy oversweetness of Merriweather Post Pavilion, The Crying Light being particularly poignant and incredibly well-crafted, free of any of the bombast that might emerge in trying to follow up a success like I Am A Bird Now. But it seems that thereafter I have largely steered clear of anything in even the borderline-overground area that those two sets of artists inhabit.
The next album I really found myself enjoying, and continuing to listen to, was Live At Cafe Oto by the trio of Alan Wilkinson, John Edwards and Steve Noble. David Keenan's jibe on the Volcanic Tongue site about "the dry stylings of the Steve Noble set" are firmly disproven here, as Noble proves almost the most volatile element in an often frantic shakedown. Wilkinson's tone, beginning with a high dying-animal shriek and encompassing torrents of rough-edged sound, grunts, low, menacing squeaks, dipping between registers, is aptly matched by Noble's assaults on the stripped-down kit, provide a shifting-sand ground of hurricane snare-rolls, cymbal flurries and alien tamped sounds, even resorting to whoops and whistles worthy of Andrew Cyrille. Edwards' position as the go-to man of British bass is reinforced by his performance here, forceful bowing and precision plucks underlining Wilkinson's explorations perfectly, and, on his brief solo spots, showing a mastery of colour, shading, contrast and an ear for the sheer weirdness of sounds. At 40 minutes of unrelenting tension and energy, it's just enough. A word to the otherwise spotless Bo'Weavil label: the liner notes are some of the stupidest I've ever come across. It shows a total misunderstanding of the nature of recorded music to call a record "a convenient form of storing and a flawed attempt at revisiting the ecstasy of the live experience". Some of us actually don't live in London, and hence cannot "experience this trio in all their live magnificence", and we don't need reminding of this fact.
Two releases involving another kind of saxophony, the work of John Butcher, have held strong: his solo album Resonant Spaces and Trinity, recorded with the rump of AMM, Eddie Prevost and John Tilbury. The novelty factor of the solo piece is given away by the title - that the improvisations were recorded in places with an impressive space and reverberation - but isn't really that important; the sheer strangeness of the sounds as they are morphed by their surroundings - and, indeed, the sound of the places themselves, melding with and being altered by Butcher's interventions - is the salient point. And although Butcher has ceased using computer manipulation, his use of electronic feedback systems in live performance, connecting the two resonating chambers of the sax bell and reverberant space, continues to provide not only conceptual fascination, but some quite astonishing sounds. His practice, on second track 'Calls From a Rusty Cage', recalls the overtone-layers of Evan Parker's solo soprano pieces extended beyond the bounds of human breath. The trio album is fascinating at least partly for the confluences of history in its sound: Butcher is very much of the generation of lowercase free-improvisers whose work was spawned by AMM's sibilant whisperings; but Tilbury and Prevost here betray how much said movement has affected them, as it affected their former colleague Keith Rowe. In its accumulation of gesture, it is quite astonishingly slow and low-key, occasionally breaking out into tiny explosions of exquisite movement, Butcher's metallic groans just barely crossing the threshold of audibility, Tilbury and Prevost's senses of touch and placement of sound as keen as ever. Especially when listened to on headphones, it is, at times, absolutely gorgeous.
The second (or is it third? Fourth?) Astral Social Club release this year, Octuplex, has also been the cause of much rejoicing. After the exceptionally annoying vinyl-only release of Toy Town In A Field of Mud, Neil Campbell's superlative duo album with John Clyde-Evans, it's excellent to see him deliver something so similarly wonderful on CD. The release represents possibly the culmination of Campbell's journey into hallucinatory techno: its constant forward drive is matched by an equal impulse to flounder in miasmic swarms of overloaded synthetics; it's music that absolutely revels in texture above all else. 'Caustic Roe' and 'Mugik Churn' coalesce rhythms that seem triangulated between Terry Riley, Ricardo Villalobos and Cluster out of fields of chattering bleeps, side narratives of tripping-rhythm squelch and laser-blasts always threatening to disrail the main beat, but never succeeding. 'Pilgrim Sunburst', a damaged confection of interference and swaying, rocketing synths, featuring the voice of Campbell's son, Magnus and layers of strings by Wire and Plan B writer Spencer Grady, becomes unexpectedly moving. 'Sweet Spraint', featuring the reliably fucked-up and hypnotic electronics of Richard Youngs, and an odd cameo on soprano sax by Spider Stacy, is similarly marvellous.
The No Fun debut of Emeralds, What Happened, is a considerably slower builder. It becomes, in the parlance, 'immersive', on a scale that even the much-cited Kosmiche bands they take after couldn't manage. Something like 'Living Room', which begins from just a few glowing, reedy synth-chords, builds into an enormous sound that is still far from static, monolithic - full of cross-currents, sub-events, layers, side-streams, haranguing fuzz offset by sweet swoops and lilts of synth and gently applied guitar that calls to mind a very abstracted, less rhythmically-chained Michael Rother. Served in deep, generous portions (although even the shortest track here, 'Up in the Air', has much to recommend it), it's pretty far outside even the cumuli of quote-unquote 'drone' artists currently drifiting around (pun intended) out there.
