Sam Said, by The Middle Ones

Posted 24 Sep 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Music

I went and saw a couple of really great bands at the Riots Not Diets night in Brighton on Saturday. The first were the excellent Edible Arrangements, who played a short set of really excellent stuff, a kind of slightly gothic take on Electrelane’s two note minimalism. It’s obviously v early days for them as they’ve released nothing so far – but they’re worth keeping an eye out for.

Likewise The Middle Ones, who were up next and played some absolutely terrific songs. A two-piece who combine wonderful lyrics and beautiful voices with rudimentary playing and occasional bursts of joyous noise, they were really great.

We picked up one of their CD afterwards and I’ve been absolutely floored ever since by one song in particular – the very short and very beautiful ‘Sam Said’ which is so simple and profound that I feel the need to share it, lyrics included. Shades of those early, devastating Emmy The Great songs like ‘City Song’ and ‘MIA’.

Do listen; learn the lyrics, sing along. It’ll make your life better.

“Driving away
I feel stupidly happy again
I feel more like myself every day
Since you said I should stop worrying, stop worrying.

Sleeping on trains
always used to make me feel safe
made me think that I could be more brave
made me think I could stop worrying, stop worrying now.

and today I ought to feel bad
for the loss of the hero I used to have
but maybe that just means I can
finally stop worshipping, stop worshipping
people I see
who seem better at living than me
who seem louder and faster and free
Maybe I should stop worshipping, stop worshipping

Sam said it’s better this way
Sam said it’s better this way
Sam said it’s better this way
and at last I believe him, at last I believe him today.”

There’s more about this excellent band here.

The Green Centre, Brighton

Posted 20 Sep 2012 — by Jonathan
Category General, Share, Video

One of the most inspiring Green organisations I’ve come across is based on my doorstep right here in Sussex. My girlfriend Lyndsey has been volunteering at The Green Centre, situated in East Brighton, for the last three years, and at a recent Open Day & Recycling Bonanza I helped out and, working with a fellow film-maker, Dan Corns, made this video about the centre and its amazing Creative Director, Melanie Rees.

Mel has turned the centre into a real community project, working with local people to create a sustainable, open and inspiring space. The Green Centre market is full of nice objects which keep the business ticking over, but the heart of the Centre is the amazing recycling resource it offers, helping to ensure that practically nothing goes to waste, but is re-used, re-cycled or re-purposed. Out in the back of the Centre, a new pond provides social housing for the local wildlife.

The whole thing is brilliant. Please watch and share the video, and do feel free to stop by the Centre or like it on Facebook.

The Green Centre, Brighton from What You Sow on Vimeo.

[Filmed using two Canon 600Ds, a Zoom H1, and edited in Final Cut Pro X]

Review; Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Posted 18 Sep 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Reviews, Share

As usual I’m working my way through the Booker Prize shortlist, and while I’ve not read the whole lot yet, I’ve been very much stopped in my tracks by ‘Swimming Home’, the new novel by Deborah Levy, which – while a short read – has resonated at the edge of my thoughts constantly since I finished it a few days ago.

The book is as clean and clear as the ringing of a bell, but quietly and meticulously poetic, full of beautiful language and deeply visual storytelling. Set around a holiday villa in the south of France, where the warm sun seems to stir a mild fever, it conjures up a series of unforgettable images – from the sight of a naked girl swimming resembling a bear, to a boy emerging from a wall, and a centipede examined clambering out of a bucket. A very middle class English family – the Jacobs – holiday abroad with friends and get tangled up with Kitty Finch, a provocative and very cinematic agent of change, who pulls and tears at the delicate conventions of the family. And Levy is a truly superb writer, distracting the reader so with her style that the plot twists, when they come, left me startled, uneasy.

Levy’s characters are on the precipice of self-discovery but numbed, needing the disruptive power of Kitty Finch to shake them up. Of Isabel Jacob, a foreign correspondent unable to reconcile her life as a journalist and a mother, Levy writes, “If she knew that to be forceful was not the same as being powerful and to be gentle was not the same as being fragile, she did not know how to use this knowledge in her own life or what it added up to”. Her husband, Joe, seems at first blithe and unfeeling, but his crime of conscience is deliberate forgetting. Kitty, who shares aspects of his past he tries to ignore, stirs him to action. But as each character attempts to guide proceedings, their lack of control is made apparent, and things spiral out of hand. Levy’s handling of this approaching chaos is masterly. It’s truly a very lovely book.

