Monthly Archives: September 2011

On airports and aeroplanes

I didn’t really go on holiday when I was a kid; there was a weekend in Blackpool, a week in Falmouth, and numerous trips to see relatives in Yorkshire, but that’s all. But I grew up in Dawlish! Every day’s a holiday when you live by the sea. Except when the sea is cold, and you get sand between your toes, and a rash from walking home up the cliff in a damp, clinging swimming costume.

I didn’t go abroad until I was 25, when I flew to Dublin for a friend’s stag party. I was best man. Since then I’ve flown to Guernsey for work, and to Leeds/Bradford for other work. Before this year Emma and I had taken three holidays in our ten years together (not counting the odd night away to see friends or bands); long weekends in Barcelona in 2005, the Alps in 2006, and New York in 2010 for our honeymoon. So I don’t really know how to be a tourist, or what a holiday is. As a kid we couldn’t really afford it, and so I grew up thinking of holidays as unimagined indulgences for the bourgeoisie.

This year we’ve gone a little crazy, though: a couple of days in Cornwall for our anniversary in April; a couple of days in Scotland in May for the wedding of some friends; an entire week (almost) in a cottage in the Andalucían mountains in June; and, just now (we got home at 3:30am last night / this morning) three days camping in the east of Ibiza, well away from San Antonio and superclubs and awful steroid-freak, E-guzzling, cocaine-snorting, vodka-shooting Welsh rugby boys on a raucous stag weekend, shouting, boasting, swearing, drinking, causing a ruckus, making the flight be delayed, being egged-on by a gaggle of 19-and-20 year-old girls from Bridgwater heading out for a hedonistic birthday weekend. Sadly, though, our flight out was not well away from them. Neither was our flight back.

We wanted three days of sunshine, scenery, tapas, warm seas, and cheap wine. The rugby boys and birthday girls did not. We each got what we wanted, more or less. One of the rugby boys also appeared to get a black eye. Many of them were much, much more subdued on the way back than on the way out. I heard the word “detox” on numerous occasions. I find, these days, the best way to avoid having to detox is not to tox excessively in the first place. Maybe I’m boring now. I used to drink like a moron a decade or more ago. But never like this.

The Bristol to Ibiza flight, and its return leg, must be the most awful flights to work on to or from a South West airport. I’ve never seen security called onto a plane before takeoff to warn a passenger to behave. I’ve never seen passengers be prevented from leaving the plane straight away so that the captain can remind them of the law and of the common decency of polite aeroplane deportment. I’m not exactly a frequent flyer (except this year), but even so. I have no idea how any of these people involved, be they sober, drunk, drugged, whatever, could possibly think that any of their behaviour was acceptable in a city street, let alone a compressed cigar-tube doing 500mph at 38,000 feet above sea level. But I guess that’s not my culture, and though I may see evidence of it on TV, I seldom encounter it in the flesh.

Airports themselves are weird places. Obviously, by their nature, they are designed to be passed through on one’s way to somewhere else, rather than visited in their own right. They are also, I have no doubt, especially about the larger ones, designed to make you spend money; they always seem to be too hot or too cold, never temperate, the seats uncomfortable and arranged in alienating ways, as if to encourage people to stand and walk around, browse shops, feel thirsty, spend money. This is, I suppose, a pretty common way of designing large commercial buildings, from supermarkets to multi-unit shopping centres to those weird outlet villages to big blue and yellow Ikea shops. They all share common properties. Massive. Disorienting. Alienating. Physically a little uncomfortable. You never want to sit still in them, so you keep moving, keep consuming.

We spent several hours in Ibiza airport on Saturday evening, from a little before 8pm until after 1am when our flight departed. It was the longest, by far, that I’ve ever spent in an airport; bus timings, lack of finances, and a desire to not hang out in Ibiza town after dark on a Saturday night when I could be reading a book somewhere comfortable, with the vague concern over getting to the airport exorcised from the back of my head, were the factors that drove us there. We hoped the airport would mirror the culture we’d seen over the previous few days; surely Ibiza airport, which must be large, cosmopolitan, full of young ravers, slightly older hippies, and aged sun-seekers of all nationalities, social backgrounds, and creeds, would have the same kind of relaxed feel that we’d come across in all the Spanish places we’d visited, in Barcelona, in Andalucía, in Ibiza itself. We imagined we’d be able to while away a few hours with a cerveza and some tapas, reading, sitting somewhere comfortable and relaxed, that it would feel different to Gatwick or Bristol or Jersey City or Heathrow or Geneva.

