Friday, 17 November 2017

Armistice Day


I’m listening to music on headphones, like everyone does, when an announcement on the Gigantastore’s PA catches my ear.  Usually, I pay no attention to these things: a heartfelt thank you for shopping at [SUPERMARKET], or a helpful rhetorical question inviting us to consider buying some crisps, or something (they always begin with “why not…?” don’t they?  I almost always answer, sometimes out loud: “Because fuck off, that’s why not.”). 
But this one sounds different, somehow.  I pause my music player and remove an earphone.
The sound of the PA has the sombre quality of an important announcement (this is conveyed by the lack of a doorbell “Bing! Bong!” noise, which they use for their more routine announcements.  But also by the tone of the crackle.  I don’t know how to describe, that would need an acoustician, or at least some kind of music producer).  The voice, however, perhaps cracking under the pressure of delivering the Important Message, does not match the gravitas; the message is supposed to speak for itself:
“Ladies and gentlemen, please join us for two minutes’ silence to mark the eleventh hour of Armistice Day.”
Oh, shit.  It’s Armistice Day at eleven o’clock, and here I am looking at razor blades in a big supermarket. 
Plenty of the shop’s patrons remain unmoved by the announcement, with children galloping about the aisles and parents deciding which brand of toilet paper plays best with their image and/or self image.  There is an occasional admonishment of “ssshhh!” but it does not have the desired effect; some have simply not heeded the message, perhaps jaded, or desensitised by the usual low-production-cost advertising and call to the checkouts of all available staff.
Obviously, I have no trouble at all believing the sincerity of [SUPERMARKET]’s commitment to looking after current and former armed forces personnel, and honouring the memory of those who have died, but it does get me thinking.  Again.  As usual.
What I’m supposed to think about is the war dead, their sacrifice, our gratitude for that. 
What I usually think about is how I might have coped in their place, what choices I would have made: would I have fought?  Conscientiously objected?  Would I have supported the contemporary view of The Great War as a shockingly brutal cull of Europe’s working-class males?  Or the surviving narrative of WWII as a fight for survival against fascism?  Or would I see it as partly that, and partly another round of extreme violence and realpolitik in which competing power centres carved up the earth for their own ends, to the cost of millions of lives that could never have access to that kind of power, or its rewards?
In short, would I have felt as conflicted then as I do about it now?

