Thursday, August 28, 2008


“Serious, but only for the short time it exists” – a nice description from DV of Ultra Nate or the Backstreet Boys or Robyn or any number of pop acts that the sterner rock fan might dismiss as throwaway. Pop usually has a finite use-value - it serves a profoundly important purpose, after which (as DV says) one's desire melts and the moment passes.

DV’s post was in response to a comment of mine which suggested that teenage boys have a death-driven impulse to make pop as orderly as possible by becoming collectors, completists, categorisers, whereas for teenage girls, pop is a vital (in both senses of the word) part of life, to be absorbed and forgotten as circumstances change.

I'm caught somewhere in the middle here – I use music mercilessly, never listening to whole albums, often not concentrating on what I’m listening to, interrupting songs so I can get on to the next one; but then I again, I hoard music, never discarding even my worst tapes and CDs and hungrily downloading whole batches of music I know I’ll never listen to.

Still, as I won’t be around for a week or so (off to be Bohemian in Prague and Cesky Krumlov), here’s a selection of the tracks I’ve been feeling in the last few days.

Pet Shop Boys / Akala

There’s an obvious, traceable line between early electro, UK garage and early grime – music condensed to a mere bassline, an hesistant beat, a yelp, an icy line of synth, spacey aspirations on foundations of social realism, delusions of grandeur, the exciting possibilities of cold rationality... But still, it caught me off guard the other day when the Pet Shop Boys’ “Bright young things” (b-side to their duff single of 2006, “Numb”) segued into the intro to Akala’s “Bit by bit”. PSB’s literary, baroque house seems incongruous with grime even as atypical as Akala, but the warm, restless thrum which runs through “Bit by bit” sounds like a classic Chris Lowe construction. Listening to it again now, I still expect Neil Tennant to fill in between Akala’s shy, sweetly passive-aggressive rapping with a flamboyant chorus...

Al Green

Completism isn’t just for musos. Al Green’s 70s output - all of it - is as essential as Neil Young’s or Joni Mitchell’s or Stevie Wonder’s. “One woman,” a minor epic that begins Green is Blues is the one I keep returning to at the moment: Green sings this song of irresistible adultery with the ecstacy of a man who is so enraptured that he never considers he mightn’t be able to get away it.

Here's Green on Soul Train in 1973. Michael Jackson / Prince fans, take note: the deferral and sexual tension that builds up around 4’30” in is agonizing.

Byrne / Reed / Cale / (Eno)

Stan poses a pertinent question at Farmer in the City: have David Byrne and Lou Reed ever worked together? You would have thought so. “There can,” says Stan, “only be at the most two degrees of separation between them (Reed > Cale > Eno > Byrne), and I suspect this could be further reduced. (Is Arthur Russell another possibility?)” The new Byrne / Eno single is pleasant enough, but not a patch on Bush of Ghosts (an album I fell asleep to every night for a fortnight in Argentina 18 months ago).

Much better is Songs for Drella, Lou Reed and John Cale’s tribute to Andy Warhol - when I first stumbled across this, aged 14, on tape in Ipswich's Our Price, I'd never heard of it, and I've never since met anyone who's heard it. But it's a minor masterpiece - the only recorded non-Velvets collaboration between two men united only in their love for Warhol and their dislike for each other. Cale plays keyboards and viola; Reed plays guitar; there are no drums or bass; the songs, like the man to whom they are dedicated, deal straightforwardly with arty things and artily with straightforward things. The whole album is on Youtube (check here for a tracklisting). This is the opening track.

Donks etc

Can't imagine Reed, Cale, Byrne or Eno have ever thought of putting a donk in it - an oversight on all their parts. Simon Reynolds posted this on Blissblog a couple of weeks ago, and followed it up with links to pretty much everything he could find with a link to Blackout Crew or donks. It has split the opinions of people I've played it to, but I think it's kinda smart. In fact, it may be well a 9-month-in contender for single of the year.