Of course it didn’t. It felt like every airport ever, including Malaga and Barcelona, the other Spanish airports we’d flown through (Barcelona was, to be fair a little better); a Burger King, an identikit duty free shop, an overpriced newsagent, somewhere to buy a handbag or a Lacoste polo shirt, an anonymous Americanised grill-bar eaterie, and the same long, tall, empty corridors of alienating space as any other airport anywhere else. With hours to kill we watched different cohorts of passengers travel through the space, saw the waxes and wanes of busyness, witnessed some of the shops close as 11pm drew near, felt the airport slowly wind down, tease towards hibernation but never actually quite stop working and moving completely, like a massive shark that will sink and die if it stops moving and consuming completely for any length of time. There must surely be some way to make these spaces better, nicer, more comfortable?

Ten years ago

I had just graduated from university two months before. A month after that, I met a girl in the pub in town, and we started seeing each other. Her little brother had his tenth birthday. I was working in a pub. An old schoolfriend had just died, and a memorial service at our former school was being arranged. When I finished the lunchtime shift I drove to my old school and went to talk to our drama teacher. As I got out of the car, just before 3pm, I remember the radio presenter, almost certainly Simon Mayo in his afternoon slot on Five Live, announce that there was breaking news in New York. I assumed, as I imagine a lot of people did, that it was a microlight that had crashed into the World Trade Centre. I got out of the car, walked to my old teacher’s office, and talked about death for 45 minutes. When I got back to the car and turned the radio on I realized very quickly that it hadn’t been a microlight.

I spent the rest of the afternoon glued to the television, watching 24-hour news via satellite. I saw both towers fall. I rang Emma, or Emma rang me, I forget. She was working in a record shop in Exeter. She said the town centre started to go eerily quiet very quickly after news broke and started to spread. The shop emptied. She asked me if this mean there would be a war, and I said yes, almost certainly, but I wasn’t sure who with, or why, or how. It wasn’t really the answer she wanted to hear.

That evening I went to play football in Exeter, as I did every Tuesday night back then. It was a solemn, weird hour. Everybody said that the television news footage had looked like a weird action film. It had. I remember sitting in the car, listening to the radio, trying to figure out what the name was that they kept saying, what the syllables were, how many component words there were, how it might be spelt. I’d never heard of Osama Bin Laden.

My friend James from university was in America. He’d been working at a Camp America thing, tutoring or guiding wealthy American kids during their summer holiday camps. That had finished in late August and he’d been travelling around the states since then. He was in Washington. He had his camera confiscated near the Pentagon, I think, for trying to take pictures. It took him days, maybe even weeks, to get a flight back to the UK. I’ve probably only seen him half a dozen times since. I still consider him a great friend. He came to the wedding when I married the girl I’d met in the pub, ten years and a month ago. Yesterday evening we went out for a meal for her little brother’s birthday. Today he is 20 years old.

I have no memory of the day that followed, or the specific days after that, at least not in relation to what happened in New York ten years ago. I remember buying The Guardian a lot and reading what people had to say about it, what predictions they made, what they identified as causes, while I worked the quiet lunchtime shifts I the pub. But I still remember, distinctly, what I did from 2:30pm onwards. I remember driving home from football, turning off the route I normally took to sit a moment and listen to the radio and concentrate, and then getting a little lost when I drove off again.

A year afterwards I started working in the library. Five years after that we bought our flat. Three years later we got married. Our deposit for the flat came from my father-in-law, who spends a lot of time in Iraq and Kurdistan doing business. Which means, I suspect, that we might not be living where we live if it wasn’t for what happened on this day, ten years ago, indirectly. I suspect there are a lot of people in similar situations. The lines of causality may be blurred and twisted. It’s rare, I suspect, that you get a genuine turning point in history, a fulcrum that alters life for a huge amount of people, in different ways, rather than a slow, evolutionary trend. Sometimes I feel that what happened ten years ago wasn’t all that world changing, that the things which happened afterwards would have happened anyway. But if I think about it properly, consider the ontology of where we are now, not just Emma and me but everyone, society, culture, the west, the middle east, then it seems undeniable that what happened ten years ago changed everything, both brutally and subtly. We honeymooned in New York. We didn’t visit the place where the World Trade Centre used to be. I suspect that the New York we experienced was a very different one to the one that existed ten years and a day ago.