I raced through this in two or three hours, and knew immediately on finishing that it would merit a re-read. Oddly, I’m impatient to finish the rest of the shortlist so that I might get back to it.

A real winner. Hopefully – in terms of the Booker Prize – literally.

On Roald Dahl Day

Posted 17 Sep 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Observations, Share

It was Roald Dahl Day last Thursday; like everyone my age (and probably a great many people younger and older), Dahl left an indelible mark on me during my childhood; particularly with The BFG, The Witches and Matilda, all three of which I can remember being published (the first only hazily). But of course there’s much to love in the earlier books too, for example in Danny The Champion Of The World, which is lovely on the relationship between a boy and his father, particularly the pride the child takes in his father’s powerful knowledge of the world.

In a passage which has since been successfully (and lovingly) lampooned by the fantastic Adam Buxton, (here), Dahl captures that wonder.

I really loved those morning walks to school with my father. We talked practically the whole time. Mostly it was he who talked and I who listened, and just about everything he said was fascinating. He was a true countryman. The fields, the streams, the woods and all the creatures who lived in these places were a part of his life. Although he was a mechanic by trade and a very fine one, I believe he could have become a great naturalist if only he had had a good schooling.

Long ago he had taught me the names of all the trees and the wild flowers and the different grasses that grow in the fields. All the birds, too, I could name, not only by sighting them but by listening to their calls and their songs.

In springtime we would hunt for birds’ nests along the way, and when we found one he would lift me up on to his shoulders so I could peer into it and see the eggs. But I was never allowed to touch them.

I overheard a nice exchange on the train today, which offered up a nice insight into modern day parenting. A young, mop-headed boy sat with his father on the 5.21 from Chichester to Brighton. He looked up and asked his dad a question.

“Dad, what’s the speed of light?”

I smiled to  myself, suspecting (rightly) that his father wouldn’t know the answer offhand (I don’t either, sadly). It felt like a slightly sad moment to me – the son still too young to realise that adults don’t have all the answers.

But the father did something very clever. Instead of immediately replying, he engaged his son in conversation, asking him what made him want to know that, and generally talked confidently around the subject while he quickly tapped into his mobile phone. When – only moments later – Google provided him with the answer, he was able to very naturally say,

“Well, anyway – the speed of light is around 700 miles an hour”.

The illusion was allowed to stand – Dad as the oracle and the font of knowledge. Very sweet, and rather lovely. I hope that illusion can be maintained a bit longer.

But then the boy looked up and said,

“OK. But how fast is that?

On Victoria Pendleton

Posted 12 Sep 2012 — by Jonathan
Category General

The Olympics, I’m afraid, completely passed me by, as did the Paralympics – I realise that saying this marks me out as a bad tempered refusenik, (which I partly am), but the real reason I didn’t watch more than 10 minutes of the whole thing is not because I found the whole thing particularly troubling or distasteful, nor because of the overwhelming level of patriotism sweeping the country, but simply because I find most sport (with the exception of football) utterly boring. Plus I was actually out of the country for half of the last month anyway.

That’s not to say that I’m not aware of the benefits that came with the Olympics, nor occasionally diverted by the human stories which exist beneath the main narrative – this interview with Victoria Pendleton is fascinating and rather moving. Like my favourite footballer, Benoît Assou-Ekotto, she isn’t obsessed with sport, which I find very endearing. But it’s not that that is interesting, but rather the difficult, painful backstory which accompanies her story. The interview’s worth a read – first paragraph:

According to Victoria Pendleton, British Cycling has already sold off her bike. Some staff members will probably never speak to her again. She suspects they will be relieved not to have to deal with her any more. She tells me all this with a twinkly, tinkling laugh, the kind people adopt when they are trying especially hard not to sound bitter. The words ring in my head as I hang up the phone after our second conversation. I feel unexpectedly gutted.

Here’s the whole thing.