I usually think about the “politicisation” of “Poppy Day”, including the sheer awfulness of calling it Poppy Day.  I often wonder how anyone thinks there could ever be any chance that any of this could ever be apolitical.  As if war is just nature, and as if thinking that it is is not a political position to take. 
When people want us to not politicise something, to “play politics” with an important issue, what they usually mean is “shut up and agree with me”  And they mean that because they think that what they think about it is so obvious it can’t/shouldn’t even be discussed.  Not consciously, deliberately – but at the level of belief, of assumption.  As if those beliefs/assumptions are also beyond/above the dirty business of Politics.
My mind, on this occasion, refers fleetingly to a recent conversation with my Dad about all this, when he asked my feelings on it, and I answered, with uncharacteristic brevity: “Ambivalent.”  (In retrospect, I should have used “conflicted”; perhaps I felt at the time it would have been a cruelly ironic pun.  But it is a better choice of word anyway.)
My Dad respects the Poppy Appeal, despite some reservations, at least partly out of respect for his own Dad, who fought in the second world war.  I have no need and no right and no appetite to challenge him on this.
What I am actually thinking about, however, is razors.  There are a lot of razors from which to choose.  Too many, if anything.  I was dithering over the choice, trying to remember which ones I usually get, and now I am wondering why there are so many from which to choose.  Because of the economics of mass production, is the conclusion toward which I am presumably meandering.
I am also thinking, simultaneously, of course, as ever, as is my wont, about the nature of time; surely it’s been two minutes by now…?
Is this what our grandparents’ generation fought and died for?  My/our right to have a far-too-big  choice of razors in a far-too-big shop?  To be bored by remembering them?  To not remember them?  To feel pressured into remembering them in a way approved of by the class of people who sent them to war?
Well, yes, to an extent, sort of, maybe – for the right of the next generation/s to not have to fight and kill for the basic freedoms like constant disagreement, complexity, ambivalence, consumer-choice-as-freedom and boredom.  And a massive choice of razors in a massive shop.
Of course, I have no idea what motivates one person, now, in the specific time and place in which I exist.  Anything I tell myself about the motivations of large groups of others, in another time and place, or this time and place, for that matter, is a story I tell myself to make some sense of it. Usually based on nothing more than other people’s stories about that, and my own assumptions.  So I/we don’t know why anyone fought or didn’t fight, except those that told us (and even then…..) 
In My Story™, the second world war was fought so that we would all agree on everything, and forget about our own thoughts on things, and put up with the priorities of Power, and just wear whatever we’re supposed to wear in this Order of things, and, once it’s reached critical mass, accept the unquestioned and obvious Best Thing For Everyone, which would lead, inevitably to more violence and abuse. 
It’s just that the side who were fighting for that lost. 
And the “politicisation” of Armistice Day is to add on all the other fighting the British Army has done since 1945, as if it is all the same, as if fighting fascists occupying much of Europe and bombing y/our country, is the same as crushing the rebellions of those fighting for self-determination in their own country; Afghanistan, India, Ireland, Kenya, Ghana or anywhere else – as if fighting off a foreign power bent on dominating the world is morally equivalent to being such a power, and using violence in the same way.  That’s what I mean by politicisation: an attempt to conflate the one “good” war with all the others that we don’t learn about in school, because we know they are unequivocally Not Good.  And to tell us all that questioning this in any way is, at best, disrespectful to the dead.
In My Story™, I am looking for a way to respect the one (with caveats) without indicating any kind of support for the other, and recognising that this is problematic.  Perhaps a white poppy would do that, I don’t know.  I’ve always felt that my thoughts on these things (or anything else, for that matter) cannot really be summed up with a small symbol, and certainly not one so loaded (that’s another horrible pun, isn’t it?).  I have a sort of envy for those who do enjoy that level of certainty, or clarity. 
You’re right, I do think too much.  Yes, I’ve heard that before.
In the end, I keep my mouth shut for two minutes and then buy the same razor blades I always get and then go home.

