Archive | August, 2012

Northern Rockers

25 Aug

On my way up to the shop where I buy my cigarettes yesterday, the sky opened up over the punchbowl valley that is Central London: I can’t be certain, but I don’t think I’d ever seen rain like that in Britain before. The Warwick Road became impassible, more a fast-flowing tributary of the Thames than a link in the West Cross Route. I eventually waded through, fucking up my shoes beyond repair in the process, and when I reached the shop, I found a small army of umbrella-less tourists huddling together for shelter. Have you ever seen Das Boot? You know the bit where the British drop depth charges on top of the submarine and the walls cave in? Well, that’s the only comparison I can think of that gets anywhere near to describing what it was like getting stuck in the Great Washout.

Washout was the operative word here: half an hour later, my esteemed colleagues and I were dodging puddles-sorry, lakes- in search of a pub in my area where we could watch the Newcastle/Chelsea game. After being turned away from several near-empty establishments, we eventually settled in The Goose on the North End Road, ten minutes away from Stamford Bridge. We’d expected a degree of abuse, but it wasn’t forthcoming: so sure of their impending triumph were the legions of Chelsea fans that they didn’t even bother glancing at our skunkish attire. The bastards were right, too: David and Goliath? This was more like that famous story of the Polish Army attacking the German Panzer tanks with cavalry, just without the suicidal bravery or the romantic image. It wasn’t spectacular, it was just embarrassing: Chelsea dealt with the northern visitors in a businesslike and unshowy fashion, humiliating the Toon Army with a tension-free 2-0 victory. I normally make for a pretty unconvincing football fan, but walking out of the pub into the downpour as soon as the match ended was a truly crushing experience. I ran to a cash machine in order to get money to buy a loaf of bread: INSUFFICIENT FUNDS. How the fuck had I gone 70 quid into the red on a debit account? Call me paranoid, but yesterday really was one of those bi-monthly incidences where I was convinced the elements had aligned to take the piss out of me.

 

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Capital Ringing: Crystal Palace Park

23 Aug

It’s been a while since I last wrote about the epic folly that is the Capital Ring walking route: since I last touched base, Ferdy and I have skirted the fringes of the Boroughs of Lewisham, Bromley, Croydon, Lambeth, Wandsworth and Merton, crossed the river at Richmond and slogged our way as far North as Greenford, home to London’s most exciting (if inconvenient) escalator. I’ve decided that instead of recounting the entire saga in my tiresome, mock-mock-heroic style, I should pick selected highlights, of which there are almost as many on the route as there are interminable semi-detached avenues and tired-looking grassland.

It was to my eternal shame that I’d never before visited the giant adventure playground that is Crystal Palace: as Ferdy remarked as we stopped to gawp at yet another astonishing minor landmark, it is The Daddy of all London parks: sphinxes, headless Dantes, Brazilian Olympic teams and concrete structures that are dead ringers for Orly Airport in (the recently deceased) Chris Marker’s La Jetée: name pretty much anything and you’ll probably find it here.  Without even mentioning the Transmitter, its defining landmark, which- not to namedrop, or anything- the artist Mike Nelson once described to me as ‘London’s Eiffel Tower’- it’s SE20’s answer to Narnia.

We were in the park on a muggy Tuesday afternoon, and aside from the picnic crew in the photo above, the park was pretty much deserted. It felt extremely strange: I can’t speak for Ferdy, but I was stumbling around semi-catatonic. We were walking up the hill on a winding path when suddenly everything began to shake and a thirty second earthquake of House Music swallowed up the entire postcode, and then abruptly stopped: even when we did discover where it had come from (some engineers testing the sound on the very Ballardian stage below), it made the experience no less psychedelic.

The Crystal Palace itself was moved to Sydenham Hill from Hyde Park after the Great Exhibition of 1851, and stood on the site until it was destroyed in a fire in 1936: its absence is one of the most remarkable things about the park, as the extravagant statues and terraces that decorated the approach up the hill survive (relatively) intact to this day. The effect is not a million miles away from the parc de la Villette in Paris, a series of support acts that have been forced to headline a gig: it’s accidental post-modernism of the most serendipitous kind. The Transmmitter, the de facto focal point, stands aloof: a self-contained landmark that doesn’t interfere with the esoteric activity at ground level- unless, of course, you want it to…

Do I sound like even more of a loser than normal if I say that these sphinxes are the funnest things in London?