Continuing adventures with beer

Posted 10 Sep 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Beer

My established love of beer is fast becoming an obsession, I think – something which has been much encouraged by the existence in Brighton of (a) a truly excellent off license – Trafalgar Wine at the top of the North Laine – and (b) some terrific pubs which are bringing in more and more imported and speciality beers. I’ve recently subscribed to @beerbods, too – a really excellent service which, for the price of £36, provides 12 bottles of excellent beer (one a week for 3 months) that come with all sorts of social media bells and whistles and, most importantly, tasting notes – which is great for a heathen like me.

More on Beer Bods to follow; check out their website here:

Image

Kickstarting Jazz

Posted 09 Sep 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Technology

This is very interesting; using crowdfunding to finance artistic projects is hardly news – it’s been happening for years and has clearly picked up a great deal of pace recently, in the world of films, games, journalism and publishing. In the music world, a number of indie rock bands which I follow have used it to get records off the ground, and in each case have done so in keeping with a level of independent spirit which makes the decision unsurprisingly. (Interesting, Darren Hayman is a vocal opponent of this method of funding creativity).

This article points to a more traditional area of music which has been benefiting from this new world; jazz.

Not long ago, Wayne Escoffery—trusted saxophonist with the Mingus Big Band, the Tom Harrell Quintet and Ben Riley’s Monk Legacy Septet—had an idea for a new album. He’d already released five under his name, and a couple with his wife, the singer Carolyn Leonhart. But this one would be different: a concept album inspired by his early years in London, and the hardships of his single mother, and the circumstances around their emigration to the States. In essence, a portrait of the artist as a young man.

It would also be his first album of entirely original music, which he’d conceived for a blend of acoustic and electric instruments. But when he presented the idea to the record label he was affiliated with at the time, he found no traction there. “They felt that the music wasn’t accessible or radio friendly,” he recalled recently. So Escoffery turned to Kickstarter, the popular crowd-funding website, and took his pitch public. The decision literally paid off. He exceeded his $10,000 goal, and went on to make his album, The Only Son of One, which was released on Sunnyside this spring. (To the likely chagrin of his previous label, it has met with some success on jazz radio.)

He’s not the only one; click here to read the rest of the article.

And here’s the LP he made.

Pride 2012

Posted 01 Sep 2012 — by Jonathan
Category General, Photos

Went to Pride today; lovely as always to join in the festivities, especially as we went to hang out with our friends Oli and Sanj beforehand, in what they cheerfully term their ‘gay house’. Sanj was ashamed to have no sparkling water to hand, and rebuked me for folding my arms at one point. “I need you to relax”, he told me, wrenching my posture. “This is a gay house”.


Traams live in Brighton

Posted 30 Aug 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Reviews

Dormant blog in temporary revival warning! I’m spurred to post because I saw a really amazing band last night at the Green Door Store in Brighton. They were Traams, a Chichester (of all places) three-piece of whom I had previously heard nothing, ’til they arrived on stage. Wow. With the exception of Blur they were easily the best group I’ve seen this year, combining the taut rhythmic energy of Big Black or Neu! with the kinetic spontaneity of early Fall or Pavement. They played five or six songs of ever-accelerating brilliance, barely registering the audience, and departed with smiles which suggest they know exactly how good they are. Luckily I happened to have my camera on me, so I was able to document a couple of songs – here are ‘Teeth’ and ‘Klaus’. You can follow the band on twitter here, and check out some of their recordings at their bandcamp page.

A contraception joke for publishers

Posted 24 Jun 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Books

I’m enjoying reading André Schiffrin’s excellent ‘Words & Money’, which provides a very lucid, if somewhat European, take on the current publishing industry. It’s actually quite funny, too, although in a way which will make any editor shift a little uncomfortably in his or her seat.

“The pressure is to produce fewer books, concentrating on those with the highest sales potential, eliminating vast areas that used to be the hallmark of many of these houses. In the past I have joked that publishers progressed from infanticide, neglecting the new books that show no sales promise, to abortion, cancelling existing contracts of books no longer thought to be financially worthwhile. The goal now is contraception, preventing such titles from ever entering the process at all”.

*grim laugh*

On the discovery of beer

Posted 13 Jun 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Observations

I’m sat in my local pub doing a bit of work and having a drink, and in the corner just along from me is a middle aged woman and (what I assume is) her elderly mother. My arrival at an adjacent table has caused a stir. The elderly woman, very animatedly, asks her daughter what that is in front of me.

