30 April 2006

The Death And Life of a Great American Lady

I'm a few days late in mentioning this, but I hope the passing of Jane Jacobs earlier this week prompts a new surge of interest in her still-vital book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Although I read the book many years ago, and found it immensely inspiring as a counterweight to the devastation being wreaked on American cities by ego- and ideology-driven architects and urban "planners," it was only in reading her obituary that I discovered that she had helped save Lower Manhattan from Robert "Madman" Moses, whose idea of "progress" and "modernization" involved driving freeways through places like Greenwich Village and SoHo. "Cities are for traffic," Moses is legendary for saying, and much of what is wrong with American cities in general and New York City in particular can be attributed at least partially to his belief that a city should be judged in terms of how pleasant and easy it was to drive through it.

Jane Jacobs's ideal city was human, rather than automobile-scaled, and consisted of mixed-use, high-density neighborhoods like her own beloved Greenwich Village (bear in mind that this was in 1961, before the Village had been turned into a theme park), where people lived, worked and played in the same neighborhood, often on the same block. Critics, already trying to bury Jacobs's legacy with her, argue in articles like this that subsequent developments, i.e., the way that pleasant, livable areas like the Village or SoHo have become massively overpriced and therefore no longer accessible for ordinary people to live and work in, proves that she was ultimately wrong.

I would say it proves just the contrary: because, tragically, so few neighborhoods survived the destruction brought on by the likes of Moses, supply and demand has driven the cost of living in the kinds of places where people actually like to live to a point where only the rich can afford them. Look at the pattern of gentrification in New York: one after another, previously neglected areas, the sorts of "slums" that the likes of Moses would have seen fit only for razing, have regenerated themselves through popular demand and grass-roots effort into places where so many people want to live that demand vastly exceeds supply. My guess is that the reason Jane Jacobs elicited so much hostility from "professional" circles is that she was an amateur in the truest and finest sense of the word: one who does what she does purely for love, and who easily and routinely trumps jargon and academic bafflegab with the purity and clarity of common sense.

Three Boroughs, Three Days

Usually when I'm in New York I spend nearly all of my time in Manhattan, and not just anywhere in Manhattan, either; I've been known to spend weeks at a time without going south of Houston or north of 14th Street.

But not this time. I've only occasionally been near my usual haunts in the West and East Villages, and instead have been clocking up much of my time in the boroughs. Thursday, inspired partially by The Brooklyn Follies and partly by my trip out to see Rose Melberg the night before, I decided to do some Brooklyn exploring. I took the F train, hopped off near DUMBO (seriously; it's yet another cutesy real estate acronym, standing for "Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass"), strolled through Brooklyn Heights, down to Borough Hall, and then out through Carroll Gardens and into Park Slope and Prospect Park, where I ran into Aaron Cometbus (brand new book out, by the way, called I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit, which he kindly gave me a copy of, and which I'm already halfway through). We rambled through the park, discussing weighty and not-so-weighty matters, and saw two amazing professional dog-walkers, each of whom was handling a team of six large dogs as deftly as any Inuit sledge driver mushing across the tundra.

Then up to Williamsburg/Greenpoint for a rendezvous with the amazing niece, Gabrielle Bell, who gave me a copy of her new book (still in galley form; it'll be out in October), Lucky. That was Thursday pretty much done; Friday saw me back in Manhattan briefly for a meeting and stroll with the wonderful Heather and the wonder dog Snax. That evening it was off to the wilds of Astoria (that's Queens, for you auslanders) for dinner and conviviality with about 16 of the Punk Rock Softball crowd, first at the Neptune Diner, then at the rather chilly outdoor Beer Garden.

Because of the temperature being not conducive to sitting around outdoors and because we'd all have to be up bright and early the following morning, the party broke up by about 11, and I was in bed back in lower Manhattan not much after 12. This morning I was up at 6:30, so excited was I about getting up to Central Park for the third annual Punk Rock Softball tournament. I wanted to get breakfast first, but unfortunately that story about the city that never sleeps turned out to be a canard: the city, or at least that portion of it that operates cafes and restaurants, actually does sleep on Saturday mornings when I want to get breakfast in a hurry at 8 am. I finally settled for a muffin and a decaf coffee bought just after I got off the subway at w. 96th St and headed into the park.

Softball was a triumph for all concerned except perhaps yours truly, who, despite my attempts to visualise success and ability to counteract my bad memories of childhood ineptness, was unable to visualise myself into hitting the ball even once. Luckily no balls came very near me when I was fielding, so I was spared complete and utter embarrassment. I think I have a great deal of visualisation practice to go through before next year's tournament, however. But apart from that, it was a fabulous get-together, with about 75 people turning out Five or six games were played, with teams of 12-14 players each, each team roughly divided between people who were actually very good at the sport and people like me, who were sometimes hopelessly, sometimes comically useless.

Then everybody made their way back out to Astoria for barbecueing, schmoozing and reminiscing at Oliver's party loft. Chadd Derkins very nearly succeeded in re-igniting last year's epic dispute with Jonnie Whoa Oh over what street divides west from east in Manhattan (it's 5th Avenue, duh), but before it could get too vituperative, I had to dash back to the N train and and down to lower Manhattan again to join Aaron C at some sort of multi-culti literary tribute to the 50th anniversary of Allen Ginsberg's Howl. I was never a huge fan of Ginsberg or the poem, but got a bit of new insight into him and it. Could have done without the elderly Korean poet shouting at us for half an hour in Korean, but the one or two Koreans in the audience probably enjoyed it. I could and would say more, but my one hour's internet time is about to expire, so you'll have to stay tuned till tomorrow for further details. Over and out.

27 April 2006

An Audience With A Goddess

"It was like being at church," said one of my companions, and that was about right. There was an atmosphere of such hushed reverence throughout Rose Melberg's performance last night that unless you looked over your shoulder and saw the Yankees game playing silently on the slightly out-of-focus TV, a smallish bar in Brooklyn was just about the last place you'd imagine yourself being.

That wasn't the case before Rose took the stage. But the minute she, slightly modesty and hesitating, stepped up to the microphone, everything went dead silent. The few words that were exchanged among members of the crowd were in whispers, and the mood was so contagious that when midway through the show someone asked Andrea, Rose's backup singer, if she wanted some more water, he felt compelled to whisper his inquiry. She whispered back, "No, thanks," and everybody burst out laughing. Then promptly fell silent again, except of course for the rapturous applause after each song. I don't think I heard so much as the clinking of a glass throughout her set of perhaps 40-45 minutes.

She played a lot of news songs, a few of which I'd already heard here, and one Softies song especially pertinent to my own life that had me in bits. Then she did a Tiger Trap song from around 1993 that was even more pertinent, and simultaneously honoured and embarrassed me by dedicating the song to, "Larry, who was part of the Tiger Trap story back in the old, old days."

Although I wasn't sure I appreciated the "old, old" part of the dedication, and my "part" in the Tiger Trap story consisted of little more than standing in the audience being awestruck, it still made me feel pretty special. The whole night did, really. Rose is going to be doing a few shows on the West Coast in May. Anyone in the vicinity, especially if you're a fan of exquisitely beautiful and heartfelt songs, check it out.

Chair Of Reggae Studies?