Out of the saddle

Normally I’d have cycled about 20 miles by now on a Saturday morning. Daylight hours are receding so I may wait until 7am rather than heading out at 6:30, but I haven’t missed an early Saturday morning ride since the first weekend in June, when I was getting ready to fly to Spain. Weekend mornings, before everyone else is awake, are my favourite times to cycle, whether it’s taking the familiar coast route down to Dawlish to see my parents for breakfast on a Saturday, or heading east to Clyst St. George and Woodbury, ascending up over the Common, north to Ottery, and back through Talaton, Aunk, and Broadclyst, a 30-mile loop that takes just a smidgeon under two hours on a Sunday.

But today I haven’t cycled. It’s grey; the air is semi-sodden with faint drizzle but still. It’s the type of morning that makes you want to not get out of bed. Except that I’ve been waiting for a day like this, for faint moisture, for coolness. I’ve got a new cycling jacket, an expensive, wind-resistant Rapha thing, that I haven’t cycled with in anger yet because it’s been too warm, too temperate, on the days I’ve been out on the bike since it arrived. Not that I’ve been out many days. Not at all since last Saturday morning, when I did the usual roll to Dawlish, except with some added hills, as the start of serious preparation for the Exmoor Beast, 100km across Exmoor at the end of October with thousands of feet of climbing.

I haven’t cycled since then because that ride caused the pain in my shoulder, initially sparked by building the shed some three weeks ago, to return, only this time it hasn’t gone away. It’s eased at various points, under assault of ibuprofen both taken internally and rubbed into the shoulder as a gel. The pain has varied between something harsh and something dull, has limited movement, has eased, has been a mild ache, has seemed to move around to different muscles, has been a clicking in my shoulder with some movements I’ve made, has seen me put weight back on in only a few days after having lost the best part of a stone in the last three months, has made me miserable and frustrated, each easement of pain a tantalizing hint that I might be able to get on the bike again and climb over Woodbury Common, drop down that two-mile descent at 35 miles an hour into Ottery, set off one of those 30mph speed traps that displays your speed in an effort to shame you in front of other motorists, turn off down a random lane I’ve never gone down before simply because it looks tempting and I want to see where it goes. But then the pain returns, slowly, unpleasantly, the joint feels week, heavy, hollow, and the black pall of dread that comes whenever your body fails you again, a twisted knee, a herniated abdomen, an infected wisdom tooth, a badly sprained ankle, a strained muscle in the groin, wells up over your shoulders and permeates from the back of your mind to the front. What if I can never cycle again? What if I can never play football again?

I’ve booked a physio appointment for later this morning. I need to get this sorted.

The Best Mercury Music Prize Winner Ever?

Mike started a thread on ILX polling the twenty albums to have won the Mercury Music Prize since its inception in 1992, and people, as they are wont to do, went about it by listing all 20 album and proffering (generally negative, sarcastic) opinion on all of them, one by one, in chronological order.

A few years ago this would have been the kind of activity I’d have been fulsomely involved with, but my working days for the last couple of years haven’t afforded me the time to keep tabs on forum discussions like this, so I read the morning’s posts during my lunch and the afternoon’s when I got home from work and longed to get involved. Rather than post directly into the thread it struck me that this is the kind of thing I should probably blog about while I’m invalided out of cycling (perhaps more on that later), so here I am, this evening, with the laptop and a list of winners and my abhorrent and disgusting elitist opinions.

1992 – Screamadelica – Primal Scream
Matt, who is the same age as me, posted this about Primal Scream’s opus: “Voting for Screamadelica now is like admitting defeat, a bit like buying Beatles albums because you can’t think of anything else you want.” Earlier this year I bought the remaster of Screamadelica, after much deliberation, pretty much exactly because I wanted to buy a new CD but couldn’t think of anything actually new. And I already own all the remastered Beatles albums. So I can empathise.