Then, of course, there are the famous Dinosaurs: anatomically dubious they may be (and no, I don’t actually know, but they don’t look like any of the sauropods I see round my way), but their sheer enormity is as bogglingly cowing as even the most leviathan of Henry Moore sculptures.

So that’s that, then: when I finally lose the plot once and for all and decide to bugger off to fantasy camp, I know where I’ll be moving.

Always “The Real Thing”

21 Aug

Is it just me or has the term “authenticity” become the defining buzzword of our time? From Masterchef to mail-order catalogues, from the low-flying clichés of Britain’s Got Talent to the “artisans” of Broadway Market, British popular culture has become fixated with keeping it real.

There has, as far as I’m aware, always been a certain desire for “the real deal”- even if the deal itself may be more bogus than an e-mail from Nigeria promising a fortune in return for one’s bank details. Think of Mock Tudor houses, gas fires with plastic lumps of coal in them and clip-on bow ties; all have (quite deservedly) become jokes, quintessentially naff historical curios. This nascent collective obsession, though, is a different creature entirely.

In many ways, it’s little wonder that we’ve been seduced by this ostensibly artifice-free philosophy; for at least the last twenty years, Post-Modern Irony has ruled pop culture with a kitschly-embellished rod of iron, turning even the most basic consumer products into webs of intellectual significance. Going shopping is no longer a simple activity- it requires a degree in cultural studies.

The trouble is that authenticity is a completely improbable proposition. While I’ve nothing against simplicity- I’m currently slathered in bank-breakingly understated Margaret Howell clobber, for Christ’s sake- I believe that culture and transparency are completely incompatible. After all, isn’t “Art” just a contraction of “artifice”? To put it bluntly, all this “authentic” food, music and design that we’re being told to swallow is even more hollow and cynical than the gleefully open culture of superficiality that has dominated British life since the 1980s.

The problem as I see it is far more profound than mere buzzword annoyance. It’s the equivalent of the old vanity paradox; that is, where some self-consciously dowdy individual claims proudly to take no interest in their image- and thus makes as vain a statement as is humanly possible. The authenticity-fetishists are precisely the same; by declaring their cultural luddism, they become not just killjoys but hypocrites. An avowed refusal to investigate novelties, pretensions- or, more simply, new ideas- subscribes them to the most contrived cultural fad of them all. What higher purpose does their obstinacy propose? An adherence to vintage vinyl or a boring dress code isn’t, after all, helping to alleviate famine in Somalia- is it? Foodie luddism is the worst culprit: I’m sure it’s been said before, but how on Earth can a pie or a chop be described as “honest”? Ginster’s, the original purveyors of shrink-wrapped, processed motorway fare even have the phrase emblazoned on their logo in toe-curling false handwriting. The sarnies may be a long way off delicious, but the irony… mmmm.

Why shouldn’t I put more tomatoes into my ragù than is strictly Bolognese? Why shouldn’t I wear a tonic suit with a stripy t-shirt? Why can’t I reserve my right to hate folk music? I will not be plunged into unimaginative hipstamatic sepia by this tide of killjoy faux-sincerity. I refuse, point blank.

Surely, to paraphrase design critic Stephen Bayley, progress should be about making the most of contemporary possibilities- in other words, being as interesting as possible. It may sound spurious, but here’s the acid test: the next time you hear Mumford & Sons, listen as closely as you can bear, and ask yourself- is this really the best Western Civilisation can do? Drop the farmer costumes and buy a synthesizer, boys!