Cheap marijuana jokes aside, of course there's no reason why there shouldn't be a department at the University of the West Indies in Kingston devoted so studying Jamaica's most popular indigenous music. But its chairperson, one Carolyn Cooper, appears to be a viciously stupid woman, using her credentials to put an academic gloss on some of the most hateful aspects of Jamaican society. It makes one want to despair over the future, not just of that sorry island, but of other countries, including Britain, whose own cultures have been heavily impacted by the Jamaican diaspora.

In this excellent article, the Guardian's Garry Younge (with whom I've often disagreed in the past, but who deserves full marks for this work) takes us on a nightmarish visit to a country that promotes itself in tourism ads with a sunny reggae track proclaiming "One Love" but routinely sees people beaten, kicked, stoned and stabbed by crazed mobs chanting, "Battyman fi' dead." ("Battyman," also frequently heard on the streets of London and in reggae and dance hall lyrics, is of course Jamaican slang for "fag" or "queer")

And what does the erudite Ms Cooper have to say about this brand of savagery? Well, actually, she seems more concerned about the "artists" who use their music to promote it. "It is the music of young, working-class black people and I think that makes it an easy target," she says. Which presumably means what? That young, "working class" (to use the term loosely, since it's often used by dishonest ideologues to sanitise and romanticise people who've not only never shown any interest in working, but whose primary occupation is preying upon genuine working class people) blacks should be immune from criticism because their anti-social behaviour makes them "an easy target?" Would that criminal and anti-social cultures actually were an easy target; in fact they are a very difficult one, complicated as they are by racial, political and economic considerations, and Ms Cooper seems determined, if anything, to make them an even harder one. She rationalises:
Homophobia is one part of dancehall but you shouldn't reduce it to its homophobic lyrics. It's a heterosexual music. It celebrates heterosexuality by denouncing homosexuality. Other types of music, like R&B, celebrate man and woman. Dancehall does the obverse. But I don't think it incites people to violence. I think people understand the power of metaphor.
I don't know. In my admittedly limited experience, people who engage in frenzied mob murders while chanting "Kill de battyman" might be a bit limited in their ability to comprehend "the power of metaphor." Cooper goes on to claim:
Compared to a big city like New York, you could say Jamaica is homophobic. But not compared to, say, Kansas or smalltown USA. Buju Banton is no less homophobic than George Bush.
That an acredited academic at the country's major educational institution would say such a dishonest and stupid thing does not fill one with hope that things are likely to improve any time soon in Jamaica. Both Kansas and George Bush have their faults, but just as Kansas is not awash in violence, homophobic or otherwise, George Bush has openly or even tacitly advocated the murder of gay people. Jamaica is and Buju Banton has.

26 April 2006

I Was Looking For A Place To Die. Someone Recommended Brooklyn.

I don't know, that just kind of grabbed me as one of the better openings for a novel that I've seen lately. It's from The Brooklyn Follies, by Paul Auster. I'd never heard of it before, but I saw it on sale at the airport, and since I was going to be spending a fair bit of time in Brooklyn over the next few days, it seemed appropriate. Read about half of it on the plane over and was suitably entertained.

Was also pleased to see that spring is still in its early and hence most beautiful stages here on the East Coast, much as it was in London. I was expecting that since New York enjoyed some almost summery weather early this month, all the leaves would be out and most of the spring flowers done for the year, but no, not the case. It's also a little bit chilly, but definitely no worse than London, and here at least the sun is shining.

I'm staying in Manhattan, but will soon be off on my first foray into Brooklyn to see Rose Melberg playing at Magnetic Field. Then a couple days of rest before participating in what looks to be an epic Punk Rock Softball Tournament in Central Park. Stay tuned for details, but for right now, I've gotta get moving.

23 April 2006

Blasphemy-Free Bowel Movements

From today's Observer:
Brixton jail is rebuilding its lavatory block so that Muslim prisoners can relieve themselves without facing Mecca.
Far be it from me to trivialise the role that religious practice can play in helping criminals to rehabilitate themselves. But am I the only who finds it odd that guys who are so assiduous about not urinating toward an indecent point on the compass seemed to have no such qualms when it came to robbing, raping, murdering, or pillaging?

By the way, the little blurb was appended with this:
(No jokes to accompany this item, please - Ed.)
Which may or may not be a joke in itself. It's not always easy to tell these days.

22 April 2006

Chocolate City

New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin has deservedly taken a lot of stick for promising that his town would remain a "chocolate city," though it's far from the only reason he should be turned out of office in today's election. What's heartening is that the double standard seems to finally be fading away, and a black politician can be called to account for playing the race card just as surely as a white one who promised a "vanilla" or an "angelfood" city would be.

Of course there are still plenty of exponents of the "black people can't be racist" school of thought, including author Tim Wise, who trots out that tired canard, arguing that, "To blacks, racism is systemic. To whites, it is purely personal."

That may sound profound or insightful at first glance, but it's essentially ideological gobbledygook. True, there was a time when laws and institutions were deliberately used to prevent black people from living in certain places or from enjoying basic human rights, but that time is largely past. Wise undercuts his own claim when he points out how many major American cities have become predominantly black (what happened to the "system," then?) and compounds his error by maintaining that this is the fault of white people (isn't it always?) who "fled in order to get away from black people."

I'm sure there are white racists who pack their bags at the first sight of a black face in the neighbourhood, and I'm just as sure (because I've met them) there are black people who'd prefer not to have anything to do with white people, and who don't hesitate to say so. But the vast majority of people who move out of the inner city, often incurring great financial loss to do so, are not trying to "get away from black people," they are fleeing endemic crime and violence, unlivable neighbourhoods, and corrupt and incompetent local governments. Whether you want to associate all those factors with "black people" is up to you; I'll only point out that many blacks are just as eager to move out of the ghetto as whites are. Does this mean they want to "get away from black people," too?

New Orleans' problem, both before and after Hurricane Katrina, was not the racial composition of its citizenry, it was that it was crime-ridden, corrupt, mismanaged, and essentially a dumping ground for huge numbers of America's underclass. The colour of that underclass is not the main issue, even if it can hardly be ignored. But the main question New Orleans has to answer is this: in whose interest is it to rebuild large sections of the city that functioned mainly as a dysfunctional welfare colony?

Of course there's a longstanding tendency to conflate race and class, as though all blacks were poor and all whites were rich, just as ther's a tendency to conflate race and culture, wherein it's assumed that black people all love hiphop and white people can only get down to the arrhythmic bleatings of a Barry Manilow. The result is that time and again, perfectly understandable values - people not wanting to live in a crime-ridden ghetto or not wanting to have a housing project full of drug dealers in their neighbourhood - get branded as "racist," usually by self-serving politicians who don't have to live anywhere near the troubled areas they romanticise as "chocolate" cities.

I don't mean to diminish the very real hardships being experienced by perfectly respectable poor and working people who are having no end of trouble moving back into their New Orleans neighbourhoods while the politicians dither about whether to rebuild or raze them. And I wouldn't deny that there probably is an element of racism in the foot-dragging that has gone on. But these people are as much the victims of the neighbours who turned their areas into slums as they are of politicians who understandably are in no hurry to re-establish those slums.