“It’s a computer”, she explains.

There follows a protracted period of snorting and head shaking, followed by another question. This elicits a different response.

“It’s a beer”.

Further explanation is necessary. “It’s a long drink, a bit like wine. Made from hops”.

The elderly woman finds this answer fantastical. There is much to-ing and fro-ing, some further explanations (“No, it’s not really that much like wine”) and the younger woman is forced to spend some considerable time trying to convince her mother that actually, no, she probably doesn’t want to try a pint. This strikes me as somewhat unfair.

The barmaid comes over and collects their glasses.

“What’s that?”, the old lady asks, excited.

“That? That’s a cardigan”.

And so it goes on.

No Direction Home, festival review

Posted 11 Jun 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Observations, Reviews

Just back from No Direction Home, a lovely three day festival in Sherwood Forest – and feeling oddly invigorated rather than knackered, which is unusual after a festival – and seems particularly counterintuitive when you consider that this festival took place in a weekend during which Britain was so thoroughly soaked that it was almost lost to the sea.

Oddly, however, the Welbeck Estate stayed pretty much dry, and by a miraculous quirk of fortune I managed to pitch our tent on a bit of even ground. Consequently we stayed dry, slept well, drank with something approaching moderation, and ate regularly and expensively at the many excellent food stalls. So I’m not dead, but rather buzzing with excitement after a few utterly idyllic days and a bunch of awesome bands.

A potted set of highlights and observations, then:

- First, what an amazing site. Compared to End of the Road at the Larmer Tree Gardens in Dorset, the festival is significantly more compact and even rather prettier; it’s a less fenced-in site, making it easier and more rewarding to wander off, and the lakeside setting and accompanying wildlife (skylarks, swifts, martins and owls) were so beautiful and rewarding that it was frequently more tempting to grab a pint of Welbeck Abbey Red Feather and sit by the water, than it was to watch another band.

- Second, once again, the on-site amenities were perfect. Three small stages, with the performance times perfectly scheduled, making it almost possible to catch every single band on the bill; a beautiful comedy and literature yurt; and an absolutely charming pop-up cinema (where we watched ‘Some Like It Hot’ in preference to catching Dirty Three, and where Woodpigeon provided a lovely score to Charlie Chaplin’s surprisingly angry ‘Modern Times’ – which made up for a slightly underwhelming solo set from their Mark Hamilton earlier in the day). Besides all that there were bookshops, vintage clothes stores, a branch of Rough Trade and tons of great places to eat. Perfectly judged.

- When buying my ticket a few months back I half-wondered if I hadn’t had my fill of folk-bands; I’ve seen a lot over the last few years and the bands that jumped out at me on the bill were at the rockier end; Mikal Cronin, The Wave Pictures and Veronica Falls. But actually the line-up worked perfectly; folk, a smattering of electronica, a few big guitars, some amazing new bands and a few unique performances (in particular, The Unthanks‘ extraordinary link up with the Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band, which saw them further mining their interest in northern cultural history and the poetry of the pits).

- Who was good then? New stuff is always most exciting, I think, so I had a brilliant time watching a few bands new to me. Laura J Martin stood out as being incredible playful and adventurous, taking as her starting point some post-Kate Bush warbling but adding clattering drums, mandolin, and layer upon layer of sampled flutes. It was an extraordinary, slightly surreal experience watching her construct explosive little symphonies from the most unlikely of components. She stood cheerfully signing CDs afterwards, clearly delighted at having delighted so many.

Rachael Dadd was similarly great; dangerously close to conforming to twee-folk stereotypes at first glance, but standing out because her interests and approach (which incorporate steel drums played by her husband Ichi) naturally draw even the most sceptical of audience members in. Her abiding interest seems to be Japanese culture, gleefully drawing on a distant society, and, by the end, she was populating an entire song with the recipe for Oni Guri, and beguiling everyone in the process.

Also really liked Seamus Fogarty, who summoned up aspects of traditional folk music, US troubadours like Neil Young and Townes Van Zandt and his label-mates at Fence to provide good-hearted, quiet and sometimes funny ruminations on life. I was very taken with some of his lines, not least “I woke up in Chicago early on Christmas morn / with a woman who worked as a spy”, which is as lovely a set up to a song as you’ll hear.

