Sunday, July 31, 2011

...because you can't smell a Kindle

Well, this is nice. Sort of like sitting down in an old but familiar room... In my mind,  the room looks sparsely  decorated -a wing-backed chair with a sheet over - and it's echoey from the floorboards, but we have high windows and it's quite bright. There are some dusty books left on the mantelpiece, and it has the air of a room that will make a good library. Thusly, as I am prone to saying for no good reason, was the wusly. I write about book-related things here. There y'are.

Despite having another blog that I don't pay enough attention to, I have been inspired to revive this unused bookish corner of my interweb and hit the keyboard by a recent trip abroad. I always find travel a useful fillip for writing. Whether it's a quick jaunt on the train to see some music, or, as it was in this case, a proper leaving on a jet plane kind of actual week in a different country type of thing, I get excited by and about the entire process. This even includes all the meandering round airports - driving travelling partner J to distraction the while by singing 'Airport' by The Motors, specifically just the synth riff and the word 'airport!', and then later any two-syllable word to the same tune (e.g. 'suitcase!', 'postcard!', 'kittens!'). How we laughed. Then it was Eggs Benedict and Guinness at 4am, because, well, you know, hols.

Anyway, the reason for this airport jaunt was a couple of friends' wedding, and the jaunt was to the south of France ('L'aeroport!'), where they work. A whole bunch of people made the journey. It was a lovely party. The friends live in a village called Le Somail, which is right on the Canal du Midi and a deeply beguiling port of call. While there, I was urged by fellow bibliophile guests to seek out the Librarie.

I'd already had a sneak preview of this bookshop/archive from J's tales of a previous trip. The Librarie Ancienne du Somail, to give it its full French fancy name, is superbe. It has around 50,000 books and has been in place in Le Somail since 1980, occupying a disused wine cellar (essentially a giant barn... from when Le Somail gave priorité aux raisins), and just the sort of place one might spend a happy hour or so just running fingers over the spines and murmuring 'Oh la la'. 

The selection is boggling. Everything... comics (bandes dessinées, "BD", for which substantial numbers of French readers have an admirable penchant), antique editions of Rabelais, magazines from various epochs and subject areas, postcards, art books... Although the majority of the tomes are, of course, French, they have large sections of other language books too. I flanned about for an hour or so, picking up and putting down a three volume set of May 1968 writings and trying to justify spending €15 of tightly-budgeted holiday money on Asterix & Cleopatra. In the end, I sated my addiction with three books from the '€1 each/ 6 for €5' section outside, and a bookmark. I left to mop my chin and start plotting my return with improved French and more money. 

Music on Record (Volumes 1& 2) by Peter Gammond. Charmingly obsolete guides to essential recordings of orchestral music for 'anyone who wants to get the best out of gramophone records'... However, worth  80p each (keep saying it) for the non-obsolete handy sketches of composers and their works.
Pelican Guide to English Schools, also completely obsolete (all three published 1963), but useful to see how much 'plus ça change' applies to my new profession ('A lot.'). 

Voyage Voyage - Desireless

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Books and all that jazz (part one)

To pass the time on Bank Holiday Monday, I thought I'd have a nice walk through the Goldington bit of Camden to Holborn to see - just on the off-chance - if the cycle repair shop wherein my bike do have been dwelling since last Thursday was open. The signs on the way were moderately promising. For every shuttered establishment there was an open cafe next door, suggesting that if people didn't have urgent financial matters to attend to they could at least get someone else to knock them up a lunch.

I was particularly disappointed that Judd Books was closed, as they usually have some quite good-looking stuff in their bargain bin. Recently it had a couple of The Spokesman essay collections for a pound each. One of those contains a hard copy of Lord Steyn's excellent commentary on the Guantanamo holiday facilities.

The bargain bin is my favourite place to stop at a bookshop, on the feeble premise that it'll stop me seeing something more desirable yet correspondingly dearer inside and 'save me a few quid'. In fact, this practice probably applies to a number of other areas of my life, but we'll skip that digression. To return to bargain bins, Primrose Hill Books has one in the shape of a great little set of shelves on wheels. It looks like it was liberated from a school library. Every time I go there I find something apposite, usually contributing to my burgeoning collection of Latin poets in translation. Last time it was Catullus, and there was some Petronius the time before that. I acknowledge that I am collecting mainly the dirty dog Latins.