Because ultimately nobody, of any race or colour, has an intrinsic right to live in any city. I'd love to live in Manhattan, but the fact that I can't afford to is not a function of institutional racism or classism; it's simply because I wasn't born rich or clever or lucky enough to. And cities aren't intrinsically "black" or "white" or any other colour; they're living, constantly evolving organisms. Ideally, the people who live in the new New Orleans will come in all colours, but they won't be chosen for their colour, but for their commitment to making it a great and truly livable city again. Sadly, many of the city's pre-Katrina inhabitants, from the corrupt government and ruling classes right down to the muggers and gang bangers and dope dealers, sorely lacked that commitment. And if they don't come back, I don't think anyone's going to miss them, no matter what colour they might have been.

More On Immigration

He's often referred to, if he's referred to at all, as "the lesser Hitchens," but Christopher's more conventionally conservative little brother sometimes comes up with some astute observations on his own, and I think this one qualifies.

He's essentially arguing, as I have for years, that the recent rise of far right political parties in Europe, should neither be surprising, nor taken as an indication that a new wave of fascism is on the march. The prospect of the British National Party, the cleaned-up and allegedly more "respectable" version of the old National Front, getting a hefty share of votes in next month's local elections is, Hitchens claims, solely a function of there being no other way for people to vent their frustrations with the massive social experiments of multiculturalism and out-of-control immigration.

As he points out, it's virtually impossible to question either policy without someone from one or more of the major parties suggesting you're an illiterate racist. At one time the Conservatives made some circumspect forays into the field, but new leader David Cameron looks determined to out-Blair Blair himself, i.e., seeming to stand for everything while ultimately standing for nothing at all, and the Liberal Democrats, always the California/granola ("When you get take out all the fruits and nuts, all you've got left is the flakes") of British politics, have gone even farther into left field/Planet Dingbat under their new leader, Menzies Campbell.

The tabloid press are still having a field day denouncing "foreign scroungers" and "woolly-minded elites," but they're not taken seriously by anyone except the very same working classes being successfully targeted by the BNP. Yet while their language is often intemperate, their viewpoint is not always far removed from simple common sense. What exactly is the reasoning behind allowing millions (literally) of people, most of whom have no conception of the rights and responsibilities of being British to illegally take up residence here, often at public expense? No one seems to know, or if they do, they're not saying.

The Guardian, one of multiculturalism's most diligent (and tedious) cheerleaders, argues like a mantra that immigration is "the solution to our ageing population and pensions crisis," but that presumes that the new immigrants are going to become an asset to the economy rather than a drain upon it. The trouble with this reasoning is that "immigrants" are far from some monolithic class about whom universal statements can be made.

In reality, immigrants from some countries and cultures do very well indeed. Indians, for example, frequently work two or even three jobs and rapidly integrate themselves into the British way of life (not without preserving many aspects of their own culture, of course). Meanwhile, Somalis have unemployment rates in the area of 90% and are disproportionately represented in both the dole queues and the criminal courts. In between these two extremes are a wide range of success stories and not-so-successful stories. Afro-Caribbeans, for example, who've been here longer than most of the present wave of immigrants, still struggle with high unemployment, crime rates, and school failure; black Africans who've only just arrived regularly do better, to the point where they're frequently attacked by hostile Afro-Caribbeans who, like some working class whites, claim, "They're stealing our jobs and our council houses."

What's most bewildering about the present system or lack thereof is that it seems almost deliberately skewed to favour those least likely to make a contribution to the British economy and most likely to become a burden on it. Meanwhile, the government is threatening to deport qualified doctors from India and Africa (at a time when the NHS has been spending itself into oblivion trying to keep up with the demand for medical care) on the premise that it will hurt employment prospects for UK and EU doctors (who've already enjoyed a 25% pay rise because of their relative scarcity). Yet no such concern is shown for the unskilled labourers who, already struggling to get by on minimum wage, have to compete with illegal immigrants willing to work for far less.

As near as I can figure it, immigration as it's presently being mismanaged represents a cynical collusion between conservative business interests who see it as a means of keeping wages down, and left-wing ideologues who see it as another tool for smashing the last vestiges of British imperialism (if indeed there are any) and perhaps Britain itself. And why, my American readers might ask, should you care? Well, in case you haven't noticed, almost precisely the same thing is happening there.


Kendra posts this horrific picture of our de facto first lady, which you might think a bit uncharitable on Kendra's part except that nearly every photo of Cherie Blair is at least somewhat disturbing if not downright frightening. Put as nicely as possible, she looks like a bit of a madwoman.

Cherie's defenders routinely argue that she is actually a very good-looking and charming woman who just happens to photograph badly; this, they claim, is because she is so animated that a huge variety of expressions flits constantly across her face, giving malevolent journalists more than ample opportunities to catch her off-key or out of kilter.

Be that as it may (I've never seen the woman in person, so I can't testify to the validity of this argument), the point of Kendra's post and not a little hubbub in the local media is that it cost the Labour Party £7,700 ($13,000) to keep Cherie's barnet in order during the last of election. As they frequently chant at football matches when an expensive player stuffs things up: "What a waste of money."

Since the money came exclusively from the contributions of dutiful Labour Party members, it's probably not the business of the general public anyway, but what might be (and what really offends me about the woman) is that she has become a multi-millionaire, largely at taxpayer expense, by prosecuting legal cases that frequently undermine the expressed aims of her husband's government. When you read about one of those cases that the Daily Mail likes to refer to as "political correctness gone mad," when someone racks up a payout because someone called it a "blackboard" instead of a chalkboard, if a schoolgirl wants the right to wear a medieval hiljab instead of the uniform approved by the Muslim heads of her school, if a boy thinks he's been hard done by for being expelled after trying to burn down the school, chances are Mrs Blair will be in the midst of it, raking in hundreds of thousands of pounds in payments from the taxpayer-funded Legal Aid.

Granted, she wasn't involved in the infamous "farting chair" case, in which a school administrator claimed she'd been driven mad - to the tune of a cool £1 million in damages - by a chair that made rude noises whenever she sat down, but it's certainly not far from the sort of case Cherie specialises in.

Cherie-bashers, much like critics of Hillary Clinton, are often accused of being instinctively repelled by "strong women," but plenty of women have successful careers and wield great power without drastically raising so many hackles. Even Condoleeza Rice, who has no end of critics for her political and moral views, doesn't seem to arouse the same sort of personal antipathy. The difference between Mrs Blair and Mrs Clinton, though (in addition to there being no suggestion that the Blairs' marriage is a sham for political purposes) is that nobody is expecting Cherie to make a run for Prime Minister in the future. And why should she? She's making way more money at her present scam.

But seriously, Cherie, £245 a day for that eggbeater treatment? A couple centuries ago that a word in your husband's ear would have had the offending hairdresser off to the Tower for a very short back and sides.

21 April 2006

The Last Jewel In The Crown...

...that was once Lookout Records now seems to be gone. I refer of course to Operation Ivy, the ska-punks who helped launch Gilman Street and the East Bay scene into orbit back in 1987, and who, though they broke up only two short years later, have continued to grow in stature and significance ever since, to the point where they're now one of the most legendary bands the punk rock scene has ever produced.

Sometime in 1988, when Op Ivy only had a 7" EP out and it was uncertain whether they'd ever manage to produce an album, I was hanging around the Mordam (Lookout's distributor) warehouse and talking to Tommy Strange, who was more or less Ruth Schwartz's right hand man there. He expressed the opinion that what was going on over at Gilman was fun, but not of any great substance, and I countered by telling him, "You watch, Operation Ivy is going to be one of those bands that's going to be an absolute classic. They'll be like Minor Threat or the Dead Kennedys, selling more records than ever years or even decades after they break up."