I meant, after hearing their last release, Eater of Birds last year, to write about Cobalt. That I didn't get round to it is no loss to them, I wouldn't think - Joseph Stannard's zealous year-end recommendation in Plan B was enough to tempt quite a few listeners, including me. The follow-up, Gin, recorded shortly before guitarist/vocalist Phil McSorley was deployed in Iraq, and it carries all the hard-against-it roughness you would expect from a band involved in such a life: the horror of routine everyday living in the certain knowledge of death is here turned up to a pitch-black nihilism. The oddest thing is its distance from both the corpse-paint theatrics of old school black metal and the orc-slaughter-fantasies of war metal. The vocals are almost entirely incomprehensible, but the sense of ravagement, of scoured, hopeless hurt, is absolutely audible. The package - with photographs of Hunter S. Thompson and Ernest Hemingway alongside the eponymous beverage - suggests a familiarity with the Real of emotional violence laying at the bottom of these tracks: a sortie from the heart of life to "fuck the universe", as they put it. The relentless, paint-stripping guitar - which carries hints of the auto-destruct treble of Mars, DNA and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks - is muscular, harrowing, a force of unnature; Erik Wunder's drums, swinging between the kind of atmospheric backing Neurosis might work on, and torrential blastbeats, drives it remorselessly onwards. I doubt somehow that there's going to be a more intense album this year.
Also, off the top of my head, Extra Life's Secular Works has been a highlight of the year so far (although it was released in America last year, I know - it's only come out in Britain in the last month), as has Caroline Weeks' Songs For Edna. By all means, check my review of the former, and interview with the latter in the new Plan B.
We Who Were Living
Returning to this post: I can't actually bring myself to hate Bournemouth, in spite of everything, although it typifies almost everything that can be done wrong in a town's life and environment. Not so much that the actual landscape itself, or the built environment, is repulsive - far from it. Strolling through the suburbs towards the clifftop, the avenues of pines with their massive Victorian detached houses set as far back from the road as can be managed, the small scraps of parks (the 'Woodland Walk' that consists of a concrete path surrounded by a few conifers) and the front gardens of the smaller houses blooming into life, looking up at the Art Deco blocks that punctuate the cliff between Boscombe and Bournemouth piers, you can understand what it was that drew people to the resort, founded on marshes at the end of a stream, in the first instance. There are numerous instances of some quite vile architecture - the finance buildings that stick out like an enfilade of rotten teeth as you approach the town centre, the vastly useless BIC clogging up the view of West Cliff, the Barrett pastel rabbit-hutch complex sitting smugly above the site of the planned 'surf reef' - but there is also plenty to entice the flaneur - as long as he doesn't plan to go inside.
This is the point: successive Lib Dem and Tory councils have positively promoted the total privatisation of space for decades. This extends not merely to the proliferation of housing - the majority of it badly-built, crammed into any spare ground, and justified as social housing when most people are in fact unable to afford it - including gated communities and 'luxury flats' (complete with 'inspiring prospects' of... uh, lots of water), but the systematic destruction of arts and community facilities. The sole council-funded venue, the Winter Gardens - where, the local nostalgics never cease to remind us, the Beatles once played - was torn down several years ago; a number of proposals for a replacement were mooted, including a new arts centre, before they eventually decided on the creation of a new carpark. Since then, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra have resided at the Lighthouse Arts Centre in Poole, with subsequent prohibitively high ticket prices. The town can boast of no munipical art gallery or museum (the delightfully eccentric Russell-Cotes museum, with its cheerful orientalism and Victorian hunting-lodge atmosphere, only houses a private collection of artworks), no visit-worthy landmark - Christ, even Coventry has the Cathedral - no independent bookshop or record-store (saving the one-or-two secondhand outlets, one of which is now closing down), no independent fringe venues (by which I mean somewhere like the Vortex in London), no theatre, and barely anywhere to sit down that isn't a sodding coffee bar. Even Coventry has Taylor John's House, The Tin Angel and The Herbert Gallery - Jacob Epstein, Stanley Spencer; a way of thinking about space, about objects, that is also a way of thinking about community. Coming into the town centre, either down Old Christchurch Road or Westover Road, and up Commercial Road towards the Triangle, you feel crushed, boxed-in between slab-like buildings wholly given over to rampant commerce, until you (or, more accurately, I) have to take refuge in the town library. The streets are conceived of not as public thoroughfares, but, as the SI remarked of the modern metropolis more generally, a means of conveying traffic: the combination of utterly callous drivers and ridiculous traffic systems makes cycling not so much an activity as a life-and-death challenge. Even on the outskirts of town, stretching out toward villages like Throop and Iford, the country is merely the setting for a motorway, a place for pedestrians to be killed.
The town, in unseasonably warm weather, is currently awakening to what looks like spring. And yet, I find myself remembering why it was this place that drew me towards Eliot, in spite of its relative non-harshness as a place to grow up: I recognised, in every street, how "The dead flowed over London bridge, so many/I had not thought death had undone so many./Sighs, short and infrequent were exhaled,/And each man fixed his eyes before his feet." To me, it was the wasteland. The entire environment is indicative of the small-mindedness, meanness and money-grubbing of its population. I see more than enough kids around these days, haunting the same places I did, and wonder what it's like for them growing up here. No doubt they find it easier than I did: they have no values other than those this environment has engrained in them. A halfway exciting music scene exists, as it didn't when I was 15. Self-confidence pours off these kids in waves; the sense of paralysing hopelessness that defined my teenage years is something alien to them. They are products of their environment in a way I never was. I'm somewhere else now. It all came too late.