And best of all the new artists I saw was Nat Johnson & The Figureheads, who played a pitch-perfect set of harmonious indie rock, recalling ‘Stories of the City’ era PJ Harvey and The Long Blondes, while every now and again invoking gloriously fuzzy Pavement-esque guitar riffs. They were poised, energetic, blessed with song after song, and deserve to sell lots of records.

- Saw some great stuff in the literature and comedy yurt too; Jon Ronson gave a characteristically charming reading of his Psychopath Test stuff, as well as casting further comedic light on the (surely unarguable) case for AA Gill’s criminal insanity. Mick Jackson, whose novel ‘The Underground Man’ had a seismic impact on me when I first read it in 1997, talked about the book, which was set at the Welbeck Estate, and he cast light on the network of underground tunnels which snaked through the ground beneath us. The only real disappointment was a very uncomfortable, boorish appearance by a drunk Josie Long (who I normally love) and a humourless friend, who performed an extended karaoke set prior to Robin Ince’s book club, which managed to do the impossible (make a Herman Dune song sound unwelcome) and eventually drive us out into the night, perplexed by the laddishness, excessive volume, affection for Weezer and, most pressingly, her co-host’s inept rape joke, which tipped the balance for us. Very depressing – but out of character, I think.

- More happily, we saw some superb performances from the regular suspects; from The Wave Pictures, Beth Jeans Houghton, Django Django, Spectrals, Martin Carthy and Euros Childs (who lucked out with the first real sun of the weekend setting over his glorious psych-pop). Two performances really stood out; Josh Tillman, playing as Father John Misty, played a ludicrously confident, charismatic set of acoustic country-pop. Slightly camp, very hilarious and deeply handsome, he could have left with anyone in the audience, I suspect. David Thomas Broughton was similarly engaging, if not quite so bloody sexy, but he once again captivated the crowd with a performance as funny as it was gifted, as troubling as it was proficient. Very impressed, as always. He’s one of pop’s more interesting, evocative lyricists.

- Hard not to mention beer. The End of The Road organisers are always scrupulous in sourcing decent ale for their festivals and, despite a tendency to under-order in terms of quantity, they did a great job here. My favourites were the afore-mentioned Red Feather, a very nutty session beer brewed on the premises, and the Bradfield Farmers Blonde, a very pale and floral beer. Of the various bars on site, the Boathouse gets the thumbs-up from me by virtue of their insanely friendly staff and habit of shouting ‘Tip Tip Hooray’ every time they get a tip. Ever eager to please, I think I tipped them about eight quid over the course of the weekend. Lots of hoorays.

- Two more artists who seemed to effortlessly personify the No Direction Home vibe were also on grand form. Liz Green’s talent is palpably natural – she has an effortlessly perfect voice, a wry and arch writing style and can even, it turns out, play a mean trumpet solo without a trumpet (seriously; close your eyes and you’ll hear brass – open them and you’ll see her trying not to laugh while she parps merrily out of the side of her mouth… if you’ll forgive the image). She also works with a band capable of adding texture to her songs with the most glorious instrumentation. The combination of Green’s jazz vocal, a be-turbaned sax player and a double bassist in a tweed jacket and adidias short might put some off; but it would be a hasty judgement. Great stuff. Trembling Bells, meanwhile, are a rather old-fashioned folk group, taking their lead from 60s and 70s British folk-rock, but live they’re forceful, immediate and somehow very modern – this is folk music a very long way from pastiche. Instead they deal in heavy, detailed, free-form visionary music. Unexpectedly they were perhaps the loudest band I saw all weekend.

- …with the exception of Mikal Cronin, who closed the festival. Wow, these guys are good. After lots of ruminative, esoteric folk and pop, the decision to employ Cronin’s band to blow away the cobwebs was masterful. Their music is super-powerful; skewed, loose indie rock twinned with blasts of urgent psych-garage. Watching their delightful, cleansing set was a bit like being placed in front of a massive, nuclear-powered fan. Great great fun. And the joyfulness of their vibrant indie rock seemed to energise a flagging crowd, who yelled jokes and sparred with the band between songs. At one point, while they were tuning up, a moth flew on stage and was briefly illuminated in Cronin’s spotlight. “A moth! A moth!” the crowd gleefully yelled. The band, who had previously boasted of their acid intake, looked bemused.