Reminds a bit of Genius Cru's "Course bruv" - there's something of the fairground in both tracks, something typically English, yet something very definitely not quite right, something whose soul is plasticky and chewy. And because we like segues at Homo Ludens, we might link both tracks to the Beatles, who invented a genre called "plastic soul" and nearly named an album after it.

Mustn't forget also a magnificent half-hour mix by Flying Lotus (free to download here, and dedicated to Dr Batty, who keeps burning Appleblim mixes for me without reward) - you can hear FL's track with the wonderful, ubiquitous, baffling Lil Wayne here. Subjects for further research when I get back include FACT magazine's top 20s. I've already downloaded what I can from the ambient list; krautrock, bleep and Bollywood will follow soon. See, I am a boy really...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


See here.

Tokyo - A Marxist novel written in 1929 has climbed to the top of Japan's best-seller list, reflecting growing anxiety about job security and widening income gaps in the world's second-biggest economy.

"I think people are feeling keenly that the economy is starting to slow down and things are getting more difficult,'' said 27-year-old Sota Furuya, a marketing consultant who recently read the book.

Furuya is one of the many Japanese readers who have put Kanikosen, or A Crab-Canning Boat, on best-seller lists in recent months. It is near the top of several of Japan's leading best-seller lists, almost unheard of for a book of this genre.

A Crab-Canning Boat tells the tale of a crab boat crew working in harsh conditions under a sadistic captain. It was written by Takiji Kobayashi, a communist who was tortured to death by police at the age of 29 in 1933.

More info here. Found via here.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


As a stubborn North Londoner (via Suffolk and Leeds), I rarely ventured south of the river before Spring last year, but for the last six months I've split my time between Camden and my girlfriend's flat in Brixton. I was immediately taken by the market and the arches under Brixton Station (refreshing to see arches untainted by the hands of regenerators), but it's taken longer for me to accept the idea that maybe, just maybe, there might be something to this South London business.

So yesterday, the very lovely DV and I went on a daytrip to Peckham.

We took the 37 bus from Brixton and got off at Rye Lane. South London differs from North in many intangible ways, but an obvious difference is the sharp dividing lines between neighbourhoods. The chaotic desperation of Brixton lurches suddenly into the verdant provinciality of Herne Hill; then leafy Dulwich lurches back into the avowedly working-class and multi-racial Peckham Rye. In North London, this doesn't happen so much - the passage from Wood Green to Muswell Hill, for example, is a relatively smooth one (though socio-economic movement from the former to the latter is well-nigh impossible). It feels rather like South London is less planned than the North, that it has grown out of necessity rather than judgement.

Peckham reminds me a bit of La Paz - a ridiculous comparison, but both lay bare their disorder and their poverty. Peckham is unreconstructed, the sort of place celebrated by people who visit deprived places and embrace their "vibrancy" and "diversity". In the late 80s and early 90s, it was home to warehouse parties and squatter collectives. Back to the Planet, a dub reggae band who recently reformed in a pub in Camberwell, were the scourge of Tory governments intent on pushing through their Criminal Justice Act. Today it is both thriving and deprived, a mixture of vitality and depression.

We visited Peckham Library - a well-intentioned example of civic architecture which nevertheless doesn't quite work. I was looking forward to seeing it - it does, after all, look terrific in photos - but its efforts at broadening the role of the public library are hampered by the metal netting in which it cages itself, and the fact that the library itself is on the fourth floor. Still, it is a library and not an "ideas factory", so for that we must be grateful.

From the library we walked along the cycle path to Burgess Park, past a woman performing various agonising gyrations in the name of fitness, to Chumleigh Gardens. As with all gardens or nature reserves in London, this one feels rather out of place. It is home to species from all over the world, arranged in Islamic, English, African/Caribbean, Mediterranean and Oriental styles. The buildings used to be an asylum for women (a "female-friendly" asylum, according to the plaque). There was nobody about on Saturday except for a conference of geological-looking types who chattered in one of the meeting rooms, and looked quizzically at DV when she visited the Ladies'.