Also, memorably, after my pal C and I had been on the next street looking at the plaque on Sylvia Plath's old house ("Not the death house, that's round the corner...") there was a bargain copy of Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, which was so apposite as to make one give more importance to the cosmic implications of synchronicity (with a nod to WB Yeats, also a former tenant of the death house in Fitzroy Road, and other North London/Golden Dawn/ley line botherers).

Back to the Bank Holiday Monday. I was scant metres from the Judd Books disappointment when I happened upon Skoob Books in Marchmont Street. Gloriously open and full to the rafters with books. I managed twenty minutes in the reference section before dragging myself past the sci-fi and the shelves full of orange-jacketed Penguin Classics to have the briefest of browses in the fiction. Fortunately, I was distracted en route by a shiny copy of The Best of Jazz, a new cash-in edition of a couple of books by the late and immense Humphrey Lyttelton. It was only £5.00, and what do you know? There was a crumpled fiver in my wallet. Excellent news.

Stepping up to the till, the man behind the counter made noises to suggest that he'd either wanted to buy it or had something important to say about it. In fact, he actually just asked who I thought could replace him. Either he was involving me in trying to run the shop, I thought, or he was referring to the recent news that Radio 4's planners have decided to make some more 'I'm sorry, I haven't a clue', with a new host to "replace" Humph. I considered for a moment before responding that Stephen Fry nears ubiquity and would probably spoil it a bit, and that Jeremy Hardy's reported suggestion of Jarvis Cocker taking part was quite a splendid one. (Although I also agree with Barry Cryer who suggests that a female presenter might be a better move. Not Pam Ayres, though, pretty please...) We agreed happily on the Jarvis point, then passed a few idle moments in Humph-related banter (an unusually cheery bookshop attendant!)

The Indie article linked to above quotes this great example of the dry Lyttelton delivery. At the end of one faux-turgid round on ISIHAC he remarked: "Nietzsche said that life was a choice between suffering and boredom. He never said anything about having to put up with both at the same time." Which is my new motto.

Emerging with a little smile of discovery from Skoob, I wandered up the road to discover Bikefix was indeed enjoying a fry-up in another part of London entirely. I cared not! Sauntering back home with a satisfied Bank Holiday air and a book, I finally settled in with a bowl of ice cream, Humph and newly-alphabetised-for- research-purposes records to advance my knowledge of all things jazzular...

Books: The Best of Jazz (five chapters in).
Music: Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke (To be continued in part two...)

Monday, December 10, 2007


To the Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London, for the Seduced exhibition. There are those who call me Deviant Mark - what I deviate from is unclear - which I will happily accede to. I have had a liking for and an interest in erotica, smut, filth, porn, as you like it, since I was but a young one, and the Barbican currently kindly panders to my baser instincts by presenting a selection of the ages' greatest works of titillation, from ancient to modern.

One of the first factolets I picked up there was that the word 'pornography' comes from Ancient Greek, where 'pornographoi' ["Look at moi, Kimmy"] were artists who specialised in depicting acts performed by prostitutes. "I suppose someone has to..." I imagine one of them muttering grudgingly before picking up the paintbrush. It was applied as a backwards nod when used to name the 'gabinetto pornografico', one of the first 'secret hoards' of art deemed a bit racy for general display, in a museum somewhere, but as the whole notion of obscenity is entirely subjective, I'm not going to waste time debating the semantics of porn/erotica etc; porn is a great word, anyway. It rhymes with horn, for one.