Absolute Rubbish

13 Aug

Occasionally, consensus makes fools of us all: nature dictates that as the years roll on, received ideas are more often than not rendered obsolete by things and time. Vague as this may sound, I don’t think it’s an invalid statement to make: it is, after all, why historical revisionism exists. Pop culture is no stranger to this principle: as a phenomenon, it is shaped and based around ever-shifting interpretations of received ideas- the convenient shorthand for which is “Fashion”. If you believe the myth, only about four people ever bought a Velvet Underground album during the group’s short life-span, and Hitchcock’s Vertigo– recently named as “The Greatest Film of All Time” in the influential Sight & Sound critics’ poll- was written off as “not worth-while” by more than one hack on its release in 1958. You could be forgiven, then, for arguing that universally-ackowledged critical opinion is nothing but a stale old construct, an inherently futile and limiting set of prejudices that mean absolutely fuck-all.

It was with this iconoclastic spirit, then, that I finally bit the bullet and watched Julien Temple’s 1986 film Absolute Beginners. For as long as I can remember, I have been hearing horror stories about this much-discussed but little seen (and astronomically expensive) Colin MacInnes adaptation: “much-maligned” doesn’t even come close. In London, complete strangers will literally stop you in the street to tell you how shit it is- and what’s more, they finish off by admitting they’ve never actually watched it. It is the Failure of failures, the Turkey of turkies, a film which not only bankrupted its production company, its studio but caused its director to flee into exile and to obliterate the reputation of almost member of its cast. I didn’t understand: on paper,  Absolute Beginners had everything: Julien Temple is a good film-maker: the Colin MacInnes novel is a tremendously enjoyable cult classic: the theme song is wonderful, the saving grace in David Bowie’s woeful mid-1980s oeuvre. How bad could it really be?

I’d love to say I’d delved deep into the bowels of the internet to find the film and emerged with a triumphantly revisionist endoresment; I’d love to write that it had unexpectedly blossomed into the all-singing, all-dancing masterpiece it was so cruelly mocked for not being; I’d be happy, in fact, to be able to write that it was quite simply not as bad as it’s cracked up to be. But I can’t. It is dire. Truly, madly, deeply shite- and given the fact that it resembles not so much a feature film but a horrifically dated, carelessly stuffed grab-bag of early MTV clichés, I think it may actually be even worse than anyone thought in 1986. How? HOW?!? How can a film with so much promise be quite so abjectly grotesque? Even with the novelty value of seeing Ray Davies fall down a flight of stairs in a Pimlico terrace, or the sight of Bowie driving around Notting Hill in a convertible with two life-sized plastic models of Father Christmas, it still felt like a jaw-dropping waste of my in no way precious time. Decency wasn’t the only thing Temple took a liberty with in Absolute Beginners: while there’s nothing inherently wrong with an unfaithful film adaptation, it must justify its deviations. Temple’s film presents no reason whatsoever for turning MacInnes’ novel into a (wait for it) Rock Musical. The film cannibalises the source text, vomits it back up and wipes it all over its hideously ill-judged 1980s sheen with no enthusiasm whatsoever. It has one foot wobbling dangerously on the edge of period detail and the other sinking into a quicksand of pointlessly fantastical day-glo theatrics; I hate it when people use the word “authenticity” as a sort of all-important value judgement, but Absolute Beginners’ dearth of thematic direction is quite honestly unbearable. The script- lifted awkwardly from dialogue in the novel- is lamentable and the performances are excruciating: Patsy Kensit seems like Meryl Streep by comparison to Eddie O’Connell’s cardboard turn as ‘Colin’, the retroactively named protagonist, and the less said about Bowie’s proto-Don Draper figure, the better. Now that I’ve established that it’s practically unwatchable, I think it’s probably only fair to acknowledge the sole redeeming feature: I may be wrong, but even with this disaster, the director was addressing the upheavals of gentrification and its impact on communities, as in his recent (and actually very good) documentary London: Modern Babylon. It informs the principle narrative strand of the film, which differs significantly from the novel; developers home in on the poor but unprejudiced multicultural area of Napoli (in the novel, slang for the W10 district around Latimer Road, here a somewhat more confused location- of which more later), unscrupulously hiring gangs of racist Teddy Boys to do their bidding and drive out the largely black population, culminating (as in the novel) with the savagery of the Notting Hill race riots. For bringing a contemporary  problem- one which is perhaps even more relevant today than in 1986- into discussion, it is commendable, but it plays irritatingly fast and loose with its treatment of History and Geography. Here I must bastardise the painstaking research and ordered methodology of writers (like The Cine-Tourist) who actually know what they’re talking about; as I mentioned earlier, the novel is incontrovertibly set in W10, the film’s dialogue locates it slightly to the South-East, in W11- a more desirable postcode even back in 1958 (‘not fashionable, mind you, but quite graded’, according to the narrator in the novel). The development (as you can see in the still above) is given as White City, the name of a real-life estate over the borough border in Shepherds Bush and a dark play on the racist agenda of the gangs tasked with the clearances. So, relatively specific, then- there’s even a shot (see above) of Bowie showing O’Connell a model of the proposed development- complete with a maquette of what must be the Westway. The trouble is, White City is not- and never has been- in W11, and is a good half-hour walk from Ladbroke Terrace (which is given as O’Connell’s address). If this all seems needlessly pedantic, I apologise- but White City and the surrounding area are little short of obsessions for me. The White City Estate was not, in fact, built over existing housing (as implied in the film), but replaced the crumbling splendour of a similarly named exhibition complex, so-named for its once brilliantly white paint job, rather than any conspiracy of racial segregation. For more on this, check out my article in TREMORS (wooo!) about the exhibition pavillions and their fate.