We walked on towards the King William the Fourth pub on Albany Road - or rather, the ruins thereof. From a distance it looks like it's made of chalk. A closer inspection reveals that someone has covered it in perforated paper. It looks rather good, until you learn that it's just marketing for a private-sector regeneration scheme. It proclaims that the paper-covered pub is public art, but the wall surrounding it is covered in anti-climb paint and dire warnings against stepping any further.


Our walking instructions told us that a junkyard-cum-salvage-company on the corner of Southampton Way was worth exploring. On the roof are carousel figures, ponies, strongmen, skeletons, ruddy-faced butchers - all manner of characters welcoming you to the Architectural Rescue. It was just closing as we arrived, so we had to peer through the gaps in the fence to see its myriad bannisters, Tube signs, balustrades, chandeliers, Irish phone-boxes, life-size wooden goats and sundry bric-a-brac, like melancholy children looking into a sweetshop window. We will return next Saturday, partly to take pictures, and partly because DV knows the just the spot for a life-size wooden goat.

The other side of Southampton Way presented another reason to kick ourselves for not having cameras: two blocks of low-rise flats which had been entirely gutted except for two sides of exterior walls and ceilings. It's as if some property developer had sent in the demolition men, taken one look at the economic forecasts and called the whole thing off. The solar system wallpaper is still up in the children's bedroom; flock wallpaper still covers the kitchen walls. A WC sits precariously on a beam, pushed this way and that by the flourishing weeds. Oddest of all, someone has decided to hang bed-frames and tables from the roof of each flat. DV saw toys piled up on one of the bedframes, including Po the red Teletubby. There they hang, swinging in the breeze, watched by the mannequins from the Architectural Rescue.

I'm not sure even photos will justify this strange and sinister spectacle, but I'll do my best next weekend. Otherwise, you may have to find your own way down to the Peckham / Walworth divide and see the malevolent furniture and the baleful stares of the butcher for yourself. See also here for more on the lost canals of Burgess Park.

(Ta v much to DV for reminding me of the bits I'd forgotten)

Thursday, August 14, 2008


"The sight of Russian tanks rolling into parts of a sovereign country on its neighbouring borders will have brought a chill down the spine of many people. This is simply not the way in which international relations can be run in the 21st century."

So said oleaginous pipsqueak du jour David Miliband yesterday. We know that New Labour distrusts the past, and no doubt Miliband can scarcely believe that anything much happened in the Caucasus before he became Foreign Secretary, but really - have you ever heard a senior politician (a Prime Minister in waiting, no less) say anything quite so hypocritical, quite so ignorant, quite so utterly, ineptly stupid?


The assertion that Government plays a “libidinal function” in our capitalist reality illustrates a fact about that reality: that it gives us the liberty not to change the world, but merely to complain about it. We truly stopped having any influence on economic policy when Gordon Brown passed the setting of interest rates from the Treasury to the Bank of England in 1997. But effectively, we never have had any influence in the private world of business. Our sphere of influence is limited to the election of Government, so we must project all of our miseries onto the one thing that we can change.

A sign, perhaps, that, at the level of the political unconscious, it is impossible to accept that there are no overall controllers, that the closest thing we have to ruling powers now are nebulous, unaccountable interests exercising corporate irresponsibility...

This works both ways. If, in a moment of generosity, one imagines that some politicians, in some limited way, want to make the world a fairer place, one must then admit that their task is an impossible one. The iniquities of modern society, the barbaric pursuit of profit, the desertion of the majority in favour of the few, the obscene class prejudices that keep everyone in their right place, the fact that these sort of people can flourish, ignorant of how the rest of society lives – all of these are impenetrable. No government can dismantle them. So, like the rest of us, they must project their frustrations elsewhere. Their scapegoat is the public, just as ours is the government.

The LRB article to which k-punk refers reveals further anomalies. When water was privatised in 1989, the Thatcherite axiom of competition couldn’t have been further from the truth:

Far from being exciting new entrepreneurial ventures, the companies involved were settled operations that had been around in one form or another for almost two hundred years, and had benefited, for more than half that time, from steady infusions of ratepayers’ and taxpayers’ money.