Tommy thought that was the funniest thing he'd ever heard, and insisted on going from one end of the warehouse to the other telling everyone what that crazy Livermore guy had said now. To be fair, the guys in Operation Ivy thought I was just as crazy when I made that same prediction to them, but at least they later admitted publicly that I'd been right.

Anyway, Operation Ivy, more than any other band, "made" Lookout Records. Sure, Green Day may have sold more records (though not by as many as you might think; I wouldn't be surprised if by now Energy, the only Op Ivy album, has sold close to a million copies, which is somewhere in the neighbourhood of what the two Green Day titles did. But if it hadn't been for Operation Ivy, it's questionable whether Lookout would have lasted long enough or had enough money to put out Green Day's albums.

When Green Day pulled their two albums from Lookout last summer over non-payment of royalties, it was disastrous for the label, which subsequently laid off all its employees and scaled back its operations to where it was basically doing little more than selling off what was left of its back catalogue. But as long as Operation Ivy remained part of that catalogue, that was no small thing. Now, however, it appears as though the other shoe has dropped, at least judging from this notice on the Lookout website, which declares both Energy and the Hectic 7" EP "out of print."

No doubt they'll eventually re-appear elsewhere, or perhaps Lookout will even work a miracle and bring them back, but for now I'm assuming the East Bay/Lookout era is about as ended as an era can be. Which of course was also how it felt last summer with the departure of Green Day, at which time I threw out some casual comments on the Pop-Punk message board that got reprinted on punknews.org, pitchfork.com, and eventually the national media and the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. They were intemperate and maybe inconsiderate - I essentially accused the new owners of Lookout of squandering their legacy and credibility on a bunch of lousy new bands while neglecting their responsibilities to the old ones - but not particularly inaccurate.

Nonetheless, even my mother had a go at me for being so "vindicative" (my mother is a very well-read woman who rarely mispronounces her words, so I knew she was genuinely displeased), and while at the time I defended myself on the grounds that I hadn't said anything that wasn't true, in the months since I've had to come round to accepting my own part in the debacle.

Yes, it's true that I had left Lookout years before they ran into financial trouble, and have done a fair bit of feeling sorry for myself that I didn't keep more money for myself if the new owners were only going to squander it anyway, but it's about time that I take some responsibility, too. The fact is that I was in such a hurry to get out from under the burden that Lookout seemed to have become by 1997 that I didn't give enough thought to what might happen to the dozens of bands that I'd signed to the label with the understanding that their records would always be kept in print and that they'd always be fairly paid for them. I conveniently (for my own purposes, anyway) assumed that the new owners would carry on as we always had, and that turned out not to be the case.

So yes, I lost a lot of money by leaving Lookout the way I did, but very possibly the bands lost even more, something at least some of those bands could afford far less than I could. And that doesn't even include the stress and negative impact on careers that came from records inexplicably going out of print or failing to be distributed, as happened to many bands when Lookout dumped Mordam for the bigger RED, which was only interested in the big sellers.

Anyway, long story short, I screwed up, big time, and let a lot of people down. Given my mental state when I left Lookout, I'm not totally sure what else I could have done, but regardless of that, what I did wasn't good enough. I've tried to make it up to those bands that I'm still in contact with by offering them whatever help or advice I could, but there are probably other bands to whom my name is still mud, and I can't say I blame them.

Water under the bridge? To a certain extent, yes, and many of the musicians who got their start on Lookout have gone on to even greater success than they might have enjoyed had both they and I stayed at Lookout. But for someone who was as arrogant and self-righteous as I frequently was during Lookout's heyday, it's important that I now acknowledge how and where I fell down pretty badly on the job. So consider it acknowledged, and if you're so inclined, please accept my apologies. It may all have gone a bit sour in the end, but at least enough music and memories came out of it to last us several lifetimes, and for the part I was privileged to play in that, I am and will always remain truly grateful.

Entangled In Angst-Ridden Prose

Not really; it's just that the song that line is from just came up on the iPod and I remembered how much I liked that line. Anyway, yesterday's griping about the weather seems to have reached the appropriate ears, as today is considerably warmer, and the sun was even making an (ultimately futile, it now appears) effort to put in an appearance. Walking past one of the cute little squares with which London (certain parts, anyway) is replete, and seeing the profusion of carefully tended flowers, I was even tempted to think that for all the dreariness and lengthiness of our winters, there is really nothing like an English spring.

It's something you hear quite often around here; in those years when spring gives us a miss altogether, people will alter it to say that there's nothing like an English summer. Which is not quite true; actually, when we do get some good weather in spring (or autumn), it's very much like an English summer. Sometimes more so than summer itself.

But fair enough; when we do get a genuinely lovely spring or summer day, it can be exquisite beyond compare, but I found myself somewhat churlishly asking today whether that's because there is something particularly ineffable about nice days in England, or whether it's simply that they stand out in our hearts and memories because they are so utterly rare.

Enough moaning about the weather, however; it is one characteristic of Englishness that I never meant to take on as thoroughly as I seem to have. Instead I wanted to respond briefly to Wesley's comment to yesterday's post, saying in effect, "I thought you said you weren't depressed that much these days?"

Well, I'm not. As I think I've written before, depression was a chronic and longterm issue with me for much of my life, but it's mostly lifted the past few years, especially since I stopped drinking. But that doesn't mean I don't have bad days, or sometimes even a succession of bad or at least not-so-good days. I don't think I'd be human if I didn't. It's pretty small potatoes, though, compared with the way I used to live, often barely even talking to anyone for weeks or months at a time for fear they would see what awful shape I was in (not that most people ever noticed that much difference).

Also, what little depression I experience nowadays tends to be more situational than existential. The weather's crappy, I have some stuff to do that I don't feel like doing, I'm not satisfied with where or how I'm living, I sink into a spell of laziness and procrastination that leaves me feeling non-productive and useless, that sort of thing. All of which, except the weather, can be changed.

I came home today to find a letter - yes, an actual letter, written and addressed by human hands and delivered to my door by a representative of the Royal Mail - from someone I was rather close to about 30 years ago. He's embarking on a project in this, his 50th year, to write a letter to 50 people who have played an important role in his life in which he explains what he is doing with that life and to thank them for having been a part of it. Naturally the egomaniac in me immediately started counting back to his birthday and wondering how many people he'd written to before me and who, therefore, must be more important, but once I'd banished that sort of stupid thought, I quite a warm glow from it. It's true, we're constantly affecting other people's lives in ways that we can't begin to fully comprehend, but it's all too rare that someone takes the time and effort to let us know about it. That brightened my day even more than a dose of rare English sunshine.

20 April 2006

The Most Annoying Generation™ Does It Better Than You

Well, so they'll tell you, anyway, but by now you should be used to them telling you just about anything, provided that it's pompous, smug, self-absorbed and self-satisfied. And, of course, they'll assume you're absolutely fascinated to hear it.

I refer to them as "they" advisedly, since, whether I like it or not (and I'm not sure I do), I'm practically a charter member of TMAG (astute readers will recognise the coinage from "Dr" Frank Portman's brilliant novel, King Dork, and if you haven't read it yet, quit wasting your time on this silly blog and go get it). But I'm continually embarrassed by my baby boomer compatriots, not so much because they're at an awkward age (hey, I am too), but because they seem determined to go through their entire lives demanding to be the centre of everyone's attention while simultaneously refusing to believe that anything of cultural, political or social importance has happened since the 1960s (okay, early to mid-70s, tops).