Ever since humans first started depicting themselves, there seems to have been an interest in sex, and obviously so - keeps us going, what? Getting back to antiquity to set the scene, a lot of work on the ground floor of the show - with Andy Warhol film clips playing out overhead in a teaser trailer for the mezzanine - draws on Graeco-Roman material, either as source or as actual artifact. There was a stunning marble figure of an hermaphrodite, lying face down on the dias, head turned one way, with about the best ass I've seen on a bit of statuary, and a generous orb and sceptre of smooth marble at the front where you might not have expected it, should you have thought this was a simple unaugmented lassie. One of the nicest things [which you can't really see in this photo, which is from the web because the Barbican were for some indistinct reason not allowing photography] was the right foot, which was caught in the sheet and was clearly meant to suggest a sort of 'whoops! I've gone and exposed my nubile hermaphroditic form. Silly me. '

It was once owned by some Cardinal or other, who I fondly imagined used to spoon with it when the rest of the household had retired.

Another thing this shows about porn in days of yore was the willingness of artists to dip into myth for their inspiration, with the probably still held as true notion that something apparently basic has more worth if it's alluding to something a bit clever. Of the various depictions of the story of Leda and the Swan, one was lent to the exhibition by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, which prompted a number of unorthodox scenarios, in my head at least - such as QEII leafing through her stash going 'Not that one... not that one... [calls over shoulder] Phillip! Have you seen that one with the Swan in it?']

One of the funniest things about the exhibition was the expressions on people's faces as they moved between exhibits and as they paused in front of the next example from Greece, Renaissance Italy [the genius of Guido Romano, who created I modi [The positions]] or Ottoman Turkey - where people imported quite a lot of Arabic stroke-lit, including the fantastic Tuhfet Ul-Mulk, a Turkish translation of Ruju as-Shaykh ila sibah, which can be further mangled into 'A sheikh remembers his youth'... the potentate's antics included not only some classical sheikh-on-sultana action, but also this unambiguous plate:

'Tomorrow do thy worst...'

And so it went on, as we moved from Japan, China, the U.S.... The other visitors often seemed to have furrowed brows, maintaining total silence in the main, no one quite knowing whether 'Crikey, have you seen this?!' is the appropriate tone for a serious exhibition. Which it surely is - the correct tone, I mean, not a serious exhibition. Sex is ever so funny. I learned some elementary Japanese, such as 'Ehon warai jogo', roughly 'The Book of the laughing drinker' [my autobiography title], created by Kitagawa Utamaro in 1803, which had a picture in it of a woman about to entertain a cock of such preposterously singular dimensions that my companion L was driven to remark 'Good luck with that' as she meandered through to the Turkish section. A picture from the Studio of Gai Qi in the Chinese bit also had me in hysterics: three women help a rotund couple couple; at the back of the bloke an old lady, facing away from the artist, is really putting her back into pushing him forward unto the breach. Heave!

The global nature of the pics, slides, movies, sculpture etc makes it clear that "it" has always been all over the planet, and most often a source of fun, laughs, good times. Yet there were some places where deeper emotions came into play, Nan Goldin's affecting slideshow Heartbeat, for example, where a soundtrack of Björk singing an ejaculatory prayer - no, wait, stop! Those were the composer's words! It was very touching, er, moving, er... - underpins a series of 245 photographs, in sets of different couples, some gay and some straight, all in moments of intimacy [emotional and physical], and some suggesting absolute heartache in a single glance or hand on stomach. One interesting feature was the naturalness of the couples lying about, often with a kid in the shot, often with the kid the focus of the shot, a kind of eternal image, unions begetting the next generation, family life... little Eros hanging out with Venus and Mars... Some of the other ones had me welling up - tears from the eyes on my face, I should clarify - as I pondered the transience of what we call love.

One, ah, bum note in the collection was the kind of embarrassed Robert Mapplethorpe acknowledgment. All his S&M-inspired photos were in a glass case, which you had to lean right in close to see, and then you'd get the lights reflecting or your own face looming into view, which was far more horrifying, let me tell you. If was as if they were actively trying to make it a bit of a 'dark and seedy place'. The blurb by the door had a baffling line in it: 'What is depicted is difficult to look at.' Well, yeah - stick them on the wall and turn the lights up a bit, then we'd have no difficulties, cheers. It felt a bit like the curators were making a decision for us, at best disappointingly coy. An accompanying poem from Paul Schmidt said:
'Show me the mystery... give me my vision, let me confront it.'