The most striking contradiction between water privatisation and Thatcherite free-market romanticism is the monopoly nature of the water companies. Millions of customers who have no choice of supplier, no choice but to take the water, and no choice but to pay for it.

Indeed, for all our talk of late capitalism, this reminds one of the patriarchal Conservatism of the 19th century, when corrupt businessmen-politicians squabbled in darkened committee rooms to earn monopolies to provide for a captured market. James Meek tells how in 1863, Edward Warner Shewell, the Victorian architect of the Mythe Waterworks in Cheltenham, chaired “a meeting of shareholders, who voted to pay themselves a massive dividend and bonuses worth 95 per cent of the company’s profits.” A century and a half later, as 350,000 people went without water because Severn Trent, the private water monopoly who run the Mythe Waterworks, had failed to plan for the biggest floods on record, “Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator OFWAT, announced that it would not be compensating customers.” One of the shareholders was an ex-Union leader who had once vehemently opposed privatisation.

“I had no conscience about it at all,” said McMurray. I’d campaigned against privatisation, but we’d lost that particular battle. Privatisation was inevitable. I wasn’t going to leave the water industry and so I thought well, I’ll buy some shares, and try to continue to serve the public as best as I can.”


This is a global phenomenon, but attitudes to politics and business in Britain are somewhat unique. People brood resentfully here, whereas in France or Argentina they rise up and fight. Perhaps, to quote Patrick Keiller's Robinson, it's a failure of the English Revolution, where we never quite managed the transition from subjects to citizens.

Robinson in Space takes as its subject post-industrial, post-Thatcherite Britain, a spectral spacetime where "real world effects matter only insofar as they register at the level of (PR) appearance". In their "peripatetic study of the problem of England", Robinson and his companion travel across the Pennines from Rochdale:

We had ascended the Pennines at Blackstone Edge, by the route of Daniel Defoe. When we arrived at Yorkshire Water's reservoir near Ripponden, there were twenty four tankers waiting to load water to be taken into Halifax. At the time, there were altogether forty lorries working from this reservoir, twenty-four hours a day. Later in the year, there were as many as a thousand tankers moving water in West Yorkshire.

Keiller adds, as a footnote, that "in June 1995, Yorkshire Water announced that its operating profits were up almost a fith to £200 million, put its dividend up by 25% and gave its consumers a £10 rebate in an attempt to counter two years of bad publicity while losing at least 27% of its supplies through leaks. The company's directors had previously awarded themselves £869,000 in share optiond."

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Win or lose, Evo seems to have settled in as the revered leader of half the country, and the devil in disguise for the other half. That presents a real problem for governing.

Beginning with an analysis of Bolivian beer consumption, here's the usual superlative coverage of the Bolivian referendum from Jim Schulz's Democracy Center.

Saturday, August 09, 2008


Today's referendum on Evo Morales's Presidency is likely to tell us three things: (a) that the majority of Bolivians support him, (b) that a sizeable proportion of wealthy, right-wing governors in the East will do anything to stop his progressive politics in their tracks, and (c) as a result, Bolivia is basically ungovernable.

Anybody who keeps one eye on Bolivian affairs will be aware of these already. None of them is especially surprising. After all, for nearly 200 years Bolivia was governed by a European, capitalist elite which generated profits and maintained power by subjugating Bolivia's indigenous majority. Racism is rife, and for some white Bolivians in the east having a native Andean President is beyond the pale.

Morales has called the referendum midway through his Presidency to regain the initiative. In the last six months, four eastern provinces have voted yes to autonomy from the national government. Autonomy would allow the Media Luna (the "half moon" provinces of the East - Santa Cruz, Beni, Tarija and Trinidad - where gigantic plots of land are owned by a few wealthy families) to evade some of Morales's more radical reforms, especially the nationalisation of oil and the redistribution of its revenues. The autonomy votes have no legal authority, but they are politically important since they add a veneer of legitimacy to the rejection of democracy.