Anyway, what's got my ire up this week is this from (of course) the Guardian, in which one certified (possibly certifiable) BBer explains why her generation (hey, don't look at me, I just resigned), in addition to having stopped the war, ended poverty, invented civil rights and made the whole world infinitely more groovy, is now having more or at least better sex than those pathetic, stressed-out teens and 20-somethings. Yes, and this would probably explain why everyone is rushing to the cinema to see romantic films about late middle-aged people, and why porn stars under the age of 45 have pretty much been put out of business by the overwhelming demand for baby boomer studs and studettes.

Some of the comments posted on the Guardian website echo my own sentiments, including:
Jesus, will those baby-boomers never shut up? Not content with polluting the world, invading Iraq and stealing the pensions of their children, now we learn they have better sex. They will be claiming they invented growing old, next.
Is it anything to do with the fact that babyboomers are the most self-obssessed generation in the history of the human race and won't stop talking about how great they are?
Perhaps the harshest, but still well-deserved, is this one:
Well, given the choice between bad sex with a 20-year-old and 'good' sex with a 50-year-old, I'll take the former every time ;-). Yvonne Roberts and boomers like her should take a look in the mirror - you're old, and you're getting older. The reason you feel "comfortable in your own skin" is because it's so much baggier - less Miss Selfridge and more Miss Marple.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating that people of a certain age should stop having or enjoying sex. Just that there's a certain point at which you have to accept that most other people would really prefer not to have to hear about it.

Lethargy and Melancholia

I haven't been feeling that inspired about blogging this past week (obviously, you might say, judging from the absence of same), and I'm kind of having to push myself to get back to it, in much the same way I dragged myself to the gym today despite it seeming like a much better idea to stay in bed and rest. I've been afflicted with a mild cold, my second in the past couple months, whereas I usually have one a year at most, which has left me feeling drained of energy and simultaneously filled with umbrage (no, that's not a fancy word for snot).

I'm officially blaming the lousy Engish weather (sorry for the redundancy) for both my physical ailment and my sour mood, though I have to admit the possibility that the weather wouldn't seem so bad had I not been spoiled by Sydney these past few months. Wesley, who lives no more than a mile away from me, seems to have been able to find not only some allure, but some actual sunshine in London, so perhaps it's only my jaundiced attitude. Anyway, next week I'm going over to New York, which has been enjoying lots of warmth and sunshine this month, but it's predicted to turn cold and rainy for my arrival. See what I mean about attitude?

I'll only be there for a week, which will give me time to participate in the annual Punk Rock Softball tournament (which, provided I don't break something or get run over by a bus on the way there, will mark the first time I've attempted to play anything resembling baseball since my traumatic, athletic talent-free middle childhood at the end of the 1950s), take in a solo show by the lovely Rose Melberg, and visit my stunningly talented niece, Gabrielle Bell, whose comics seem to be (deservedly) taking the world by storm. It's probably also safe to assume that this particular week will be the one week this year that London enjoys a semblance of beautiful spring weather, but oh well, what can you do? Anyway, I've pretty much never failed to have a good time in New York, regardless of the weather, and I'm sure this will be no exception.

So why don't I move to New York, I frequently ask myself, but apart from the fact that I can't really afford it right now, there's the question of whether I want to subject myself to the harsh winters and high-intensity lifestyle. A few years ago, sure, but I'm increasingly feeling more like chilling out on the beach, something New York is not best suited for. Never mind; all will become clear in due course. To somebody, anyway, if not me.

Anyway, getting back to where I started, going to the gym turned out to be the right decision, I think, because during the three hours I spent there, my cold pretty much disappeared, though some of the lethargy remained. Thursday is the day that I do an hour and 15 minute yoga class, which, despite its hippie-dippie associations, is not for sissies. Okay, almost everyone in the class besides me is female, but I defy any of you who isn't a contortionist by nature to put yourself through that series of poses without arriving at near-exhaustion. But I didn't stop there; I then put in more than a half hour on some diabolical machine called a cross trainer, on which I apparently travelled 4 km (2.4 miles) and burned up 500 calories (no doubt immediately replaced by the chocolate muffin I ate when I came home). Then another hour or so of abdominal exercises. All this from the guy who ditched out of gym class in 11th grade and has assiduously eschewed most unnecessary physical activity ever since. I'd suspect a midlife crisis, but I think it's a little late for that.

13 April 2006

The English Disease

I'm often asked how I wound up living in London, usually by British people who can't comprehend why anyone would voluntarily abandon sunny California in favour of this, well, not so sunny place. It's no use explaining to them that not all of California looks like Baywatch, that in fact San Francisco is nearly as damp, cold and windy (and that's just the social climate, never mind the weather) as London, and even more provincial.

If they continue to press me on the question, I'll feign bewilderment, telling them that I moved to London in much the same way Britain is said to have acquired an empire: in a fit of absent-mindedness. And there's a certain amount of truth to that; I certainly wasn't thinking very clearly, if I was thinking at all, when I decided that England was to be my new home. I mean, I liked the pub and club culture, and the fact that the streets - many of them, anyway - were filled with people and not just cars. I liked the sense of humour, and the newspapers, and the way it was possible to get around town without owning a car. Most of all, it was a good town to drink in. Not that San Francisco wasn't, but in London, there was none of that residual Yankee guilt that often left you feeling like you should apologise for being drunk or hungover instead of being out there scrambling for the big bucks.

However, it's now going on five years since I stopped drinking, and I'm still here. So what's that about? Inertia is probably a factor, but I've also come to enjoy London in new ways (by daylight, for example). But now the thrill seems to be wearing off, and for a while now it's felt as though my time in London might be coming to an end.

The clarity of hindsight has finally enabled me to see more precisely why I came here: I was attracted to the bleakness and gloominess, the idea that life in England was one long lament by the Smiths, nothing but endless rain falling on the humdrum towns scattered across the grey and sepia-toned landscape. And while that's a bit of an exaggeration, there is some truth to it.

The thing is, though, I'm just not that depressed anymore. In fact, I'm not very depressed at all. Or maybe I am and have just gotten so used to it that I don't notice it any longer, but in support of the former argument, I only occasionally listen to the Smiths anymore, and often find myself wanting to tell most people I meet, "Cheer up, it might never happen."

Is England really more depressed than most countries? Maybe not, but it's undeniably a rather melancholy country, and I think it's beginning to get to me. Or perhaps the melancholy has seeped into my soul, and that's why I now find myself growing dissatisfied. English people love to sneer at Australia, suggesting that it's a shallow, culture-free zone where the inhabitants have any sense they might have once possessed baked out of them by the relentless sun (Woody Allen exhibited a similar attitude toward California when he maintained that its sole cultural advantage was being able to turn right on a red light). But the more time I spend in Australia, the more I come to believe that if it's shallow to spend lots of time in the warmth and sunshine and couple that with a similarly warm and sunny attitude, then sign me up for shallow school.

Does that mean I'm ready to emigrate? Well, just about, but unfortunately, it's not that easy. Australia is very picky about who it lets in, at least once they get past a certain age, an age which I passed some time ago. And while Australia is my first choice for a new home, it's by no means my only one. I've long wanted to live in New York, and the constant slagging I give it, California still has its appeal, too, though that mainly consists of my family and a handful of good friends who still live there.