Friday, 10 November 2017

NYMFC: Tourism Part 1

I’m not much of a tourist, not doing much touring.  But there is a lot to see in some places, isn’t there?
On a Monday in New York, we wake up to rain.  And plenty of it. 
Yesterday, we made plans for today: Empire State Building, followed by Katz’s Deli for lunch.
The rain, almost literally, pisses on that.  By the time we cross the Brooklyn Bridge on the train, the thick mist looks like it’s hanging around half the height of the ESB.
Since we’ve already made the trip, we decide to ask.  The helpfully honest man in the ticket office is cheerfully blunt: “Oh, you can’t see anything.  Not one thing.”
So, we sack it off and decide that we will maybe try to squeeze it in before our flight home tomorrow.
There’s no point in a tower with a view for sight-seeing, if you can’t view or see sights.
We head to Katz’s Deli for lunch.  It’s a confusing place, but they have a system, which they breathlessly explain to diners as they (the diners) join various queues.
I get stuck between two “lines” (that’s what they call queues here, remember) somehow, between two “cutters” (that’s what they call sandwich makers here) and as I realise a young woman has cut in front of me (I daresay she spotted my tourist naivete from a distance), she grins widely at me and offers the meat that the cutter has just handed her from the huge slab he’s working on.  I ask her what it is, and she says Pastrami (that’s good, ‘cos it’s what I’ll order.  Eventually.)  I take a bit and it’s really good. 
“No”, she says, “you have to eat the whole thing!”, and again looks at me like I’m hopelessly, cluelessly (if, perhaps, somewhat charmingly) daft.
(Women have looked at me like this and I’ve never realised what it meant until it was too late – except in this case, when I’m not at all interested in what it means.)
After I get my own taster of the pastrami (it seems to be like trying the wine to make sure it’s not corked, and is acceptable), I get a Reuben with Pastrami (that’s a beef sandwich, if you’re nasty) and fries, and a can of soda (that’s a tin of pop, to you).  When I join E at the table she has been saving she is sitting with a man who is there on his own, and they are chatting.  (He is a wine-maker from Seattle, WA, if you’re interested.)
He comes here once a year, a sort of foody pilgrimage without his wife, who is a fussy eater.  He recommends all sorts of places we don’t have time to try.
Katz’s itself was recommended, and it is great, if a wee bit touristy.  It’s the diner in which Sally went with Harry, the one where she faked an orgasm and then a woman said “I’ll have what she’s having” and then everyone laughed forever and ever.  (That moment was the US “movie” equivalent of when Trigger fell through the bar.  Which you love.)
In fact, as I look around, I notice a sign above our heads.  It reads: “Where Harry met Sally…hope you have what she had!  Enjoy!”
So, it seems we’re sat at the famous table right out of the movie!  And we didn’t even mean to!
We pay on the way out, which is novel.  Back outside, the rain has just got heavier.  There is a man in a wheelchair asking for money, and E stops to talk to him and hands over some notes.  We dive back into the Subway and head for the Museum of The American Indian (I had assumed this was not the real, official name of the place, but it definitely, very disappointingly, is). 
The museum is in one of the oldest buildings in Manhattan, and it’s a state building, so it’s a bag search and airport-style metal detector on the way in.  Go figure.  (There is no British translation of this phrase.  It’s basically meaningless, as far as I can tell.)
The first thing I am confused about is How Is It Still Cool To Call Native/Indigenous People Indian When Everyone Knows They Are Not Indian And Were Only Called That, Ever, Because Of The Ignorance Of “Explorers” (Pirates/Genocidal maniacs)?
B says a lot of people still say “Indian”.  That’s a shame, but this is an Official Museum! WTF?  (That’s What The Fuck? to you.)
The museum itself is a disappointment.  There are 3 exhibitions, one on Native Fashion Now, one on ancient art in the Americas (all of the Americas) and another which seems to be about culture of different native groups through pre-annihilation history.  Its more art than history, although there’s a smattering of historical info.  And there’s a guide taking a group round.  I eavesdrop and hear a moving anecdote about the Choctaw Nation, who, after The Trail Of Tears, when they were forcibly removed from their land following a treaty, raised money to send to Ireland during the Potato Famine.  Big Time Solidarity.
The whole thing is a wee bit depressing, and seems to reflect very badly on the current state of denial in America concerning the genocide committed against native people on which this country is built.
I sincerely hope there are other, better museums that deal with this.  Again, the problem is the same as back at home: we are not taught about these things, for fairly obvious reasons…
Upon leaving the disappointing museum, we head to the “oldest pub in Manhattan”, The Frauncis Tavern.  It’s on the National Register of Historic Places, according to the plaque on the wall outside, and is named after Samuel Fraunces, a “West Indian” American patriot, who hosted George Washington at the pub, at the time of the Revolutionary War (the one that kicked Britain out).
Inside, it’s posh and a bit dark.  There are several bars, and B directs us to his favourite, which has loads of beers on tap – most of which are very expensive and some of which are very strong and all of which are new to me.  I select one which is served in a small glass, looks like about half a pint.  It is very tasty though.  E has a cider.  Every bar here seems to have a telly, even classy places that wouldn’t back home.  This one is showing 24-hour news (our era’s most depressing development in media?  Ah, but there are so many to choose from!)), which is confirming/re-affirming something that cannot be considered news by any standards: the current president, among his many other attributes, is entirely self-satirising.  The actual news of it is that he may also have committed some kind of treason, by colluding with Russian agents to influence the 2016 election.  (Hahaha, what a card.)
As we head back to Brooklyn, we discover that there has been a bomb in Manchester at a big pop concert, which has killed people.  It makes us sad and a bit nauseous.  The things happening in the world just now seem, for someone who has been paying attention, like they have always been happening, but now are quicker and worse and in our faces all the time (you know, terrorist atrocities, wars all over the world, massive (mostly unpunished) political corruption, racism, economic turmoil, despair etc.).  Some people seem to think that a lot of this is new, somehow.  As I say, others of us have been paying attention.  What is new, to me, is how quickly we find out about it, and from whom.
We want to buy B & J dinner to thank them for putting us up/putting up with us for a fortnight, so we all go to one of their favourite local restaurants.  It’s very nice, a bit trendy, and the food is, again, very good.  We get another tour of the neighbourhood (the place is on Cortelyou) and walk the gamut of gentrification.  This part of town sure has changed since I was last here, yessirree, Bob.
Back in the immediate vicinity of the flat/apartment, J, E and I stop at Hinterland for a nightcap.  B is on sensibletime, and this being a Monday night, declines.
The bar seems busy, for a Monday night.  J discovers, while getting the drinks in, that the crowd are here for the “season premiere” of The Batchelorette.  (That’s the first in a new series of a long-running dating show, where a woman chooses from 30 or so preening tossers competing for her attention/body/love etc.)
Soon, the screams from the back of the bar (where there is a big screen set up) are making conversation about anything else almost impossible.  The show seems like Definitely The Worst Thing Ever, based on the noises produced by the crowd at the back.  Oh, God, the screaming
Still, it’s probably not that different to the feeling a non-football fan would get in a football pub when there’s a big game on…to each their own.  And, like a non-football fan in a football pub when there’s a big game on, I need to leave swiftly to preserve whatever’s left of my faith in/fondness for humans.  We are agreed on this, although E & J seem to be getting sucked in a wee bit, however reluctantly.
So, we leave after one drink (this is possibly the first time in my/our life/lives that “one more drink” has actually meant one more drink).
Back at the flat, J puts the telly on to watch… The Batchellorette!  So, now I can have an informed opinion on exactly how hideous it is.  It is exactly as hideous as I had assumed without having been fully subjected to it.  (Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover/screaming fans.)  It’s utterly ghastly, obviously.  I write these notes and shake my head a lot.  There is nothing less Real on God’s Green Earth than Reality TV.  That’s the extent of my critique.  Life’s too short to dwell on it.
I tell J that the only thing worse than British TV is American TV and she laughs.
So, that’s everything there is to see in New York City, isn’t it?
Bed time.