- Lastly it would be remiss not to share another couple of key ingredients of a super weekend; first off, as always, a festival is a million times better when you’re there with people you love (and I was) and always a winner when every single person you come across, whether staff, performers or audience, seems to share that same expression of delight, good cheer and peacefulness.

So a hearty congratulations to the organisers for putting together a seriously brilliant festival. Will be there next year.

If I’ve missed anything above, do leave a comment below.

 

 

Drinks in A Vizinha, Lisbon

Posted 06 May 2012 — by Jonathan
Category General, Travel

I like the jumble of things in Lisbon. Nothing really matches. The old and the new sit adjacent; ornate tiles are juxtoposed with scrawled grafitti,  dark winding alleys are half lit by sunlight, and totally different areas sit side by side, impatiently resisting easy navigability with map-defying, cascading hills. Even in the smallest spaces the contrasts are evident; record shops which sell books and jewellery; little clothes boutiques selling two-euro, pint-sized cocktails, and arty cafes are filled with mismatched furniture. It’s a city of real informality – people look great but their outfits look instinctive not considered. On Liberation Eve, one of the biggest nights out of the year, we saw precisely one party dress.

In Bica, we stumbled into a tiny whole-food shop and cafe, A Vizinha, still open at 10pm on a Thursday night. A few chairs and tables were assembled at the front of the store, where little groups sat chatting over bottles of wine. We mooched in and ordered small beers, unfolding local freesheets and collapsing onto a little sofa which looked out over our fellow drinkers. The mood could not have been more inviting or welcoming, yet everyone talked quietly, undemonstratively, drinking slowly, taking their time. It was as intimate as any English pub and at the same time utterly different. We sat with our drinks, with the walls lined with tins of sardine pâté, gluten free pasta and tofu. It being only 10.30, no-one was really out yet, so our drink was peaceful and quick – it was perhaps the gentlest, most comfortable thirty minutes of our week away.

There are a million lovely places in Lisbon, so recommending one over another is almost counter-productive; but if you’re in Lisbon and fancy a sit-down, this place is lovely.

A Vizinha, Rua da Bica de Duarte Belo, nº14, Lisbon, Portugal

Review; ‘The Marriage Plot’ by Jeffrey Eugenides

Posted 01 May 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Books, Reviews

On holiday in Lisbon last week I read Jeffrey Eugenides’ excellent ‘The Marriage Plot’, a breezy, thoughtful rumination on changing times and destinies; the marriage novel of the 18th and 19th centuries told afresh in the 1980s, with pre-nups, divorces, and post-modernism thrown in. It was a very good read. Despite his being widely admired, I’d not read either of Eugenides previous books, and came to this relatively fresh, without the burden of having read much contemporary US fiction in recent years, either (I’ll come back when they start writing shorter novels again).

A good writer can rarely go wrong with a campus novel, and that’s exactly how ‘The Marriage Plot’ starts out; we observe three young undergraduates who seem to immerse themselves in pretty much the typical university experience, with the exception that their thirst for knowledge (and limitless appetite for semiotics) felt a little romanticised (or perhaps Eugenides really was that boring at university). The Barthes quotes aside, it’s a familiar story; the vacillating relationship between 3 people; the naive, romantic lead (Madeleine Hanna), the brilliant hunk (Leonard Bankhead) and the introverted, love-struck friend (Mitchell Grammaticus).

The novel really takes off, however, when the three graduate and begin to negotiate those notoriously horrible post-university years. It’s a trite and oft-repeated observation that people go to university to ‘find themselves’, but the reverse, is true – university is what one does while putting the revelations off. It’s when you’re out, directionless and removed, that the real self-discovery takes place, and so it is for our uncertain, tentative leads. Leonard is forced to face his severe depression; Mitchell his spiritual yearning. And Madeleine slowly learns to define herself as her own person – as a Victorianist (this is a novel studded with literary references) and as a woman. It’s well observed stuff, and Leonard’s manic depression feels extraordinarily well described.