The film was shot almost entirely at Shepperton Studios, and while some sets are genuinely extraordinary, many are just plain wrong. Look at the still above: that Tube Station on the right bears no resemblance whatsoever to White City station on the left- : it is, in fact, an almost absurdly accurate recreation of Latimer Road, a stop on a different line a significant distance away. Interestingly, it was at Latimer Road Station that the Notting Hill riots of 1958 were sparked, and it is here (in the novel, at least) that the narrator of Absolute Beginners lives. What confuses me is why a studio would go to the time and presumably hefty expense of recreating one train station almost brick for brick only to mock it up as another, completely different tube stop. Like so much else in Absolute Beginners, it doesn’t really make sense. Why White City, then? While it is possible to argue that the exaggerated artifice of the studio sets permits the film a degree of topographical licence, it is nonetheless extremely inconsistent with other details. For a film that goes out of its way to linger over specially-made street signs as characters turn corners- and even to locate us at various exact addresses (there are lots of shots featuring specific blue plaques, as above), it just doesn’t wash. I can only suppose that it is an extremely overplayed visual gag, a laboured riff on the racial tensions sparked by Oswald Moseley’s white supremacist ranting, as re-enacted by Steven Berkoff in the film. I think the only real conclusion to draw, though, is that it is in keeping with the general cluelessness that characterises Temple’s adaptation of Absolute Beginners.

Right. That’s enough pedantry for now. I really need to get a job, don’t I?

Recognition

11 Aug

Finally, my groundbreaking work in this field has been acknowledged! I’m honoured and touched- though I probably should stop typing my own name into Google once every fifteen minutes.

Underground Olympics

8 Aug

One of the more stupid sports I dabble in from time to time is called Hanger Lane. I invented it on the Circle Line between Baker Street and Edgware Road stations at around 10pm on a Tuesday night back in October 2009 and the rules follow thus: having boarded a relatively quiet London Underground service, the competitors must grab hold of opposing sets of handlebars and lift their feet from the floor. The object is then to hang on (hence “Hanger Lane”) for as long as possible, with bonus points added should a player succeed in staying off the ground for the entire distance between stations. On Monday night, in a match invigilated by Maksymilian Fus-Mickiewicz of the wonderful T-R-E-M-O-R-S magazine, I was dislodged from my position as international reigning champion by Hancock, my flatmate. As you can see from these extremely unflattering photos, it was quite a match:

One…

…Two (uuuughhh)…

…Thr- This is becoming really, really painful…

…AND WE HAVE A VICTOR!

In defeat, I am slightly less than elegant.

… You Might Well Ask…

8 Aug