Extricating myself from London isn't the simple matter it might appear to be, either. I own a flat here, and due to certain complication that are too boring to go into here, I can't sell it any time in the immediate future, which kind of limits my options in terms of being able to afford to live anywhere else. So here I am, at least for another spring (which finally seems to be arriving, too). In a couple weeks I'll have to make what feels like a momentous decision: do i renew my season ticket at Fulham? It's provided me with enormous joy (and misery) for almost a decade now, but owning a season ticket is a serious commitment, almost like having a job. Travel and social engagements have to be planned months in advance so as not to conflict with fortnightly Saturdays (or Sundays, or Mondays). The past couple years I've missed nearly a third of the games I'd paid for, and if I spend as much time in Australia and the States as I'd like to, I'll miss even more next year.

So come April 28, ticket renewal deadline, I should have a pretty good idea about whether I'm just blowing off steam or if I'm serious about moving on. And as I won't even be in London that week (that week is pencilled in for some quasi-important goings-on in New York), I suspect it will be the latter.

12 April 2006

You Want Heroin Chic?

I don't know how big Pete Doherty is over in the States, but he's constantly in the news here, more for his legal troubles and on again/off again supermodel girlfriend than for his music, which, from what little I've heard of it, isn't bad.

His image as it comes across in the media is of a talented but troubled, charming but hopelessly messed up junkie who's teetering between full-on stardom and sordid oblivion, with most observers seemingly betting on the latter.

Pete, who's already facing a variety of drug charges and compounding his problems by missing court dates and attacking photographers, certainly didn't do himself any favours by posing - however inadvertently - for this picture of him shooting up in his flat. Personally, I found it hard to look at, but then I've been barely able to manage looking at any hypodermic needle, even in the hands of a bona fide doctor, since I spent a few months in 1968 living with junkies and watching them shoot up three or four times a day, often with me being enlisted (involuntarily, but I was living there rent free) to help tie off a vein.

All three of those guys had died by the end of the 60s, and I won't be at all surprised - saddened, yes, but not surprised - if Pete follows in their footsteps before too very long. I also won't be surprised if someone soon thereafter turns the picture of him shooting up into an iconic poster adorning dorm rooms and quasi-boho habitats for the generation or two to come. Alternatively, Pete could get help, sort himself out, go on to be a major pop star, and always have that picture to remind him of where he's comes from, and how low he can sink if he ever tries to go back there again. Let's hope for the latter, unless, of course, you're one of those sickos who prefer their idols pale, dull-eyed, emaciated and dead.

11 April 2006

Yet Another Drought Update

I know I'm becoming a bit of a bore on this subject, but as long as the government, the media and the water companies continue to tell us that all of England is in danger of drying up and blowing away due to this terrible drought, I will feel compelled to point out that it's raining again today.

Can You Be Working Class If You've Never Had A Job?

Chavs have been all the rage the past few years, from Mike Skinner's lumpen-prole song stylings to the inarticulate grunts and belchings of Little Britain's Vicky Pollard. In many cases, it's a matter of laughing to keep from crying at the spectacle of Britain's burgeoning underclass.

But this bleating heart (writing in the Guardian, where else?) is outraged at what he sees as the "demonising" of the working class by those artists, performers and commentators who in various ways express dismay at the rising tide of illiteracy, violence and crassness spilling out from the council estates and into the culture at large.

And he'd have a good point IF working class people actually were the target of the above-mentioned criticism, ridicule, and cultural co-optation. But, as you'd expect of a middle class intellectual locked away in the ivory tower of a Guardianista, the poor man is completely unable to distinguish between the working class and the underclass. Let me offer him some useful guidance: the working class generally consists of people who, erm, work. Or at least occasionally attempt to.

I can only guess that the author, one John Harris, has some romantic view of the Vicky Pollards of the world, that they would gladly stop having fatherless dole babies and hie themselves down to the nearest Job Centre if only if weren't for the constant depredations of the soulless capitalist state. What he's missing is another vital distinction between the working class and the underclass: working people generally have self-respect and ambition, and given half a chance, will find their way out of poverty, perhaps even into the middle class. Chavs, pikeys, underclass dole bludgers, whatever you want to call them, define themselves not by their economic position, but by their behaviour.

Through their attitudes, their language, their clothing, their general manner, they rule themselves out of ever being able to fully participate in society, and for that they deserve to be mocked, ridiculed, humiliated, perhaps, with some luck, shamed out of their self-destructive ways. To conflate them with working class people and thus try to declare them a protected species is insulting to the millions of working class people who actually work.

There's a similar mentality which tries to turn the gangbanging, dope dealing, jive-talking ethos of certain young black men into a representation of black culture in general, and which cried "racist" every time a copper or school administrator tries to impose some much-needed discipline. Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal, a young Asian writer who grew up in multi-ethnic West London, gives this very insightful account of the damage thus done. I've harped on this many times already, but his firsthand experiences should prove more convincing than any abstract argument I could make.

King Dork

Today is the official release date for Dr Frank's excellent first novel, King Dork, and it looks to be soaring up the Amazon charts on the strength of largely favourable reviews and probably also helped along by the grass-roots support the good Doctor has built up during his 20+ years piloting the MTX Starship Experience.

I've already ordered a copy to be shipped to my cousin in Australia, who expressed an interest when I told him that King Dork did a merciless demolition job on Salinger's The Catcher In The Rye and the generation which has adopted it as near-holy writ. "I hate that book," he pronounced with all the casual venom a 16 year old death rocker can muster. I'm hoping any of you out there who are at all interested in Frank's book will think about ordering it right away, because in doing so you could be helping to create the kind of buzz than any new book by a relatively unknown writer needs if it's to stand out from the pack and get the attention it deserves.

So far the signs look good. When I reviewed the book in my Punk Planet column (issue #73, not sure if it's out yet), I predicted that King Dork would very possibly have a significant impact on modern literature, to the point where future generations could find themselves being assigned to read it in school, and I stand by that prediction. So buy a copy for yourself and another for a friend and help make sure I'm proved right.

You also might be interested in Frank's Virtual Book Tour, in which he does a week-long troll through some of the East Coast's more prestigious (well, so I'm told; I actually don't know a whole lot about this sort of thing) blogs. It's a smart - brilliant, even - way to market a book on a limited promo budget, and maybe Dr Frank will become the Gnarls Barkley of the literary world. Well, strictly speaking, that analogy would be more valid if King Dork were being sold by digital download only, but you take my meaning, don't you? Anyway, get this book, read it, and spread the word. If nothing else, you'll one day be able to bug your children and grandchildren about how you were there for the birth of a classic.

10 April 2006

Braving The Drought In Brixton

It was raining when I left the house yesterday afternoon, raining when I got to Oxford Circus to meet Sebby Zatopek and Wesley, raining when we got off the Victoria line at Stockwell (yes, since we were going to Brixton, it might have made more sense to carry on to Brixton station, but London Underground in its wisdom has closed said station for a week or two, no doubt doing untold damage to the local mugging industry).

From Stockwell, we clambered onto an incredibly crowded and wet shuttle bus for the ride to Brixton where it was - you'll never guess - raining. Faced with a half mile or mile walk up Brixton Hill, we thought ourselves lucky to find a bus going that way and thus save ourselves getting soaked. The bus dropped us off a block away from the Brixton Windmill, a block in which it was raining hard enough to ensure that we got a good soaking anyway. Five and a half hours later, we emerged from the club into - what else? - the rain. One hour, three buses and two trains later (a combination of London Transport's ineptitude and bloody-minded insistence on closing the Tube an hour early on Sunday nights), I was in Royal Oak, from whence I had a mere 15 minute walk home - in the rain.