Yet a few alcoves down was the equally controversial [and perhaps more disturbing] AND ever so well lit spectacle of Jeff Koons' Butt Red (Distance), featuring La Cicciolina, Ilona Staller, with Mr Koons in her bottom; mad backdrop, Koons in make up with a big quiff supported by a giant hand sculpture, he in turn supporting his then Missus, who as an ecstatic tongue to her teeth, eyes closed and a long red glove touching herself, red vinyl boots and a red vinyl basque as she straddles him and his bland look of encouragement. Totally narcissistic, but kind of funny and, dare I say it, hot. It seemed odd, however, that this apparently wasn't 'difficult to look at'. A nine foot acrylic screen print of a couple having anal sex in garish Technicolor. A black and white 8x10 photo of some one fisting an Other. Let's argue 'taste' here a moment...

So, a variety of muck from a variety of sources - a pornucopia, if you will. Remaining highlights for me included some Picasso sketches of Raphael et la fornarina, which brought in more referentiality - "It's a big art gang bang!" I wondered to no one in particular as the mirrorings and parallels and entwinements accrued, noting that obviously it's the same basic equipment, so it's often a matter of who's nodding at who, or what's going on in the background... like the slightly anomalous Pope who kept popping up in those pics. Hilarious. Does he represent the artist, the viewer of the picture, the voyeur, you? Me, I inferred, starting to feel a bit sexed out.

I mean up, who am I kidding? It was time to go, temperatures were rising. Pausing only to admire Marlene Dumas' (Like a) Chambermaid:

- need a hand with the bath there, miss? - I headed for the exit, over which Tracey Emin's pink neon "work" reads 'Is Anal Sex Legal? Is Legal Sex Anal?' in a kind of bizarro Dante-esque inversion which in turn provoked some questions, including one I have asked before - Is Pointless Tracey Emin? She's certainly a pain in the arse. No matter. The words of Woody [heh!] Allen occurred to me: "Is sex dirty? Only if it's done right."

And so to bed.

Books: The Trials of Oz by Tony Palmer, neat account of the obscenity trial of 1971 of the editors of Oz magazine, over their #28 'Kids Issue'. Music: Justice - heard them supporting Klaxons the other week, and love 'Stress' - the sound of Paul Morley having an aneurysm. Now that's sexy.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Bachelor padding

September has been the first month of the rest of my life, as my most recent relationship foundered on the rocks of discontent... there has been a lot of drinking of alcohol and smoking of cigarettes, both of which are conducive to exacerbating an air of being hard done by.

However, there is nothing like adversity to fire the neurons, and as well as getting back on it with my blogs and other items of keyboard-related venting, I have of course been cycling throughout - I can't not cycle, it's a joyful thing. As exercise, as pursuit for amplifying the happiness and diminishing the perceived importance of negative feelings relative to their counterweight.

It's also the only way to get around London. Cabs have their merits, but a tenner to get from Holborn Circus to the Hope & Anchor on Upper Street, as I did last night, is steep enough to set even Nepalese mountain goats a-bleating. I don't mind buses - they're cheap, yet correspondingly slow and generally a source of annoying and unnecessary noises to pierce the hangover still [an alarm for every function on the bus, presumably to avoid lawsuits brought by people who were unaware that buses move and then stop, doors open, etc]; the Tube is a complete marvel - those malcontents who suggest that the Tube's crap because their train happened to be a bit late might want to try and coordinate the mass migration of 3 million people across 12 separate lines for 17 hours a day [275 stations, etc etc etc, and welcome to the Information Age, by the way, how long might this kind of supporting material have taken to find pre-Interweb? It almost mitigates the lack of silver foil jumpsuits and floating cars] and see how well they manage it - HOWEVER it's underground, too expensive and full of people shoehorning themselves into preposterously small spaces because they HAVE TO get this train and can't wait the three minutes for the next one. [Face jammed up against window, possibly the face of Martin Short for optimum comic effect]

Which set of obvious observations on the Commute leads me back in a neat rhetorical wheel to the cycle, my saviour and means of locomotion, the runabout that facilitates me leaving the now bachelor pad at 8.20 am and arriving at work just off Fleet Street after a thrilling whizz through Barnsbury, Amwell St, Farringdon Road etc, at 8.40 am. And not a penny squandered. Except on the ciggies & drink. Well, it's all about balance, eh? I guess I can justify the aled up ['And now I feel soiled...'] Mississippi Fried Chicken £4.95 Bargain Bucket, to myself at least, with forty minutes of the Lance Armstrong Plan every day.