It’s not without its flaws; Madeleine’s literary heroines were so remarkable not because of the ingenious ways in which they resolved their own marriage plots, but because they drew marvellously detailed, revelatory portraits of their young leads. We never quite get to know Madeleine, and Mitchell’s travels are largely fruitless. Perhaps this is deliberate; Eugenides seems to contend that the modern marriage – and perhaps the modern life – can never mean as much when all is no longer at stake; and so there is drifting, irony and indecisiveness where in Austen there is purpose, razor sharp satire and principle. Mistakes are still painful, but perhaps less decisive.

None of that prevents ‘The Marriage Plot’ from being a great coming of age novel, and very readable indeed. Eugenides employs a largely conventional style, with the exception of a few judicious liberties with the timeline, and he knows how to drive the reader forward. I was, personally, just a little disappointed with the ending, despite it making sense in a literary context. Nevertheless, it was a great read, and had one glorious side effect for which I thank it – it made me want to go back to a few literary classics I’d not really considered re-reading (including some stuff I hated at the time). I won’t be reaching for Roland Barthes any time soon, but love of literature bleeds from the pages of this excellent book, and I feel a bit infected.

Christine Brooke-Rose, part one

Posted 30 Apr 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Books

I don’t think I was an especially critical English literature student when, many years ago, I was an undergraduate at Sussex University. I certainly didn’t spend much time studying theory or semiotics – as the central characters in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot ceaselessly seem to do – or spend time agonising over the death of the author (despite being endlessly encouraged to do so). I didn’t challenge the consensus which favoured one superb author over another, or spend too long working on my (probably facile) theory that Salinger, Fitzgerald and DH Lawrence were over-rated. But I did always find the fact of the accepted canon a bit odd, and it’s perhaps for that reason that I’ve spent a great deal of time since university picking up books by authors of whom I had never heard. I like and have always liked the concept of discovering authors who, for one reason or another, popular lit-crit has ignored.

I’m no expert, of course, but given how much time I spend in second hand bookshops, and given that I probably buy and read more novels by women with old-fashioned names that I do by anyone else, I was a bit surprised that when an obituary appeared recently in The Guardian for an English, 20th century female novelist who achieved a little aclaim for her short, experimental novels (but little lasting fame), the name didn’t ring any bells. The author was Christine Brooke-Rose, who died late in March at the age of 88. The Guardian described her as ‘marvellously playful and difficult’; Stuart Jeffries goes on…

Britain has all but airbrushed one of its most radical exponents of experimental fiction… Many critics hailed her fiction, for all that it was sometimes scarcely comprehensible or pleasurable to those ignorant of the underpinning theory. Ellen G Friedman put Brooke-Rose among those 20th-century experimental female writers – Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein – whose novels “explode the fixed architecture of the master narrative”. Brooke-Rose wrote 16 novels, five collections of criticism and several collections of short stories and poems. Frank Kermode considered that her originality and skills deserved “a greater measure of admiration and respect than we have so far chosen to accord them”.

Well – difficult novels are often a total chore, but her stuff sounds really interesting. I’m just about to start reading her breakthrough novel, ‘Out’ which is ‘narrated by a white character facing racial discrimination in the aftermath of a nuclear war, with pale skin now indicating radiation poisoning and dark skin health’. Will report back.

Gigi Becali

Posted 30 Apr 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Daft

A silly post, but it’s a rare week that the Observer’s Said and Done column doesn’t throw up a marvellous nugget from the world of professional football. Weekly proof, if proof were needed, that it’s not just British sport which is fatally polluted by a plague of morons. Here’s Gigi Becali – for some reason I find this quote somewhat charming; I don’t know why I do.

Records in Libson #1: Louie Louie

Posted 30 Apr 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Travel

A classic independent record shop in the heart of Chiado, Louie Louie is an old school, vinyl-heavy record shop. It reminds me of indie shops in London during the 1990s, before the craze for recommendations, listening posts and detailed categories kicked in. Louie Louie stocks plenty of decent contemporary vinyl from the UK and USA, but it’s notable for a decent stock of portuguese indie and traditional fado, as well as bins of soul, world and latin releases.