I do love Screamadelica dearly though, and enjoyed revisiting it again massively in the late spring and early summer. Despite it being the inaugural winner, I never think of it as a Mercury album, for some reason, so it seems strange to consider that it might be my favourite on this list.

1993 – Suede –Suede
I like Animal Nitrate; the guitar is awesome, and sounds like a synthesizer. It overwhelms the bass and drums almost completely (not hard to do, admittedly), but beyond that song Suede mean practically nothing to me. I think I owned this album, and Dog Man Star, once upon a time, pre-university, but lent them out and never bothered to call the loan back.

1994 – M People – Elegant Slumming
I have never heard this album; it is one of only three on this list that I haven’t. M People exist for me even less than Suede do. This seems to be routinely laughed at as the most incongruously mainstream winner of the Mercury, M People aligned with Simply Red as pseudo-sophisticated pop it’s OK to dismiss out of hand.

1995 – Portishead – Dummy
Portishead command my respect but I will never love them. I prefer Third, these days, to Dummy. Again, I think I lent this to someone before I went to university – I did buy another copy, though. I can’t remember the last time I listened to it.

1996 – Pulp – Different Class
I feel much the same way about Pulp as I do Portishead – there are a handful of songs, generally singles, from across their career that I adore in the way one adores anything that you never think of except when in direct contact with it. Which means that I never put an album on, not even this one. 1996 also marks the first year where my favourite record on the shortlist may just have been the notorious token jazz choice – Courtney Pine’s Modern Day Jazz Stories, which would have split my vote with Underworld.

1997 – Roni Size/Reprazent – New Forms
We still own this; I doubt I’ve listened to it since 1998, though. Drum n bass never really spoke to me, though the surface aesthetic appealed; it’s too urban, I suspect. I like my electronic music to be expansive, to speak of open skies and coastal vistas, or else to be microscopic and solipsistic. I should probably play this again, and a handful of other drum n bass and jungle records we own (Goldie, Boymerang, T-Power), if only because unlistened-to records may as well not exist.

1998 – Gomez – Bring It On
Oh, Gomez. I owned this, and sold it later on, after their second album seemed to lose all the idiosyncratic, accidental garage-pop-blues charm that a handful of songs on this managed to achieve, and instead turned into trudging, worthy, heritage-railway rock.

1999 – Talvin Singh – OK
Much like Roni Size, we own this but it’s been unplayed in over a decade. That these are essentially the only two “electronic” / dance (as opposed to “urban”, whatever arbitrary genre tags mean) records to win the Mercury saddens me a little. Where were Orbital, Underworld, Four Tet, Aphex Twin, Massive Attack, Boards of Canada, etc, etc, etc? Some of them got nominated, sometimes, but none of them won, when Talvin did. A nice record, as I recall, a good, and worthy record, but not one that excited or delighted me.

2000 – Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour Of Bewilderbeast
I make no qualms about having loved this record. 2000 felt like a very strong year to me, and this, alongside XTRMNTR, was a highlight. It’s overlong, it meanders terribly, many of the songs are unfinished snippets and snatches, but it oozes melody and character and charm, even if he looks, and sometimes sounds, like a busker. I’ve just put it on again. Those opening strings and trumpets, giving way to gently strummed, melancholy, but not sad, guitars. It’s lovely, unassuming, pleasurable, sonically varied, as songs dissolve, or are submerged, or emerge from behind bus stops, beguile for a moment, and then pass by to leave another melody in place. But still, XTRMNTR wasn’t even shortlisted, and it felt like an epochal work of art to me as a 20 year old. Occasionally it still does.

2001 – PJ Harvey – Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea
I think this felt like the moment when the Mercury started to feel like it mattered as a cultural event; perhaps it coincides with me finishing university, coming home, starting to really use the internet as a channel for discussing music; maybe it was the gravitas of the way Polly won, trapped in Washington watching the Pentagon burn. This was my gateway drug into PJ Harvey, who had always scared me before. I love her catalogue right the way through now; the conversion was strong and comprehensive. This isn’t my least favourite record by her, but perhaps is the one I’ve outplayed the most.