Friday, 3 November 2017

GIG REVIEW: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Motion, Bristol 30/10/17

“I’ve gotta go.  This music is utterly fucking repellent.” 
Strong words from my man G.

I don’t necessarily agree, but I admire the passion, and the intensity of the rant that follows after we go out to the bar.  I didn’t really like their sound, but I am not so upset by it as is G.  That’s my man, right there.  If music does not move us, what is the point of it? 
Fortunately, none of us have come to see this band, they are supporting the band we’re here to see.  The band we are here to see are called Godspeed You! Black Emperor.  (It looks like a pretentious name, what with the exclamation mark in the middle.  In the context of this particular band, I would argue it is not.  It is apt.  Also, they are named after a documentary about a Japanese motorcycle gang called The Black Emperors.  So there.  Hardly pretentious at all, is it? I’m not getting involved with any pretention, I can assure you of that right at the top…)

This particular band play a particularly epic version of Post Rock, which is a bit like Classical music played with electric/rock band instruments.  And, in this particular case, violin. 

There is no vocal microphone on stage.  There will be no singing, no introductions, no showbiz whatsoever. This is ART.  And Punk, sort of.  Anti-showbiz, if you will.  You will. 
This “show”, if you will (you won’t), is at Motion in Bristol, which looks like a big warehouse, but actually used to be Skate & Ride, in a previous century, when I was young.