We stumbled in late on Thursday afternoon and I immediately began planning purchases, fingering my much-diminished envelope of euros. I’ve yet to to tire of discovering record shops; their importance to me throughout my life has been such a reassuring constant that I quickly feel at home whenever there are records to leaf through – writing this I can hear the dull thud of cardboard sleeves thudding against each other as I browse, or the light click-clack of plastic hitting plastic as I flick through shelves of CDs. Posters on the wall, free magazines on the sides, and the high counter, usually pock-marked with stickers. Louie Louie fits exactly into my mental vision of what a record shop represents, and as such I recommend it highly, should you get the chance to go.

(For more esoteric and expermintal music, try MateriaPrima, on Rua Da Rosa, or for a picturesque and old-fashioned traditional fado store in the Baixa, try Discoteca Amália on Rua Áurea – both of which I’ll blog about presently).

Louie Louie, Chiado, Lisbon

Louie Louie
Rua Nova da Trindade – 8-A (ao Chiado)
Lisbon, Lisbon Portugal
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Pasteis de Nata in Belém, Lisbon.

Posted 29 Apr 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Observations, Travel

The quite beautiful Fabrica de Pasteis de Belém is justly famous as the most picturesque dining destination in the busy, imperial suburb of Belém, just a few kilometres west of Lisbon. It’s impossible to visit the town – which was the launching post for Vasco de Gama when he made the first sea-voyage from Europe to India back in 1497 – without noticing, amongst the open spaces, modern art galleries and intricate palaces, this ornate, bustling little bakery and cafeteria. But it’s also hard not to wonder if, somewhere down the line, this achingly authentic establishment (which is famous for it’s delicious, sweet pastries) lost its purpose, and began to exclusively serve the tourist community rather than the locals. When we arrived, on a cloudy weekday afternoon in late-April, the queue stretched down the road and spoke in many languages.

Happily, we’d already been tipped off that a visit to the nearby Pasteleria Chique de Belém would be just as fruitful – the Pastel de Nata they sell are not served in such picturesque surroundings, but they’re every bit as fresh and had a determinedly sugar-agnostic diner like me marvelling over the complimentary textures; the warm, sweet custard filling and the incredibly light, flaky crust. Really amazing – if you get the chance to visit Belém, be advised that you’d be stupid not to try some. (Not being me, of course, with my quaint reluctance to eat chocolate, cake, pastries or ice-cream, not trying a Pastel de Nata in the town that invented them, would probably never occur to you. Anyway.)

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Pasteleria Chique de Belém, Rua Junqueira 524, Belém. (Right by the Belém tram stop – get the 15 Tram from central Libson)

Lisbon trip, April 2012

Posted 28 Apr 2012 — by Jonathan
Category General

Albarn and self-discovery

Posted 07 Apr 2012 — by Jonathan
Category Music

Ever the contrarian; there’s a nice little interview with Damon Albarn in the Guardian today. The paper’s John Harris is, along with Stuart Maconie and Steve Lamacq, perhaps the music journalist with the most long term insight into Blur, so he normally manages to extract the most sense out of an interviewee who is notoriously difficult to pin down, and as changeable as Easter weather.

Oddly, he chooses to focus, again, on Damon’s flirtation with hard drugs in the late 1990s, which is neither newsworthy nor terribly interesting, but perhaps instructive when viewed not as a historical detail but rather as the starting point from which Damon embarked on a long period of un-selfconscious musical discovery. Rightly, Harris notes that Albarn, who was raised in a hippy household – always a bead-wearer despite the Essex branding – follows in a tradition of sorts which is “common to a lot of musicians from bohemian backgrounds”. Harris writes.

For all its grave dangers, that drug – perhaps in moderation, if such a thing is possible – sometimes opens up a side of them that they didn’t know existed.

Albarn certainly has little interest in talking up the mind-altering effects of drugs (he prefers the rigours of the 9-5, albeit with the help of an “early morning joint”), so the interview doesn’t dwell. I’m even less interested (in fact, utterly uninterested) in drugs – but I’d gladly hear more about either John Harris or Damon Albarn’s thoughts of un-selfconscious music-making, because it strikes me that that’s exactly what Damon has spent the last 13 years doing – making free, largely unedited rock music with a meandering but always curious emotional and spiritual urgency.

Full interview is here.