2002 – Ms. Dynamite – A Little Deeper
I loved the singles from this but never fell for the whole record. I was thoroughly happy for it to win, though; the field in 2002 seemed a little wan and pale. Looking back at lists of albums from 2002 and it seemed like a strong American year – Wilco, Missy Elliott, Spoon, Justin Timberlake. I was deeper into mainstream radio pop than any other time, and Ms. Dynamite fitted that pretty well. I may have preferred The Streets to have won, but my passions didn’t run deep, I don’t think.

2003 – Dizzee Rascal – Boy In Da Corner
This was the year I flipped for Four Tet and Manitoba, was asked to write for a specialist electronic music journal (as if I was some kind of authority rather than a dilettante– ha!), and felt as though rock and indie had collapsed beyond the point of ever being saved. Like Ms. Dynamite, I never really fell for Dizzee beyond the singles, but I was pleased to see him win, I think. If not him, who? The Thrills? Please no.

2004 – Franz Ferdinand – Franz Ferdinand
Better this than Keane, but really, 2004 felt to me like a year on a different planet to the judges and the shortlist. I can only presume that no one paid the submission fee for Bark Psychosis…

2005 – Anthony and the Johnsons – I Am A Bird Now
I was convinced, utterly, that this would be the year, that Polar Bear would win, that the token jazz nomination would no longer be token, that the panel would throw hands up and say “you know what? the rest of these records suck”. But alas, they pulled the wild card, the record nobody expected to be nominated because everyone thought he was American, and, besides, nobody expected it to be nominated because nobody had heard of him. Steve, who I worked with for a while, had worked in marketing for the bank that sponsored the award this year, and asked to be involved in the awards. He claimed he was delighted that this record won, even though it pissed off his employers mightily. I believe him. I like the record, too; but I adored, adore, the Polar Bear, and thought this really would be the year.

2006 – Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
I liked half the shortlist in 2006, and hoped for Richard Hawley or Guillemots to win. Even the actual winners thought Hawley was robbed. This felt like a safe political choice, a return to populist indie, after the curveball of 2005, but really, I think the potential politics of this award are over-emphasised by naysayers – I’ve emailed Simon Frith asking if I could get on the panel, and he replied with advice that I was silly not to pursue further. It’s always difficult to find out who is actually on the panel, and I try most years without success. I suspect that it’s actually just the same as any committee – consensus belies passion, and breeds conformity, which is why so often a safe and disappointing choice is made, rather than any ulterior motives.

2007 – Klaxons – Myths Of The Near Future
As borne out by 2007’s choice, which shows that no one on the panel can have had any sense, let alone any ulterior motives. I thought 2007 was a fantastic year for music – Battles, Caribou, Patrick Wolf, 65daysofstatic, LCD Soundsystem, Spoon, Studio, Electrelane, Menomena, Stars Of The Lid – but the Mercury nominations from that year make no sense to me at all. I recognize barely any of the names. OK, most of the records I’ve just listed where American or Canadian, but even so. Klaxons is the second of three Mercury-winning albums I’ve never heard, because what little I did hear angered me (in the midst of my sound-quality campaign). Probably the most wrong-headed winner of the 20, to my mind; I’d been convinced that Acoustic Ladyland’s epochal (to me) Skinny Grin would be not just the token jazz choice but the only really exciting, experimental choice, and would thus win. It didn’t even shortlist.

2008 – Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid
Not their best album, but probably the one I wanted to win. 2008, as I’ve written before, felt like a dreadful year for music, and this was a dash of comfort. I cannot begrudge the panel or the winners at all, even if it was an unexciting choice.

2009 – Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy
Poor Speech Debelle has probably been the victim of the most opprobrium for winning, as if it was somehow her fault that she was up against such absolute tosh as Glasvegas and Kasabian. My own British favourites from the year, Fuck Buttons, Super Furry Animals, Patrick Wolf, all escaped nomination, and I was left thinking that I’d quite like The Invisible to win for obscurity giggles. The previous year’s winner had seen it as a vindication and celebration, and experienced a tipping point that pitched them into stadiums and living rooms across the nation. Speech Debelle, whose album I have not heard and have no opinion of whatsoever, was lambasted from all sides as being worthy, urban, black, female, as ticking boxes and being chosen for that rather than for her music, as being a choice emblematic of the do-gooder liberal taste-maker ennui that the Mercury is purportedly guilty of. My brother-in-law tells me he loves her album, is shocked that she was the object of such scorn. Heaven only knows what Matthew Cain thinks. Me? I don’t pay attention to lyrics so there’s sod-all point in me listening to it, at a guess.