These are all details, they don’t really matter.  The bald facts of an event don’t tell us very much about what it felt like, do they?  I will now attempt to record what it felt like.

CJ was planning on going on his own, and says this would have been fine.  (Should we apologise for coming with him?)  D*, by the look of him, would gladly have gone on his own, such is his excitement to see this.  It’s good to see him, it’s been a while.  MC is around somewhere, but I haven’t seen him yet.  Others I know are in attendance, and I recognise a lot of faces.  G and CJ both notice that the crowd is male-dominated, but I think no more than a lot of other gigs I’ve been to – is it certain types of music?  I don’t know, maybe we’d have to ask the people who don’t come why they don’t come.  And/or the people who do, why they do.

As the first strains of dramatic noise fill the hangar-like room and the excitement builds, G is effusive about the “dominant 7 drone”.  I smile and nod as if I know what he is talking about.  I do that a lot when G is talking music, and especially when he does so in numbers. 

Naturally, I can’t see very much of the stage.  Equally predictable is the man a foot taller than me who seeks me, instinctively, with that innate ability shared by all people a foot taller than me, and  stands directly in front of me, close enough for me take my weary rage out on the back of his head (hahahahahahahaha if I could reach amirite hahahaha I’m short, which is obviously hilarious).
What is probably more rage-inducing is the £2.50 cloakroom charge and the £4 for a can – a CAN – of Red Stripe. 
Yikes.  Welcome to Michael Gove’s Britain.
If only there was an appropriate, perhaps creative – artistic, even – expression of rage at the state of the world that was also somehow beautiful, some non-verbal exposition for our collective sorrow and disbelief at how far short of our potential we fall, how angry we are at each other, and ourselves, for failing so disastrously to organise ourselves for the benefit of all – while simultaneously expounding, in an abstract way, on the beauty and fragility of our world and the wonder of our existence in it………..
……..oh, wait.

G is crouching down.  He’s on the phone, which is mental.  Before I can admonish him for this transgression, he tells me that his girlfriend has gone to A&E.  But she will be fine.  Life, it seems, goes on, outside the rarefied atmosphere here created for us.

After a while, they their play their big pop hit, you know, the one that goes,
DUN, NU-NUH, DUN, NU-NUH, DUN, NU-NUH, DUN, NU-NUH     [sqwreeeeeeeeeeeh!]
DUN, NU-NUH, DUN, NU-NUH, DUN, NU-NUH, DUN, NU-NUH     [chchcwwwwwwrrrrrrrrchrrrrrrchr!]
(In which the DUN, NU-NUH, DUN, NU-NUH, DUN, NU-NUH, DUN, NU-NUH is the melody that emerges so gradually you can barely notice it starting, and then it only actually repeats once or twice, even though I always remember it going on for ages.  That’s musical memory, isn’t it – creating some kind of phantom melody, as brains fill in the gaps left by the music?  It’s what people mean when they say “you have to listen to the notes they’re not playing”, isn’t it?)

That one is in ¾, as I gesture to G, using my fingers to represent the numbers, and he agrees.  Perhaps I am starting to get the hang of the music numbers.  Perhaps it was a lucky guess.
The numbers I mentioned are the time signature.  In this set, that seems to change on a whim, and on the sly.  This music has a life of its own, it seems.  It leads and the rest of us are impelled to follow, invited to let go and flow with the current.  Like all good bands, like all good music, this is greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s very loud.  Physically.  As in, the kind of bass that shakes everything, including the internal organs of all those present.  Also, there’s a lot of bass chords, which are pleasing (especially for CJ, a bassist).  On this occasion, it seems to shake my shins, which is novel.  I don’t remember feeling music, specifically, in/on my shins before; perhaps it’s a sensitivity which develops with age, I don’t know.  But the hair on my shins is vibrating at a very high frequency.  Perhaps my shin-hair has achieved the vibratory pitch that Buddhists might call Nirvana.  I am neither a physician, a theologian, nor a meta-physicist, so am qualified to do little more than speculate on any of this. 
But I am a writer, so speculate I do.