Whether or not Morales and his Vice-President win (polls predict they will), and whether or not the opposition governers in the East get re-elected (as is almost certain), the battle for Bolivia will remain at a stalemate. Morales cannot push forward his constitutional reforms without the agreement of the Senate, and some of Morales's fiercest opponents seem determined to bring the country to a standstill so that they can force Morales out and regain power.

Then again, the opposition cannot achieve much without regional backing. Whoever controls Bolivia's subsoil resources in the Media Luna needs allies in Brazil and Argentina, the continent's two biggest markets. Presidents Lula and Kirchner have developed strong ties to Morales; it would be political suicide for them to change course and start doing deals with the right-wingers.

So Morales's darkest forecast - that he may lose the referendum and return to his coca farm - may yet come true. But his bedrock supporters - the social movements who voted him in in 2004 - will not let the right back into power without a very big fight. The people from the altiplano have been denied a voice for 500 years - it is unlikely they will give it up after less than four years. Whatever the result of today's referendum, the struggle for Bolivia will continue, and for the first time in its history the forces of global capital may have found their match.

Thursday, August 07, 2008


The media are describing it as a new era. Yet, the England Test cricket team of 2008 is comparable to that of 1977, the last time a South African was captaining England, in that it is almost entirely made up of white men.

Indeed, for two countries who might pretend to have moved on from race, the English and South African cricket teams are both curiously caucasian affairs. Makhaya Ntini, that great but tiring fast bowler, is the only black South African who is playing for the national team in the current Test match. Likewise, Monty Panesar is the only non-white player in the England XI.

This is not to suggest that the selectors are overlooking non-white players in favour of white players. It is more that English cricket itself seems to have returned to being the preserve of white, mainly public-school educated boys.

Twasn't always thus. During the 1990s, many of England's greatest cricketers were non-white. Chris Lewis, the mercurial all-rounder. Joey Benjamin, the excellent medium pacer who was only given the chance to play one Test. Phillip DeFreitas, England's most consistent fast bowler before Gough and Caddick came along. Mark Butcher, the Surrey batsman whose England career started horribly, but who became one of our most reliable batsmen. Mark Ramprakash, the man who has just scored his 100th first class century (he wasn't always a dancer, you know). Nasser Hussain, the Kinnock to Michael Vaughan's Blair (and I mean that in the best possible way).

And Devon Malcolm.

Malcolm had struggled during the 1994 series against South Africa - a victim of his own waywardness - and was known to be at odds with the coach, Ray Illingworth. It was only the bounciness of the Oval pitch and his fine record on the ground that made Illingworth pick him for the third Test over Phil Tufnell. In the first innings he had taken a single wicket (Peter Kirsten for 16) in South Africa's total of 332 all out. England got 304 in reply, with 50s from Thorpe and Stewart and a nifty run-a-ball 42 from Darren Gough, but the most notable moment of the innings was when Devon Malcolm (a ferret, so-called because they go in after the rabbits) got bounced by Fanie de Villiers. Malcolm was seriously offended. "You guys are history," he muttered to the slipfield.

And then this happened.

I remember watching it, wrapped in a duvet in the Lake District, in between increasingly desperate dashes to the bathroom. It is still the most spiteful bit of bowling I've ever seen. The bouncer to McMillan is unplayable. Steve Rhodes's catch to dismiss Craig Matthews is exquisite. And the yorker to dismiss Cronje is so clever (see how Malcolm changes the angle at the last minute, bowling from way wide of the umpire so that the ball screams into the batsman). Malcolm himself prized Cronje's wicket more than any other:

If you look on the footage he was in the perfect forward defence position, but the ball bowled him half an hour before he put the bat down! A couple of balls before that I went around the wicket and he was fending the ball from around his earholes. Then I pitched the ball up over the wicket, that's what a good fast bowler does because he was tentative from the short-pitched stuff.


I thought there was something missing when, as usual, I looked across the tracks which emerge from King's Cross station towards the gasholder from the 91 bus on York Way. And sure enough, when I bypassed St Pancras Station today, my suspicions were confirmed: Culross Building has been demolished.