2010 – The XX – XX
I wanted Laura Marling or Wild Beasts to win, really, or These New Puritans, Steve Mason, and Four Tet to have even been shortlisted. The XX seemed like the obvious consensus choice, and I am fine with that. It’s a stylish record, but a little vapid to me. It suits the endless incidental-music usage it has fallen into. So it goes.

2011 – PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
So it’s almost certainly a pitched battle between the first winner and the latest winner for my favourite. Right now, PJ wins.

Why I’m pleased Let England Shake won the Mercury Music Prize

My wife was reading Matthew Cain’s spectacularly wrong-headed blogpost over at the Channel 4 website earlier and exclaiming things like “has he looked at the winners over the last 20 years?” and “there’s only two obscure artists this year and one of them’s the token jazz one”.

Cain seems to think that Let England Shake, Harvey’s fourth nomination for and second winner of the Mercury Prize in her twenty-year career, is an obscure album that “no-one liked or bought”. Let England Shake actually garnered pretty massive critical acclaim, and has sold 70,000 copies since February. For a “difficult” female artist in her 40s releasing a concept album about the first world war, in the midst of a collapsing record industry which has harboured inherrent sexism and ageism at the best of times, 70,000 units seems pretty good to me – especially when you consider that sales have shot-up by 1000% since the prize was awarded last night, surely propelling the record towards gold status.

Judging by Cain’s blog post and tweets, he’s actually just miffed that his beloved Adele didn’t win, and carrying some kind of schoolyard trauma regarding being teased by the cool kids for not liking whomever they thought was cool that morning. Both of which would be fair enough if he was just another amateur voice in the social media maelstrom, but when he’s employed as C4 News’ cultural correspondent and placing his opinions under their masthead, it seems a little… embarrassing. Even if you don’t particularly like PJ Harvey, it’s churlish in the extreme not to recognise the artistic and musical merit of the record. The XX wasn’t my favourite album nominated last year, but I could totally understand why the judges chose it without getting my knickers in a twist about ulterior motives.

I could go into a prolonged examination of what the Mercury Prize is for, and what it’s worth, and how irrelevant it is, and how I’m irritated that Patrick Wolf and Wild Beasts didn’t get nominated, and how not enough electronic music gets nominated, and how, if they’re not to be perceived as a joke, one of the token jazz nominations surely must win one year, but the fact remains that, over the last decade of its existence in particular, the Mercury Prize has proved to be a very valuable part of the British musical landscape – it gets people interested in, talking about, and buying music, and generally music that sits a little bit out of usual mainstream cultural saturation. That’s a good thing, unless you’re Speech Debelle.

But actually I’d rather lavish yet more praise on PJ Harvey. Let England Shake may have been the obvious choice for the Mercury judges, the bookies’ favourite, but it deserved that esteem. Alongside Wild Beasts, it’s the album I’ve listened to by far the most this year, an album that, despite the specificity of its theme and topography, works incredibly well in a number of contexts – on the living room hi-fi with soe oomph, on the iPod while ambling through town or countryside, in the car, curled up on the sofa with a pair of headphones. We listened to it as we drove through the mountains of Andalucía in June and it worked there as well as it did on misty Devon mornings in early spring.

Maybe this is because it’s a record that lures you enticingly, and comprehensively, into its own world, a world outlined with sound and coloured in with words, a world of mud and blood and meaningless death. I find Let England Shake both exceptionally aesthetically pleasing, from the organic, hazy grooves of the autoharp and drums to the intriguingly appealing dissonance of the strange samples and musical appropriations, and also incredibly emotionally moving, the starkness of the lyrics and the distanced delivery of the vocals which obliterates any traces of mawkish sentimentality. It feels to me like a masterpiece, like a work of art, like something that will only grow in stature and influence and importance as the months and years pass. Looking down the lost of past Mercury winners, and only Screamadelica, and perhaps Dummy, stand out as being of the same quality as Let England Shake, to my ears at least. My favourite Mercury winner ever.