There’s a big platform at the back of the room, with two sets of steps up to it, and another higher level at the very back.  There are lots of people on it. 
I head to the toilet (it’s a two-hour set) and on the way back, pause on the stairs.  The top one is empty, with just enough room, so I pause and watch from there.  I can see everything, and hear it even louder, even though downstairs we were very ear a big speaker.  I can see now that there are eight people on stage, although they are not lit like they want to be seen. 

Those on the stairs had previously been moved on by security personnel; presumably because this is a fire escape.  Now there is a whole row of stair-dwellers, with enough room for another row to carefully file past in ascension or declension.  Even the bouncers know not to mess with the emotional experience of those here gathered.  Good for them.  And all.  We’re like a temporary gang, aren’t we – a really good audience is, anyway.  The abundance of familiar faces makes it easier for me to believe this.

The piece I watch from my seat at the top of the stairs is especially stirring/punishing.  It is pretty brutal, but resolves, of course, as all rivers eventually find the sea.  Many people are strewn across the platform, at the back of it, a whole untidy row of them, like an atoll island nation, each with their eyes closed, experiencing the tide on their own.  And yet together.  (Told you it wouldn’t be pretentious.  (I didn’t say it wouldn’t be pompous.))

I meet MC by the stairs.  We step outside for a quick catch-up, and when we head back in, he gets free earplugs from the bar.  I decline; the damage is done, I expect.  I’d either be thinking about the damage done, or the weirdness of hearing it all differently, with extraneous noise/atmosphere blocked….I am not an ear/hearing specialist.  I may be an idiot.

At one point, the eagle-eyed CJ notices that the drummer and percussionist have swapped.  A sudden junction is formed in the area where we stand, as a lot of people leave shortly before the end, which is surprising – especially when the people on stage go.  I add Sudden Junction to my obsessively-compiled, massive, all-consuming list of band names.  (I will later add Phantom Melody, while writing this.  So, not later, now.  But now when you’re reading it, obviously.  Now.  Not now.)  The music continues droning for at least ten minutes after the players have left the stage.  It might still be going now, for all I know.  I can still hear it, now, distantly.  It exists outside time, somehow.

Outside, after it’s all over, MC mentions the visuals and says it would have been a bit too easy to have a lot of anti-current-president-of-the-USA-who-should-never-be-named-because-the-only-thing-that-will-really-upset-him-is-no-one-talking-about-him type of protest material, but concludes that the violent scenes shown at the climax of the show were very well judged and fitting.  I am not really in a position to make a sound judgment on this.  Because of my height.  [Insert self-deprecating height joke here.  See if you can find a new one, go on.]

I also see MSB, who it’s nice to see.  The first time we met, he bought me a drink because I was the "best" thing he’d seen at a gig where he’d gone to see someone else (this was our life/lives).

But how was it, though – was it good?  TELL US IF IT WAS ANY GOOD, they scream, the review readers, the editors, those who insist on Knowing Things.  This review is more conventional than most I have written.  It mentions the name of the band, and the venue.  What more do they want?  Blood?

A lot of you would call it Epic, which is fair enough.  It’s epic without being anthemic; it’s not pop music, it doesn’t lay everything out in the first ten seconds.  You have to work through something to get to the crescendo.  We can appreciate the joy, the beauty, because we have felt the pain and seen the brutality.  And, when it is live and we are all here at the same time, we are somehow part of it.  We have gone through all this together.  Maybe that’s what we need at times like these.  Whatever these times are like.

It was subtle and complex.  Gentle and cacophonous.  Beautifully brutal; brutally beautiful.

Ow, my ears.  Ow, my heart.