Culross had its moments of fame. It starred in The Ladykillers, and Mike Leigh's High Hopes. In the 1980s, it was run as social housing by the co-operative association Shortlife Community Housing. In Angela Inglis's wonderful book Railways Lands, she recalls what it was like to live there:

Graham Nobbs [a gardener] helped the residents to create six roof gardens, one for each block. It was an area where plants and small trees grew in pots, where sculptures and murals were displayed, where climbing plants entwined the railings, where coloured lights at night were a permanent feature. There was also a small rooftop pond with goldfish, a built-in barbecue, an entertainment area under a tent and sofas and deckchairs for comfort. t was a place for people to meet and relax, to listen to music, to talk, to admire the sunsets over St Pancras, to look at the skyline and pick out the London landmarks such as St Paul's Cathedral. Ray Yates writes: "Culross roof was the centre of our world."

It had stood empty for years, the last residents having left in 2002. But what made demolition inevitable was its position - parallel to and just south of the canal. This is where Argent plan to build Pancras Square, and there is no place for Culross in that plan. Both the north and south Stanley Buildings have been sacrificed for the extension of the St Pancras International (one demolished, the other hidden from view by a mural), the Battle Bridge flats were knocked down in 2001, and now Culross has suffered the same fate. There is now no housing in the immediate vicinity of the station.

Sunday, August 03, 2008


The spate of knifings in London recently have generated a predictable share of moralising and chest-beating one-liners from politicians and hacks. David Cameron chose to mark the death of a young boy by haranguing the most oppressed in society to pull their socks up and accept some responsibility for their plight:

"We talk about people being at risk of poverty, or social exclusion - it's as if these things - obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction - are purely external events like a plague or bad weather.

Of course, circumstances - where you are born, your neighbourhood, your school, and the choices your parents make - have a huge impact. But social problems are often the consequence of the choices that people make.

There is a danger of becoming quite literally a de-moralised society, where nobody will tell the truth anymore about what is good and bad, right and wrong. We as a society have been far too sensitive.

In order to avoid injury to people's feelings, in order to avoid appearing judgemental, we have failed to say what needs to be said."

He has a point you know - the Labour government has been rather permissive when it comes to poverty - though perhaps only it that it has permitted it to thrive. At any rate, what Labour ministers should have been doing for the last decade is to aim a few more moralities in the direction of the poor, the alcoholic, the fat. "Lay off the cheeseburgers and, y'know, try some of this delicious Bulgar Wheat Salad from Fresh 'n' Wild" Or "Stop wallowing in poverty, old chap, and get yourself down the job centre. We all know that you will work all the hours God sends for just enough money to keep you fed and watered, but at least you can bask in the warm and noble glow of self-sufficiency!"

The conclusion of Cameron's stupid, infantile drivel is that "[this] is why children are growing up without boundaries, thinking they can do as they please, and why no adult will intervene to stop them - including, often, their parents. If we are going to get any where near solving some of these problems, that has to stop." Nothing to do with the yawning gap between rich and poor, nothing to do with the fact that the system makes it virtually impossible to escape the trap of poverty, nothing to do with the fact that young people and working-class are systematically demonised by a quite awesomely moralising mainstream press, nothing to do with the fact that ordinary people feel "undervalued and under siege". No, our so-called "broken society" has been caused by - you've got it - political correctness.

Gordon Brown, meanwhile, has proposed community service and curfews as a solution to knife crime (his policy, supported by the Tories, of making people work for their benefits by doing community service alongside convicted criminals tells you something about New Labour's utter contempt for the poorest in society).

So, in lieu of anything sensible or compassionate coming from the corridors of power, what is to be done? What can the Left offer to improve law and order? As a starting-point, I shall merely state that Lissagaray, in his history of the Paris Commune, noted that violent crimes were almost unheard of during the two-month long "government of the people by the people". Indeed, robberies and muggings were at their lowest for any quarter-year period between 1850 and 1900. Perhaps the fact that education was freed from the wild superstitions of religious belief, that working conditions were radically improved, that for the first time people were valued for their ideas, their skills, their contributions to making the city a success, actually, you know, made people happier?

Just a thought.