Such are the travails of the horrible drought which continues to grip the country. On the bright side, millions of gardeners who might otherwise have been out in their gardens violating the hosepipe ban were kept indooors by rain and mud. And snow, as it turned out: I wasn't just imagining that it felt awfully cold last night, even for an English spring. The outlying suburbs and countryside woke up to a few inches of the stuff.

Nevertheless, our arduous journey was worth it. I normally have an inflexible policy of not going south of Waterloo Station and of avoiding Brixton at all costs, but the Brixton Windmill turns out to be a rather nice venue, and throws in a Sunday barbecue with the cheap (£4) price of admission. Considering the weather, I was mildly curious as to where all this "barbecued" food ahd been, erm, barbecued, but thought it better to eat and not ask.

The central focus of the evening's festivities was the tenth anniversary show of the Griswalds, Orpington's most famous and possibly only punk rock band. Wesley has a few pictures here, and while you're at it, check out the sad and apparently fruitless story of the phone that we (well, Wesley, mainly) found on the Underground and tried to reunite with its owner.

The Griswalds were great, but almost had the show stolen out from under them by the recently re-formed Punchpuppet. the last time I saw these guys - quite a few years ago, I suspect - they were still struggling with playing their instruments while remembering to sing into the microphone, but after a couple of years on hiatus, they've got back together, and what a thrill it was to see them sounding and looking like consummate pros, and putting out a sound that was something like an English-flavoured amalgam of the Methadones and the Lillingtons.

Punchpuppet opened the show and the Griswalds, naturally, closed it; in between came the Morons (their description, not mine), the Sharons (advertised as "pretty boy punk" and featurings lots of hats and tattooed-arm air-punching), and long-time scene veterans Skimmer, who for some reason reminded me of the Bouncing Souls crossed with Goober Patrol, no insult intended to any of the above. All in all, a good night, marred only by the continuing rain drought and the fact that it's still another year and some before the English smoking ban comes into effect.

08 April 2006

Memoirs and Memories

The night before last I went to see The Squid And The Whale, which just opened here (I believe it was out last year in the States). It's very good, or at least I thought so, but it left with me at least one strange reaction. Actually, two, the first coming when I arrived just as the film was about to start and discovered a) that ticket prices had gone up again, this time to £9 ($15.75 US); b) that my membership card, which should have given me a discount, had expired; c) that to renew it would cost £15, whereas the original only cost £1; and d) that my last resort, a loyalty voucher which should have given me one free admission, was only valid if, you guessed it, I had a current membership.

Come to think of it, the reaction to this series of revelations was not strange at all; it was, as you'd expect, a teeth-grinding, tongue-sucking, eye-rolling expression of exasperation and rage, swiftly tempered by a characteristically English sigh of resignation and a mumbled apology as I handed over my £9.

Luckily, I enjoyed the film enough that I didn't mind too much about the £9, though I probably would have enjoyed it more if I'd seen it at the £6 matinee bargain rate, or more still if I'd seen it at the £4.50 super-duper early bird (before 2 pm) bargain rate. Never mind, though; the thing that most bemused me about the film was how writer-director Noah Baumbach managed to get so much mileage out of not much more than his parents getting divorced.

Not to trivialise what kids go through when parents get divorced. I imagine it can be quite awful, though imagine is all I can do, since divorce was very uncommon when I was growing up, especially among Catholics. But nowadays, when divorce is almost more common than parents staying together, it's hard to understand how young Baumbach's trauma was any more noteworthy than that of millions of other kids.

The cynic in me could of course observe that those millions of other kids don't have two parents who, divorced or not, were both well-connected in the publishing and media worlds and could afford to send little Noah for an expensive education at Vassar. But regardless of what advantages he may have had, there's no denying that Baumbach has made an engrossing, keenly observed study of the mores and (often nonexistent) morals of the middle-class intelligentsia inhabiting pre-gentrification Brooklyn in the mid-1980s.

The fact that it's Brooklyn rather than Manhattan is key; this sets it distinctly apart from Woody Allen's milieu. His quasi-boho literati are far more self-assured and far less troubled by mundane concerns than Baumbach's angry dad, who, literary career failing and income dropping, takes the kids to a restaurant and advises them, "The portions are big here, you only need to order half." What he can't offer them in material security, he tries to replace with arrogance, regularly disdaining other, apparently more successful people, as "philistines" who "don't appreciate books and films." That one resonated with me; I often heard a Detroit version of it when I was growing up, with postal clerk dad trying to convince me that we were actually better off (or at least better than) our auto worker neighbours, even though they all had new cars and televisions while we had to make do with $150 junkers that left trails of blue smoke up and down the street and a dumpstered TV hooked up to an old bedspring in the attic which served as an antenna.

"But the other kids all laugh at us and yell 'Get a horse' when our car breaks down, and their TVs get all four channels and we only get two, and even then somebody always has to stand up in the attic moving the bedspring around to get a good picture," I would point out with annoying tenacity and self-righteousness of a 9 year-old.

"Yes, that may be true," Dad would argue back just as tenaciously, and, if possible, even more self-righteously, "but we go to museums and concerts and we have books in our house, while most of the neighbours wouldn't know which end of a book you're supposed to open."

I wasn't that keen on classical music concerts, which the Detroit Symphony Orchestra used to put on for free on Belle Isle, and most of our books were, if the truth be told, Reader's Digest condensed editions. But I did love to read, and I mostly enjoyed the museums (also free in those days), so being told that we were intellectually and morally superior to the neighbours staved off my inquiries and demands for a while. At least until I was 10 or 11, by which point I didn't give a damn anymore about who was more intellectual, I just wanted a classy new car. They didn't end up getting one, and even then it wasn't classy, unless a Dodge Dart fits your specs in that department), until after I'd left home. Not surprisingly, by that time, I was more poverty-stricken and anti-bourgie than even my parents had been, and I probably rang them up and complained that shouldn't be wasting money on decadent status symbols like new cars when the old '59 Chevy wagon had at least a couple good years left in it (this would have been the late 60s/early 70s).

Anyway, I digress, as per usual. My main point was that Baumbach seems to have done a very good job out at spinning a good story out of not a whole lot of material, and I enjoyed it very much. Even if I was a little jealous, or so you might infer, judging from the way I seem to have tried to do the same thing in the previous few paragraphs. Coming soon, perhaps: a major, feature-length film about Little Larry's childhood angst over having to ride in a secondhand car and watch a thirdhand TV. In the meantime, watch The Squid and the Whale if you haven't already. Those people are much better-looking and more interesting than our family anyway.

04 April 2006

Music For The Underground

Any of you who might regularly or even occasionally have to endure life on the London Underground might enjoy this song, courtesy of JAB in Seattle.

Warning: you may not want to open this at work, or if you or people around you are offended by rude words, because this has a lot of them.

03 April 2006

The Thatched Roof Charnel House

Sunday marked the first meeting of the West Country Walking Society since just before Christmas. For some reason, the remaining members couldn't get it together to carry on without me, but now that all the harbingers of a lovely English spring are in the air (they certainly weren't on the ground where we were), we gathered our forces together again for an heroic trudge across the Wiltshire countryside.