Reading matter this week has been Identity Crisis, which is a crime thriller/examination of relationships and what they lead people into, only with comic book superbeings displaying ambiguous and unheroic traits, beautifully drawn; I'm still finding my way through Matthieu Ricard's book on training the mind, Happiness. Comics are, like the drink, short cuts I guess, but then so is music, and as I write this there's a riot goin on and you can't say fairer than that.

So THAT's what's going on.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Nu Speak

I was walking past a Pizza shop the other day - Pizza Express I think - and outside on the little placard thing they had a poster advertising a new kind of pizza type they'd 'stolen from Rome'. The blurb said 'How unrubbish is that?'
'Unrubbish?' I mouthed. 'Unrubbish?' out loud this time,every wrong syllable crawling off my tongue. Screwing my eyes up in incredulity and raising my normal voice about four octaves before saying it all, again, out loud. 'How unrubbish is that?'
Fucking doubleplus unrubbish, I should imagine.
Once more EA Blair began to rotate in his grave.

Then I went for a burger.

Books this week: The Kraken Wakes, [though this link is a bit poorly written] and Superman: Red Son [which link is much better].
John Wyndham's been a favourite since I was about twelve, and I felt like reading it the other night, so that's what I did between 20.00 and 01.12... and the Mark Millar version of what would have happened if Superman had landed in rural Russia rather than the American mid-west is eye-wateringly well drawn and considered, and further proof of the supremity of the John Barnes Library ['How's he doing the Jamaica rap? He's from just south of the Watford Gap' etc etc etc]

Tunes: Brooooooce - Two Hearts (Live in New York)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Uptown - that's where I wanna be

The number 17 bus from Caledonian Road goes past King's Cross, around and up onto Gray's Inn Road and then on to Holborn Circus, which unlike the other two points noted here does not have an apostrophe, so let me state that the Circus of Holborn is a fine and gaudy affair, where a man might spend many a pleasant hour flanning and bidding good morning to the comely legal lads and lasses... City types glued to their BlackBerry devices because there must have been, HAS TO HAVE BEEN a message arrive in the ten seconds between stepping off the bus very slowly in front of me and wandering onto the pavement... Sainsbury employees... cyclists crossing the pavement next to the HSBC...

One might, were it not for the impatient taxis bipping their horns at us, my fellow Hollowavians and I, as we stand between bus lane and centre island waiting to cross to Fetter Lane and beyond, in a kind of pedestrian purgatory, rudley honked as if unaware that there are hundreds of cars we have no intention of walking in front of bearing down on us. Sometimes people in London are frantic for no reason at all, they just feel, perhaps, that they should get their retaliation in first and out-brusque you pre-emptively. There's really no need.

"White, Black, Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin'..."

This week the music has been funky, and I have read Hellblazer: Haunted, which might put a man in speculative mood about our glorious capital, but I haven't stopped dancing yet.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Sudden scale shift at Collier Street almost causes a pile-up

Much poring over the map of North London and much wheeling of the bike up sudden one-way streets in Islington, Barnbury, Holloway, King's Cross and the adjacent areas reveals that the fabric of North London, like space-time, can be deeply incomprehensible even given intense study. How do the roads bend back on themselves, like Romanian gymnast children? Possibly emigré trainers. Probably misreading the maps.

Easily in my top ten favourite books ever, and certainly this week:
The London A-Z.
I've been using the spiral bound AA version from 2006 since I arrived in The Village... it's looking a little dog-eared, it has to be said. I may replace it with something from Geographers' A-Z Map Company, in tribute to the originator of the concept, the magnificent Phyllis Pearsall, may her name be sung by all bemused mid-century party-goers and lost cyclists, getting honked at the lights as they stand in the road frowning and thumbing between pages 75 and 9.