Two of our regular members cried off, Bella because she's in the final throes of rewriting her book about the various things pagans and Christians were getting up to in the early days of the Byzantine Empire, and Wesley because, well, who knows? You'll have to ask him. Nonetheless, the rest of us carried on bravely.

I got the train up to Bristol on Saturday night, immediately after suffering through Fulham's humiliation at the hands (well, mostly feet, actually) of Portsmouth. It was my third or fourth time in Bristol, and I still can't get a handle on the place. It seems pleasant enough, in a provincial sort of way. But not so provincial that it doesn't have its own identity, and that's what I have trouble defining. For now I'll have to settle on: If London is New York, Bristol is Portland. Whether Oregon or Maine, I'm not sure.

Early the next morning (but not as early as we were supposed to, for which Danny tried to blame me, even though I was sitting there, dressed, packed, having eaten breakfast and completely ready to go when he finally dragged himself out of bed) we set off to pick up Richard in Bath. Danny decided to take what looked like a shortcut, and then spent a good few minutes cursing the local council for hiding the road signs in places where he couldn't be expected to see them. Richard, genial as always, didn't seem to mind being kept waiting, though he brightened noticeably at the realisation that Danny and I were squabbling over who was at fault for our late departure, and amused himself for the next 20 miles or so gently goading us into renewed hostilities.

By now we were driving through such picturesque countryside that it would have seemed churlish to go on sniping at each other. The sun was even making a valiant effort to break through the billowing and sometimes bilious clouds that had been periodically been spitting and splashing rain across our windscreen. As we wound our way into yet another impossibly exquisite village, where every cottage and shop was topped with an impeccably kept thatched roof, Danny enthused, "Just imagine what this must have been like 200 year years ago!"

"If you'd lived here 200 years ago," said Richard, "you'd have had little sanitation and practically no access to medical care. People would have died like like flies, especially children, from what we'd consider minor ailments today. A case of appendicitis would have meant lying there writhing in agony for days until you mercifully slipped into a coma and died. It may look idyllically rural to you today, but this place would have been a charnel house!"

Well, thank you for putting things in their proper perspective, Richard, we didn't say, mainly because it was so hilarious and probably true. By then we'd reached our rendezvous point in almost-but-not-quite-twee Wootton Rivers, and there was Shely waiting for us, as she usually has to do. The hints of sunshine that had been toying with us had well and truly vanished by now, replaced by a steady windblown rain - more or less what you'd expect for a convocation of the West Country Walking Society, especially during England's "worst drought in decades."

Undaunted, we all piled back into Danny's car to drive to our starting point some 12 miles up the Kennet and Avon Canal. It rained all the way there, it was still raining when we got out of the car. Danny stood there having a tea break in the rain, claiming that the delay was necessary to "set the GPS" which he always carries on these treks so that he can tell us where we must have lost the trail.

Then we made our way down to the canal, which was when it really started raining. The wind shifted and began blowing sheets of rain horizontally, fortunately coming at us from behind rather than in our faces. Still, it wasn't too bad, nothing you wouldn't expect in a typical English spring during a drought year.

Danny and I, though we often argue, are in complete agreement about this drought nonsense; in our opinion, the only problem is incompetence and corruption on the part of the privatised water companies. Richard, however, had bought the media line hook, line and sinker. "It will take weeks, even months of rainfall to replenish ground water levels," as though he were a BBC newsreader. "Well, Richard," I said, "perhaps all this water that's lying around on top of the ground and turning this path into a muddy quagmire ought to percolate down under the ground and do some replenishing." "Larry," Richard said gently, "fuck off."

The rain let up after the first hour or two, shortly after we'd had our lunch huddled under a concrete bridge, but the towpath along the canal remained waterlogged and, if anything, got muddier as we went along. Mile after mile, it was more like ice skating than walking as we tried desperately to maintain our balance. It was inevitable that one of us was going to fall down and be given an involuntary mud bath. I voted for Shely, since she'd taken a spill the previous day out in Exmoor (yes, the drought has hit hard there, too), and so her trousers were already covered in mud anyway. But no, as you might have guessed, it had to be me, but on the bright side, most of the mud stayed on my jeans and waterproof jacket. Better yet, I didn't slide into the canal, whose roiling brown waters looked distinctly uninviting.

After eight miles or so, a pub appeared on the canal bank, where previously there had been only manure-laden fields and an occasional forest. A sign at the door said, "Walkers and Hikers, Please Remove Your Muddy Boots and Gear Before Entering." Since removing all my muddy gear would have left me feeling distinctly chilly, I sat at one of the outside tables while Danny went inside to be insulted by the barmaid (for some reason this happens to him rather often in these bucolic settings). The sun was out now, and it was almost rather pleasant, apart from the wind, which was strong enough to blow empty glasses off the table. Two miles further along, a combined consultation with Shely's map and Danny's GPS showed us that we could walk the final couple miles on surface roads, so leaving the mudpath behind, we went cross country past quite a few more thatched roof charnel houses and heartening fields of daffodils. The hedgerows kept the wind off us for the most part, and barely a car or two passed us.

I took pictures of a fantastic Hansel and Gretel cottage nestled in the wood alongside the canal, and of the multicoloured boats anchored at various spots, but apparently Blogger will no longer let us post pictures here, so you'll have to use your imagination. I also have pictures of a herd of Belted Galloways, apparently a rare breed of cattle, though it's entirely possible Richard was making this up, of a daffodil-surrounded signpost marking the way to Wootton Rivers and Clench Common, and a poster advertising a concert by the "Cheddar Male Voice Choir" and the "Core-Us" Ladies Choir.

Just like that, and almost too soon, we were back in Wootton Rivers, where for some reason the pub was closed. We drove to nearby Pewsey ("I don't think I could live in a place called Pewsey, no matter how much you paid me," opined Danny), and called in at the Royal Oak, a cute little place no more than a couple centuries old and furnished a bit like your gran's house. However, it was also the headquarters of the Pewsey Vale Rugby Football Club, and a sign outside announced that it was "Twinned with The Peaks Bar, Castro Street, San Francisco."

That seemed a bit bizarre, as I told Richard, since I was pretty sure that The Peaks was a gay bar, and somehow I doubted the Pewsey Royal Oak was. And unless the Pewsey Vale gay scene dresses itself in severely ungay mufti, it wasn't. My confusion was explained today when I realised that I had been thinking of the Twin Peaks, aka "The Glass Coffin" (because of its large picture windows and the fact that it caters to older men), whereas The Peaks is over the hill, still on Castro Street, but in largely nongay Noe Valley.

Never mind, then. We settled in for an hour or two of after-walk drinks. I pushed the boat out and had two large lemonade and limes, which were excellently made, I must say, and Danny dropped me at the train station in Bath where I waited a mere 17 minutes for the "high speed express" to London. I should have known something was amiss when the announcer kept dropping in that reference to "high speed," words I'd seldom if ever heard applied to any enterprise related to British Rail (or whatever they're calling it this year).

And I was right; our "high speed" train somehow managed to get stuck behind something or someone travelling at a noticeably low speed, and we went crawling into first Swindon and then Chippenham. Still, I was back in London well before midnight, and the central heating in my flat was working like a charm to drive off the spring chill which by now had grown distinctly wintry. Leaving London is nice, but coming back is even nicer.